Women's Basketball

Brittney Sykes is more than a mentor to freshman Gabby Cooper

Ally Moreo | Photo Editor

Brittney Sykes and Gabby Cooper combined for 52 points in Saturday's win over Iowa State.

STORRS, Conn. — Brittney Sykes and Gabby Cooper have a tradition of touching foreheads before every game. The Syracuse starters stare at each other, getting into game mode by pumping each other up and offering words of encouragement.

Usually, Sykes said, it’s just little words of encouragement and reminders to play strong defense. Before Saturday’s game against Iowa State, Sykes had something else to say.

“Today I just told her,” Sykes said. “… ‘I need you to break the single-game record for 3s.’”

The duo led eighth-seeded Syracuse (22-10, 11-5 Atlantic Coast) on Saturday in a dominating victory over ninth-seeded Iowa State (18-13, 9-9 Big 12). Cooper fulfilled Sykes request, setting the SU program record for 3s made in an NCAA Tournament game by knocking down eight, including five in the first quarter. Sykes followed up Cooper’s hot first quarter with 21 first-half points in the Orange’s 85-65 victory.

The relationship between Sykes and Cooper — the former a fifth-year senior whose name is plastered in the SU record book, the latter a freshman who has started every game this year — goes past that of just a mentor and a mentee.

“She’s been amazing. She’s my best friend,” Cooper said. “She leads me in ways that I can’t even describe.”

Their relationship started when Sykes was picked to host Cooper on her official visit last year. It wasn’t unusual, as Sykes had already hosted plenty of current SU player before, including the Day sisters, Davida Dale and Abby Grant.

But something about her connection with Cooper was different with the two immediately bonding. They had a shared high school experience, Sykes said, of coming close to, but never winning a state championship. The mutual understanding helped make that initial visit a success.

Cooper, who’s from a suburb of Chicago, then came to watch Syracuse play in last year’s Final Four in Indianapolis. There, Sykes told her that she needed to come to SU to help them make it back there this year.

She stepped into the role vacated by Brianna Butler last year as a 3-point shooter who had a constant green light. But she struggled with her shot, hitting just 25 percent from deep on nearly 70 attempts through the first six games.

As the season nears its conclusion, Cooper’s level of play has elevated. Up until the Notre Dame game, she was averaging eight points per game. Over the last six games she’s bumped that to 14.7.

“She’s had some games where she’s missed a lot of shots,” head coach Quentin Hillsman said. “But she’s really stayed with it and she’s been very consistent in her effort.”

In the season opener against Rhode Island, Cooper became the first freshman to start for Syracuse since Alexis Peterson started halfway through her freshman year in February 2014.

Sykes also had experienced being thrust into a big role as a freshman. She knew the pressure of having to take on a large scoring role for her team, and of having to play at a level that isn’t asked from most freshman.

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Ally Moreo | Photo Editor

Except when she was a freshman, Sykes said she didn’t have somebody who had her experience, somebody to teach her how to navigate the newness with a need for results. She’s trying to be that person for Cooper, and in return is getting something too.

“She doesn’t know this, but she taught me a lot this year that she won’t ever understand,” Sykes said. “She has helped me to grow as a person, she’s helped me to grow as a player.”

Cooper and Sykes laughed when describing their relationship in the postgame press conference, especially when Cooper called it “weird.” Sykes said that she calls Cooper her kid.

The two don’t have much time left together as teammates. At most, they’ll have five games. They could also have just one more if they don’t find a way around four-time defending national champions Connecticut.

Sykes has prepped Cooper to take over her role next year after she’s gone. And in taking Cooper under her wing, she gained a new experience she hadn’t had in her basketball career before.

“Haven’t really met a freshman like her before,” Sykes said. “It’s just one of those things where you see something in somebody and you just want to grab a hold of it.”

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