It is no surprise Sara Scalia has spent the first two days of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in Paradise Island in the Bahamas putting on a shooting clinic. Or that Kadi Sissoko would be strongly motivated playing against her first college team.
Put those together and you get this: A 70-63 Minnesota women's basketball victory over Syracuse on Sunday that put the Gophers (4-2) into Monday's fifth-place game at 4 p.m.
Scalia hit five three-pointers for the second consecutive day and Sissoko had perhaps her best game as a Gophers player with 23 points and 13 rebounds.
The game hinged on the Gophers' dynamic third quarter. Down 31-29 at halftime and down four early in the third quarter, Minnesota ended the quarter on a 24-12 run to take an eight-point lead into the fourth quarter — one they never lost thanks to a defense that held Syracuse (2-3) to 31.9% shooting for the game, 10-for-33 in the second half.
"We'd been practicing our shell defense for months and months," Gophers coach Lindsay Whalen said. "If we could do that, be in the gaps, help the help, and rebound, we'd have success."
Much of that success came because of Sissoko, Scalia (17 points) and graduate transfer Deja Winters, who made her first Gophers start. Winters had played well in Saturday's loss to Connecticut, and Whalen thought Winters would do a good job guarding Syracuse guard Teisha Hyman. Winters scored 16 points with six rebounds and helped hold Hyman to 2-for-11 shooting.
Syracuse (2-3) was led by Chrislyn Carr, who had 18, and Christianna Carr, who had 16.
For Sissoko, it was strange playing against Syracuse, the team she originally joined after coming over from France. She transferred to the Gophers after one season.
"I was just trying to focus on my game, stick to the game plan," she said. "Trying to have fun with my teammates on the court."
Scalia has now hit 10 of 19 three pointers in two games in the tournament, scoring 17 points in each game. Whalen lauded Scalia's work ethic, the time she's put in on her shot. "She works on her game," Whalen said. "It doesn't just happen."
A year ago, injuries prevented Scalia from working for much of the preseason. This year is different. "I'd say I'm a lot more comfortable," she said. "I trust my game a little more."
Scalia and much of the Gophers team watched the NCAA Division III volleyball championship Saturday night, which Wisconsin-Eau Claire — which includes older sister Taylor Scalia on the roster — won. It was motivating.
"I was speechless for her,'' Scalia said.
Sissoko had nine points, Winters eight and Scalia five in the Gophers' 27-17 third quarter. In the fourth Scalia added six. The Gophers were still up seven late in the fourth when point guard Jasmine Powell — who battled foul trouble in the first half — converted on a three-point play to put Minnesota up 10 with 1:26 left. Powell, who had 10 assists, had all seven of her points in the second half.
The Gophers, who had a 50-36 rebounding edge, were able to win despite turning the ball over 20 times; their defense did much of that work, limiting Syracuse to 17 points off those turnovers.
"This was a big character win for our team,'' said Whalen, whose team lost by 30 to second-ranked Connecticut Saturday.
The Star Tribune did not travel for this game. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews before and/or after the game.