How Gabrielle Cooper’s role can help save Syracuse’s season

first_img Facebook Twitter Google+ Less than an hour after one of Gabrielle Cooper’s brightest moments at Syracuse, she sunk down into a folding chair and stared down into the media room table. Sandwiched between Amaya Finklea-Guity and Emily Engstler, Cooper had removed her ponytail and her hair ran over a white Syracuse jersey. A frown stretched across her face. She shuffled back and forth, reaching for one of the microphones.It was Jan. 16, and the Orange had suffered an 18-point loss to Georgia Tech, setting their season back further than it already was. Cooper had scored her 1,000th-career point against the Yellow Jackets that night on a driving layup in the third quarter, becoming the 29th player in Syracuse history to surpass that number, but that milestone quickly became an afterthought.Cooper came to Syracuse one year after its 2016 run to the national championship and has appeared in the NCAA tournament all three of her seasons with the Orange. That streak, after the Georgia Tech loss, may be slipping away.“We’re just not playing good right now, we’re not playing good,” Cooper said. “These last two games have been some of our worst games that I’ve played in since I’ve been here.”That was before the Orange’s 30-point loss to Duke last Thursday. Now, winning every remaining game is a requirement just to reach the 19-win mark, the only outcome Cooper’s known at SU. Her point total and scoring rate has dropped — both results of a weeks-long slump. But Cooper’s remained the leader of Syracuse’s (9-10, 3-5 Atlantic Coast) two-guard offense and 2-3 zone defense.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textCooper’s toughness and leadership shows when she dives for loose balls, takes charges and makes the extra pass. Her off-court role, as a mentor to freshmen guards Taleah Washington and Teisha Hyman, may be just as unquantifiable. After every game — close win or uncompetitive loss — Cooper’s always there to answer questions in long, eloquent diatribes intended not only for the media, but also for her teammates. Expectations that lower and lower with each loss have defined the 29-game season culminating Cooper’s Syracuse career. But through that, Cooper, the only rostered senior, has found another role, and the Orange may need it to save their season.“They nicknamed me grandma,” Cooper said. “But I really look at everybody as my kids.”Roshan Fernandez | Asst. Digital EditorDuring her freshman season, Cooper started 32 of Syracuse’s 33 games as the only non-senior in Quentin Hillsman’s starting lineup. Cooper averaged 9.3 points per game and sunk 81 3-pointers, the second-most on the team, but was still nervous at first. All but four players had been a part of the Orange’s final four run the previous season.“She was nervous, of course, being the only freshman on the floor with four seniors,” Cooper’s mother, Benji Hardaway, said. “She had some doubt, but the team as a whole felt very comfortable. Coach Q gave her quite a bit of leeway, so she was able to find her spot, find her niche. And I think she did pretty well.”Cooper hasn’t given up her spot in the starting lineup since. An all-but-one-game starter turned into every game last season, despite health complications that “couldn’t heal,” Cooper said. As Syracuse reaped the benefits of transfers Tiana Mangakahia and Miranda Drummond in 2017-18, Cooper posted similar numbers to her freshman year and remained a third or fourth option.On Dec. 27, 2018, six days before Syracuse opened conference play, Cooper was admitted to the emergency room with strep throat. A week later, she was diagnosed with walking pneumonia. Cooper dealt with some form of illness until the end of the regular season, she said, and her scoring totals (7.1 points per game) and fewer made 3-pointers (17) reflected on the court.“It was frustrating, I was off-balance a lot,” Cooper said. “I was falling a lot in games, like randomly.”Cooper’s illness ended when she used a “home remedy” recommended by her mother, but not before what she called the “worst pain of her life.” The Chicago native purchased oregano oil to put in her ears and try and regain balance. She waited two weeks after buying it before finally using it, but noticed hardly any difference her first two attempts. On her third try, before a practice just days before the ACC semifinal against Notre Dame, Cooper tried a little too hard to cure herself.The oregano oil seeped into her left eardrum, she said, and the ensuing pain felt “like a torture method.” Cooper started bawling due to the pain, something she never does, she said, and soon it was too painful to make even the slightest movements, like lifting her arm or blinking.“I literally felt like I was going to die,” Cooper said. “But I think it did work.”After a trip to the doctor’s office, the feeling wore away and Cooper felt better than she had in months. Cooper posted three-straight double-digit scoring performances in the ACC and NCAA tournaments, a stretch that followed one where she didn’t reach double-digits for 15 of 16 games. Just as Cooper was healthy again, SU’s season ended.But despite her three-month struggle, Cooper didn’t miss a start. In her SU career, the only game she missed was during her freshman year against Duke — one Cooper insisted she was “fine” to play in but was kept out by the Orange’s training staff. It’s a mindset Cooper employed throughout her youth basketball days too. She even brought her AAU backpack to her father’s funeral in 2011 and was prepared to play that day, but couldn’t make it because of time.“I don’t like to miss games at all,” Cooper said. “If I don’t have to miss a game, I won’t.”This season, as Cooper has stumbled to over 10 points just four times in the last 11 games, Hardaway’s searched for an answer to Cooper’s shooting struggles alongside her daughter. The 28.5% field goal percentage wasn’t normal. A 22.1% from beyond the arc was worse, especially from the corners — Cooper’s shot.Roshan Fernandez | Asst. Digital EditorBefore the Georgia Tech game, the pair went to the gym and tried to fix the “hiccups.” Sometimes, Cooper and Hardaway don’t have time for those shootarounds because they’d conflict with SU’s walkthroughs. If Hardaway’s travel schedule from Chicago is limited too, like a 5 a.m. arrival and 11 p.m. departure time to and from the Pittsburgh game on Jan. 19, those sessions won’t work either.But even as Cooper searches for a technique answer, a remedy to cure one of the longest shooting slumps of her career, Cooper’s durability and experience has made her an invaluable piece to this year’s Syracuse team. Her numbers aren’t as strong as they used to be, but Washington and Hyman have credited Cooper for helping them ease into the college game and learn SU’s complex defensive system.Cooper said her relationship with the freshmen guards reminds her of the “special big-sister, little-sister relationship” she developed as a freshman with former SU star Brittney Sykes.“Everything I wish I knew when I was their age, the things it took me two, three years to figure out, I just try to enlighten them now so they can be confident,” Cooper said.After last season’s loss to South Dakota State in the NCAA tournament, Cooper proposed a trip to the Times Union Center in Albany, where a group of Syracuse players watched Connecticut’s final four game against UCLA. She’ll regularly invite the team over and cooks for them, sometimes treating them to a Cajun chicken pasta dish, a consensus favorite. Even if Cooper just cooks for herself, Emily Engstler said, she’ll still send text messages for leftovers.“I’ve always been a leader,” Cooper said. “Being a little kid, playing around outside, I was always like, ‘Alright guys, you go here, you go here, you go here.’ I was always trying to tell people what to do because I cared.”Cooper’s final year at Syracuse may not reach the heights of her first three seasons. There might not be an NCAA tournament appearance. Might not be a game where she breaks the all-time 3-point record for a single contest (eight), one she matched against Iowa State three years ago.But Cooper’s role as a leader may be more important than ever. With the fourth-best recruiting class in the nation coming in next season, the Orange need new leaders to emerge when Cooper graduates. She’s as crucial as anyone in preparing the next generation of SU stars.After the Duke blowout loss, Syracuse’s second-straight at the Carrier Dome, Cooper sat at the table and questioned Syracuse’s future. There’s only 11 games left now, she said, and this isn’t the identity Syracuse wants to have. Hillsman tried again to put the blame on himself, saying it’s his job to trigger the talent in players. That it’s his job to find a way to press and pin offenses successfully.Cooper didn’t buy that. She’s been here too long to do that. Saving Syracuse’s season starts with one factor, and Cooper’s at the front of it.“It’s on us,” Cooper said. “It’s not on somebody else. Not on Coach. Not on the other team.“It’s on us.” Comments Published on January 26, 2020 at 10:57 pm Contact David: ddschnei@syr.edulast_img read more