Syracuse, N.Y. — Izabael Varejão wiped away tears sitting in uniform at the postgame dais.
The fifth-year center had just walked off the court after her first game in two months, and her contributions off the bench largely influenced Thursday night’s outcome, a nailbiting 62-59 win against Georgia Tech.
Varejão scored 13 points on 67% shooting to go with seven rebounds and clutch defense to lift Syracuse (19-4, 9-3 ACC) on a night its star guard didn’t shoulder the scoring load.
Varejão got a block with four minutes left in the game to keep Georgia Tech from extending their lead, and her steal with 34 seconds left helped Syracuse stave off the Yellow Jackets.
Playing in her first game since Dec. 4 as a result of an undisclosed injury, Varejão matched her season highs for scoring and rebounding.
“I think when I was returning to play, Coach Jack just said, ‘Just go out there and be yourself, no pressure,’ ” Varejão said postgame. “So, I feel like I just went out there and did what she told me to do: Just be happy, just play your basketball and see what’s gonna happen.
“I think I just played free. I just did what I can do, and I haven’t been doing it, but I feel like today I just played free. I was like, OK, there’s nothing that I can lose to just being myself.”
Coach Felisha Legette-Jack did not plan on playing Varejão more than five to 10 minutes as she eased her way back from injury. The center logged seven minutes in the first half and played twice as many in the second half, when the game came down to the wire.
“She wouldn’t let me not play her,” Legette-Jack said. “She just said ‘Coach, I’m ready. You need me right now.”
Varejão’s presence on the court went beyond her stats. She showed up in big moments, allowed her teammates to better perform and encouraged them. In one particular moment, she gave Dyaisha Fair advice on the sideline near the end of the game.
After the game, Varejão earned a team honor: the hard hat that encompasses the blue-collar mentality Legette-Jack and her staff wants to instill in their players.
Varejão accepted the hat, and passed it off to Sue Ludwig, the former Westhill coach who’s now an assistant coach for the Orange.
Thursday night was the team’s Pink Out/Play4Kay game, a night to bring awareness to women’s cancers and honor survivors and those who fought the disease.
Ludwig overcame her own cancer diagnosis several years ago. The team thought Varejão deserved the hard hat on this night after overcoming all her health issues.
Varejão thought should Ludwig wear it.
“She’s a pro,” Legette-Jack said of Varejão. “Even though she didn’t play she still was her teammate throughout the entire time. She was on the sideline. So, it was easy for her to be that same person when she got on the court, and they respect the fact that she can give what she can give.
“She did give what she can give.”