By Mike Siroky
Last season, South Carolina was the surprise of the Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball. This season, in a week of stumbles, the Gamecocks won two close games – but still won them – and put themselves back in the league race as the two league leaders lost. Maybe the tight games keep SC alert.
Not only did the Gamecocks create some school markers last season, like winning at Tennessee for the first time since their coach was a player at Virginia, but that coach, Dawn Staley, guided them into the first NCAA appearance in nine seasons.
They then topped even that by making the Sweet 16, ousting Big Ten automatic qualifier Purdue on the Boilermakers’ own court in the sub-Regional to do so.
Staley celebrated with an induction (as a player) into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
All was swell in Gamecockville.
The coach and the completion of eligibility for her first recruiting class at South Carolina had a great run, led by La’Keshia Sutton, the guard who became just the 11th in program history to have 1,000 points and at least 300 assists.
Everyone knows, the second act – also translated as continuity and stability – is harder to accomplish.
Well, they have done it.
South Carolina is firmly in the game plan for the NCAA Selection Committee again. Even a win at league leader Kentucky at home does not quite overcome the two conference losses, but one-loss Tennessee leads the league. Two-loss UK and Texas A&M are tied with SC. Georgia, with three league losses, is right behind and the ’Dawgs have beaten SC in their only matchup this season.
It keeps the Gamecocks in the national rankings in the top half of the toughest conference in the land. They still have to play Texas A&M and are at Kentucky that same week.
In her first four seasons at SC, Staley led the team to 11th, 7th, 5th and 4th in the standings.
Some of the South Carolinians say that win at UK is the biggest for the program since 1998. That is arguable against last season’s breakthroughs, but it is large.
They have used the same starting five for all the games so far. It is a tribute to teamwork that the third-leading scorer, not even in double figures, Ieasia Walker, earned conference player of the week honors after the win against the ’Cats.
"The crowd was a huge lift for us when we weren't scoring as much as we'd like, but we were still getting good looks," said Staley.
“Sometimes it’s exhausting to play as hard as we play defensively, and it takes the wind out of you. I really think the crowd put the life back in us, and we made some big plays down the stretch. We just fed off the energy that was in the building."
Walker is one of three seniors in a well-balanced roster. She is yet another example of Staley’s recruitment drive, bringing a kid from New York state to the sweet South, where new customs and experiences are guaranteed on campus.
The other two seniors are from the industrial northwest of Indiana and from Oklahoma’s wide-open spaces, so Staley has this “:some assembly required” packaging figured out.
“A lot of people think that X’s and O’s are the biggest part of coaching, but it’s actually very little,” Staley said.
“It’s about relationships and discipline. I truly believe that the disciplined person can do anything, so I try to set up a platform on which student-athletes can be disciplined. With that, I want to build a family atmosphere that includes both the staff and the student-athletes. Once those things are in place, the basketball part becomes very easy because everyone wants to win for each other. We want to work for one another; we want to prepare people to be successful.”
They have 19 wins, so another 20-win season is assured. They have the league’s best win streak, at five. Maybe they can make a run in the conference tournament less than a month away. Either way, they will be somewhere again in the NCAA tournament.THE RANKED SEC TEAMS
•No. 10 Kentucky had a whole week to prepare for Georgia at home. It didn’t help. Georgia showed some mettle with pressure defense of its own. A defensive stop with five seconds left solidified the 75-71 upset.
Khaalidah Miller scored a career-high 25 and Anne Marie Armstrong and Jasmine James each scored 12 for Georgia. Miller was rewarded by being named conference player-of-the-week.
Shacobia Barbee stripped the ball from Kentucky's Jennifer O'Neill at the top of the key in the closing seconds. Miller hit one of two free throws with a second left off that possession.
A'dia Mathies and O'Neill each scored 18 for the Wildcats, whose winning streak at Memorial Coliseum ended at 33. In a more-disturbing trend, UK last season lost three straight in February, throwing the conference race into contention.
“You will drive yourself crazy if you worry about everybody else and wishing things would happen,” said UK coach Matt Mitchell.
“The thing that is frustrating to me is I didn’t do a very good job with this week of holding them to a high standard. I thought maybe they needed some rest.
“I don’t think it is rest that they need. I think they need a good dose of going back to fundamentals and what has gotten us to this point and having the opportunity to be a great team. I am just really frustrated with how I coached them this week and I don’t think I had them ready to go today and more than anything else that is what I am disappointed in more than anything.”
•No. 12 Tennessee still slides along in first in the conference – despite being ranked lower than two league foes -- the only team with one loss. They had an unchallenging win at home against Mississippi State and then flopped at Missouri.
The Tigers announced their intentions to compete in the league – despite five conference losses – by holding UT to 26 second-half points in a 17-point blowout. This is the season marker for Missouri.
Coach Robin Pingeton's squad hit 52.7 percent from the field, 11-for-24 from 3-point range. The names you have not heard this season are Morgan Eye (26 points) and Bri Kulas (20). Just last month, they lost, 84-39, at UT.
“Growing pains are so painful, but you have go to go through the fires to do it,” Pingeton said. “It has allowed us to be where were are today.
“How many chances do you get in your lifetime to do something like this?”
Mizzou just might be positioning themselves to be the mysterious sixth SEC team in the NCAAs.
These games were a chance for Tennessee to check out new faces as injured center Isabelle Harrison sat out. Warlick used an extra guard. Kamiko Williams in her first career start, contributed 10 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and six steals against State. She scored 14 against Mizzou but that led the team. She also turned her ankle and did not finish the game.
“They had a great game plan and they fought for 40 minutes,” said UT coach Hollky Warlick. “When you do that, you have great results. We were not very inspired today and I apologize for that. You cannot come to win with low energy and expect to win in the SEC and here at Missouri.”
There once again will be no undefeated team in conference play. Thanks to UK’s loss, UT maintains the one-game edge in the standings
UT’s next five games are likely wins. But then Missouri was also supposed to be one.
•Texas A&M has confidently worked its way to No. 14 after being No. 15 in the pre-season.
They won at home against Vanderbilt then took out LSU on the road. So the Aggies remain tied in second place with just the one league loss. They actually trailed against Vandy at intermission but twice went on 10-2 sprees to make it a decisive win. Courtney Walker scored 20, 10-of-13 from the field.
At LSU, A&M had the luxury of the Monday night conference spotlight game and so knew what everyone else had done a day before. Call it extra motivation or just another example of coach Gary Blair’s amazing techniques and ability to get a team stoked at the right time.
They waffled LSU with the league-best sixth straight win, Bone scoring 21 in the blowout. Walker scored 16. The Aggies have 18 wins and will be yet another 20-game winner from the SEC. They pushed a five-point lead to 15 with 81 second left.
Bone is hitting 59 percent from the field; against the toothless Tigers, she hit 9-of-15 (60 percent) and Walker 8-of-10.
LSU may be left for dead as far as the NCAA is concerned, unless they cann pull some magic in the conference tournament.
The Aggies have but one game this week, Sunday in South Carolina to break that tie in second place. Another week removed is the showdown at home against Kentucky.
Freshman guard Payton Little may be the rookie of the year. She has already been freshman of the week and is the gas that makes Bone the player that she is. Bone will be all-SEC and would be the league player of the year if not for Mathies of Kentucky. This year’s Aggie play can be a foreshadowing of domination next season and not a bad ride in this one, with 17 wins already and a 20-win season assured, plus a lock on another NCAA bid.
•No. 9 Georgia barely took care of Alabama at home, then turned it around at UK. The Dawgs had risen as high as No. 6 before the league season.
Suddenly, they are the highest-ranked team in the SEC.
They were outscored by ’Bama in the second half.
Then came the exclamation point of their season so far.
“I just think that we were both fortunate and tough,” said coach Andy Landers.
“I don’t know how good we were but we were tough enough to have beaten a very good Kentucky team on their court. Kentucky is very, very good. We ran into some difficulties with fouls and some situations at times with our younger, less-experienced players’ decisions that really put us in a tough position for most of the game but we were tough.
“We stayed the course, really proud of our basketball team for staying the course and coming back and doing what they had to do and creating an opportunity to win because, as you know, Kentucky led the entire game.”
He also said the trap that ended the game was a planned “tweak” which he saw was possible in the first half. Using a scrambled lineup, he decided to wait until halftime to explain it and when to implement it.
Most teams would easily win the next four, but Georgia never makes anything easy. Landers has 896 SEC wins and has coached more SEC seasons than anyone.
•No. 15 South Carolina only had to handle lowly Auburn and did so by eight.
Freshman Khadijah Sessions led with a career-high 19 points, 8-of-9 from the free-throw line. Sessions closed the game out for the Gamecocks converting four fouls into seven points in the final minutes.
They are at Alabama in a final preparation for Texas A&M in the league game of the week.
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