Gabby Cooper grows into her role ahead late in the season
Jacob Greenfeld | Asst. Photo Editor
Gabby Cooper spoke with Brittney Sykes and Alexis Peterson the night before the biggest game of her life. The team was out for dinner and the next day it was set to match up with then-No. 7 Notre Dame in a game that would eventually shatter the attendance record.
The discussion wasn’t about Cooper’s 10-percent shooting performance from 3 against North Carolina six days prior. It wasn’t about whether the freshman had the confidence to perform against a Top 10 team. Those were conversations of the past.
Instead, the three discussed the antics that they would be pulling when they hit shots and run the score up on the Fighting Irish. Peterson and Sykes — the top two scorers in the Atlantic Coast Conference and the leaders of this year’s teams — told the freshman shooter that they needed her.
“I felt like I had to step it up even more,” Cooper said, clapping her hands together as she recounted the interaction between the three teammates. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to come out here tomorrow and shoot all the 3s and make them.’ We were hype.”
Some nights, Cooper thrives. Other nights, she doesn’t. Her role as 3-point specialist for No. 21 Syracuse (21-10, 11-5 Atlantic Coast) hasn’t changed — she’s started in every game she’s played in — but her performances have. She’s learned through 30 games that to succeed beyond the arc, she has to put bad performances behind her. It’s led to four of her five best scoring performances coming since the start of February.
Cooper said she wasn’t expecting as a big role as she ended up getting to start the year. Through her first seven games, she shot 72 3-pointers, notching 61 points, but she made just 23.6 percent of her shots from 3.
SU head coach Quentin Hillsman said Cooper’s struggles were part of her growth process as a freshman. But then he gave her only 20 minutes of playing time in a Nov. 27 loss to DePaul, after Cooper had shot only 4-of-15 from 3 the night before. She rediscovered her stroke at the Florida Sunshine Classic, shooting 5-of-12 from 3 against Old Dominion for a season-high 19 points. But she remained largely inconsistent.
The UNC game on Feb. 12 marked the second time in a month that she had shot 1-of-10 from downtown. After her already-shaky start to the season, Cooper’s role as 3-point specialist looked unstable.
Then, “the game happened,” Cooper said. Cooper torched the Fighting Irish defense, scoring 18 points on 6-of-10 shooting, nearly leading the Orange to a momentous upset in front of a record 11,021 fans. When Cooper walked off the court, the UNC game was a blip in her distant memory. The debate regarding her ability to perform beyond the arc in a big game ended.
The good games stick in your memory, and the bad games leave quickly, Cooper said.
“When she’s struggling, she remains aggressive,” Hillsman said. “And that’s important for us. She adds a dimension to our game.”
Last Friday against No. 13 Duke, the Blue Devils’ defense swallowed up Peterson and Sykes, holding the All-ACC duo to only 22 combined points. The ball thrust into Cooper’s hands most of the night and the freshman threw up 16 shots from 3, six of which fell for 18 points to pace the Orange. On her fourth 3-pointer of the game, Cooper became SU’s all-time freshman leader in 3-pointers made, with 68.
It didn’t matter that Cooper had been on a two-game cold streak entering Friday. What mattered was Cooper found her stroke again.
“It’s easy to be confident when you’re playing great, but how confident can you be when you’re struggling some?” Hillsman said. “I always thought she was confident no matter what, and that’s what we need her to do.”
Cooper is now 878 minutes into her collegiate career. She said matter-of-factly she’s comfortable in her role and is used to being a mainstay on the court. She averages 29.3 minutes per game for SU and has taken 263 3-pointers on the season, averaging 8.8 points per game – the fourth-best mark on the team.
Cooper didn’t expect to play nearly three-quarters of games and make more 3-pointers than any freshman in the ACC. But she’s not complaining, because the same freshman who once carried doubt is poised to help lead the Orange into the NCAA tournament.
She’ll be stationed where she always is. Behind the thickly painted semi-circle that sits 20-feet-9-inches from the hoop. Behind the line that has been both make and break for Cooper dozens of times in her first season at SU. Behind the line that has been her best friend, and worst enemy, since November. It’s the one place Cooper has come to know best and the only place from which she sees herself fit.
“That’s my spot,” Cooper said.
Published on March 7, 2017 at 12:10 am
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