SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman couldn’t ask for a better place to be — at home to open the NCAA Tournament.
“It means a lot. We know where the path is to the championship game. It’s hosting,” Hillsman said. “We’ve been there and done it. We understand the importance of playing the first two games at home. We have a tough road, but we’re really excited we’re going to be home.”
Third-seeded Syracuse (24-8) will meet 14th-seeded Fordham (25-8) in a first-round game of the Portland Regional on Saturday afternoon. It’s the highest seed Syracuse has had in the NCAA Tournament. The only other time the Orange hosted the first and second rounds they were the fourth seed in 2016 and reached the Final Four for the first time in program history, losing to UConn in the championship game.
“It’s amazing,” Orange guard Gabby Cooper said. “When you host, the road to the Final Four is much easier. We’ve been trying to get back to that since I’ve been here. Now that we’re finally here and we’re hosting, we’re playing these games at home, on our turf, much better feeling.”
Sixth-seed South Dakota State (26-6), champs of the Summit League, meet Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion Quinnipiac (26-6), the 11th seed, on Saturday morning in the Carrier Dome opener. The winners will meet in a second-round game here on Monday night.
The Orange have made the NCAA Tournament in seven straight seasons and eight times overall under Hillsman. This is the highest seed Syracuse has ever earned in the NCAA Tournament. The other time the Orange hosted the first and second rounds they were tabbed as a No. 4 seed in the 2016 tournament and reached the Final Four for the first time in program history, losing to UConn in the championship game.
Home court advantage can be a key, with sight lines under the Carrier Dome’s Teflon roof different than most.
“It’s a big advantage,” Cooper said. “The dome is just not a regular gym. It’s not your normal arena. Depth perception that tends to throw people off. That’s always something you have to look out for. Some other people, they might have a little trouble with it.”
Fordham (25-8) earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by winning its second Atlantic 10 title and is riding a 12-game winning streak, which matches the school record. The Rams, who are 20-3 since splitting their first 10 games, defeated Massachusetts, Duquesne, and VCU by an average of just under 23 points per game to secure their third trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“We are excited to be in a region where family, friends, and fans can come see us play,” Fordham coach Stephanie Gaitley said. “I believe in our players and feel we are playing our best basketball at the right time. This is an exciting time of year where anything can happen.”
The Rams’ duo of guard Bre Cavanaugh and forward Mary Goulding earned first team all-conference honors, becoming the first Fordham teammates to do so in the same season. Cavanaugh finished second in the league with a 17.3 points-per-game average, while Goulding leads the Rams in every statistical category besides scoring, field goals, and three-point makes.
Quinnipiac has won 21 straight games, second in the nation behind No. 1 Baylor, and 52 consecutive conference games dating to the 2016-17 season.
Forward Jen Fay, a fifth-year senior, is a force to be reckoned with. She scored 20 points in an NCAA Tournament victory over Marquette two years ago during the Bobcats’ surprising run to a regional semifinal. She had 19 points last season in a first-round triumph over Miami and scored 25 points in Quinnipiac’s MAAC championship game victory.
Fordham’s top four scorers — Cavanaugh, Mary Goulding, Lauren Holding and Kendell Heremaia — are averaging 2.4 assists or more per game. As a team, the Rams average 13.2 assists and 11.4 turnovers for a turnover margin of plus-2.2. Overall, they are sixth in the nation in turnovers per game after leading all of Division I for several weeks earlier in the season.
South Dakota State is riding a 16-game winning streak, completed its 13th 20-win season in 15 years, and is making its ninth NCAA Tournament appearance in 11 years. The Jackrabbits are 2-8 in the NCAA Tournament and their No. 6 seed is the highest in school history.
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