Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Kentucky Plays Another Masterpiece Game
The Southeastern Conference women’s college basketball teams retain their mastery of the rest of the world.
Those AP-ranked teams are now 47-3 (and there is another undefeated league team and two with one loss each, which makes the top nine 73-5).
Déjà vu all over again: For the second straight week, the biggest win was by the team we have dubbed the best in the league, the national Game Of The Season (so far).
How the SEC Select Six fared as the last month of pre-league games swept into play:
•Kentucky: Is it possible for an SEC team to play the national Game of the Season (so far) on back-to-back dates?
Yes, for the No. 5 Kentucky’s Wildcats, whom we projected as the best conference team before the season began.
Another proving ground came at literally the world’s biggest stage for women’s basketball this year, AT&T Stadium (where the NFL Cowboys play and where the men’s Final Four will be this season) as part of a double-header with the second hoops team on campus, the UK men.
The Wildcats bested No. 9 Baylor, in an instant replay must-see, in four overtimes, 133-130. That is not a typo. It is the most points ever scored in a Division 1 women’s game.
The 9-6 final period obviously clinched it.
Junior Jennifer O'Neill, a game after hitting the winning shot against Louisville, scored 43 and then picked up a slew of national women's player of the week awards.
That scoring total also not a typo. She scored two baskets plus a free throw in the final segment. Brian Goss and senior Denesha Stallworth each hit the first of two free throws. O’Neill set a personal and school record.
She was exhausted at the finish. “I don’t feel anything right now,” she said. “I thought it was more overtimes, to be honest.
Sophomore Janee Thompson scored 20, her personal best, and Stallworth 16.
The ‘Cats liked to say how they are 9-0 with the same starting lineup. It must be noted O’Neill has led them as a reserve in both of the big games.
National Player of the Year leader Odyssey Sims could not pull it out. She scored 47.
That is also not a typo. It was a career high, but she fouled out with 1:23 to go in the first OT. Baylor missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“I don’t think that they have a meter that could measure my happiness when (Sims) got out of the game,” said Kentucky coach Matt Mitchell. "We just couldn't stop her.”
Stallworth and Samarie Walker each had seven rebounds. In every game to that point this season, UK had forced at least 20 turnovers.
No one from UK had ever played a four-overtime game. It is the first time any UK women’s team has defeated Top 10 opponents in back-to-back games. They are 43-0 under Mitchell when scoring more than 100.
Kentucky then overwhelmed the shadow team that has always been DePaul, with Azia Bishop among the starters for the first time this season, 96-85.
Freshman Linnae Harper, a Chicago native, scored 18 in 18 minutes (her most minutes) off the bench and senior Kastine Evans, another new starter, 14 as all 10 UK players scored. Evans was 4-of-8 from the field and 4-of-4 from the foul line.
In Chicago, the casual fans always over rate DePaul. Their coach has been there a long time, which equates with a lot of wins but not necessarily a lot of top-level success. They make enough Sweet 16s to let him keep his job but they certainly never overachieve; just the opposite is the norm as it was this night. It is the example of why good players from Chicago – like Harper – flee the city.
Walker scored 13 with eight rebounds and O'Neill scored 12.
With half the 20 wins needed to cement an NCAA invitation, Kentucky closes out the pre-SEC season and the month with two of three winnable games: East Tennessee State, No. 2 Duke and Grambling. They will have played the toughest non-conference schedule of any team in America.
All was not good news, however, for Kentucky.
The second senior this season is down with a knee injury. A team leader beyond statistics, Denesha Stallworth is the player UK is priming for national honors.
Instead, she is sidelined for at least three weeks (which will take the team into the SEC season and perhaps even the early matchup with LSU).
It is not career-ending. She is the leading scorer among the starters and one of six in double-figures. She is the No. 2 rebounder on the team.
She has already had surgery to remove some loose articular cartilage that was floating in her left knee.
“Not the kind of news you want to hear, but we are glad it was nothing serious,” Mitchell said.
No one is sure when the injury happened.
“But it just kept swelling after the (Dec. 6) Baylor game,” Mitchell said. “We have moved forward dealing with it and have a lot of confidence in our medical staff. We think she will be back as good as new. That was a tough bit of news for us.”
A few weeks back, it was revealed senior forward Samantha Drake tore her left anterior cruciate knee ligament and meniscus, in the Nov. 17 Central Michigan game. She is through for the season, having started 23 times in 88 career appearances.
•Tennessee: The real UT stood up at home.
No. 3 Tennessee outlasted Texas, 75-61, to move to 8-0.
Sophomore Izzy Harrison matched her career best 18 points. Junior Arielle Massengale has owned the pre-conerence season and had more of the same, 15 points, 11 of them after intermission, with a team-best seven assists. But the Longhorns could not concentrate on her because senior Meighan Simmons also scored 11 after the break, of 13 total.
Coach Holly Warlick observed: “We figured out what to do in the second half and got the win.
“I pulled out my halftime speech. I just think we are better than what we have started off. They know it. I honestly don’t even have to go in there and say a lot.
“They know, and they write on the board what they should be doing. I come out and say, ‘Yes. Yes. Check. Check.’
“I have to raise my voice a little bit, but they are smart kids,and they are smart players. They understand the game. There isn’t really a whole lot that I have to say.
“It is amazing to me. We can work harder in practice against guys that are fast and physical. When we get out into a game, we are a little hesitant. Maybe it is up to me to find where we bridge that gap. I don't know.”
Tennessee opened the fiurst half 11-2 and the second 5-0, but Texas three times cut the lead to one. Backboards domination was the difference. No other team had outrebounded Texas; Tennessee did so, 45-37.
Tennessee’s best rebounder, Bashaara Graves, was chosen not to start for the first time this season.
"Bashaara didn't have a good week of practice and so she didn't deserve a start,” said Warlick.
“I preach practice and the importance of it. We don't have a lot of rules. When I preach it and it doesn't get done in practice, I can't reward starting because that's a big thing for kids. Hopefully it will change for her upcoming week of practice."
Of course, it was a non-conference game and Warlick insists it is but a speed bump in the season.
“I just think she had a bad week,” Warlick said.“She's in the middle of exams. Bashaara understood. I said ‘'Bashaara, I can’t start you’ and she said she understood.
“It’s not a disciplinary thing. She had a tough week of school and exams and she just didn't come like Bashaara plays. My expectations of Bashaara are extremely high and it’s not going to be anything held against her. She just didn’t have a good week of practice.”
•South Carolina: The 10th-ranked Gamecocks hit 9-0 for the second season in a row, this time at Charlotte, 76-61.
Junior forward Aleighsa Welch scored 18 in the second half, Center Elem Ibiam was pacing SC. Charlotte had the three times before Welch sparked a 14-2 run in the second half.
South Carolina shot 63.6 percent from the field in the second half.
“Aleighsa, she’s our energy player,” said SC coach Dawn Staley. “She’s the backbone. The way she responded and wanted to come and kind of put us on her back and will us to a win.”
Welch said assistant coach Lisa Boyer had prepared them, especially for the next game.
“Coach Boyer just talked about it – we needed this,” Welch said. “I don’t think we really needed to go into a game of that caliber winning by 20, winning by 20, winning by 20. They pushed us in areas we hadn’t really been pushed before.”
They have 10 days between games for semester exams, but then it is North Carolina in a special game – the “Carolina Challenge” -- at Myrtle Beach.
•Georgia: The No. 16 Lady ’Dawgs had 10 days between games and, at Belmont, showed no rust in an 81-55 road blowout.
An 18-0 run to start dismissed all chances of an upset. Georgia hit 58 percent from the field for the game.
Sophomore guard Tiara Griffin continues to lead Georgia, this time with 20 points off the bench. Khaalidah Miller, a 5-9 senior guard, scored 15 and 6-2 sophomore forward Merritt Hempe hit a career-high 13.
“I thought we started well,” an understated Georgia coach Andy Landers said.
“I thought we had good energy defensively, I thought we were disruptive and put them on their heels a little bit and then we made a lot of shots.
“Overall, the first half, you'd probably give it an A-minus. You scored it, you defended it well, you shot it well from the floor. It was a very good first half. A lot of people played. A lot of people came in and plugged right in.
“There was no drop in performance, which underscores that we have a good bench, particularly on the perimeter. The second half, was a little spotty.”
Still, Georgia finished with that 58 percent from the field and a season high eight 3s.
It was another revisit with a former Landers assistant, Belmont coach Cam Newbuaer. Jon Bollier, Georgia's operations coordinator for the past three years, is an assistant coach at Belmont.
At 9-0 Georgia has two winnable games left before the conference games begin.
They should be 11-0 and well on their way to a 20-win season after Kennesaw State and Lipscomb visit.
•Texas A&M: The No. 24 Aggies did not let two straight losses deter them from setting a home record when Washington of the Pac 12 came to call
Senior center Karla Gilbert made sure of that.
She grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds to go with 11 points in the 74-68 win, A&M’s 62nd straight at home against an unranked opponent.
Coach Gary Blair was honored in a singular celebration, a special fete celebrating his induction into the Women‘s College Basketball Hall of Fame, indicative of having won a national title; every championship coach gets in.
“I wish I could have accepted with about 25 assistant coaches who have worked with me throughout the years and all my players,” said Blair. “You’re only as good as the staff and the players and the fans who have supported me in all five programs
“We’re going to take it as a W, and we’re going to get better,” said Blair. “This basketball team is going to get there.”
The two sophomorescç Courtneys, Williams and Walker, each hit double figures as well, 13 and 10. A 20-4 spree to close the first half made the difference. Walker hit two 3s in the final 62 seconds of the opening period.
At 6-2, another ranked team on the road looms with a visit to Penn State this weekend.
•LSU Semester exams meant a scheduled week off, but No. 13 LSU will get back it with three games in one week, all winnable.
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