Quentin Hillsman chuckled at the thought. The women’s basketball coach at Syracuse said he didn’t know what to say when one of his young sons asked him if he was in the transfer portal.
It was a valid question for a kid – dad has had 11 players enter the NCAA transfer portal since the pandemic-plagued season ended. “We’ve got a lot going on,” Hillsman said this week on a Zoom call. “The main thing for us is we’re in a good place, and we’re not in a panic mode.”
Among those departing are Emily Engstler, a key player who excelled as the first player off the bench and led the team in rebounding; starting guard and leading scorer Kiara Lewis; Amaya Finklea-Guity and Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi. In that order, all are staying in the Atlantic Coast Conference – at Louisville, Clemson, Duke, and Miami.
Hillsman, who has a record of 319-169 in 15 seasons at Syracuse, says that validates his program.
“We have some seniors that have the opportunity to pursue other options,” he said. “They’re going to schools in our conference. That’s a compliment to us. I’m good. If I had a problem, I would tell you. We’re fine.”
Also leaving as expected is point guard Tiana Mangakahia, who sat out the 2019-20 season while recovering from breast cancer surgery. She returned this past season, led the nation in assists per game (7.25), and has signed a training camp contract with the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA.
The Orange are expected to have only four players back from this year’s squad, including 6-foot-7 center Kamilla Cardoso and 6-2 guard Priscilla Williams, who had solid freshman seasons.
“For me, it’s OK if you want to make a decision to move on,” Hillsman said. “But also, it’s OK for us as coaches to be able to go into the portal and get some players.”And that’s what the Orange have done. So far, four transfers are coming aboard – Shallexus Aaron from Southern Cal, Naje Murray from Texas Tech, Arizona State forward Eboni Walker, and Jayla Thornton of Howard, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Player of the Year.
Hillsman has a top recruiting class coming in next year.
Still, losing so many players to the portal was something of a stunner. Hillsman said he was ready to welcome as many as 21 players next season. “Half is shocking, half is not,” said Hillsman, who guided the Orange to the national championship game in 2016. “Some of it is just pure attrition. Things happen. The transfer portal has allowed people to make decisions to move on, and there are a wide variety of reasons people have chosen to move on. It’s given student-athletes opportunities to pursue other options if they’re not getting what they need at a certain program, and I’m OK with that.” Hillsman said his conversations with departing players were as brief as 10 seconds and not adversarial.
“Most conversations don’t have a laundry list,” he said. “Some don’t talk, just say they want to move on to pursue another option. You hug them, and you tell them, ‘I love you. Thank you. Anything I can do to help you, I will.’ ”
Hillsman also felt COVID-19 was a factor because of all the isolation and restrictions.
“You have to wear a mask, don’t go anywhere, wash your hands, you can’t be around people, stay in your bubble, you can’t go to class, all your classes are online,” he said. “It wasn’t fun for me every day trying to enforce that, but we had to. We didn’t do anything as a team, even on the road. It was a really tough year. How much that had to do with it, I don’t know, but it definitely made the year less than enjoyable for all of us.”
The Orange were ranked No. 23 in the AP preseason poll but faltered during a season of cancellations and stoppages. They finished 15-9 after a 35-point, second-round loss to UConn in the NCAA Tournament, the memory of that championship run five years ago an afterthought at best.
“We’ve been there, we’ve done it, so we know what it looks like,” he said. “We just want to get to a place where it’s our standard, and for us, it’s about being athletic, it’s about wanting to come in every day and work, and more importantly, just wanting to be here.
“That’s all we’ve been talking about from day one – just having players that want to be here.”
More AP women’s basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball
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