By Mike Siroky
The mighty Southeastern Conference will end the 2012-2013 women’s basketball season with four top 10 teams, more than any other conference.
They will not have a National Champion.
The last time the SEC had a Final Four team, it was Tennessee in 2008, which won it all to give Candace Parker a double before she left with a year of college eligibility remaining for the WNBA.
When Texas A&M won its title, in 2011, it was a member of the Big 12.
Kentucky and Georgia fell out in the first night of the Elite Eight – though Georgia took a No. 2 to overtime. Kentucky lost to a No. 1. And Tennessee failed its promise after being set up as a No. 2 against a No. 5.
The result is the Big East had three teams in the final game competition for a Final four spot and all won. The SEC had the same and all lost. This season has a Big East flourish, though all three teams heading for New Orleans will be under different or modified banners next season.
Notre Dame will be in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Louisville and Connecticut will be in the football segment of the current Big East under a name to be determined and then the following season, Louisville will also head to the ACC.
The previous Tennessee administration of Pat Head Summitt, now coach emeritus, presented the SEC with eight NCAA championships, the only SEC team to ever win it all. UT has been in 18 Final Fours, combined more than any other university ever in the modern era (when the NCAA accepted women’s basketball for the 1981-82 season).
Georgia, mostly in the years when it was not in Tennessee’s qualifying bracket, has made it five times, but not since 1999. It has twice been national No. 2. LSU was in five straight seasons of the national semifinals, 2004-05 through 2007-08,
Imagine that, five consecutive senior classes in a Final Four. That’s is hard for any school to match or even consider. Whoops. Stanford and UConn had done it heading into this year’s playoffs and now coach Geno Auriemma’s Huskies have the new record at six straight.
Auburn, with exquisite coach Joe Ciampi, made a three-year run, 1987-88 through 1989-90 and finished national runners-up each time. Vanderbilt made the national semifinals in 1993 and Alabama in 1994.
Those are the foundation games for the SEC’s reputation.
The top national seeds this year made up last season’s Final Four. Then came the fall of two top seeds, Stanford and Baylor.
The SEC’s best, UConn and Notre Dame, made it on successive nights as the other No. 1s and meet for the fourth time this season in a national semifinal. No. 2 Cal meets Louisville, the third Big East team and a No. 5 seed.
UConn burst on the scene as the champion in 1995, a national semifinalist in 1996 and won it again in 2000. They were back in the national semis in 2001 and then won three straight titles. They also won in 2009-10. They were national semifinalists in 2008, ’11, and last season. Seven titles in 13 Final Fours. They were ranked No. 1 five times at the end of the regular season when they won it all, the most of anybody to do that.
Notre Dame rode national Player of the Year Ruth Riley and a very capable supporting staff to the 2001 title. In 1997, eventual champ Tennessee had knocked ND out in the national semifinals. They were in the past two title games, losing to a Texas team each time, A&M then Baylor.
Georgia was the first to play a No. 1 -- Stanford -- and was the first to erase a top seed. This allowed the conference to show its No. 4 team could eliminate the top team – conference champ and conference tournament champ. LSU lost in that round of that Region and there were three conference teams left in the Elite Eight. Tennessee and Kentucky joined Georgia in the Elite Eight. HOW THE SEC FARED
•Kentucky, ranked No. 9 nationally, was up first for the SEC, against the enigma that is Elena Della Donne and Delaware, No. 16 nationally, in the Eastern Regional.
Della Donne had never carried a team this far before. She almost took it another step, including 13 straight Blue Hen points in one first-half surge. UK’s vaunted defense was unable to even contain her.
But UK was determined to at least earn a shot against top seed UConn and the No. 2 seed ’Cats did it. So her show closed on the road. Della Donne had 33 points and nine rebounds. She had more than half her team’s points.
These one-trick ponies seldom survive. She finished her career as the fifth all-time leading scorer in NCAA history with 3,039 points. She passed former college legends Cheryl Miller, Chamique Holdsclaw and Maya Moore in this one. Of course, she also missed 22 games with various illnesses in her career, including six this season with recurring symptoms of Lyme Disease.
Looking at the names she surpassed, All-American Della Donne said, “I wasn’t aware of anything of that nature. That’s incredible and it's definitely humbling to be amongst those names.”
Kentucky opened swell. A nifty 10-run championed by Briana Goss starting and ending it with baskets opened the window. Jennifer O'Neill eventually scored 19 and closed the half with one of those 3s at the buzzer.
Senior leader A'dia Mathies scored16 and cleared the 2,000 career scoring mark.
A 41-27 lead was had by halftime. Delaware, sensing impending doom, rallied with a 35-28 second half. The difference may have been the seven 3s UK hit (14 attempts) to the one by Delaware (six attempts).
Kentucky was seven points below its season scoring average and allowed five more than its defensive average. UK was even outrebounded, turning over another season average.
They had won the first half rebounding by 11. The margin got as close as two in the second half. But UK had survived and coach Matt Mitchell was happy to be there, with another chance to make history.
The Wildcats played without backup center Samantha Drake who was suspended for the playoffs by Mitchell for violating team protocols several times throughout the season. She may be no longer with the team.
UConn eradicated Maryland, leading by as much as 26 in the second half. They truly looked like a No. 1 national seed.
UK has a school-record 30 wins. It was the third season in the Elite Eight for this senior class and the second Regional final against UConn, which won by 15 last year at this point.
As previously mentioned, UConn did not have to leave the state to make the Final Four and the Bridgeport crowds turned out, sold out at 8,600 per session.
A side note: This was originally scheduled for New Jersey in the capital city of Trentlon. A state law, since rescinded, had made it legal to bet on college games. The NCAA pulled the tournament from New Jersey and awarded it to the second bidder.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is a Delaware grad. He wore a Blue Hen fleece at the opener, signing autographs and mugging with the team’s (and his) fans.
As for the Regional final, it looked like a superlative team against a very good one. UConn used UK to set an NCAA record of six straight Final Fours with a 30-point blowout. At least they have to leave the state to play for the national title.
Kentucky hung around for a little while. They had a 23-22 lead then UConn decided to really play and went on a 26-3 run to close the half with a 48-26 advantage. A demoralized UK team had nothing left.
A freshman shooter – the Regional’s Most Outstanding Player – Breanna Stewart with 21 points and three blocks, dominated them.
Kentucky liked to hype its own “40 Minutes of Dread” defense, but UConn showed them the real deal, no hype, with that first-half close.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis is one of the Huskies that knows it is wise to listen to her coach, Geno Auriemma.
She said the simple analogy is to strike an opponent when it is trembling, to be, as he says, like “sharks” and that’s what they do.
“When there's blood in the water, you smell it and you go after it,” she said. “We’re just going to keep going after it, it’s like a domino effect, once we get one steal, we'll get another and another.” She also did well on offense, with 17 points.
Kentucky missed 13 of its final 14 shots in the half. The lead got as high as 36 in the second half.
Maybe it was because Baylor was gone (a video of their loss played on the scoreboard at the UConn party). Auriemma actually spoke with optimism by saying his team had a “great chance” now to win it all.
One of his seniors, Kelly Faris, is the third class to end all four years in a Final Four. It is unlikely that will happen anywhere else ever again.
“It definitely doesn’t get old,” she said. “Each year is different, special in its own way. This is out last go-round and we want to go out with a bang. I am fortunate to be part of this program where we make it every year. We are never satisfied until we get to that final game.”
Mathies, a second team All-American, scored 14 to lead Kentucky. But a 14-point leader will seldom do in an elite team. She is second all-time in scoring (2,014), 3-point field goals made (177), field goal attempts (1,587) field goals made (712) and attempted (1,587), free throws made (413) and attempted and is the all-time leader in steals (320) games played (139) and games started (139).
As seniors, Mathies and Brittany Henderson leave as the winningest class in UK women’s basketball history with a 111-30 record (.787).
In the end, though, UConn doubled its margin of victory over the same opponent at the same stage last year. It is hard to put a measuring device on teams, year to year, but programs are often compared.
Is it possible UConn got that much better?
•Georgia had drawn Stanford. As usual, the Cardinal were the No. 1 team in the West, at Spokane. They were the first No. 1 to fall.
Stanford, No 4 nationally had All-American Chiney Ogwumike score 18 (8-of-9 from the field) and grab six rebounds in leading her side to a seven-point advantage at halftime. Steady Jasmine James had 10 for the ’Dawgs.
Stanford started on a 13-4 run in the first eight minutes.
Georgia rallied to cut it to one but had used all its effort in doing so. They only hit one basket – a jumper by James -- in the final six-plus minutes.
Slowly the ’Dawgs carved themselves back into it.
They cut the deficit. They hung with the Cardinal, trading 3 for 3, jumper for jumper, free throws for free throws. Coach Andy Landers was orchestrating a marvelous run. When there were just 65 seconds left, Jasmine Hassel hit a jumper and finally Georgia was ahead, by one. The 6,146 in attendance were on their feet.
James hit two free throws at the 23-second mark after a Stanford time out. They were up by four. Another Stanford time out. Joslyn Tinkle – Stanford’s only senior -- hit a 3 for Stanford. Another Stanford time out, with one second left.
Stanford’s Sara James fouled freshman Shacobia Barbee.
This is no ordinary freshman. She clanked the first one, hit the second and Georgia had pulled the upset, 61-59.
Hassell and Griffin each scored 13; James led them all with 16. Ogwumike scored just eight after intermission.
The meeting in the middle of the stats line was Georgia had averaged 66.6 and given up an average of 53.4, second-best in conference.
They have a school-record 30 wins and had matched last season’s Elite Eight appearance. This team was built for this battle, with three other seniors besides the Jasmines.
Stanford had a 33-3 final record that is appreciated. They had the one senior. So they will be much-anticipated as a top seed next season again. But, don’t forget, this gave the SEC another win against a conference and conference tournament champ by its No. 4 team.
Both Stanford and Georgia were in their 20th Sweet 16. Stanford’s Tara Vanderveer paid Landers the ultimate compliment by saying she liked what he did with his teams, that she was studying them to steal some ideas for next season. She has all summer to study.
“As we came down the stretch, our players, I think figured out that they could make some plays and really did a nice job,” Landers said. “I think the thing that's so good about the comeback and going ahead is that each one of those five players did something that was really significant as we did that. And they did something really significant on each end of the floor.
“We play good defense and we don’t have too many droughts. We can hang around until someone hits a shot. That’s what I think happened.”
Georgia, with its sub-Regional and Regional both in Spokane, just stayed the days in-between. Landers got off a great line when joking his players spent the extra time in Eastern Washington getting registered to vote and taking up residency.
Skipping cross-country travel again was the right thing to do. Surely, the NCAA has an explanation for this after failing to seed anyone close to Ohio for the sub-Regional there.
Having eliminated the best of the Pac 12, Georgia now had to take on a close second in California, playing in its first Elite Eight.
The Bulldogs showed well, getting it to overtime but fell two points shy.
A big loss was senior point guard Hassell. She fouled out with 2:30 to go and obviously missed all of the extra period.
Barbee led Georgia with 14. They forced overtime despite having one field goal in the final 7:45.
"I think, for the most part, this was a game that played out somewhat the way we thought it would,” was Landers’ summation
“We felt it was very important to get back in transition, that it was very important to keep the ball out of the lane, and to rebound the ball defensively and when we were doing those things well, we were in a good position.
“When we broke down defensively and allowed that penetration and allowed them to rebound the ball on offense, we got in trouble. They're a very good basketball team.
Georgia finished 28-7 and loses six seniors, all obviously mainstays of the past four seasons.
•LSU drew No. 2 seed California in the West, for another SEC vs. Pac 12 semifinal, with Cal No. 6 nationally. It followed Stanford’s loss, so both sides knew the Regional was suddenly up for grabs.
It took LSU three minutes to even score, but they were never far behind as each side went minutes without scoring. The half ended 26-all with no one in double figures.
So it was a one-half season of elimination. And no one wanted it. California went two minutes without a score and three without a basket to the 13-minute mark and still only trailed by one.
LSU seemed frozen. When Cal made a basket, a 3 and two free throws and another free throw, answered only by a LSU free throw, it was suddenly a seven-point game with less than nine minutes left.
The lead expanded to a dozen when Cal’s Brittany Boyd hit a 3.
With under five minutes left, LSU missed on two possessions and Boyd hit another basket. The best team from California, still playing in California, finally had control.
Their four seniors began to make the tempo a familiar one for the time zone.
Their upward drift kept on without delay. It was 15 with under four minutes left. LSU was out of gas. All seven players had played, but leading scorer Theresa Plaisance was 4-of-16 from the floor. Cal only used eight players, so it was not attrition by the numbers.
Adrienne Webb, one of two LSU seniors, who had rallied her team all season, had but 10 points. Her basket, at the 2:27 mark, was the first for LSU since 8:34. They had done their job on defense, holding the line where it usually was, but were 20 points down on their average offense.
It was over, mercifully. Webb hit a 3-pointer to close her career in double figures (it was the 168th 3 of her career, fifth-best ever at LSU) and leading the team with 15. Another basket in mop-up time from someone else kept it a 10-point loss.
“It stings, but I have had one great career at LSU,” said Webb. “We have really fought through everything, through injuries and through numbers. We have really dug deep and believed in each other and pulled through. I really couldn’t ask for a better group of players and coaches to have for this last senior season.”
Cal senior Layshia Clarendon scored 19 and junior forward Gennifer Brandon 14.
Georgia coaches could throw away the SEC script and concentrate on a whole new foe.
A 22-13 final LSU record will only be a building block if they keep building. It does not look so swell standing alone. They have not won away from home in the tournament. As they have hosted two straight, they will be all on the road next year if they make it.
•Tennessee also won its sub-Regional at home. Their road experience was disillusioning as they truly faltered against an inferior seed.
First, on the road at Oklahoma City, playing as the No. 2 seed against No 8 seed Oklahoma, a team in its home state, they were the last SEC play-in game of the Sweet 16. UT was ranked No. 9 nationally. Oklahoma was unranked.
Holly Warlick, still coaching like the national Coach of the Year, walloped a veteran coach in Sherri Coale.
“They kind of punched us right the beginning,” said Coale of the 17-point halftime edge Tennessee built.
By the numbers, Tennessee had topped its conference by averaging 77.7 and only giving up 63.4, basically a 14.3 differential. The 74-59 final showed whose game was played. In their first two rounds, the Lady Vols won by 21 and then 16.
This time, they won by 15.
Cierra Burdick brought 13 off the bench with six rebounds. Isabelle Harrison had a third straight strong game in rehab, 12 points, eight rebounds and three blocks, also as a reserve.
Kamiko Williams brought the whole show, 15 points, four rebounds, three assists and four steals.
As one of two seniors, she was playing like elimination was not an option. She set the defensive pace, starting the game with a steal from the opposite guard, Aaryn Ellenberg. She flustered her into a 5-of-21 day.
“I mean, she smiled at me, so I knew I had to get low,” Williams said of the opponent. “She swings the ball in front of her, I happened to stick my hand in there. I just kind of reacted to the ball.”
Warlick said Williams was doing what a senior should be doing.
“We're asking her to lock down the opponents’ best offensive player, then we want her to make plays on the offensive end as well.
“She has stepped up. She has a maturity about her. She's just taken this team. She's wrapped her arms around this team and said, ‘Let's go!’
“I will tell you, at the beginning of the year, if I had to say Kamiko was going to be our leader, I would say no. But our players love her. She's done a heck of a job on and off the floor being a leader for them.
“She has exceeded my expectations. I knew what Kamiko could do. It was just a matter if she was going to commit to do it, and I think she has. She and Izzy (Harrison) both have stepped up and played big for us. She's done a heck of a job.”
Williams had been challenged, but all of Tennessee reached back to the traditions of the program.
“Well, I think obviously everyone knows Tennessee is defense and rebounding,” said Spani, the other Lady Vol senior. “We’ve stressed that from Day 1. I think Holly's style is she really wanted full-court pressure or get into the ball and pressure them.”
Harrison, the tallest player on UT, was slowly coming back to starter status after a season of starts and stops and knee strains which caused her to miss 11 games and the SEC post-season tournament.
“I felt really good,”Harrison said. “I was doing a lot of rehab on this trip. Me and my roommates, I can talk to them when I’m hurting. I'm glad I can get out there and do the best I can.”
Tennessee lost to Notre Dame in the same spot the last tumultuous season. They have been in 31 Sweet 16s, the Elite Eight 26 times of the 32 tournaments. They drew 9,162, best of any site.
When Baylor lost to Louisville in the second game at Oklahoma City, UT suddenly had a chance to return to the Final Four.
Brittney Griner the all-everything Player of the Year joins a group of NCAA superstars who didn’t win in their senior seasons. Chamique Holdsclaw and Tennessee did not make the Final Four after three straight titles. Cheryl Miler at Southern Cal did not win her senior season and neither was she the national Player of the Year.
Tennessee had to deal with a No. 5 seed in Louisville. These Cardinals held Griner without a first-half basket. They built a 17-point lead only to hold on by one at the end. Louisville made 16 of 25 3s (an NCAA tournament record) to do so. They were bruising on defense and had three starters foul out.
But they won.
As it turned out, Tennessee was the last SEC team standing by sheer luck of scheduling.
The conference regular-season champs bombed against the Big East No. 3, in the same spot to the same conference as they had been eliminated last season.
Louisville’s 28-8 record is truly one game better than Tennessee’s 27-8.
Louisville (which also won a sub-Regional at home) was the hot team and showed it. They built a 15-point halftime lead. That proved insurmountable.
Schoni Schimmel (18 points) and Bria Smith (13) led the Cards. Schimmel finished with 24. Meighan Simmons, UT’s co-SEC Player of the Year, just didn’t show up for the Sweet 16. She had only a 3 to show with 7:37 left and an eight-point deficit to overcome. Louisville had already surpassed the UT season defensive average of allowing 63. Tennessee cut it to five in the closing minutes and no closer. UT did hit their season average of 77.7 (with 78) which was the best in the SEC.
So maybe, on offense, the Lady Vols did all they could.
But the defense allowed 86 points, 23 more than average.
Louisville takes its three seniors to a great school experience and a second Final Four for their class. Exuberant coach Jeff Walz, in his sixth season, has all but assured his job for another decade, with a class he recruited making this move. He took the Cards to the national title game in 2009, in his second season.
“We ruined the entire party,” Walz said. “We're the ugly ducklings that ruined the party. No one gave us a chance and we shocked everybody. It’s a journey and we're going to continue.”
This the 10th NCAA tourney with both the men’s and women’s teams in the Final Four.
“No one wanted to see us beat Baylor and Tennessee and we did both of those and now we're going to the Final Four,” Schimmel said. She was the only player to compete the entire 40 minutes.
UT used to have a record of having every senior class play in it at least one Final Four. That fell away last season. This makes two in a row. Yes, Louisville can say they have been there more often now.
Warlick said they never thought they would lose this one
“We talked a lot about not giving up,” she said of in-game huddles. “And that’s been the mode of this team this year.
“That’s just the nature of our program and our expectations, whether you’re Pat Summitt or myself, I’s just what we’re all about. It’s in our blood. It’s in our makeup.We thought we had a good year.
“But we didn't have a great year.”
She praised the eliminators.
“They had just a heck of a tournament. You've gotta do something right if you knock off Baylor, because Baylor’s an unbelievable team. And so to knock them off and then to come in here and play the way they did, they had a great tournament.
“I think they'll be competitive. I’m sure they’ll be ready to play in the Final Four.”
Tennessee loses two senior starters. They have one junior. So the young Lady Vols will have to grow up quickly to preserve traditions.
But that seems so far away right now.TWO SEC NOTES
•As soon as Kentucky was done, associate coach Matt Insell changed his focus within conference to the woeful program at Ole Miss. The Rebels were so bad this season they disqualified themselves from the SEC tournament.
He has been selected as their next coach.
He had been UK’s recruiting guy during is five years there and brought in four consecutive classes ranked in the top 15 nationally. One of his incoming recruits, 5-10 guard Makayala Epps, has just been named Miss Basketball of Kentucky
Mitchell said the program would be “forever grateful” for his contributions.
Ole Miss has good news: Only one senior. Ole Miss has bad news: Two wins in conference.
•Tyler Summitt, son of RB and Pat Summitt, has been invited to apply for the position at Coastal Carolina, He was an assistant at Marquette this season. If he gets that job, at age 22, he will start at the same age as his mother did at UT.