WBB : Hillsman keeps close watch on freshman Michael’s learning process
The look on Quentin Hillsman’s face could have been framed as he watched his subject walk slowly toward the bench. It was the inimitable gaze of a disappointed instructor.
Freshman Nicole Michael made a tiny mistake – caught out of position in SU’s dare-to-shoot 2-3 zone – but it resulted in a Cornell 3-pointer midway through the first half.
So the Syracuse women’s basketball coach gave her a look, a word of encouragement and kept her in the game.
Thus is the learning process of Syracuse’s most-anticipated rookie, who had her first true breakout performance against Cornell on Wednesday but still often reaps the ire of her demanding coach, who earned his first victory with a 72-64 win over the Big Red.
Michael’s overall numbers were standout – second-leading scorer with 17 points, second-leading rebounder with seven and leading passer with four assists, all in 27 minutes. As in her first collegiate game, at Penn State on Sunday where she finished with five points, three rebounds and two assists and steals, she had her imprint on nearly every aspect of the game.
But sometimes the joy of watching her play is replaced by the frustration of seeing her slip-up, though Hillsman the educator acknowledges the maturation of Michael is just that: a process.
‘When I first started recruiting Nicole and saw her play I knew she was going to be a great player,’ Hillsman said. ‘I’m on her back all the time, kind of giving her a crash course (on how to) do it now. A lot of times I’m her face because I know what she can do. This is not even close to what she can do.’
On Wednesday, it was clear the 6-foot-2 freshman out of Notre Dame (Mass.) Prep can do a lot of great things in a lot of different situations. She displayed her shooting range early in the game, knocking down a 3-pointer for her first points. She proved she can dribble and penetrate, cutting down the lane and drawing two defenders before dishing underneath to Vaida Sipaviciute for the lay-up and foul. And she showed her basketball intelligence, deftly following up a missed 3-pointer with her own rebound.
But for almost every illustration of ability she countered with a mistake of inexperience. She was called twice for traveling and finished 3-of-9 from the free-throw stripe. She lost her mark on several occasions when the team switched defenses, while also committing a team-leading five turnovers on offense. And she finished the game with four fouls, including an over-the-back late in the game that prompted Hillsman to yelp, ‘No!’
With each miscue, that familiar gaze swept back over Hillsman face. But it never stayed for long, and by now Michael knows what to expect from her persistent teacher.
‘He lets me know when I’m messing up,’ Michael said, smirking. ‘He’s very demanding. He lets me know if I’m doing something wrong I’ve got to fix it right away. And if I don’t, I’m out of the game.’
It’s hard to take her out, though, with only nine uniformed players available, so the growing process is unavoidable. Five of the team’s top seven scorers from last season are out with injury, each for what looks to be a lengthy period of time. But Michael’s flexibility and overall talent enables her to fill many roles at the same time.
‘It’s great, now that Tracy (Harbut)’s out because she could pretty much play every position,’ sophomore Cintia Johnson said. ‘(Michael’s) playing every position – that helps other people out. Her being out there is a great opportunity for others.’
Her individual play still remains an adjustment filled with ups-and-downs and goods-and-bads on the court and grins and gazes from the sideline. But if Hillsman didn’t believe Michael could make an impression, she wouldn’t be playing so much. And if he didn’t believe he could mold her into a better player, he wouldn’t be trying so hard.
‘She can do a lot things – so she can score, she can rebound, she can take the ball to the basket,’ Hillsman said. ‘She’s going to have a great career here at Syracuse. I’m just really excited for her to come out, first home game, and have a breakout game.’
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