LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Syracuse believes its 2-3 zone defense can be just as effective against Kentucky even without its best player.
The sixth-seeded Orange (23-9) enter Monday night's second-round NCAA tournament game against the third-seeded Wildcats (25-8) minus star guard Brittney Sykes, who is out after injuring her right knee in the second half of Saturday's 59-53 victory over Chattanooga.
Sykes' absence leaves huge scoring and rebounding voids to fill for Syracuse, which shot just 32 percent in its opener. The Orange also need improvement in other areas against the Wildcats, who aim to follow up their record-setting 106-60 victory over Wright State by beating the zone.
Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said that while Sykes' loss is significant, his roster is deep enough to offset it and execute the defense.
"We're a very deep basketball team," said Hillsman on Sunday, adding that La'Shay Taft will likely start in Sykes' place. "We have some players that are very serviceable in that area, they are just different players.
"Brittany is a unique player for us, and she has been for the last two years. It's going to be tough to replace her."
Sykes, a 5-foot-9 sophomore who entered the tournament as Syracuse's top scorer at 16.7 points per game, had 13 points and 12 rebounds in 26 minutes against the Lady Mocs before her right knee buckled on a second-half drive through the lane. Hillsman said Sykes received treatment Saturday night but will be evaluated after the team returns home.
Taft, 5-7, will make her first start after averaging 6.1 points in 28 games. Sophomore Cornelia Fondren could also play more minutes.
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said Sykes' absence won't change Kentucky's overall strategy of attacking the zone. His hope is utilizing forwards DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker and make Syracuse defenders step outside their comfort zones, so to speak.
On the perimeter, Kentucky has several capable shooters in junior Jennifer O'Neill — who came off the bench to sink four from beyond the arc for 21 points on Saturday — sophomore Janee Thompson and junior Bria Goss.
O'Neill said the prospect of facing a zone makes her "perk up" a little bit, adding, "I think it should be easier for us because it's just one we have to focus on. ... We know what they're going to play, and now we just have to go out and execute."
Here are five things to look for when Syracuse and Kentucky face off in Monday's second-round game:
NEXT MAN UP: Taft went scoreless against Chattanooga but has been solid recently, averaging 8.9 points in her last eight contests while making 21 of 43 3-pointers (43 percent).
KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK: Kentucky will be hard pressed to match Saturday's stellar effort against Wright State in which it tied an NCAA tournament record with 67 rebounds and set numerous school marks including points and scoring margin. Mitchell wouldn't be shocked at another solid effort if players stay focused. "If we can be in that mental place tomorrow," the coach said, "it can be really good for us because we need this to be a fast-paced game, where depth becomes a factor. ... The only way you can make depth a factor is if your bench plays well."
KEEP SHOOTING: Hillsman wasn't too concerned about his team's offensive performance against Chattanooga because they won in spite of it. At the same time, he knows it must improve and believes the Orange's rebounding can lead to second-chance baskets. "Because our emphasis is getting a shot, I can't be mad when you miss a shot," the coach said. "We have to make them, that's it."
REBOUNDING BATTLE: Brianna Butler and Shakeya Leary combined for 18 of Syracuse's 52 rebounds against Chattanooga. They'll face a Kentucky frontcourt featuring Stallworth and Walker, who teamed up for 23 of the Wildcats' record 67 boards.
GOODBYE, AGAIN: Kentucky honored departing seniors Walker and Stallworth earlier this month, but Monday will officially mark the home finales for both. Not known for her emotions, Walker cracked up O'Neill when she hinted at possibly becoming choked up in her farewell. Asked why she laughed, the guard said, "she's emotional, but she's not emotional, so for her to say she might cry is just funny."