Mike Siroky's NCAA Tourney Report: SEC Continues Its Sweet Run
As we said last week, the AP’s Top 16 pretty much foreshadowed the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16.
And the Southeastern Conference’s last qualifiers proved they can handle the champs of other leagues across the nation, which is why the SEC is the top league overall.
Through two rounds of elimination in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, the Southeastern Conference has a quarter of the Sweet 16.
The Big 12 has three in, Oklahoma and Kansas crashing the party with Baylor. The Big East also has three, the big two of Notre Dame and UConn joined by Louisville, which won its way in at home at the expense of Penn State and the Big Ten.
The ACC and Pac 12 have two each. The Big Ten is left with surprising Nebraska, which eliminated a possible fifth SEC team.
If you are keeping count, that means the major conferences have 15 of the 16, leaving, well, Delaware, for the rest of the world.
The Sweet 16 has 12 of its members from the AP Top 16. Only the No. 3 seeds fell out. When the SEC advanced all seven to the round of 32, that meant the conference was 22 percent of the national field.
That will all change this week, of course.
The top four national seeds are all alive. So Kentucky would have to overcome UConn, Tennessee would have to overcome Baylor and Georgia would have to overcome Stanford, which is their next assignment. LSU draws No. 2 seed California in its next game, with the Stanford-Georgia winner next, so that eliminates the possibility of an all-conference Final Four.
The opening sites without a home team (Gonzaga, Colorado and Texas Tech also forfeited those opportunities on opening night) saw some decent basketball.
Oklahoma and UCLA accepted troublesome travel across time zones to compete at Ohio State’s venue. Oklahoma took it easily, a No. 6 seed besting an unwarranted No. 3. UK won once as St. John’s went home early.
Georgia won at Spokane, Wash., California took the opportunity at Lubbock, Texas. And Kansas took the opportunity at Boulder, Colo., eliminating South Carolina.
The Columbus, Ohio, turnout was an announced 2,256, most of those pre-sold during the season when Ohio State had a fighting chance to be there.
Oklahoma took advantage of the truly neutral court to upset UCLA, That was only slightly less (about 500) than St. John’s at home.
HOW THE SEC FARED
•Tennessee, at home, led the SEC playoff teams. They were the first into the Sweet 16.
Had Holly Warlick coached her initial leadership challenge to wins in both the regular season and post-season conference tournament, she’d be a shoo-in for national coach of the year. Rattling out in the conference semis cost her that.
But, in the big tourney, she has kept her Lady Vols on track with the return of their tallest player, 6-3 center Isabelle Harrison. They were 1-2 without her.
She had missed nine of the past 11 games because of knee injuries.
With her, they trounced both Oral Roberts and Creighton, sending them to Oklahoma City, where mighty Baylor likely awaits in the Elite Eight. They drew 6,833, then 500 less in the sub-Regional final.
The Oral Roberts win was the first in a tournament without Pat Head Summitt in the director’s chair, though Warlick was the game coach all of last season as an assistant and heir to the throne.
It was a 21-point walkover.
It was not much different against Creighton, a 16-point win that was more of a blowout than that. UT, a little less than 10 points under its league-best season scoring average, held Creighton to 11 points less than UT usually allows.
Harrison’s presence was felt as Creighton seemed reluctant to drive inside. “Izzy” as her teammates call her, had a game-high five rebounds and three blocks in 17 minutes, rounding back into shape.
Kamiko Williams led a well-balanced attack (four of five starters in double-figures) with 15. She was 3-of-4 in the closing minutes as Creighton fouled to try and get the ball back. As one of two seniors in a last home game ever, she earned praise from her coach for stepping up.
And Warlick had designed a lock-down defense, allowing just one basket from 7:56 until 10 seconds were left.
It is obviously Warlick’s first Sweet 16 as the head coach.
“I thought it was a great team effort,” she said.
“I keep talking about our team and how great we are and how important everybody is to this basketball team. I thought we got better tonight on the defensive end, and we have to keep doing that. You have to continue to get better.
“There’s so much more we can do and get better at. I think Izzy is getting back into the flow of things. It's all about combinations and who we play and their style. If we just keep learning and being disciplined. I thought tonight, for the most part, we were so disciplined on the defensive end, and we haven't been in the past. If we do those things, and we're disciplined on the offensive end, we're a very good basketball team.”
Creighton, like Tennessee, had won their regular-season conference title and then lost in the finals of the Missouri Valley.
To make the Elite Eight, she needs to get past Oklahoma, with a wise and veteran coach in Sherri Coale and a team its home state. They won neither the regular season or Big 12 Conference titles.
The Lady Vols are 52-0 at home in NCAA play. They will have been in 31 of 32 Sweet 16s.
•LSU, also at home, made the most of their No. 6 seed for the 3,000 fans who came to the closing party.
In the opener, Danielle Ballard and Theresa Plaisance capped 16-point performances by hitting clutch free throws in the final 15 seconds of a four-point win over a challenging Green Bay team.
The Phoenix had won 24 straight (only two losses all season) and were a Top 20 team, champions of the Horizon League regular season and conference tournament. LSU had won seven straight before losing to Georgia in the SEC quarterfinals.
A potential crucial injury occurred when LSU’s spiritual leader, reserve junior guard Jeanne Kenney, left with a concussion. It is so severe she was not at the Sweet 16 game.
That set up the staggers in the sub-Regional final.
Senior Adrienne Webb scored a career-high 29 points (10-of-16 from the field), including two crucial free throws with 22 seconds left in a five-point win over No. 3 seed Penn State. The Bengals’ only other senior, Bianca Lutley, overcame foul trouble and capped an 18-point effort with the jumper that put them ahead with 40 seconds left and game-sealing free throws in the final 18 seconds.
She had four fouls with 12 minutes left. Another player also had four fouls.
That allowed them to survive a seven-point halftime deficit and a six-minute scoreless drought in the second half. As if she needed to do more, Webb was called to face guard Penn State’s best player and the Big Ten Player of the Year, Maggie Lucas, and her 20-point scoring average. Lucas scored but nine.
The foul situation was magnified as LSU only had seven players available with Kenney out.
This win continues the theme of a sixth-place SEC team erasing the Big Ten’s runaway conference winner after having done so to the Horizon champs.
LSU has been in the Sweet 16 a dozen times before and, of course, played for the National Championship in 2008. LSU is 16-3 at home in the NCAAs.
But this major rebuilding by second-year coach Nikki Caldwell, a Tennessee All-America as a player, is evident in what she gets from her players. Penn State eliminated LSU at home last season.
Danielle Ballard, for instance, has the school record for steals in a season, with 99. Webb has 1,365 points, 17th all-time at the school.
“When you think about what this team did tonight without one of our true leaders, Jeanne Kenney, this was just a courageous effort in these seven players’ part,” Caldwell said. “That was a great win against a very, very tough Penn State.”
She said she was so very proud of her two seniors. “Because of them, we have some more basketball to be played.”
“I wasn’t thinking about what I needed to do,” Lutley said. “I was just thinking about what I needed to do to make the game end the way coach wanted it to end, the way everyone in the gym wanted it to end.”
Classmate Webb agrees. “What was in our minds was this was the last game (at home). And we have to take care of our house, really. We just had to buckle down and give our all, really. We had to do that and everyone just stepped up.”
•Kentucky had a Night 2 debut, at St. John's, against Navy, yet another example of the No. 2 team in the SEC besting the champ and conference tournament champ, this time of the Patriot League, by 20. The 28th win in a season tied last year’s school record.
DeNesha Stallworth scored 18. The Wildcats played without backup center Samantha Drake who was suspended for this sub-Regional by coach Matt Mitchell.
“We have a standard we want to uphold as Kentucky basketball players and she hasn't been doing that,” he said. “It’s not one particular thing, it’s a series of things. We want her to try to strive to do her best and that’s not happening right now.”
Despite St. John’s, a lame duck member of the current Big East before the impending breakup, granted an absolute gift of playing at home, the attendance was only 2,717. There were hardly 1,000 in attendance for the final.
In the sub-Regional final, The ’Cats stayed in form and won by 14, outscoring Dayton in both halves, exceeding their own team scoring average by eight.
Senior A’dia Mathies was the showcase special, with a career-high 34 points, a career high 6-of-7 on 3s. She scored 10 in a 16-3 run early in the second half that decided it. The points total is twice her season average. The number of field goals (10) is another career mark. And she had the flu.
Junior forward Samarie Walker also battled through the flu to get a team-high seven rebounds and 14 points.
“We have the goal of becoming the best program in the country,” Mitchell said. “We have a lot of work to do, but we are making a lot of progress.”
Mitchell was ecstatic at the way his team fought the stomach bug. Even Mathies. "She looked really ill before the game," Mitchell said. "She just felt terrible. She really felt bad.
"Maybe gutsy, gutsy effort is what it should be," he said. Three of his starters had the bug. “Very low energy,” Mitchell said. “I was very, very concerned about the team.
"We were in close quarters; it was just a bad, bad deal, an unfortunate thing at this point in time," Mitchell said. Several players missed the morning shootaround ibecause they simply couldn’t go.
As might be expected, UK utilized its bench depth, including a dozen points from onetime starter Bria Goss.
“I was just out there playing,” Mathies said. “I knew they’d cut it pretty close. I was just out there trying to play hard. I don’t know when my buckets came or how they came, I’m just glad they did.”
Walker was briefly sidelined after regurgitating on the sideline. She had tried to hold it in, she said, but simply could not running for the sidelines and a trash can as the game was in progress.
She ruined her game uniform and the staff came up with a retro 1990s jersey (though in a different number) and she came back in.
“We've been passing around this bug and I told everybody I wasn’t going to get sick: ‘I’m not going to get it; I'm not going to get it.’ Lord behold, as soon as I got in I started feeling queasy,” she said.
As usual, Kentucky’s superior athletes on defense impressed the opponent.
“We're not used to seeing that athleticism, that pressure, that attack constantly,” said Dayton coach Jim Jabir. His team had 23 turnovers. “It’s a cumulative effect and it just wears you down.”
Sounds a bit redundant, but yet again a team that didn’t win either the SEC conference tournament or the regular-season title eliminated the champ of the Atlantic 10.
Kentucky was in the Sweet 16 last season. As the No. 2 seed, they safely move on to face the phenom that is Elena Della Donne and Delaware’s only Sweet 16 appearance. The ’Cats are one win shy of 30. But 29 is already a school record, as is a seventh win against a ranked team in one season.
•Georgia, starting a potential four-game stay in Spokane, Wash., (first round and Regional site) smoothly manhandled Montana by 20 to open it. Jasmine Hassell scored 16. They drew 5,674.
Next was Iowa State, a 5 seed to Georgia’s 4. Georgia made the most of the final 78 seconds. Down by one, under rated senior forward Anne Marie Armstrong made a reverse layup. A freshman from the state of Tennessee,
Shacobia Barbee, scored 20, including three free throws in the final 27 seconds.
It is coach Andy Landers’ 20th Sweet 16 in his 31 tournaments.
“You know, we didn’t get as much as we would like to have gotten out of ourselves offensively or out of our sets,” he said. “But our players really did a nice job of making plays throughout the game, and particularly at the end of the game when we had lost the lead.
“It (was) the kind of game that we thought it would be. I thought Iowa State defensively was very good. I thought that Georgia defensively was extraordinary.”
They drew 4,976 without a home team present. Another NCAA site which lost attendance by not finishing on a weekend.
Iowa State had come second to Baylor in the Big 12 and lost to them again in the conference tournament.
•Texas A&M, which won the conference tournament, was the kaboom! game for the conference, a No. 3 seed losing at home to a No. 6 in the only instance of a home team losing a sub-Regional.
The Aggies beat Wichita State by 16 in the opener, as Kristi Bellock tied a career high with 18 points. Kelsey Bone, the best player overall in the SEC, is content to draw double-teams if a teammate can do that. They drew 7,215.
Then came the flop. Nebraska, enjoying life in the Big Ten for a second straight season, won the first half by nine and just needed to play A&M even in the second for the win.
The usual suspects led them: The aptly named Jordan Hooper and Lindsey Moore.
Hooper scored 21 and senior Moore did more, with a season-high 10 assists and 20 points. Hooper said she wanted more games with her teammate.
As junior forward Bone observed, they handled A&M on its own floor.
Including the 11-2 sprint to end the first half which basically decided the game.
"They made the stops that they needed to," Bone said. "Every time we got a little life they did a good job of hitting the big shot."
Bone did hit the final two field goals – maybe of her career – for A&M.
But Tech scored on two assists by Moore then two free throws by her and two more from Hooper to keep them at bay.
Coach Gary Blair agrees with Bone’s game assessment.
“I’m not sure Nebraska could play any better than they did," Blair said. "They were magnificent.”
Texas A&M (25-10), which won the national title in 2011, was led by Adrienne Pratcher's 17 points. The loss keeps the Aggies from making the round of 16 for the first time since 2010.
But more immediately on everyone’s mind in Aggieland is whether Bone will return. Her parents were both college athletes so they know the drill. She is a junior in eligibility yet has been out of high school four seasons (she sat out a transfer year). There have been hints she may take advantage of her position now as a high WNBA draft pick, with millions to be made in Europe or Asia.
She said her parents and Blair will be in the discussion and she ponders her decision.
A&M drew 5,886 for the final, like Tennessee another surprising falloff from opening night. They finish 25-10. They had lost three straight to close the season before the SEC tournament.
•Vanderbilt, the last SEC team in, was fed into UConn’s bracket at home. That’s how long the Lady Commodores lasted; until they played UConn at home.
First, they beat St. Joseph’s by winning the first half by six and then playing even in the second segment. St. Joe’s had won the Atlantic 10 conference tournament and was the official entrant of the league. So the last SEC team in beat the best of another conference.
UConn won its game by 69 as opening night drew 4,657.
Against UConn, Vandy looked like any other seed against a No. 1. It was a 33-point blowout.
“The consistency of our program, day in and day out, week in and week out, year in and year out is something that we can take great pride in,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma.
“I don't know who else has done it 20 years in a row (no one has such an active streak), but it’s really hard to do. Sometimes we make it look easy, but it’s really hard to do.”
He did start a senior, Caroline Doty, in place of a regular starter, Bria Hartley.
Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said it was not smoke and mirrors.
She observed the Commodores obviously play a lot of teams in the Southeastern Conference that are great on offense or have an outstanding defense. But none, she said, have the complete game the Huskies can showcase.
“If you ask the players, they (would say) Connecticut is excellent at both ends of the floor,” Balcomb said. “And that's what our team saw tonight and that’s why you saw the big difference in scoring compared to the Texas A&Ms, the Kentuckys and the Tennessees that we stayed with better.”
They finish at 21-12, having split their final six games. Tiffany Clarke finished her splendid career with 16 points, which had been her season average, but no other Commodore starter scored more than three.
•South Carolina, granted the gift of Colorado losing at home to open the site, ran down the South Dakota State Jackrabbits by 22. SD State is another example of a conference champ being wasted by the fifth-best team in the SEC. SD State won the regular-season and conference tournament in the Summit League.
Guard Ieasia Walker, the SEC defensive player of the year, finished with 15 points. She also helped hold South Dakota State to 33 percent shooting in the first half as the Gamecocks raced to a 44-26 halftime lead on the strength of 61 percent shooting and 10 forced turnovers.
Then came Kansas, the 12 seed which eliminated No. 4 Colorado at home. The Jayhawks had lost five of seven coming into the tournament and desperately wanted one more for a 20-win season.
They got it.
South Carolina slipped out a game worse than the year before and the No. 12 seed beat the No. 4. The Kansas starters scored 69 of the 75 points. SC had made its salad all season by allowing an average of 52.8. The difference was more than enough in a six-point game.
Despite three players with double-doubles and a school-record 26 rebounds on offense, the failures on defense did them in.
Kansas was very much an at-large team, seventh in the Big 12 and not even a winning record in conference.
Senior Monica Engelman scored a career-high 27 and said thanks to the Gamecocks. Another senior, Angel Goodrich, added 20 points and eight assists for Kansas.
"It was a hard-fought, physical game," South Carolina forward Aleighsa Welch said. "It was really an up-and-down tempo.”
"I told our team at the half, ‘We give up 32 points in entire games’,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “The pace of the game was not our pace.
They made us play a little quicker. I thought we were pretty efficient on the floor offensively, but in order for us to stay in basketball games we have to control games from a defensive standpoint, and we didn't do that.”
As is her usual spin, Staley had a slew of explanations, including the fact she started two rookies.
A lowly crowd of barely 2,000 showed up to witness it. Kansas, happy anyway, moves on to No. 1 seed Notre Dame at the Norfolk Regional.
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