Vonn Read was placed in a difficult position three months before the women’s basketball season began. He was tabbed to replace Quentin Hillsman as interim coach at Syracuse after his former boss resigned amid allegations by several former members of the program of bullying, threats and unwelcome physical contact.
Associate head coach since 2013, Read took over a program that was pretty much stripped bare after 11 players decided to transfer after last season. Hillsman left in early August during an investigation into his coaching practices after 15 years of building the Orange into a nationally ranked program that had reached the national championship game in 2016.
The transfer portal in this COVID-19 world has made that mass exodus much less painful. Syracuse added seven veteran players, and Read has the team rolling as Atlantic Coast Conference play begins in earnest on Thursday at No. 24 North Carolina (11-0, 1-0 ACC).
“I think the biggest challenge was just keeping the girls together, preparing them to be able to have a season and trying to develop that chemistry that we needed to be successful,” Read said. “Because we’ve got good young ladies, good people, they were able to figure it out.”
The newcomers include: senior guard Chrislyn Carr, Big 12 freshman of the year at Texas Tech two years ago; graduate student Najé Murray, who played for both Texas Tech and San Diego State; senior guard Cristianna Carr, who played three seasons at Kansas State; graduate transfer Jayla Thornton, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference player of the year for Howard University in 2021; junior forward Eboni Walker from Arizona State; forward Alaysia Styles, a graduate transfer who played three seasons at California; and junior guard Alaina Rice, MEAC rookie of the year at Florida A&M before transferring to Auburn for one season.
The Orange (8-4, 1-1) started 2-1, then sputtered at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas, losing three straight — to then-No. 23 South Florida, Minnesota and Buffalo.
Something clicked after returning home. That sense of unsureness the players felt disappeared. Syracuse hasn’t lost since, reeling off six straight wins, the last four by 30 points or more.
“We were playing some solid basketball for about three quarters in some of those losses and then we would have one bad quarter and that was the difference in the game,” Read said. “Against good teams, you can’t do that.”
Among the Orange’s recent wins — then-No. 18 Ohio State suffered its first loss of the season, 97-91, in a see-saw game that had 14 lead changes. ACC foe Clemson was humbled 86-46.
“Everybody can shoot. Pick your poison,” said Hyman, one of only three players who were on the roster last year. “I think we’re trusting each other more. We’re just hooping right now. Clemson was very important. For us to win by that margin really showed what we can do.”
Read began using a five-out motion offense in the Bahamas with a simple command — if it’s open, shoot it. If not, pass it, and keep moving, keep cutting.
“I think it’s allowed them to just be able to have some freedom to be able to play natural basketball,” Read said.
That approach makes it difficult for one or two players to dominate. All five Orange starters are averaging in double figures, topped by Chrislyn Carr’s 15.6, and Syracuse leads the ACC in steals (11.17), ranks second in turnover margin (+6.58) and 3-pointers (8.92), and is third in assists (17.83).
“It’s been really cool since he put that in,” Chrislyn Carr said. “He put the trust in us to have the freedom to do what we want and create shots for each other. The best thing about it is we found joy in finding each other on the court, getting excited for each other. It kind of just flows naturally for us. It’s just about our will to want to do it.”
There’s also been a lot of bonding off the court — laser tag, haunted palace, bowling, a ropes course, escape room, team dinners — that has allowed the players to get a better feel for each other.
“We all were coming from really good schools … and we were all good individually,” Chrislyn Carr said. “But how we were going to put that together was the big question mark since we are all so talented individually and capable of having a big night any night. It’s just about trusting your teammates.”
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