Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Guru's NCAA: Oregon Stuns Maryland While UConn Stops UCLA

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

BRIDGEPORT, Conn.  – Cancel the expected drama many were looking forward to happening here Monday at the NCAA women’s basketball tournament Bridgeport Regional at Webster Bank Arena.

A major threat to the University of Connecticut’s run to a fifth straight NCAA title and ongoing record win streak has been replaced by an unknown threat.

The overall top-seeded Huskies, as expected, got to the Elite Eight round and gateway to next weekend’s Women’s Final Four at the American Airlines Arena in Dallas by beating fourth-seeded UCLA 86-71 in the second game of Saturday afternoon’s doubleheader.

But third-seeded Maryland, a position handed by the NCAA committee at the outset in the 64-team draw that was considered low by many observers, became the latest to be stunned by the happy-go-lucky 10th-seeded Oregon squad, 77-63, as the youthful Ducks (23-13) advance from their first-ever NCAA Sweet 16 appearance to making their debut as a regional finalist.

“I continue to be amazed by this team,” said third-year coach Kelly Graves, who previously built Gonzaga into a national force and also led the Zags as a double digit seed into an Elite Eight stage of the tournament.

“You know, just the fact that over the last five days we went cross-country twice, had final exams, played a great team – three great teams in this tournament,” Graves continued.

“And you know, they continue to show poise down the stretch, and I’ll tell you it’s just impressive to watch. We continue to get better and better as a basketball team. We’re excited to move on.”

Oregon got started with escaping seventh-seeded Temple 71-70, stopping the Owls on the last play, a week ago at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., and then in what was essentially a true road game took down the second-seeded Blue Devils 74-65.

“I’ll tell you this, Oregon is for real,” said Maryland coach Brenda Frese, after her Terrapins (32-3) got short circuited from getting a second shot at the UConn squad they barely lost to at home 87-81 in late December. “I thought they were sensational. I thought they punched first. I thought they were fearless, aggressive, confident, really pushed us in terms of any mistakes, any breakdowns that we would have.”

In a matchup of two of the nation’s top freshmen, both guards, Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu easily came out ahead of Maryland’s Destiny Slocum, scoring a game-high 21 points, shooting 7-for-13 from the field, including 3-for-5 on three-point attempts, a perfect 4-for-4 on the line, while grabbing six rebounds and dealing seven assists.

Slocum scored nine points, shot 3-for-8 from the field, including 0-for-1 on the long-range blanks attack that had the entire Maryland squad going 0-for-6 from beyond the arc.

“We’re blessed to be in this position,” said Ionescu, one of three freshmen starters for the Ducks along with Ruthy Hebard and 6-foot-5 Mallory McGwire. “And I think we’re excited about everything. No one’s been here. None of our kids have ever experienced anything like that.

“So I think we’re just excited to be able to play another day and see where that takes us.”

One person not surprised at Oregon’s run is the coach of the Ducks’ Monday night opponent, Hall of Fame Connecticut mentor Geno Auriemma.

“I’m not even the least bit surprised at what they’re doing,” he said following the Huskies’ win over the Bruins. “Not even a little bit.

“I remember when Kelly got the job. I told everybody in the coaching profession, I said, `They’re going to be in the Final Four sooner than anybody thinks.

“As I said earlier today, it better not be this soon. But they’re going to be there because he’s a hell of a coach. You can recruit pretty good players to Oregon. He’s done that.

“They are a really, really good team. If you got really good guards, you can have a really good team. They’ve got some pretty good guards.”

Behind Ionescu’s performance, Hebard scored 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds with three steals. Maite Cazorla had 15 points, shooting 5-for-9 from the field; Lexi Bando had 10 points and Oti Gildon, off the bench when McGwire had her fourth foul, had 11 points.

“It felt great,” said Gidon, who also had nine rebounds and four steals. “Coming off the bench, I had to make sure I did whatever I needed to do for the team, which was defense and rebounding, so I just had to make sure I kept doing that.”

Maryland’s two all-Americans, Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker Kimbrough, each scored 16 points, but Walker-Kimbrough’s came late for the most part, while Brianna Fraser, a sophomore, had 10 off the bench.

The game was close early when most of the 14 lead chances occurred, as well as one tie.

Hebard’s layup with 7:34 left in the first half, grabbed the lead back from the Big 10 champions, and Oregon held it for the rest of the game with Ionescu’s trey with 30 seconds left in the half making it a 36-27 nine-point advantage.

A Slocum layup with 5:26 left in the third got the Terrapins within three at 40-37 but Oregon answered with a 7-0 run for a 10-point lead that grew to 14 just before the end of the period before Maryland got two back.

Oregon rebuilt the 14-point advantage with 5:06 left in the game at 69-55 but Maryland fought back to within six with 3:19 left in the game at 69-63 but it would be the last points the Terrapins scored on the season.

“I thought we pressed early,” Frese said of Maryland’s offensive struggle. “They took the air out of the ball, which was really a smart move by them. We’ve seen that in the past but we didn’t handle it well at all.

“Then it felt like every time we would get it to within six points, we would have some sort of breakdown, whether it was off an O board, whether it was a defensive stop, then they would break it back open.”

 Ionescu quickly countered with a jumper, sending Oregon on the way to closing with an 8-0 flurry.

“You know, like I just told the team in the locker room, I’m not going to let one game define the season we had this year, and I’m pretty proud of this team and everything we’ve been through,” Frese said.

“Most proud of our seniors. You know, 125 career wins, they leave with six conference titles, two Final Fours, and everything they mean to Maryland for us.”

The Terrapins total was their lowest of the season.

“I just think it was one of those days,” Slocum said. “We were clicking on offense, things were just – we kind of lost our game, and I think even though it was a low scoring game, we were trying our best, doing anything we could. I don’t think there’s really an answer for it.”

But Walker-Kimbrough noted, “Their defense was pretty good, making my shot difficult. I credit the defense, their defense.”

Oregon is in the tournament for the first time since 2005, a 12-year gap.

“I thought Oregon likened to our 2006 championship team,” Frese said. “They’re confident and really disciplined and make you pay for your mistakes.”

Oregon has the tallest lineup in the country and one that held Maryland to 27 points under the Terrapins’ scoring average, highest in the country.

Bruins Felled as UConn Returns to the Elite Eight

With 4:28 left in the first quarter of the nightcap the score was tied 11-9 as UCLA was threatening to make it a Pac-12 sweep to add to the semi-monopolization the conference held with five teams in the Sweet 16 heading into the weekend.

Then UConn did what UConn does going on a lengthy 13-2 run the rest of the period for a 22-13 advantage.

The Huskies then kept it going into the next period for combined 28-7 explosion after Katie Lou Samuelson’s layup and the differential would reach 20 in the final minute before Paulina Hersler’s triplet reduced it slightly to 17 as the break arrived with UConn in front 48-31.

The Bruins (25-9) then stabilized it which was good but didn’t do much to reduce the deficit with UConn up by 20 at 60-40 with 4:29 left in the third period.

That was enough in the Huskies scoring account to withstand a UCLA ensuing rally that cut the lead to 12 points before it settled at 13 at 65-52 with 10 minutes left in the game.

The Huskies got it back up to 20 at 76-56 with 6:15 left in the game before one more Bruins rally cut it to 12 with 2:01 left.

But that would be the high water mark of a UCLA late-game insurgency as UConn (35-0) closed it out 6-3 the rest of the way for a final tally of 86-71 and it was on to the Elite Eight for the 12th straight time.

That led to the current immediate postgame notes update activity as the UConn records continued to roll.

Among them, the overall extending unbeaten streak dating back to 2014 now stands at 110 straight while the triumph in NCAA competition became 112, tying Auriemma with the late Tennessee Hall of Famer Pat Summitt.

It’s the second straight year that UCLA’s season ended here but the first that UConn was the final opponent with Texas having won the previous closeout.

“Well, you know, credit to UConn,” said Bruins coach Cori Close afterwards. “They are so consistent in their standard of excellence.

“I thought we were prepared. I thought we believed in what we were doing. We just had that segment in the first half for about eight minutes where we sort of lost our focus and our discipline,” she continued.

“When you lose that, they capitalize. So credit to them. They’ve set the bar of excellence and they’ve kept it there for a really long time. It’s just a really big commitment to all the little details, a lot of the little inches.”

Four Huskies scored in double figures with Napheesa Collier having the super night with 27 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, and three blocked shots. Gabby Williams added 17 points and nine rebounds while off the bench senior Saniya Chong, many times the unheralded Husky, had 16 points, while Katie Lou Samuelson scored 15. Kia Nurse had nine points while shooting 3-of-4 on three-pointers, a category of which Chong shot 4-of-6.

Junior Jordin Canada had 20 points and 11 assists for UCLA, while Monique Billings scored 17, and senior Kari Korver, a cousin of NBA player and former 76er Kyle Korver, scored 15 in her final game of her collegiate career.

Korver was Close’s first key recruiting signee after the former Florida State assistant’s hire in 2011 that eventually with UCLA’s first ranking under Close made her one of what is now 35 women to play and coach on a team ranked in the Associated Press women’s poll.

Close captained the 1992 UC Santa Barbara squad that made the final poll for its first appearance and last until several years later but nonetheless qualifies Close for the special mention.

With Korver’s last game, the marking brought a bit of Auld Lang Syne emotion to Close’s postgame remarks.

“..I don’t want it to end,” Close said. “I just love these young women. These guys, I mean, (nodding toward Korver), this little kid from L.A. said, ‘Hey, I want to stay home. I want to build a program, take a risk, do something special.’ We fell short, but that’s exactly what she’s done.

“Kari Korver, she was one of my first phone calls within my first week when I got the job. She believed in our mission, not just on the court. We do things a little differently at UCLA. She believed in it before it bore fruit on the court.”

Asked what caused things to change from UCLA holding UConn under control in the opening minutes until things suddenly got out of hand, Korver said, “I think we didn’t rebound particularly well. We had a 10-minute stretch where we didn’t get any rebounds. They had a bunch of transition threes where we weren’t getting matched up very well.

“They had second-hand points. They hit threes in transition.”

Canada agreed with her teammate, adding, “We also had some mental lapses in the second quarter. That’s when they went on their run.

“For a second, we kind of looked defeated. That’s when they capitalized on their opportunities to score in transition and get offensive rebounds. I think it was just our lack of focus.”

Chong’s performance became the attention-getter afterwards in postgame questions to both Close and Auriemma.

“That didn’t surprise me,” Close said. “You can’t do a good job on just one or two players with Connecticut. You have to do a phenomenal A-plus job on the team. I’ve watched her a lot on film. She did a great job all year long for them.

"Didn't surprise me at all. It's never about the individual. It’s always about the team. I think she was just ready when her number was called and her opportunity came.”

Auriemma also praised his older player.

“Today, the effort and play of Saniya, I thought it was the difference in the game,” he said. “You know what you’re going to get from those other guys. They did what they always do, for the most part.

“Saniya made some big plays, some big shots. She’s as good now as she can be. It’s at the perfect time in her career. I mean, she’s a senior. Sometimes it never happens. I’m really thrilled for her that it’s happening. She deserves it. She’s hung in there,” he said.

“This year, it’s all kind of fallen into place for her,” Auriemma said after noting how much Ching struggled her first three seasons. “She deserves it. She’s worked very hard. She deserves it.”

AS for how the game went, Auriemma said, “…today it was a struggle for us. Even when we got up 20, I didn’t think it was like being up 20 against someone else, where you know it’s going to go from 20 to 30. I never had that feeling.

“It was a grind for our guys. We felt it a bit in the fourth quarter.”

As for the youthful next opponent on Monday night that is the last hurdle on going back to the Final Four again, Auriemma said, “They were too young to know any better. They didn’t realize they’re suppose to be, like nervous. They don’t realize this is suppose to be really hard, you know.

“You’re not supposed to just walk into the NCAA tournament and just start beating teams with three freshmen in the starting lineup, and a freshman point guard.”

As to how Maryland went down, making the youthfulness attitude from Oregon becoming the unknown factor, as opposed to what was expecting to be a strong challenge from the Terrapins, Auriemma said, “Sometimes the pressure that teams put on you by scoring, and I think that’s what they did to Maryland today, they would come down and get a bucket, and Maryland would miss, then they would come down and run 28 seconds off the shot clock, get another bucket, and Maryland would come down and miss. After a while the pressure to have to score gets to the kids.

“I don’t know if we can defend (Oregon) on Monday. I really don’t. We’ll come up with something. But this time of year, I want to try to get to 90 and take my chances. I don’t wwant to try to win games 65-60. That’s probably not going to work.”

Meanwhile, in the Stockton Regional, with top-seeded South Carolina putting down the Cinderella uprising of Quinnipiac 100-58, and third-seeded Florida State upsetting second-seeded Oregon State 66-53, the complete Elite Eight are set.

On Sunday, two of the Final Four will be determined with top-seeded and injured Notre Dame meeting second-seeded Stanford in the Lexington Regional at Noon before top-seeded Baylor meets second-seeded Mississippi State at 7:36 p.m.in the Oklahoma City Regional.

Monday night, as mentioned, Connecticut will meet Oregon here at 7:06 p.m. Before South Carolina and Florida State meet at 9:06 p.m. In the Stockton Regional in California.


Guru's Notes: Will Hall of Fame Knock on Doors of Mulkey and McGraw?

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

With Baylor and Notre Dame seeking to get to the Women’s Final Four on Sunday comes what could be really big lifetime moments for Baylor coach Kim Mulkey and Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw in the next 48 hours, though not all of it will be immediately for public consumption.

Notre Dame (33-3), the top seed in the Lexington Regional in Kentucky, meets second-seeded Stanford (31-5) at 12:06 p.m. on ESPN2 before top-seeded Baylor (33-3) meets second-seeded Mississippi State (32-4) at 7:36 p.m. on ESPN2 in the Oklahoma City reginal.

That’s the public part.

Meanwhile both McGraw and Mulkey are finalists for the 2017 induction class of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., as is ESPN broadcaster Rebecca Lobo, the former UConn. Star in the mid-1990s who is in the contributor category, and the Wayland Baptist squad that won 131 games straight from 1953-58, the next winning mark that UConn is also a threat to break.

Deadline for picking the class, who will be inducted in September, was Tuesday froma a select panel of 24 voters..

Normally all the winning inductees are flown to the men’s Final Four, this year in Phoenix, Ariz., to be introduced the Monday morning before the men’s title game that night, though at the game the inductees are also introduced to the crowd.

Based on some winners’ recollections in the past, the official call telling each candidate either congratulations or regrets should be come Monday or Tuesday.

“It’s always my most joyous moment and also tough moment, telling the candidates whether they are in our out,” said Hall of Fame President and CEO John Doleva recently.

McGraw and Wayland were also finalists last year out of the women’s subcommittee but did not get voted in, a surprise in the case of McGraw, who was considered a strong favorite with former WNBA, Olympic and Texas Tech star Sheryl Swoopes, who did get voted into the Hall.

But here’s where some historical precedence may occur.

With wins Sunday, McGraw and Mulkey would have to be in Dallas for Friday night’s semifinals while Lobo is one of the key studio analysts for ESPN on the women’s tournament, so she would likewise have to be in Texas, which, coincidentally is where the Wayland campus is in the panhandle town of Plainview.

Usually, at least one of the women’s candidates makes induction. This is the second year by the way the subcommittee was allowed a maximum four nominees expanded from the limitations of two in the past.

Thus, the Hall may have to announce any or all three of the women’s winners, depending who makes it, perhaps as early as Friday next weekend because of the conflict and several sources confirmed in advance of the voting totals that a contingency was being explored if the situation goes into play.

If South Carolina, coached by Dawn Staley, and Connecticut, coached by Geno Auriemma, get to Dallas with their teams, and McGraw and Mulkey get picked, it means all the Women’s Final Four coaches would be Naismith Hall of Famers.

Auriemma is also the recent gold medal-winning USA coach in 2012 and last summer while Staley will be the 2020 Olympic coach in Japan.

Stay tuned.

Villanova Seeking WNIT Final Four

The Villanova men’s team, the 2016 NCAA champions, were knocked out of the NCAA field last weekend by Wisconsin in the second round, leaving the women’s team from the Main Line in Philadelphia’s Western suburbs, one of a handful still alive playing in the WNIT, which began with a field of 64 teams not in the NCAA women’s event.

The Wildcats, who were 16-14 after elimination in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament, earned the automatic qualifier for the WNIT out of the conference as the highest team not in the NCAA field after Marquette, third in the final standings, upset regular-season co-champion DePaul in the conference title game, to earn a spot, and DePaul and Creighton, the other co-champion, were taken by the NCAA.

Villanova finished tied for fourth with Saint John’s but had the tiebreak to be the fourth seed, hence, also being in the WNIT AQ berth.

Once in and having to go on the road, the Wildcats came to life winning at Princeton, the AQ out of the Ivy League, at crosstown rival Drexel, an at-large pick, and at James Madison, the AQ out of the CAA.

That put veteran coach Harry Perretta and his team in Bloomington, Ind., Sunday, to visit Indiana (23-10) at 2 p.m. The winner will meet Michigan (26-9), in a WNIT Final Four game after the Wolverines eliminated Virginia Tech 80-62 on Saturday night.

In other WNIT Elite Eight games Sunday, surprising Alabama (22-13) will visit Georgia Tech (20-14) at 2 p.m. while Washington State (15-19), the AQ out of the Pac-12 after a record number of teams landed in the NCAA field visits Iowa (20-13) at 3 p.m.

Those winners will meet in the other WNIT national semifinals.

Villanova is the latest in string of Philadelphia-area teams making strong runs, beginning in 2013 when Drexel took the championship, followed the next year by Rutgers, while Temple made deep bids in 2015 and 2016, the latter when the Owls advanced to the semifinals.

That’s a wrap.

Siroky's SEC Report: South Carolina Eases Into Elite 8

 By Mike Siroky

South Carolina 100, Quinnipiac 58


Quickly dispatched

Quietly flying home.

Quinnipiac somehow got to the Stockton Region semifinals where a very confident No. 1 seed South Carolina awaited.

The Gamecocks mostly wanted to win their 30th. So did Quinnipiac. That’s where the similarity ended.

Quinnipiac was favored by .1 percent of players in the most popular national bracket game.

That was about right.

Alisha Gray played of course, as we reported she would and was more or less the crashing guard of the Gamecocks’ four-guard array.

She and Kaela Davis scored the first seven of the 9-0 start. Quinnipiac called a time out, three minutes in. All it did was delay the inevitable.

We all love an underdog story, but only when the underdog is legitimate.

 The two teams the Bobcats beat in the tournament were not on anyone’s list of threats to SC or any good team.

You have to be good to even be a legitimate underdog. UCLA and Florida, overstaffed with freshmen, these are underdogs at this level.

It reinforces the women’s rule that has always been there is usually an elite team, maybe two or three other good ones and then there’s everyone else.

There has to be a Final Four, but name the others ever in the national semifinals.

They don’t matter and neither did Quinnipiac in this one. South Carolina can still be a Final Four team.

There was no surprise in this one. Never. Ever. Not even a Klown Kar of entertainment.

Coaches can either enjoy and encourage or go all Bob Knight on their team in angry energy. The latter did not work.

 Neither did the circus props at courtside, a bell to be rung and a ladder to be climbed.

Instead, they got the wake up call ringing in their ears and chance to step up to the departure lounge at the airport. Thanks for playing, here is your lovely parting gift.

After the time out, it grew to 16-0. Staley softly introduced a substitute to get her game experience for the next one.

Kaela Davis had eight points. With no points, Quinnipiac was 0-for-10 without a shooting percentage because you have to make one to get one.

Finally a free throw. The ESPN commentator tried to tell us how relaxed they were. Yep, they were coma-like relaxed.

It is no surprise the quarter ended with South Carolina imposing a single-digit defensive quarter, 20-7.

SC had not missed a free throw in nine tries. They had 16 rebounds to five. The freshman point guard, the first-ever in Dawn Staley’s SC career, had two fouls but who cared. It just meant opportunity for another player.

You knew, already, every player would play anyway. Why give the next for a look at the first team?

Quinnipiac coach Tricia Fabbri had to pretend there would be a turnaround in the final three quarters of her season.

“I think we just settle down. We have to try and get it under double-digits before halftime,” she said. “Take a deep breath.”

She had tried four substitutes, to at least get their name in the NCAA and school record books as participants.

South Carolina did the same for a different reason and were up to eight players used. The ESPN commenters were watching some other game as they kept referring to South Carolina with the caution, “If they advance.” Oh have some guts.

Most of Quinnipiac’s drives were one-and-done. SC had two offensive rebounds. SC had 14 defensive and seven on offense. It was 31-14 and Quinnipiac had indeed settled down, the second the operative word. It had become a practice game for the No. 1 seed, a pickup game against anyone on campus.
It was 45-27 at the break. They didn’t escape a double-digit deficit.

Wilson had 16, Davis 15, Gray 12. Any two of them had as much as the Bobcat team. Rebounds were 21-10.  Four Quinnipiacians had two fouls each.

Even Wilson was surprised at the attempted triple-team.

“They’re playing me defensively the way I have never seen before, playing in front of me. So I am just doing what I can to put points on the board.”

They pushed the lead to 27 on a 13-4 run.  Every Gamecock had already played.

Quinnipiac’s coach used her last bullet – a technical foul for shouting something unacceptable – but SC just shrugged. Davis got to 20 points, 10-of-10 at the line.

The quarter ended 76-44. Staley said it was a matter of “Staying engaged. We told them we had some lulls in the first half.”

Especially engaged was Davis, 5-of-6 on 3s, all five she tried in the third good.

Only playing time defined who would be allowed to score what. Davis sat down with 26 minutes and 24 points; Davis had 28 in 23 minutes, Gray 19 with a team-high eight rebounds in 27 minutes.

 They sat most of the fourth, cheerleading when the only question was would SC’s reserves push it to 100, which they did on the last possession. Quinnipiac had scored 85 in its previous outing against a lesser team.

“I was just hitting a lot of shots,” said Davis. “We were moving the ball all along. We had 40 points in the paint and that means a lot to us because it means we are moving the ball.”

South Carolina had won its 30th. It scored the most it had all season. It hit 18-of-19 from the line, 62 percent from the field.

Staley took it easy on the Bobcats in her comments, focusing, as usual, on her team.

“Well, it was great to get out, to get out there and play another game,” Staley said.
“ It seemed like we were off for a long time. I thought our players came out ready to play on both sides of the ball and it was a really exciting game for us.

“We were really up for the challenge of playing. I’m glad we get a chance to move on.”

Davis said the points were nice and all, but defense comes first.

“I think our biggest thing was obviously pressuring outside the 3-point line,” Davis said “I’ve honestly never seen a team that could shoot the ball as well as them. Our biggest thing was just making them put the ball on the floor, you know, and if we had to give up a two, we'd much rather give up a two rather than a 3.”

Gray followed her coach on focus.

“Just staying engaged. Like Kaela said, they are a great 3-point shooting team. We tried our best to run them off the 3 line, also,” Gray said.

“When we come out, we play every team the same. Doesn't matter what name is on the jersey. We come out to play. Obviously they had a good run, but we still got a mission to complete and that's to make it to the Final Four National Championship.”

Davis: “I second that.” On shooting “It doesn't matter, get my feet set, just making sure, kind of staying in rhythm. Like coach said, it feels like we’ve been on for a long time with the gap between games. I think it’s just like I said, just finding rhythm and staying in a rhythm.”

Gray said: “The main thing for us is to come out strong the first five minutes and then take the game from there. We definitely want to stay aggressive and continue playing South Carolina basketball.”

Davis points out this is her first Elite 8, so she entered with no preconceived notions.

“We're going to play basketball. We're going to play the way that we know how to play. No matter who is in front of us, we have to play hard. We have to come ready to play no matter who it is, as it was today.

“It’s really good teams. Really experienced teams. Like I said, we are going to come out and play our game and play hard.”

Gray seconded her assessment.

Staley has kept the plan in motion, not allowing until now to look at the next round.

“I think for teams that have a goal of going to the Final Four and winning the National Championship, it is that step that, you know, can prevent you. Either you can overlook it -- not overlook it, but you can try to get ahead of yourself,” Staley said.

“I think for us, we just need to stay in character.

“We need to approach it much like we approached every game of the season. Although the stakes are a little bit higher. Just keep it as normal as possible, and the teams that are able to stay the course and keep it normal are the ones that can open up a game.

“I was incredibly proud of our team to be able to lock in to the game plan, and execute it. I thought we did have a few lulls in the second quarter where we got careless with the basketball, and we also let some shooters loose. They had a really good second quarter.

“So we have to continue to not have those lapses and put 40-minute games together at this stage of the game, because we'll play another great team on Monday night, and if you, you know, allow teams to play to their strengths, they can really make you pay for it.”

Without Alaina Coates, she has the luxury of stepping on the gas.

“The biggest thing for us in this particular game is our speed. We wanted to speed them up,” said Staley.

“We didn't want them to be comfortable in their sets and allowing them to read what our defense is. And then staying in front of them. Just staying in between them and the basket and not allowing them to get ahead of the possession, because once they are ahead of the possession, it's hard to fight your way back. They will get open 3s when it's like that.

“With Alaina out, I think it just leaves a big void. Like driving lanes were there for us. It gives A'Ja an opportunity to work the paint a little bit more and maybe feel like it's not so clogged up. And I thought tonight, or today, they played, almost double-teamed her.

“But for the guards, like Kaela, she's getting to the basket a little bit more. Allisha can play more downhill. Bianca Cuevas thrives off of the space that's left with the void of not having Alaina Coates in there.

“But we do, we feel from a rebounding and defensive standpoint, we feel her presence missed."

They get No. 3 Florida State Monday night, ACC instead of Pac 12. The Seminoles eliminated a Final 4 team from last season, No. 2 Oregon State. They are formidable on offense. A worthy Regional final opponent and no surprise if they overcome.

Oklahoma City Final
Mississippi State (32-4) vs. Baylor (33-3)

It is always nice when a No. 1 seed meets a No. 2 for the right to advance to the Final Four, because the selection Committee gets one right.

All the No. 1 seeds survive. The Bulldogs want to end that trend. Two No. 2s survive. The game is in prime time.

Baylor, the Big 12 champs, have a mercurial coach who will get anger management sessions when her season ends.

For now, let’s focus on the players. The Bears lead off with a quartet of seniors who have been unafraid to pledge allegiance to making the Final Four.

Between them, seniors Nina Davis, Alexis Jones, Khadijah Cave and Alexis Prince have scored 5,482 points in their Baylor careers and won nine Big 12 regular-season or tournament championship

Kalani Brown averages 15.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Jones averages 13.1 and Davis 12.8.

They easily disposed of Louisville in their semifinal. They average 89.6 points per game as a team and allow 55.2. Mississippi State will try to close that gap with their defense, which allows 56.4, or 35 less. They score 76.3, or 21 more than Baylor allows.

As with Washington, the defenders will decide it.

Another Mississippi State record is they now have more than 1,000 field goals in a season.

By the way, the opening games averaged 3,499 fans. That is one major difference between the men and women’s games, where tickets even for Regionals, are much more highly sought.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Siroky's SEC Report: State is Elite For the First Time

By Mike Siroky

The first of the two remaining Southeastern Conference women’s basketball teams in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA eliminations, No. 7 Mississippi State eliminated No. 12 Washington of the Pac 12, 75-64, No. 2 over No. 3 in the Oklahoma Regional

South Carolina plays Saturday night against Quinnipiac in the Stockton Regional.

Vic Schaefer stayed with his NCAA lineup, that is keeping only his starting point guard, Morgan William in the first five. But that leaves All-SEC scorer Victoria Vivians and center Chimwe Okorie on the bench as top-quality reserves.

“You’re the most successful class in the history of the school for one reason and one reason only, you’ve earned everything,” Schaefer told his team before leaving the locker room. “You have not been given anything.”

Both defenses packed it in to start. Mississippi State had to be aware of the all-time best scorer in the nation Kelsey Plum.  Washington started with four 3s, two by Plum. She later set the NCAA record for most free throws made in a career.

One of the new State starters, Breanna Richardson, had two fouls and was out when it was 14-7. Blair Schaefer had hit a 3 for Mississippi State.

Okorie came in, a starter for 33 games. Washington was hitting 71 percent from the floor. The deficit remained seven, 20-13 at  the break.

In came Vivians, which meant the usual starters were fighting the fight. They erased the lead and fashioned a tie at 22. Vivians had a quick seven.

Schaefer’s defense also arrived. Plum had the two 3s in the first three and a half minutes and not another basket afterwards.

State put a single-digit defense on them in the 25-9 second quarter. Vivians had nine as eight State players scored.

Washington came back with a 21-10 third, so each side had showed a dominating defensive quarter.

Plum had 20, 7-of-18 from the field to get there. Vivians was worse, 5-of-13.

Would either settle in or were the defenses that good? State was 12 better on rebounds but it didn’t seem to matter.

It was all about the defense.

The fourth was all forged in the SEC battles. The arguments about who needs to start are diluted. Schaefer’s plan to start 6-7 sophomore Teaira McCowan in the middle paid off.

She had 20 points in the fourth. Washington had 14. She finished with 27 and 13 rebounds with five blocks. Mississippi State won rebounds by 17.

Vivians finished with13, the second-best Bulldog scorer with the third-most minutes.

Plum scored 29, but 10-of-25 from the field. She can pack up the 3,527 points and head out. Mississippi State will take the collective effort of 10 scorers and head on.

McCowan said, “I knew coming into the game, I knew I could step up and be that player.
“We had to guard the perimeter. Knowing to be in the right spot at the right time.”

The love for teammates stops any talk of who starts or even who gets playing time.

“It’s all for my seniors,” McCowan said “They built Mississippi State up from what it wasn’t to what it is. It’s all for them.”

At the end, Schaefer and Washington coach Mike Neighbors remain friends of more than decades, having both assisted the best coach in the SEC, Gary Bair, and that won’t change.

Washington made the Final Four last season but Mississippi State is a game away with an entire team.

They have yet to lose a game outside of conference. Thirty-two wins is the continuing program high.

Mississippi State was right on its season offensive average. But they also hit what Washington had usually allowed.

The difference was Washington came in 21 points under their offensive average. That underlines the Schaefer defensive schemes.

“I was so proud they were able to take all of this in three days on defense,” he said. “It wasn’t rocket science but there were some things that we needed to do to be successful.

“Our kids were special today. No doubt about that. Dominique (Dillingham) came in and did what she does best. There is a reason why she has been on the SEC’s all-defensive team the last two years.

“Our press wore them down a little bit. Teaira was really special down the stretch. She had the look in her eye. She really wanted the ball and got to her spots.”

He praised his old coaching buddy.

“Mike, as I told y'all, he's a tremendous coach, one of the best.  He's got an unbelievable mind for the game.  What he's done with Kelsey Plum is really incredible.  I mean, she's the best offensive player in the history of the game.

“I said it before.  It was like playing against JamesHarden of the Rockets.  You got to really be careful about floor spacing.  You got to really be careful about allowing lanes to exist.  Then you can't come off of those kids that can stand out there and play H-O-RS-E and shoot it.

“We made her work for everything.”

The skills his team displayed on defense came up again and again.

“I thought our press wore them down a little bit,” Schaefer said.  “Then, Teaira, I jumped on her back when we got in the locker room, because I felt like she was carrying us most of the night.

“Offensively she was really special down the stretch.  Had that look in her eye, wanted the ball, got to her spots where she needs to get to.

“You know, you hold that team to 64 points, you’re playing your guts out.  It ain’t like we're standing around playing ‘Hope you miss’ defense.

“I couldn't be prouder of our kids for their energy, their effort.  We talk about being connected, having chemistry on that end.  That's the piece that doesn't
come early in a season.

“Your defensive cohesiveness and your chemistry, it's not the first thing, it's the last thing.

“This group is really doing a good job right now.”

Dillingham was the first line of defense against Plum.

“Plum is just an amazing player,” Dillingham said.  “It was a great battle all night long.  My teammates helped me out a lot.  We were able to switch a lot of things, which helped me personally.  My team just did a good job of sealing up the line.  We had umbrella defense.
“Everybody was there to help.  It was just a team effort, I think.”

McCowan said she listened to encouragement from her teammates.

“Well, they told me, they said, ‘T, you got to dominate.’  Just taking that in, listening to my teammates, knowing I had to step up, take my team, like, further, that's when I had the look.
“You have to do what your teammates are asking you to do.”
She ranked the experience.

“I think the blocks would come first, then the points, then the high fives.  No, the high  fives would come first, knowing my teammates are proud of me, then the blocks, then the points.”

Dillingham said, “I think she just put us on her back, honestly.  Once she got going, it's hard to stop her, honestly.  She was running from transition, so she was getting a lot of rebounds since nobody was there to block her out.

“Once she gets rebounding, no one is going to block her shot.  It was an easy bucket for her.  She was getting the out and ones.  She loves that turnaround jump shot.  When she gets those tips, she's money from that spot.  When she's scoring for us, I think that gives us all the confidence in the world because we can go inside-out.  It makes it that much easier for us guards.

“I think we just finally decided we're going to lock down on defense.  I think it was all about playing together.  It's not about one person locking down one person, it's about the team locking down them.

“I think when we decided that we were going to guard together, not let them have any easy looks, I think that's when it really started to click.

“I think their first four looks were 3s, made 3s.

“For the rest of the game, I think they only made four. Just after we got them off the line, stopped them from making 3s, we were fine.”

Her coach agrees.

“I wasn't real pleased with how we started the ballgame,” he said. “I was disappointed in our
energy defensively. We had a major lapse on an out of bounds play.  We let the best player in the history of the game have a wide-open 3.  Like she said, I mean, their first four made baskets are all 3-pointers.

They're uncontested.

“It was really frustrating because that's a focal -- that's being focused.  We kind of were playing catch-up.

“The second and fourth quarters were special offensively.  We obviously got some things going on offense.  You score 25 and 27 points in a quarter, you're doing some good things offensively.
“I thought those quarters obviously were the big turning points in both the first half and the second half.”

H said it is all part of building a program.
“Well, as you know, it's only been five short years that we've been here.  The last three obviously we've been in the NCAA tournament.

“To be in the Sweet 16 in your second go in the NCAAs is pretty special.  This is our third now in five years, and we're in the Elite 8.

“I've got a good team.  I'm a little disappointed in the country right now that we're not getting the respect that these kids deserve.  It's disappointing.

“This is a heck of a team.  We got a bunch of really
good players.  We've beaten a bunch of really good people.

“You know, for me, I have so much pride in these girls 'cause I know how hard they work.  You stick your head in one of our practices, we ain't standing around out there having water every 10 minutes, you know, getting a towel, all that.  I mean, they work their tails off.  They pay the price.

“In the locker room after the game, we were all just really happy for each other.  I feel like every game this year we've had different people step up.  It's really hard to guard a team who you just don't know who to guard, honestly.

“That's what I feel like we have with our team.  You don't know who is going to go off, you don't know what they're going to do.

“I feel like we're really proud of each other.  We're really proud we're working so well together.  We're happy to keep this journey going.”

Dillingham said, “We were really happy in the locker room.  Just happy because we know how hard we worked to get to this point.  It's a special moment for our team.

“But we're not done yet.  Tomorrow, it's time to get to work and focus on the next team we're playing.”

McCowan said, “We're just earning the respect that we should get.”

Schaefer said, “Tonight we kind of emptied the playbook for T.  We ran a lot of different things to get her down there.  But we wanted to get her to her spots, where she's really comfortable.  We flipped the sides of the floor midway through that run, just to give them a different look.

“But, you know, T continues to grow.  She's come so far,  yet she's got so far to go.  Her upside is out of sight.  I mean, the kid can be an All-American before it's all said and done.  She can dominate the game.  As y'all  saw tonight, she dominated the game on both ends of the floor.  She was interested in dominating the game  on both ends of the floor.
“When I can get that out of her, it changes the dynamic of our team.  That's the impact that the kid can have.

“Now, if we were all going to sit out here and air out our laundry, she would tell you timeouts were not a lot of fun tonight, just because I was demanding.

“That's because I know what the kid can do.  We needed her to step up, but we needed her to step up on both the defensive and offensive end.  She'll tell you that.

“Our conferences in the huddle were more about defense than offense.  The last thing I said coming out is what we were going to run, that would click, ‘OK, that's for me.’

“The conversation in our huddle all night with Teaira was mostly about defense.  You saw the impact the kid can have in a ballgame on both ends.  Not many kids can do that.  Not many players can have that kind of an impact like T can.

“She knows.  I'm not backing off.  I'm going to keep coaching her, loving her, and demanding it of her.”

McCowan said, “In practice, we work on boxing out.  Long shots have long rebounds.  Just putting myself in the position to either box her out and not let her get the ball, or neither one of us get it, and somebody else cleans it up.”

With a smile, Schaefer said, “They’ll tell you I’ve told them at times they're one of the worst defensive teams I've coached.

“It’s just a level of expectation that I have.  I know what’s in ’em.  You know, she gets six blocks tonight.  There’s one little person right here going, ‘Yes, she could have been doing that all year.  Why haven't you gotten that out of her all year?’

“ It's just growth for her. I've told them at times, ‘We just don’t have it.  We’re just not that good defensively.

“Yet I know, looking at the stats, what the points-per-game number is, it’s pretty good; what the turnovers caused is, it's pretty good; field goal-percentage defense, it’s pretty good.

“I just know what a good one looks like.  I think they got it.  We ain’t got it yet, but the good thing is the season isn't over.

 “I'm still waiting.  I’m going to coach them tomorrow, trying to get them to be the best defensive team I can get them to be.  I’m not giving up.  We're not status quo.  We know that.

“We’ve worked all week on getting better.  Every minute we want to get one play better.”

Friday, March 24, 2017

Guru's WNIT Report: Villanova Wins at JMU to Advance to the Elite Eight

Guru’s Note: Mike Siroky contributed to this report filing on the Alabama result.

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

If Villanova had been in the at-large pool two weeks ago when WNIT officials began picking the teams to join the designated 32 automatic qualifiers the Wildcats might already be somewhere other than still on the basketball court.

But with Marquette winning the Big East tournament, and regular season champion and nationally ranked DePaul, along with Creighton,  headed for the NCAA field, Villanova as the fourth seed in the conference became an automatic entry in the WNIT.

Given a second chance to improve on a season that had been a bit of letdown, Villanova has racked up three straight impressive road wins to make it to the Elite Eight, also known as the quarterfinal round.

The latest came Thursday night where coach Harry Perretta’s group squandered a double digit lead of 13 points held at the half but found a way to win at James Madison 69-67 in overtime and head to the next round Sunday 2 p.m. at Indiana.

It was the first-ever meeting between the two schools.

The Hoosiers (23-10) advanced to the Villanova game at Assembly Hall by beating SMU, 64-44, as Karlee McBride scored 17 points. Amanda Cahill had 10 points and nine rebounds.

 Villanova (19-14) had opened the tourney, beating Princeton, the Ivy runnerup at the Tigers’ Jadwin gym, then won a cross-city game at Drexel’s Daskalakis Athletic Center, before moving on to JMU.

Always at tough place to play where the home team at the JMU Convocation Center in Harrisonburg, Va., began the season as defending champions of the Colonial Athletic Association, Villanova withstood a 36-point and nine rebound performance from redshirt senior Precious Hall to become the latest local out of the Philadelphia area in recent seasons to make long runs in the tourney.

Drexel went all the way in 2013, followed by Rutgers winning in 2014, and then Temple made deep runs the last two seasons, including a Final Four appearance a year ago.

Penn State, meanwhile, the other local team that was still alive at nightfall, fell at home in the Bryce Jordan Center in State College to Virginia Tech, 64-55, as the Hokies earned a date with Michigan on Saturday.

Hall, the CAA player of the year, went out in glory, if not continuation, nailing a three-pointer at the buzzer that put the game in overtime for the Dukes (26-9), a collegiate total of 2,347 points, second best at JMU, and a program best 841 points as a senior.

Jannah Tucker, who started the Villanova season in her first eligibility since transferring from Tennessee with great promise, returned to that persona with a career-high 22 points and was 4-for10 on three-point attempts.

Alex Louin added 15 points and scored at the finish in the extra period to rescue the Wildcats. Freshman Kelly Jekot scored nine points, as did Samantha Wilkes, Megan Quinn had eight points.

Behind Hall’s performance, Kamiah Smalls, the freshman out of Philadelphia’s Neumann-Goretti High, scored eight points for JMU, among a group of Dukes who could not reach double digits on the scoreboard.

Villanova’s halftime lead was aided by what the Wildcats do best – shot the trey and a pair of back-to-back shots from beyond the arc created the double digit lead.

When the Dukes gout up in the second half, there were several lead changes before Hall’s shot knotted the differential at the finish of regulation.

Villanova shot 11 treys for the game compared to the Dukes’ six and JMU dominated the boards 50-36.

If the Wildcats win at Indiana, they will play at either Michigan or Virginia Tech in the Final Four.

Virginia Tech, which had a roller-coaster rebuilding year under new coach Kenny Brooks, who had been at James Madison, bolted to a 23-point lead near the end of the first quarter over the Lady Lions (21-11).

Teniya Page had 23 points for PSU, while Amari Carter scored 10 points.

The Hokies (20-13) got double digit scoring from five players, headed by Chanette Hicks’ 13 points, 12 each from Vanessa Panousis and Samantha Hill, and 11 each from Kendyl Brooks and Sidney Cooks.

Wrapping up the season at Happy Valley, Penn State coach Coquese Washington said, “As disappointing as this loss is right now, when you look at the totality of our season, this team accomplished a lot.

“I’m really proud of what this team accomplished this year, especially with this team being so young.”

In another WNIT game, the matchup of Michigan (25-9) and St. John’s (22-12) at Michigan’s Crisler Center in Ann Arbor  brought together the Wolverines’ coach in Kim Barnes Arico who previously coached the Red Storm and Joe Tartamella, her former assistant who was promoted when she moved from the Big East to the Big Ten.

The former coach had an easy time of it winning 60-40 to advance against Virginia Tech.

Aaliyah Lewis became the career leader in games played for the Red Storm at 134.

Saint John’s Jade Walker scored 10 points and Hallie Thome had 19 points for Michigan, whose all-America candidate Katelynn Flaherty scored 17 points.

Host Iowa advanced eliminating Colorado 80-62 at home in Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City as Haley Smith had 25 points for the visiting Buffs (17-16) and Alexa Kastanek topped the scorers for the Hawkeyes (20-13) with 19 points.

Ally Disterhoft scored 15, Makenzie Meyer scored 13, and Megan Gustafson scored 12. The Hawkeyes on Sunday will host Washington State (16-19), which eliminated UC Davis 71-62 Thursday night at home.

Rachel Nagel had 20 points for UC Davis (26-8) while Alexys Swedlund had 20 points for the Cougars, Pinelopi Pavlopoulou scored 16, and Caila Hailey scored 13.

Alabama beat Tulane 72-64 at home in Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa as Hannah Cook had 17 points off 70 percent shooting from the field.

The Crimson Tide (22-13) made it to the Elite Eight for the second time in program history and first since the WNIT expanded to a field of 64. Alabama on Sunday will visit Georgia Tech (20-14), in the Yellow Jackets’ McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta where they beat Middle Tennessee 70-57 Thursday night.

Freshman Francesca Pan had 18 points for the home team and Ty Petty scored 21 for Middle Tennessee (23-11).

In the Alabama game, the program significantly doubled the previous attendance to, 1,054, a season high.

The Crimson Tide do not have any seniors on this year’s team so coach Kristy Curry is enjoying the ride with the 2017-18 edition.

Cook was 4-for-6 on three-point attempts, 7-of-10 overall. Alabama, as a team, hit 48.9 percent from the field and outrebounded the Green Wave of the American Conference 39-27 while having 16 assists on 23 made baskets.

“I appreciate our community,” said Curry. “What a great crowd on a Thursday night. We really appreciate them; so many coaches within the department, athletes and department personnel. It was great to see so many faces in the crowd, and again we really appreciate everyone’s support.

“I’m really proud of our team for finding a way to win. Each one of them.”

Ashley Williams added 15 points to the Alabama attack, while Quantria Bolton and Jordan Lewis each scored 13 points.

The Tide opened a 23-10 lead after the first quarter and increased it to as wide as 17 early in the fourth.

Tulane midway in the fourth used an 11-2 run to to make it an eight point game just under the five minute mark. The teams traded baskets until Alabama hit 9-of-10 foul shots over the final 4:23.

“We talked after the game about what we could take away and continue to learn from tonight, and I thought they had some great points,” observed Curry. “It was composure and little things as we went throughout each one. I thought that down the stretch, we had great composure against a very well-coached Tulane team.

“We were fortunate to have a few more plays we made.”

In other SEC news, South Carolina junior A’Ja Wilson is one of four finalists for the original Player of the Year Award, the Wade Trophy.

The only nominees for the Region II Women’s Basketball Coaches Association All-America awards are from the SEC.

There are two each from South Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky, and one from Mississippi State, Missouri and Florida.

The nominees: A’Ja Wilson and Alaina Coates (South Carolina); Diamond DeShields and Mercedes Russell (Tennessee); Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator (Kentucky); Victoria Vivians (Mississippi State); Ronnie Williams (Florida), and Sophie Cunningham (Missouri).

This is basically the coaches’ all-conference team. The nominees from five regions are the finalists for the All-American team, announced at the Woman ‘s Final Four.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Two Carry The League Forward to The Sweet Sixteen

By Mike Siroky

The end is the beginning for the Southeastern Conference women’s basketball season. The top two from the start are the top two at the end.

South Carolina may be a little more reduced with the loss of its senior center. Mississippi State has revised its lineup to start a taller center with years remaining and has benched its leading scorer until and unless she can find a championship rhythm.

South Carolina is actually reduced; Mississippi State is purposely reduced.

They head into the Sweet 16 this weekend, projected to the Elite Eight and perhaps breaking the league drought of national titles since Tennessee’s win in 2008.

South Carolina first made a Final Four in 2015. That conference is so faded into history that even coach Pat Head Summitt’s record number of NCAA tournament victories will next be eclipsed by Geno Auriemma and Connecticut of the mighty American Athletic Conference.

 That league has three titles, or as many as the Big 12.

Right now, it says here, either advancing would be an upset.

Friday: Mississippi State (31-4) vs. Washington (29-5)

This is a No. 2 vs. a No. 3.

W ash i         ngton, of course, was in the Final Four last season and so is a surprise no more. They also have the NCAA’s best scorer in Kelsey Plum.

That collides directly with the Bulldogs’ barking about defense, the career specialty of State coach Vic Schaefer.

Mississippi State allows 52.6 points per game. Washington averages 85.6. Whoever controls this part of the matchu p obviously advances.

On the flip side, Mississippi State averages 76.3 and these Huskies allow 63.7.

Senior guard Kelsey Plum, 5-8, is everybody’s All-American. She averages 31.8. the only other double-figure scorer is 6-2 senior Chantel Osafor.

Dominique Dillingham is the Mississippi State player most often tasked with guarding the best opposing scorer.
“We’re probably going to have to do some things with more than just Dominique and that’s the challenge with trying to come up with a game plan for somebody as great as her,” Schaefer said. “You better have more than one plan going in with her because if one doesn’t work, you go to the next one.

“Once that ball is in her hands, she is really making some great decisions,” Schaefer said.
“What she does is at an all-time level, something that has never been done.”

In the qualifying game, “Everybody was so worried about her, they’re helping off their man and the other players are knocking down shots,” Dillingham said. “I think they had 18 threes last night.

“So she’s just an all-around great player. I think we will have a great game plan for her and it is going to be a team effort. It’s not going to be just me.”

Victoria Vivians still leads Mississippi State at 16.1 points per game. Morgan William is at 10.2. Teaira McCowan is the new starting center with a seven rebounds per game average. State has not lost a game outside of conference.

Once they had a relatively bad offensive run in the conference tournament, Schaefer was not afraid to bench his all-conference center Okorie or shooter, Vivians.

 For that matter, his sparkplug point guard William also saw limited time, still a starter but only 15 minutes played in the qualifying game because she was injured.

None of this is to say they will not start again.

Schaefer merely decided to let those who had watched the majority of a special season from the bench apply what they had learned, messing up the scouting reports in the process.

Of course, he was not yet coach of they year in conference as selected by the sorority of coaches . . . yet he plays on while the one who did get gifted the award lost two of three and her team is watching the tournament from here on.

He is unquestionably one of the best coaches in America if his own conference cohorts refuse to acknowledge,  for the final four vote of the national honor, the only conference coach so elevated.
That’s is three of five by any math.

 “We’re playing some different combinations right now (but) it’s not like we just threw them together," Schaefer said. "I’ve been seeing them in practice for a while. I’m not so reliable on one or two kids right now. We’ve got a lot of kids that are doing good things right now.”
His own daughter, Blair, responded with a career-high 21 points in the first NCAA game and then 18 in the second, including eight 3’s those games.

She said the urgency for her is knowing the pressure a dad can be under for playing his own kid and that she always is aware her “window” of opportunity is a small one.

“I won’t be able to outrun the number of people in this world wondering what the heck I’ve been doing with her,” the coach said. “She’s had two really good games back-to-back making shots. I was concerned with her about the matchup defensively and it never bothered her.”

William’s backup at point, Jazzmun Holmes, also erupted with a career-best 14 points, six assists, two steals, two rebounds and just one turnover.

“Coach just always talks about having poise and playing with a chip on your shoulder,” Holmes said. “I just felt like they couldn’t guard me. It felt like high school again and nobody could guard me.”

The opportunity came because William has a hurt  finger – Schaefer also said Vivians had been playing while being “nicked up” – but, really it is an example of a coach who will play the hot hand.

He keeps his bench focused. He said the first steal Holmes got is because of what she had witnessed on the bench.

“You want them to be learning and see what’s happening so they can come in and make a play. That shows me that kid is engaged. That’s what our team needed.”

So, now, the Bulldogs have the equivalent of eight starters and it doesn’t matter who is up first.

No other team is going to have the best shooter, the best defensive center and the best playmaker coming in fresh as needed.

If the opponents fail to gameplan for that, they will get burned.

Sometimes, you take risks and run with it.

The Dogs are barking right now.

Saturday:  South Carolina (29-4) vs. Quinnipiac (29-6)

 This is a No. 1 vs. a No. 12 seed. If you had to play a team from Connecticut in the Sweet 16 and had a choice, you’d obviously choose the Bobcats.

Quinnipiac has three seniors. Addily Martucci, Morgan Manz and Brianah Ramos.

 Manz came off the bench to hit six of eight 3s during a career-high 22 just to get here. The Bobcats hit 15 of 26 3s. By the way, they had never won an NCAA game until this season.

“My teammates and coaches are more confident than I am in my shot,” Manz said. “I just did what my coaches have been asking me to do for the past four years.

“I just let it fly because we had nothing to lose.”

They have two 10-point scorers, Martucci and Jen Fay. Not a lot of oomph.

The team scores 69, on average. South Carolina allows 57. The Gamecocks score 77 per game, 20 above what Quinnipiac has allowed.

South Carolina, among its many guard blessings, has a rookie running point.

 Tyasha Harris of Indiana has established the Gamecocks will have no questions in that area for years to come.

Not even Vic Schaefer of in-conference rival Mississippi State. He credits Harris with having the presence to control the conference championship game.

He said it is “pretty special.”

She plays, of course, for one of the legendary point guards in Dawn Staley.

 A three-time Gold medalist as the United States Olympic point guard and the next U.S. coach for the Games.

Staley has infused her with confidence, telling her to just play her own game, to let it come to her by defining the game, not letting the game define her.

This time last season, she had not yet committed to South Carolina, waiting until after the tournament, having analyzed the other top teams.

Having mastered the blend for this year’s run, Staley brings her team in with the usual preparation.

“At this stage of the game, everybody’s a threat” she said. “The ones that are supposed to be here are here. We’re going to approach it as any other team.

“They play a different style. But it’s not a deal like we had to prep one day. That’d be a little more difficult.

“After four days, we’ll be used to their style.”

Allisha Gray ended her Sweet 16 qualifying early, literally carried off the court with at the time looked like a serious leg injury.

It was not.

“She’s going to be fine,” Staley said. “She’s gonna  go. She’s not going to let this opportunity pass.

“It wasn’t like it was her decision. It wasn’t her decision. It was mine. It was just a bad Charlie horse, her hamstring.”

She said they have adjusted to the reality of losing their “big,” senior center Alaina Coates, to injury, but the team just looks to the next available talent and a different, faster style with a four-guard universe and All-America forward A’ja Wilson.

”You have to go with what you have,” said Staley.

“If it’s seven, if it’s eight or nine, with what feels good and what is working. We shortened our bench (use) a little bit against Arizona State because that was enough.”

The swing across time zones is all part of the preparation.

“You leave one day earlier,” said Staley. “We left Wednesday. We will practice at the time of the game time.

“Once we land, just get acclimated.  Everybody’s acclimating. Even Oregon State (in the other half of the bracket) is coming from playing on the East Coast.

“So you just get acclimated.”

And you play on.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: On to the Sweet 16

By Mike Siroky

The incomparable Southeastern Conference advanced its top two women’s basketball teams to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA eliminations in home games. Two more will attempted to qualify and failed.

No. 7 Miss. State (30-4) 92, No. 19 DePaul 71 in StarkVegas for the Oklahoma City Regional

The alternative truth of the NCAA Bulldog lineup – Victoria Vivians and Chimwe Okorie on the bench – worked again Sunday. DeShields, in fact, was the ninth player used. The only clue Vic Schaefer has dropped is she was “nicked up,” which he revealed after the SEC tournament. The streetcar avoids her neighborhood nowadays.

It was, therefore, a competitive 17-all opening quarter. It stayed tight and was 38-37, Mississippi State, at the half.

An inspired Okorie had six rebounds and eight points. That’s more points than in each of the past dozen and about her season rebound average.

Vivians had four points with an assist. Her scoring average is still 16, but nine in the previous four games.

All were concentrating on defense. Was State playing only to the level of their competition, as so often happened all season? Schaefer needed an inspirational halftime to allow continued play of his best team ever.

It worked. They won the third quarter by 10 and DePaul began looking more like RuPaul.

Vivians scored 12, 6-of-6 at the line. Okorie scored 12 with nine rebounds.  In fact, five reserves all hit at least 10 with 22 combined rebounds.

Among the starters, Blair Schafer hit for 18 with four 3s.  State outrebounded the taller Demons, 48-25. They drew 6,035.

“I am really humbled and so proud of my kids today,” Schaefer said. “They played their hearts out. I was proud of their focus and their energy. DePaul is really good.

"They are so skilled and well-coached. We talked to the kids in pregame about who we are and what we are known for. We talked about toughness, resilience and competitive spirit.

“We talked about not being outworked and not being out-hustled. I thought the kids really responded to that.

“In the second half, we really executed,” Schaefer said.

He had worried about DePaul.

“I got up in the middle of their game Friday and haven’t slept two hours since then. I was trying to think about how we are going to deal with them. We talked to our kids in pre-game today about who we are and what we are known for.

"We talked about toughness and resilience. We talked about a competitive spirit, about not getting out toughed or hustled. I felt like we really embraced it.

“At halftime I felt like we were up 10 and we were only up one. Coming out in the third quarter I was really proud of how we responded immediately outof the gate. I think we executed offensively really good.

“Our inside game was really good. Jazz (senior Jazzmun Holmes) came in off the bench and played 25 minutes and was leading the No. 7 team in the nation. In the biggest spotlight of the world, on the game’s biggest stage, she led the team like a pro.

“The pride that I have for her, how happy I am for her, knowing how hard she worked. She played with a presence. She had presence. She wanted to be in the moment.

“Just a heckuva basketball game. I serve an unbelievable Lord that just instilled in these kids an unbelievable energy. Our fans today, and all across the country can really see what this program is about.”

Included in the mix is coaching his daughter, Blair.

“First of all she has earned her way,” he said. “She is a heck of a player. There is no moment too big for her. I have spent so much time in a gym with her throughout her career. It is one thing to just be on the team because. It is another when you are a vital part of it.

“She prvides us so much that you don’t see in practice. Her toughness, her reliance, her competitiveness, her competitive fire.

“She doesn’t have a bad day. She is a great teammate. She is a heck of a basketball player that has a heart as big as this state. She plays with a lot of emotion and fire. She is tough. I give her all thecredit because she makes it easy for me.

“There are times when I’m a little harder on her. Give her teammates the credit you make it easy for me.”

Holmes said every player is prepared to answer his call.

 “I felt like we had to go inside, there was a mismatch, for Chinwe and our opponent. It was easy for us to go inside where they can finish over the smaller opponent,” Holmes said.

“Coach just always talks about having poise and playing with a chip on your shoulder. I felt like
they couldn’t guard me. I felt like high school again and nobody could guard me. I just had to do
what I had to do.”

She said the team attitude extends to the lineup.

“Well he is not crazy. I think we have 10 starters. Anybody could start. We are really deep. Blair
and Ro deserve to start just as much as me and Tori. I don’t think it has been crazy. We have a
lot of different combinations in practice. We are used to playing with each other, it is no different.”

They had lost the last day of the season, on Senior Day.

Now they are done for good at The Hump for this season.

 “Leaving was a lot better,” she said. “It is a bittersweet feeling, knowing this is the last time I will be playing in the Hump. It was great to leave and know everything we have accomplished over the last four years. I just love the fans so much. I just want to thank them for everything.”

They have the program record 31 wins. They await playing Washington, the winner over -Oklahoma Monday night.

No. 3 South Carolina 71, No. 10 Arizona State 68, in Columbia for the Stockton Regional

SC started hot, 62 percent from the floor in the first quarter and led after one, 19-15. The guards ruled, Allisha Gray with six points, and four rebounds, Kaela Davis with five points and two assists, Bianca Cuevas Moore had three steals.

A’ja Wilson scored six with two rebounds but the Sun Devils took the lead for a possession at 24-23.

Arizona had eight off the bench and eight more from senior Sophie Brunner. They edged ahead by four and certainly SC was unsettled without being able to control the game.

Their last basket of the half came at the 4:45 mark. Cuevas-Moore hit two free throws and it was Arizona State, 37-31. Wilson hit two more to cut it to 37-33, But Brunner drove in for a layup and the 39-33 half.

The home team was rattled.

Yet no one was dominating. Brunner had 14. Wilson had 12 but only five rebounds. They lost the quarter by 10.

This was the game in which the absence of Alaina Coates was most evident. SC was losing the boards, 18-11. As with the other two SEC coaches this day, Dawn Staley needed a booster rocket at halftime.

They floated along, behind by five most of the quarter and closing to two as the fatal fourth loomed for someone. Arizona State had only a free throw in the final 84 seconds.

 With 18 seconds left. Doniyah Cliney, usually a SC mop-up player, had a steal and a layup. Her average is two points and two rebounds as a sophomore guard.

Wilson ended the final threat with a defensive rebound. Wilson had 17 points and Davis 16.
As the fourth began, Davis tied it on two free throws. After another Brunner basket, Wilson tipped it in off a rebound. She hit a free throw. Davis hit a jumper.

A worked-up Arizona State bench got a technical. Davis hit them both. Then another Davis free throw and a Gray layin. The lead was five for the home team.

Another Gray free throw and Wilson with a steal. The back-and-forth continued. SC had a seven-point lead with four to go but a 3 cut into it. A jump shot later by a senior left the lead at two with 2:25 left.

A 3 put the Sun Devils ahead. One minute left in someone’s season.

With 46 seconds left, Wilson missed, got her own rebound and tipped it back in.

Brunner missed a jumper. Mikiah Herbert Harrigan claimed it for SC.

The Gamecocks freshman point guard missed two free throws. Brunner got the rebound.
Davis stole the ball. Staley called consecutive timeouts when they could not inbound.  An Arizona senior took the foul, 15 seconds left.

Wilson hit two free throws. Brunner missed a 3. The No. 1 seed could exhale and start California dreamin’.

SC needed every available player to pull this off. They had fewer 3s, rebounds, assists and steals.

They won three quarters. The technical foul led to five immediate points in a three-point win.

Late in the game, Gray landed hard and came up hobbling. She was carried from the court.
Staley said evaluations had begun and she would follow the doctor’s orders.

But that’s for future consideration.

In the here and now, Wilson was massive, 21 points, 11 rebounds (seven defensive) and two blocks, 7-of-7 at the line. Davis scored 20, 4-of-4 at the line. Among the rest, Cliney had two blocks and two assists. Every role player showed up.

Brunner had to be tired. She scored 20 with nine rebounds and gave Wilson all she wanted.
Arizona State had streamed through two SEC teams in the regular season and earned this marquee matchup of two Top 10 teams.

They had to come East to try and earn a trip back West.

South Carolina had the home court and the most fans of any Round of 32 teams. They had the attitude of being assigned the furthest Regional from home, so the 8,276 crowd ached for the national stage from which to send them off.

Carolina is one win away from 30. Who they get next is the Cinderella Quinnipiac squad that that upset Marquette in the first round and then Miami in the second.

Kelsey Moos, Quinn Dornstauder and Sara Hattis ended their ASU careers.

Staley and her players said their experienced players paid off for a great fan base.
Gray and Davis may be in their first SC seasons, but each has NCAA experience.

Staley said now is the time to rest up and prepare.

“We’ll spend less time on the floor and more time watching a little film,” she said. “We’ll be ready to play Friday.”

Wilson said all the lead up to these games pays off,

“I feel like we’ve been in that (late game) position before,” she said, “Maybe not in games but in practice. We prepare very well for situations. I trust them to get me the ball, so I was not worried.

“You attack the paint and get to the free throw line if shots aren’t falling.”
In the closing seconds, it was all schoolyard strategy.

“I just figured they were going to find me eventually,” Wilson said.

“I listened to the coaches’ yelling ‘Get The ball!’ I said, OK that’s the plan. I guess that was the plan. It’s a great feeling here are home to know we went out with a bang. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Davis agrees there is no cock watching, just drive and determination to get to the best position.
“Throughout  the game you have to be positive, to never put yourself in a position to be down,” she said. “We never look at the score.

 “You have to find when to take shots and when to be aggressive,” Davis said. “That was the game plan.”

No. 11 Ohio State 82 No. 18 Kentucky 68 at Lexington in the Lexington Regional

Here was the perplexing thing: Ohio State had more depth, more wins and were higher ranked than Kentucky, yet the Kats had the home court, with a low turnout of 2,644.

The assignment was probably due to the views of the conference values, the Big Ten behind the SEC in mystique.

It surely motivated Ohio State.

Junior Kelsey Mitchell scored 19 first-half points, 15 in the first quarter (against a 22.8 average) and OSU used their pent-up energy positively.  She only needed 15 all game in her opener.

She is a national caliber guard. A home state player from Cincinnati, she was the national freshman of the year and an All-American the next.

OSU was so dominant in the 50-37 first half that UK senior Evelyn Akhator had 14 rebounds, classmate Makayla Epps had 15 points and neither were barely noticed.

A frustrated Matt Mitchell even went to his non-existent bench and found four points, causing an obviously clueless ESPN cheerleader/announcer to declare UK was “in business.” Yes, if that business is getting outplayed on your own home court.

So enthusiastic were the Buckeyes that they did not play for the last shot twice as the half was winding up.

It started with a competitive 20-16 first. UK had already given up trying to stifle Mitchell.

When Mitchell hit a 3 with six minutes left in the half, it had been a 10-2 run. With five minutes left, it was 34-18. OSU was content to trade punches in the third, the lead never threatened. OSU shut out Epps for the quarter

On came the deciding quarter, the NCAA “upset” in hand. Linnae Harper, an all-star player at Kentucky before transferring to Ohio State, had eight off the bench.

It’s a curious thing when all-star seniors look into the abyss of their final game. They can bring their teammates along in a final frenzy.

UK cut the lead but never quite caught up. They only won one quarter and you can’t gain overall success that way. It was a two-point deficit with 7:25 left.

Epps cut it to one with on a feed from Akhator with six minutes left in their careers.

Ohio State scored 17 of the final 21 points. Harper snared a rebound, Tori McCoy scored six unanswered, Harper assisting the last one in her old home gym. Epps began missing, four straight. Akhator’s last attempt was a missed 3.

Harper snagged the final rebound, for her double/double, 10 with 12 points and a game-high eight assists. She outscored everyone on the other side, with the exception of the big two.

Akhator scored 14 with 23 rebounds.. Epps scored six in the second half.

Mitchell kissed them both off with the expected script. He referred to Harper as someone he has gotten over a long time ago, among “those who didn’t want to be here.”

Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff was angling to meet top seed Notre Dame in the Regional semifinal They won their national championship while he was the recruiting coach there. The other top seeds will be there as well.

McGuff was enthusiastic about Harper.

“She obviously was unbelievable today,” he said. “She played extremely hard. She made big plays. She moved the ball and just had an overall amazing performance.

“She’s really a unique player because she’s the best rebounding perimeter player I’ve ever coached. That allows her to do things you saw today.”

“She’s such a great kid and ‘team first’ player. Somebody else might have been trying to make this about coming back to the place they transferred from. She just wanted to contribute to our success today.”

The Buckeyes handled the pressure well. They had a season-low six turnovers.

“Overall, our execution was excellent. It resulted in a bunch of good shots and low turnovers,” McGuff said.

Harper said, “There’s no words to even describe it. Just being back here on the court was a good feeling and getting a win overall was great for our team.

“Just seeing the work we put in pay off was great for our team. It’s March Madness, so every team is going to play their best. We just really focused on preparation and playing as hard as we could.

“He (McGuff) put us in the best position we could possibly be in and our team being very cohesive and staying together.”

Harper said, “There’s no words to even describe it. Just being back here on the court was a good feeling and getting a win overall was great for our team.

“Just seeing the work we put in pay off was great for our team. It’s March Madness, so every team is going to play their best. We just really focused on preparation and playing as hard as we could.

“He (McGuff) put us in the best position we could possibly be in and our team being very cohesive and staying together.”

Kentucky has ended two straight seasons at home, trying to advance in a home Regional. They get one more shot at it next season as UK completes the rare three-year Regional commitment.

Losing their two best seniors makes it look like more of the same.

The Buckeyes host the National Championship next season. They have only one senior, Shayla Cooper.

No. 10 Florida State 77, No. 25 Missouri 55 in the bottom bracket of the Stockton Regional

 The alleged league coach of the year went 1-2 after being gifted with that award. The Tigers do not wish to participate in our reports.

 Louisville 75, Tennessee 64 in the Oklahoma City Regional at Louisville

There seemed to be no home court advantage at the start.

 Jamie Nared, shackled with foul trouble in the opener, broke loose with 11 Lady Vol points in the opening quarter. Louisville won the quarter by a point as leading scorer and All-Atlantic Coast Conference sophomore guard Asia Durr scored nine. At that, it took hitting 57 percent from the floor.

Both defenses clamped down. Louisville again won the quarter, this time by three. Nared was up to 15 but Diamond DeShields and Russell were shut out in the quarter.

The unfortunate trend of a bad game following a good game – inconsistency not solved all season by the coaching staff – was in ugly evidence. Of course, Durr also did not score in the quiet quarter. The Cardinals’ bench came up with the difference, 8-0.

The third quarter was Tennessee’s best, 16-11. Nared hit a 3 and finally the Lady Vols led, 36-35. UT missed the next three shots while Louisville scored seven straight. Again, it was Nared with a layup.

Russell made her first basket since the first to put UT up by one, 45-44.  Neither she nor DeShields had scored since the first and there were four minutes left in the third.

Opportunities kept presenting themselves and UT found a way to muff each one, missing jumpers and layups, not scoring off rebounds.

It was painfully obvious UT’s head game was once again gone. They had a tenuous one-point edge as the final quarter opened.

Louisville won the fourth, 29-17, a mercy killing.

Nared had 28, 7-of-7 at the line and 3-of-5 3s, but she was all alone out there. Russell had an unimpressive double/double, 13 rebounds and 11 points. DeShields mailed in 15, 3-of-12 from the field. The team missed two-thirds of their shots. They had 13 turnovers.

They did hit another 20-win season. But this game was winnable. As in so many UT games this season, they looked uninspired and unprepared. They were 3-of-18 from the field in the fourth.

Another of several dismal records: Tennessee lost its first second-round game in tournament history and they have been in all of them. They did have one opening loss under the previous coach.

Tennessee loses seniors Jordan Reynolds and Shaquilla Nunn. But they welcome in a new team next season, with the best recruiting class in the nation (four McDonald’s All-Americans), two junior college transfers and two recovered from knee rehab, including the former starting point guard.

It will be coach Holly Warlick’s make-or-break season with the new athletic director.

She said she was disappointed, of course, and singled out the seniors.

Russell and Nared represented the players and said it took a while to figure out how to get the ball inside.

“It’s the end of our season and so it is frustrating,” Nared said. She is planning workouts for her senior season now.

“We will take what we are feeling now and use it for motivation next season,” Russell said.

They had missed 18 consecutive field goals. Past UT teams would just increase the defensive pressure and wait for the offense to arrive.

Not this one.

Nared said they weren’t getting the stops and “It just didn’t add up.”

They even seemed flummoxed that Durr is left-handed and they seemed to not have practiced against that.

Both players said Louisville obviously planned correctly for Russell to be the only rebounder they nneed worry about.

“We got good looks,” insisted Warlick.

“You’ve got to make plays down the stretch and we didn’t. Jamie’s right, we only had one player going to the boards.

“We have kids that got it done throughout the years and tonight we didn’t get it done.”

So, at the end, it is merely a prelude to next season’s injection of talent. Warlick talked of the former culture of winning and the need to revive it.

“We’ll give them a chance to play and, believe me, they’re going to play and they’re going to play a lot.

“We’ll have the kids to be competitive.”

UCLA 75, Texas A&M 33 in the Bridgeport Regional at Los Angeles, with UConn on deck

No record comeback in this one.

In fact, a dismal start, the dreaded single-digit first quarter.

On the short end of 22-6, they were further stomped in the second and were doubled at the half, 42-21, still not having scored as much as the Bruins opened with.

They actually tied in rebounds but had seven turnovers and were 9-of-30 from the field,
It looked like they were going to just accept another 22-win season and a 12th straight NCAA appearance.

A 20-10 third only inflicted more pain. UCLA went on to its second straight Sweet 16 – the only two in this century – and A&M went home to Aggieland.

A neat note to end it. A&M’s last points and rebound came from senior Alyssa Michalke. She is the first female commander of the Corp of Cadets at A&M, a walk-on voted team captain.

Blair, as always, has a wonderful perspective.

“Is it about the win or the loss,” he asked. “In reality it is about neither, it is about did you put your best effort out there.

“Sometimes, you need to compliment the team that won. We tried our best.

“Chuck Berry died. He had a great song you old codgers remember: Sweet Little 16.

“For UCLA, that is what it is about right now. They are going to see the best basketball.
Right now, nothing better than 16. Sweet Little 16. Enjoy it.”

UCLA is really a future team which will send its one senior and seven juniors to the UConn firing squad next.

A&M says farewell to national assists leader Curtyce Knox – 304 in 34 games -- and fellow-seniors Taylor Cooper and. Michalke.

The Aggies lose but 13 points off a 69 average and five rebounds off a 38 average. They will be OK again.

Alabama, discounted out of the NCAAs, got its 21st win, most in this century.

No Ducking for Oregon in Upset of Duke and on to 1st NCAA Sweet Sixteen

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

DURHAM, N.C. – After getting by seventh-seeded Temple by the slimmest of margins 71-70 Saturday night, 10th-seeded Oregon came back 48 hours later to upset second-seeded Duke 74-65 in the Blue Devils’s Cameron Indoor Stadium Monday night and move on to its first NCAA Sweet 16 playing Saturday in the semifinals of the Bridgeport Regional in Connecticut.

Oregon (22-13) won it on  merit and quick growth of the Ducks’ talented freshmen group but it also caught a Blue Devils (28-6) squad that suffered a major wound Saturday night when sophomore guard Kyra Gilbert suffered a knee  injury in the first half of a blowout win over 15th-seeded Hampton.

So instead of the tantalizing storylines looming over what would have been a Duke-Maryland matchup such as the Blue Devils’ junior guard Lexi Brown facing her former Terrapins team that is now in the Big 10 or the reunion of the then both ACC teams that played for the 2006 NCAA championship won by Maryland in overtime in Boston, it will be the rebuilt Ducks under former Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves in that slot instead.

Of course, it is also the Regional of Doom considering the other side of the bracket has overall No. 1 Connecticut (34-0) meeting No. 4 UCLA (25-8) , which advanced Monday night 75-43 at home against Texas A&M and is a Pac-12 rival of Oregon, which had a slew of ranked teams in the Associated Press women’s (media) poll this season, of which the Ducks made a brief appearance.

Connecticut is riding in with a record win streak now extended to 109 straight after blasting Syracuse 94-64 Monday night at home in Gampel Pavilion on UConn’s campus in Storrs.

No longer, just a case of Stanford and a bunch of others in the Cardinal’s shadow, the Pac-12 showed its muscle this season as the No. 1 RPI rated conference and has placed five teams in the Sweet 16.

“The Pac-12 play and the season prepared us for this moment,” Graves said. “Duke is a great, team, no question about it. But so is Oregon State, who we had to play twice; Stanford, who we had to play twice, and they were a two seed; Washington we played a couple of times and they were a three seed; UCLA was a four seed.

“Night in and night out, I think that’s what made these guys better. They couldn’t take a night off, they had to perform each and every night. I do credit the Pac-12 play with making us better and preparing for this moment tonight.”

The Maryland-Oregon matchup will showcase two of the nation’s top newcomers in the Terrapins’ Destiny Slocum, who, on Saturday, made an incredible nearly length-of-court shot against West Virginia as the first half expired, and Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, who is one of several frosh on the Ducks’ roster.

Ruthy Hebard, who beat Temple offensively and defensively in the final five seconds Saturday night, had 20 points and 15 rebounds against Duke, Ionescu had 13 and dealt six assists, sophomore Maite Cazorla had 17 and dealt six assists, and junior Lexi Bando shook off a mediocre shooting start to score 14 points and deal five assists.

Duke’s Brown, who finished her first season of eligibility after transferring, had a game-high 25 points, and senior Oderah Chidom scored 11, while Rebecca Greenwell was held to six points.

Oregon took an early five-point lead that held up most of the first quarter, fell behind by a point in the second, and then immediately grabbed the lead back and went on to build the differential to 15 points with eight minutes left in the game.

“Obviously, just a tough and physical game,” Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “I thought we fought very hard as a team.

 “(Oregon) had more players step up and play across the board,” she continued. “They had better balance with 20 assists and they played more of a full 40 minutes.  I didn’t particularly appreciate our first half.

"I thought we rushed and didn’t do the things we needed, but I really appreciated our second half and our fight by our team.”

Oregon’s largest lead was by 15 points early in the fourth period and it shrank to five with 15 seconds left but the outcome was not in doubt at that moment.”

In the third period, a Brown jumper had moved Duke within a basket, but then the Ducks went on a 7-0 run to provide a quick answer to the Blue Devils.

“We didn’t want this to be our last game,” Hebard said. “We knew Duke was good. They made it this far and we just wanted to come in and hopefully get another game. That’s what we did.”

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Guru's View: Temple and Penn WBB Suffer Agony of Defeats Just Short of Thrill of NCAA Victories

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

DURHAM, N.C.  – In 1990 when Virginia reached the Women’s Final Four in Knoxville the first time, courtesy of an overtime upset of Tennessee depriving the Lady Vols of personally hosting the event, the Cavaliers got quickly bounced by eventual winner Stanford in the semifinals.

That squad had a giddy and talented sophomore point guard in Dawn Staley and a junior forward in Tonya Cardoza, later in life to become successive coaches at Temple in Philadelphia.

But the 1990 setback was OK.

Coach Debbie Ryan’s squad was young and, basically, having already pulled the upset of the tournament, the Cavaliers were just glad to be there, enjoy the experience knowing they were talented enough to return and do better next time.

Twelve months later, “next time” arrived and though Virginia had to do a detour route in another regional to get to New Orleans because of a loss down the stretch, the Cavaliers arrived salivating for the trophy and knocked off a new and up and coming team named Connecticut in the semifinals.

In the title game, however, while within minutes of claiming the championship, the team started missing foul shots allowing Tennessee to get closer and then a call by an official who years later admitted it was the wrong assessment doomed Virginia to lose to the Lady Vols in overtime.

That was Cardoza’s last shot but most of the team was still intact for 1992 so hours later the contingent could be seen intermingling with the tourist crowd  on Bourbon Street because it definitively existed for Staley and company that the third time was going to be the charm.

Now it’s a year later in 1992 and having to play a game in Los Angeles that started at 9 in the morning due to TV concerns by CBS with the men and women playing the same day, Virginia was chugging along in the semifinals over Stanford until again as the year before, the  foul shots stopped connecting and the game slipped into overtime and the Cavaliers in the final minute went by the boards.

The final opportunity was over and the pain of defeat was now too much to bear and the Virginia group disappeared for the rest of the weekend to console themselves and lick their wounds together knowing the championship quest for that bonded group and by extension players like Cardoza, who had been part of the original rise to the elite level, had died within a few inches of what should have been grasped.

That brings us to 2017 where the biggest disappointment will be if the Connecticut women fall short of a fifth straight title, though the team that achieves the upset or however it gets done will certainly be celebrated for doing the near impossible to date.

Huskies Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma already laid some terms, however, during the ongoing HBO special series on UConn where defeat might be acceptable.

Moving forward in this narrative, appearances in either NCAA tournament men or women are many things to the 64 teams in the intra-competition among the two genders.

Going into last Monday night prior to the Women’s Selection Show on ESPN, the squads of Ivy champion Penn and American regular season runner up Temple, the two signature Division I women’s contingents in the Philadelphia area this season, knew they were NCAA-bound and so they could fantasize among themselves beforehand how far they might go.

Then the bracket was released and each learned they were in the Bridgeport Regional of doom headed by UConn.

But the good news was the task of being dragon slayers couldn’t be assumed until the Sweet 16 at the earliest.

So for each, a modest approach could be taken, enjoy the moment and compete, go after that first round win and get to round two, which may not be daunting in landing in the Sweet 16 alongside of UConn.

For Temple, a seventh seed, the Owls were sent here to second-seeded Duke’s site but against 10th seeded Oregon in a level playing field matchup with each having their own special strengths – the Ducks of the Pac-12 with tall super talented freshmen enjoying a rebuild under third-year coach Kelly Graves while the Owls under Cardoza are known for their flashy lightning quick guard attack.

For Penn, the Quakers drew a 12 seed in Los Angeles hosted by four-seed UCLA but initially matched with a five-seed Texas A&M squad that had been a work in progress in the Southeastern Conference under veteran Gary Blair.

Following a bumpy two months in the front end of the schedule, by the arrival of January, Penn coach Mike McLaughlin had tinkered to make the Quakers ready to defend their league crown and go the extra two steps in the brand new Ivy tournament.

It’s possible many thought Penn was capable of being a surprise story on the front end of this weekend’s set of games that were being played at 16 different sites.

And so on Saturday night rthe Owls and Quakers, respectfully, took the floor in the fabled arenas of Cameron Indoor Stadium here and out west Pauley Pavilion on separate coasts confident and hopeful of  producing a great start to their weekend travels.

Little did either realize in retrospect that if one believes in good and bad karma, then the ouster of the defending NCAA champion Villanova men’s team, the overall No. 1 seed, in the second round by Wisconsin, putting the finish on a 12-month Cinderella story, had set an ominous cloud over Big Five basketball prior to the local women’s games.

The Temple women tipped almost three hours ahead down here before Penn was due to take the floor in Los Angeles. For the Owls seniors, headed by all-timer Feyonda Fitzgerald, this was it, win and get to play another day.

That was the mantra the Guru remembers existing when he was manager of the Temple men, which had a very large group of seniors, as the Owls spent a magical week in New York concluding with the NIT trophy in Madison Square Garden after rallying over the Bob Cousy-coached Boston College squad.

Now to play with a juxtaposition of time for thid narrative, let’s pretend both games were being played at the same moment.

Temple’s battle was tenacious and steady and the Owls, in their first NCAA postseason battle since 2011, hung tough in a contest with nine ties and 13 lead changes.

But early in the fourth period, the Owls bolted to a six-point lead and maybe the fates were about to shine in both places while out west Penn’s senior Sydney Stipanovich, a Quaker all-timer, was leading her team to an unheard of 21-point lead early in the fourth quarter.

McLaughlin’s team was minutes away from becoming the third Ivy school to win an NCAA opener.

Coupled with the fact that Sunday afternoon Drexel was about to host Villanova in a second-round WNIT contest, ensuring a local advancing to the third round, this weekend was set to be stamped one of the greatest in Philly women’s basketball.

And then for each, it all turned.

 Temple couldn’t stop the bigs, only counter on offense with the Owls’ own strengths, and the Guru started seeing mental videos of those buzzer-beater losses suffered in the early years of the Dawn Staley-coached era that preceded Cardoza.

Out West, Penn’s offense went cold and Texas A&M rallied in such a way that as the Guru watched on his iPad after filing his Temple story for The Inquirer, his mind started seeing a repeat of the dreadful loss to La Salle, giving up seven points at the finish in regulation and then again in overtime for a loss in The Palestra early in the season.

For those old enough to live through the 10-game nightmare Phillies losing streak of 1964 that cost the baseball team the National League pennant, it was that bad.

With Temple, the hope was that maybe the Owls could prevail at the finish. With Penn, just someone, anyone, make a shot.

 The pressure of A&M was becoming a bit much. The large lead was slipping like sand in an hour glass that had a tiny hole on the bottom.

In the Temple game with about five seconds to go, Oregon freshman Mallory McGwire found sister classmate Ruthy Hebard inside for two points and a one-point 71-70 lead.

But there was time for Fitzgerald to race to Temple’s basket, win the game, and then get ready for a Monday date with Duke.

Off she went.

One was already envisioning the layup to put the Owls ahead. Fitzgerald’s hand with the ball went up, the shot left her hand, and – whack – Hebard had quickly got back after she scored and destroyed the Temple senior’s looming moment.

“It was the perfect scenario – open court where we’re really good with Feyonda with the basketball in her hands,” Cardoza afterwards described the final moments. “I saw her paying attention to the clock, so I knew she was alert and that she knew she had more time to get to the other basket. The guy just came over and made a great play on it.”

And out West, a few hours later in real time as we remove the side by side aspect, just enough was left out of Penn’s missed shots, turnovers, and perhaps victims of a couple of controversial officiating calls that did not help, that instead of celebrating the triumph of an Ivy school the storyline went to the Aggies, setting a record with a 25-1 run and 21-point comeback.

"We needed one basket," said McLaughlin of the 63-61 loss. "They sped us up and we lost our organization. We didn't handle it very well. It's my responsibility to keep our kids composed and find a way to get one basket.

"It's just really, really difficult for me right now," he added.

Cardoza, drawing back on those Virginia days of her youth, answered a question about the sting of defeat, especially when it closes the careers of talented collegiate seniors.

“Foe me, it might be a bit easier,” Cardoza said. “I’ve been in the position where I’ve played for a championship and came up short, and always live with that moment.

“So for them, it’s going to be hard, especially the seniors in their last go-round. That’s something they’re going to have to live with for the rest of their life what they could have done differently,” she continued.

“For me, it will take a little bit, but for them it will take a bit longer, especially Feyonda as she was the guy with the ball in her hands. Hopefully, there will be a lot of positive things that happen in her basketball career.

"For the seniors, this is going to be something that they live with as this was their only opportunity and to have it cut short in this type of game. For me, I couldn’t tell you. As a coach, I haven’t been in this situation. Hopefully, there’s many more where we’re in the NCAA tournament,” Cardoza said.

“When you lose like that, there’s not a lot you can say. You can tell them what a great season it was, but they don’t want to hear that, it’s just disappointment. They’re upset.

“If we lose by 10 they’re crying because it’s over, but it was the way we lost that really hurts them. It’s not only that we missed the shot, but also because of the stops that we didn’t get the last three possessions,” Cardoza explained.

“Every single person had something to do with something, and so it wasn’t just about the shot we didn’t make but the stops we didn’t get as well.”

Alliya Butts, Fitzgerald’s backcourt mate, echoed Cardoza’s description of the pain caused by the loss.

“This one hurts because we were in the game,” she said. “It was a close game and we all fought hard and to come out and lose like that it hurts. It was a close one.”