‘Twas the night before the national championship: Quentin Hillsman faces the media
THE MODERATOR: We’re joined by Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman. Coach, an opening statement.
COACH HILLSMAN: Well, obviously this is the game that you want to be at. That’s why you come to the tournament, to play to the last day. It’s a great opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the country. And this is not something that — the first time we’ve done this, obviously, in the Big East we played numerous times. They’re No. 1 in the country. And also been ACC playing Notre Dame when they were No. 2 in the country.
And this is one of those games you have to play with everything you have and understand that this is the one, there is no practice on Wednesday, there’s no let’s get ready for the next game. This is it. And this is what we talk about every day. I mean, I know this may sound silly to you guys, but we talk about this in our team. We talk about winning national championships. We talk about being in this game. We talk about not being happy just to be here.
I know I’ve got a few people yesterday said you guys didn’t really celebrate. Because it’s not our goal just to win that game. Our goal is to win this game. And we understand who we’re playing. We understand where we are. Obviously Geno is the best coach in the business and Bre is the best player in the business.
What more exciting time than to play the best. We’re excited and anxious to do that. And our players understand that we’ve got to play a very good game. We’ve got to make shots. We’ve got to get our pressures set. We’ve got to get matched up on defense. Can’t give them open shots. I mean, they don’t miss open shots. I told our kids every open shot they get, count it.
So we’re just going to do everything we can to get into our pressure, to get matched up. I don’t think that we can do anything different right now. I don’t think you can put into this great game plan and change the system in less than 48 hours. We’re not going to do that. We’re going to play as hard as we can play. And we understand the magnitude of the game, and we embrace it. So we’re ready to play.
Q. How do you simulate, if you can simulate at all, what they do in a practice setting?
COACH HILLSMAN: I don’t think you can because you don’t have Breanna Stewart popping out to the top of your action and who can shoot it or put it on the floor. You don’t have that kind of player that dive down to the post and steal you and run isos for. I don’t think it’s more about simulating that. I think it’s more about having a plan for it. That’s something we have to work on.
It’s funny because I look back at all the games against UConn, we’ve been close. We’ve lost by single digits. We’ve lost by 50. So hopefully we can take some things that we’ve learned in those games from those losses and try to put together a game plan to stop them. And they’re a very good basketball team, and they’re very prolific.
The thing about UConn is everybody that pops up to catch the ball can shoot it, pass it and drive. So we’ve just got to have some toughness and guard the ball and get matched up.
Q. Talk a little bit about last night how every year your players say you think you can make the national championship game and get there, and this year it finally clicked and you’re here. What difference is there this year that actually got you to this point? And second question is have you talked to Coach Boeheim at all in the last 24 hours about being here? Has he texted you, said congrats or good luck or anything?
COACH HILLSMAN: First part of the question is we’ve had some very talented players in our program. We’ve had McDonald’s All-Americans. We had Top 25 players in our programs in previous years. I don’t think this is my most talented team, I think it’s my best team. They really started to believe in what we do. And I think that’s a lot of my high school coach coming out of me and my dad, just being stubborn. You have these moments where they just won’t do it, and I think that the more we push them and the more we put that into their minds that this is the way to win basketball games, you can shoot a low percentage and win basketball games the way we were playing right now. Like I said, we were last place in the ACC. Sorry, we were last in the conference in field goal percentage and we finished fourth from turning people over and getting to the glass and points per possession. So our kids just really believe in what we do.
The second part is Coach B is probably asleep. I did get a text from him saying congratulations and they’re happy for us. Coach is good to us. He’s the best. I really can’t stress that enough. He’s the best. He’s a men’s coach, a Hall of Famer who has been there as long as I can remember watching basketball. He could make things difficult for me. But he’s amazing. He lets me work. He doesn’t interfere with what we do. There’s not a lot of situations like that in the country where the men’s coach doesn’t tell you he’s the men’s coach. If you didn’t know he was there, you wouldn’t know because he’s just amazing to us.
Q. Obviously a quick turnaround, but what can you guys take from yesterday going into the championship tomorrow?
COACH HILLSMAN: Just that toughness wins, not quitting on plays or possessions. That’s one thing we talked about, no matter how we’re shooting the ball, we can control a lot of things. We can control our energy. We can control our effort. And we can control our attitude. You can control those things every day, every morning when you grow up. Your energy, your effort and your attitude.
So I said let’s control that. Let’s control the things that we can control, because anything that’s uncontrollable is just that. We can’t control how many shots we make. We can’t control if we’re making the right decisions all the time. Sometimes defense dictates you making the wrong decisions, obviously, but we control the things we can control, and that’s what we’re going to do.
Q. If you could take a step back, look at the bigger picture, you’ve been a very good program for a long time. Now you have a national stage for the Final Four now playing UConn. What’s the best way or how do you exploit this moving forward to sort of, I don’t know, recruit better players, recruit more, take it to the next step? What’s the best way to take advantage of the situation and put yourself in big picture?
COACH HILLSMAN: I think the big picture is just continue doing what we’re doing and stay with the process. I’ve never wavered off what we’ve done is recruit the best players we can recruit and recruit players that fit our system. We want to play this way. We think this is the best way for us to play. So we have to recruit players that fit into our system and fit the way we play.
I don’t know about taking advantage of it. I think the one thing that even UConn shows you is that you can build a team and get really good players and win as many national championships as you want. You really can. If you have the best players, you’re going to win national championships.
We always try to do that. We consistently sign Top 25 classes. And I think that’s the key. We’ve got some players that have come here to play for us that’s gotten us to this level, but they could have went to other places. I told them in recruiting you can win a national championship at any school you want to if you get the best players. That’s what it’s about, getting the best players to whatever school it is and they’re going to win national championships. Obviously have you to have a coach that can manage talent.
That’s one thing Geno does very well. But it’s all about getting the best players to get to the point where you can make plays and win games.
Q. Can you speak more on having Butler play with so much confidence, and can you speak on her coachability, because it seems in the huddles every time you critique her, she’s locked on the corrections you have for her?
COACH HILLSMAN: She’s an amazing kid. She’s been taking a butt chewing for four years. And she never wavers. Most amazing thing. She’s just so steady. She’s a kid that has a lot of responsibility for us to shoot the ball. And just amazing to see her break that record because she deserves it, because she’s a kid who is a very much team-oriented kid and she wants to pass the ball. She wants to make the right plays.
And last night she made a play on a steal ball short corner, Brea hit the shot, and I got on her. I said: Shoot the ball. She says, Coach, she was wide open and she made the shot. I said I don’t care. It was the best play she could have made. It was a good play. Don’t tell her that. But it was a great play. But I want her to shoot the ball. I want her to say aggressive.
I’ll never forget a game last year I got on her, and she said, I wasn’t open. I said, double pump it. Shoot it. Because I want her to stay aggressive. She’s an amazing shooter and she’s an immediate floor spacer for us. Every time she catches the ball, she’s a threat.
I just have a lot of respect for that kid because she’s not once done anything but what I’ve asked her to do. She’s a great kid, great player.
Q. Is it an advantage, disadvantage, or nonfactor not having played them the last couple of years?
COACH HILLSMAN: Well, I think for us that some of our players have played against them and I’ve coached against them numerous times. And like I said, I’ve been on every possible end of the spectrum of a UConn game, on a regular season game, in a Big East Tournament game, on Senior Night at their place. I’ve been in every possible situation against them.
And so for us it’s just about going to play. And I think the teams get overwhelmed with their speed and quickness and their strength. It is an overwhelming thing because they’re very good, but at least we understand that because we’ve seen it and we’ve experienced it.
I think that experiencing it is the only way you can have a chance against it. So we’re excited about the opportunity to play against the best.
Q. You guys have not hesitated to shoot the 3 all year, taken more than 30 a game on average. But the percentage was around 30 percent. It’s been closer to 40 during this tournament run. And I guess I’m wondering, A, if you’re seeing a difference in the quality of the shots, the way in which that’s happening, and, B, how significant that is in terms of fueling the made shots, get you set in your pass and the way in which that’s contributed to your success getting to this point?
COACH HILLSMAN: Our players, anytime you have an open look, anytime you have a shot that’s in your skill set, you’ve got to take it. Because this time of year you’re playing against very good defensive teams, very good basketball teams. Normally in a possession you get one good look. And if you’re going to take it, if it’s a turnover or it’s a tremendously bad shot, I just tell our kids, you get a good look at a possession, if it’s early in the possession, you’ve got to take the shot because you’re playing against very good defensive teams. And everyone knows what you’re going to run. It’s no secret. I’m sure Vonn has probably watched every game that UConn has played in the last three years by this point.
We know what they’re going to run. Once you guard the action, can you guard the player. It really comes down to that. You guard the action and now a player pops out with the ball, you stand in front of her, can you guard her. It comes down to that at some point.
But we just want to shoot the ball. If we can get three points — I’ll take four if we can get a foul shooting it. That would be great. But you normally will be able to get a good 3-point shot, I think you can stabilize games and can get some advantages. Our goal is to make 10 3s a game. That’s our goal. If it takes 40 to make 10, it’s 40. If it takes 50, it’s 50. But we’re trying to make 10 per game because we’re a zone team and we figure that if we can hold — we can normally hold teams under 10 makes per game, we want to match that and let that not be a factor in our games.
Q. You’re the second African-American male coach to make it to the Final Four, and now you’re the first one ever to make it to a championship game. Is that any significance to you? And the second part is Coach Auriemma said basically after — the next few years after going to your first Final Four is big for your program. He thought you guys could be similar to South Carolina and growing attendance and growing in Syracuse, which is obviously a huge basketball fan base, of making this program bigger than it has been the last few years?
COACH HILLSMAN: I’ll answer the second part first. Syracuse is a great sports town. There’s no pro teams there. Our men get 25-, 30,000 in the dome. And I think that what happens is I think people get on story lines and make them so big.
And for us it’s not a factor. And that’s something gets a little bit frustrating to us. It’s like we’re having this great season. It’s not really coming at you. It’s a general statement really. We’re having this great season and we talk about our attendance. I think that it proves that if our attendance is not so bad that you can have zero people in the stands and be in the Final Four and be in the championship game. How much does it really matter? Probably doesn’t, because we’re sitting here.
But I can tell you this, we have loyal fans. The fans that come out come out every night. It’s funny because through these years you can look at a certain spot and see the people there that’s been there. We were 9 and whatever. And our fan base is growing. We have really good crowds in our last seven, eight home games, and I think that our fans took it personal when you start writing the articles about people not coming out. I think Syracuse took it personal.
I think that our administration has really stepped up and done some great things for us. Our viewing party going into the tournament, the amazing crowd we had at our home game when we hosted. It was like can they host it, they don’t get fans. It’s the most amazing thing, what we talk about when you’re 13-3 in the best conference in the country and the biggest article is about possibly we can’t host because we don’t get fans. Like how? We’re 13-3.
What we’re really looking at is the wins. We’re excited at Syracuse, and our fans are great and they come out. I’m glad you asked the question because I really wanted to touch on that. I don’t know what the first question was. What’s the first part of it?
Q. (Off microphone)?
COACH HILLSMAN: It is of significance. I’m not going to downplay that. It is. But I think in the grand scheme of things I don’t know how much it is a factor or it really matters. But it does have some force, because it’s tough being the first. And I just hope that everyone gets opportunities to be in this seat. Whatever your nationality is, whatever your religion is, whatever your race is, this is an amazing seat to sit in. It really is. It’s an amazing seat to be sitting in playing in the national championship game against the best.
But I’m very happy that the landscape of basketball is changing and there’s a lot of opportunities for a lot of different people. Look at Jose Fernandez. There’s a lot of people that have great teams. And if (indiscernible) here or somebody else, maybe it would be for them.
But I’m happy to be here for our program. Happy to be here for (indiscernible) and the ACC. Because they really push us and give us everything we need to be successful and Kim and our administration. They do it all for us. I’m happy for them that she can still sit here watch us be playing and not be going home, like we all could have been today.
Q. Brittney Sykes has really stepped up in the tournament, four of the last five games in double figures. What’s allowed her to return to being such a dynamic scorer?
COACH HILLSMAN: You know, we had a game in Syracuse and she was playing really bad. And she was out in the hallway during halftime. I went up to her and said, you know, sometimes you have to reintroduce yourself to people, I said, because they think you’re not very good right now. Every now and then you have to reintroduce yourself. And ever since that moment, she’s played well. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is a great pep talk I had, she’s a great player, but sometimes you have to remind people like I don’t recruit bad players, so I don’t think you’re a bad player. If you think you’re a bad player, that’s on you. I talk about it all the time. I’ve got more confidence in you guys than you have in yourselves. And we recruit the best players we can recruit. If you can’t play, we’re not going to sign you. McDonald’s All-American, U.S.A. Basketball, just reintroduce yourself to people.
She’s been playing amazing. I can see the hurt in her. But I think sometimes we forget as fans, because people are kind of vicious, 18-, 19-year-old kids, and they’re not pros. People in the stands yelling things. It’s like the most amazing thing. And at some point we’ve got to really realize that they’re 18-, 19-year-old kids.
And after this, what is your legacy going to be? It’s not going to be about the person in the stands kind of yelling at you. It’s going to be about what you’ve done and just go play, play your game.
And she did. She’s an amazing kid. Fighting through two ACLs on the same knee. It’s tough. So she’s been tremendous. I hope she continues to play well.
Q. Briana Day has been taking a lot of charges in the postseason, and that’s kind of been an area where she’s stepped up I guess. What has allowed her to be so effective doing that?
COACH HILLSMAN: She’s was getting in foul trouble, and we just talked about a few of clips of just the fouls she was getting on penetration. And, honestly, I really got on my guards about that. I said: If you guard the ball, you protect her. We’re not doing a very good job of protecting our big in the middle in that paint. Anytime somebody’s coming down that lane full tilt and she has to make a play, that’s a problem. That means we’re not guarding the ball.
A lot of those fouls she was getting was just because we’re not guarding the ball. I told her, now, if they break the foul line, your job is to take a charge. I don’t need you to block every shot. Sometimes you have to take a charge to stay in the game. She’s done an amazing job of not jumping block, not taking charges, stops you from going. She’s doing a good job of that. Hope she continues to do it. She’s going to need a tremendous ice bath on Wednesday, because she’s been taking a lot of them.
Q. Wonder if you saw last night Breanna Stewart told ESPN that Connecticut was going to win. And I wanted to know if you had any reaction to a player that’s confident enough to tell a national audience what’s going to happen on Tuesday?
COACH HILLSMAN: No, because our game wasn’t over yet. I don’t think she knew who she was playing yet. So what is she supposed to say? I told our fans and our crowd that we’re going to win, too. What’s she supposed to say? Is she supposed to say Tuesday we’re going to lose?
It’s amazing what becomes news. You know, guys, (indiscernible) going to lose. It’s like we run with things that has no legs. She’s a great player. I think that you guys don’t understand this is a Syracuse kid who is doing well on a national stage. So anytime you mention Syracuse, great. And what a great story it is for a Syracuse kid. Syracuse to be playing Syracuse, it’s great. And Bre is a great kid. She’s an unbelievable player. Like I said, Bre and her family are good people. I’m really, really happy for her. She’s a great player and a great kid. And Connecticut, can there be a better story line a kid from Syracuse playing against Syracuse? I don’t think there can be. I was hoping that we could fulfill the back end of it because I think everybody has the front end already planned. She’s going to be there. Going to be on the back end. I’m just glad it’s us.
Q. Piggybacking on that, when did you first meet Breanna and how did that relationship start? And also, if you weren’t playing her tomorrow night, would you be rooting for her to win another title?
COACH HILLSMAN: First of all, yes, I would be rooting for her. Like I said, she’s a great kid. And Brian and those guys are great people. Her dad will text me after a big game and say great game. He’s a Syracuse guy. I think the people make a lot of this relationship. I think everybody’s really missing — you guys are really, really missing on that, because there’s nothing there, because Brian is a great guy. Bre is a great person. And sent Brian a text: What a great game I watched the game. So, yeah, I’ll be rooting for her.
It’s one of the things where you’ve got two good teams playing. One that’s great, one that’s trying to be great. And it’s just fun. Fun to be here. It’s fun to be able to compete in this. That’s why you do it to compete at the highest level. And I don’t think you can get to a high level right now in women’s basketball without playing UConn.
Q. Have you had a chance to talk with Coach Boeheim since your run here in Indianapolis? And, secondly, talking to some of the players, they seem to be of the opinion that playing in the ACC against the likes of Louisville, Notre Dame, Florida State and that help them prepare for this run and more so for UConn, what are your thoughts on that?
COACH HILLSMAN: Like I said, Coach being — it’s amazing, Coach Boeheim has become an amazing texter. It used to be K. No. When he sent me a paragraph, I was like, Buddy? I was going to say — I thought it was his son. I was going to: Buddy, stop texting for your dad.
We’ve texted. He’s always — like I said, he’s the man. He’s a Syracuse guy. He’s very supportive. And it’s good. And like I said, I don’t how to keep stating the same thing, but we’re just happy to be competing. And our conference is great. You look at the likes of that, you’re talking about five of the top 20 teams in the country is in the ACC. So I know there are a lot of arguments on what’s the best conference in the country. And I can tell you right now when you play Florida State, you think it’s a great team. You play against Notre Dame, you think it’s a great team. Louisville, you think it’s a great team. Both of them blew us out. It wasn’t even close.
And our conference is amazing. And they do a very good job of getting you in the right situations to get to these moments. The way our scheduling is thought out and when we play people, where we play people, it’s not just they’re just throwing you places. They’re preparing you for these moments. Our conference is tough. It really is. It’s a very tough conference. Every night you’ve got to compete. And we’ve competed at a tremendously high level.
And I think going from the Big East, I thought then was the best conference in the country, we went over to the ACC, everything shifted to the ACC. So we get ready night in, night out, and our tournament is great. And top in attendance. And do an amazing job. It’s a great conference.
Q. Geno said earlier today that with Syracuse’s success he thinks you guys can draw like South Carolina did at home and bring some of the men’s crowd, all the people that come to the men’s games into the dome for women’s games. What do you think about that, and do you think that’s possible in the next, you know, five years or so?
COACH HILLSMAN: Yeah, I think it’s possible. If we can get half of the men’s crowd, we’ll have 15,000 a night. A little less, we can get 7-, 8-. So, yeah, I think it’s possible. There’s a lot of Syracuse basketball fans in that town. And, yeah, I think it’s correct. The more you win, the more people will support you.
So we’re not going to fool ourselves. Everybody loves a winner, right? They’re going to come out and see our games. If we go back and have the same crowd, I don’t know if it really matters because we’re in the Final Four in the championship game.
So as I keep saying over and over again, I already think we’re putting legs on something that doesn’t have any. Because we’re always told you can’t get here because you don’t play in front of big enough crowds. All these crowds going to affect you? Obviously not. It obviously has not affected us at all. Because we’re here. It’s about the players that’s on the floor and playing the games. It’s not about the crowd. It’s not about anything else. It’s really not.
I think playing at home is about sleeping in your home bed, staying in your own routine. We played in a tournament at home, we stayed in our dorms. We stayed in our apartments because I wanted it to be like a home game. I don’t know if it matters. Like I said, people said we’re playing in front of 200 people some nights. We’re in the Final Four. It doesn’t matter. It’s the players.
Q. I remember back when you were in the Big East, many a tournament, if you guys were knocked out early, you would sit there and watch every game after that. And I was always impressed that that you were a student of the game trying to learn. Have you kept that going when you’ve been in the ACC, if you hadn’t made the run you did this year? And also what did you learn watching — there were Hall of Fame coaches you said in that conference. What did you learn watching them?
COACH HILLSMAN: Definitely I would sit there watch every game because I did want to learn, but half of it was trying to figure out what Harry was doing, trying to get Villanova calls, it was crazy (indiscernible) Villanova the whole time. They were just really tough to play against.
It is. It’s about watching the games and learning. I want to be the best I can be. I think if I’m not learning, constantly learning, trying to be a better coach, that I’m pretty much — if not trying to get better at the job, you’re stealing. Really. You’ve got to get better. Because if you don’t work, you’re stealing.
So I try to stay and watch, do the same thing in the ACC. Our players go back, I stay and I watch games and try to get better and see situational — think about the conferences I’ve been in, Hall of Fame coaches all through that conference, both conferences. I just stay and watch and try to get better and try to learn so the following year when we come back we can be a better team and I can be a better coach and give us a chance to win.
Yeah, I definitely would have stayed here, too, because it’s a great feeling. I like celebrations. I like the feel of confetti because I wanted to feel it one day. Guess what? We felt it last week. It ain’t that bad.
Q. You said Coach Boeheim is now texting paragraphs. Anything you can share that he said recently? And do you know if he’ll be able to make it to the game tomorrow?
COACH HILLSMAN: I don’t know if he’s going to make it, but he’ll be watching it because he’s very specific in his texts. He’s just very encouraging. And, again, he’s just — I can’t overstate that; that he wants us to be successful. And you can tell just by the silent things that he does and the way he respects our program, the way he respects the things that we do, respects our practice times. You look at little things that he does, because he really respects us and wants us to do something well. So he’s a great supporter. And definitely he’s going to be watching. I know that for sure.
Q. I know I might have missed this. Forgive me if it’s redundant. Sounds like you were alluding to the Hall of Fame earlier. They just announced the Naismith Hall of Fame inductees, and Cheryl Smith is on that list. Leads to this question: Can you see maybe within the five years maybe more women’s college coaches like Geno and Pat Summitt, Tara VanDerveer being inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame?
COACH HILLSMAN: I would think so. I think so. I think our game is growing. I think when you look at how the game is played now and the rule changes and past couple of years moving the 3-point line back, I think the game is definitely becoming more skillful, more flow to the game and great spacing. So it’s freedom of movement. It’s a better product on the floor. I believe that.
I think teams are getting better and getting better players and coaches are getting better. So I would think so because it’s just an amazing game, and we have some amazing coaches and amazing players. I wouldn’t see why not.