By Mike Siroky
As 2013 closes, one thing is sure in women’s college basketball: The mighty Southeastern Conference will chew up some teams and reward others.
So here’s our best guess preview.
We have said all along Kentucky is the best team here. One loss to a higher-ranked team does not discount that. In fact, it gives them something to work on.
But it is Tennessee who is the defending regular-season champ. That’s a
”Yeah, But” thing. Someone else wins, yeah, but it’s because Tennessee stumbled in this or that game.
Here’s what Lady Vol coach Holly Warlick has said about the conference, definitely old school:
“It’s a challenge for us. Everyone was gunning for us last year. We haven't talked about rankings but we talk about how hard we work and what goals we have. Our goal is to win the SEC Championship and to compete for the national championship.
“We talk about that and put it out there. We don't shy away from it. That's our platform on how we recruit as well ."
Tennessee needs to get back to another tradition, like making the Final Four.
The past two graduating classes are the first not to make at least one Final Four in their time at Tennessee.
“I think this is one of the most talented teams we've had in a while. I think we have pieces in place that could be special,” said Warlick. “For us, it's a matter of staying healthy, staying focused, and playing together.
“This summer, I asked our players to stay in summer school because I thought it was important for us to bond. Our leadership was not as good as if needed to be. You see a result of a team that's very close-knitted and very together. I think we have the results we were looking for.”
She now has the one season as the real head coach, after the transition season of basicallly running the team in Pat Summitt’s farewelll tour. She naturally altered the staff to fit her own configuaraton.
“I think the importance of using our staff was key for me last year,” she said.
“I used to always think more was better and now I listen to our players who listen to their bodies. Quality practices are better than quantity. I don't have to coach with a lot of effort during our practices because of the energy and the work ethic. You can get where you want to go with the help of your team and being on the same page.
“Last year, I didn't think I had to prove myself but it was different for my players and for me. Every game I got more comfortable. It wasn't a difficult transition.”
Kentucky’s Matthew Mitchell echoes the thought, conference comes first.
“I haven’t seen any teams play at a championship level that have been poor defensive teams,” he said. “All the successful coaches I have studied under made defense a big priority.
“That team that knocked us out of the tournament and won the National Championship (UConn), is a very good defensive team.”
He said he has never seen any example of a team poor on defense winning anything meaningful.
Georgia’s Andy Landers has a swell start to a 20-win season, at 11-1. He is already the coach with the most SEC seasons. This year, he will become the SEC coach with the most NCAA tournaments. His detractors can’t ever take that away from him.
Still, once the grind of the SEC comes into play it is doubtful a team dominated by four rookies and five sophomores can maintain.
So let’s say either LSU and South Carolina are the third-best team in the league. LSU and A&M each host a sub-Regional, so seem destined for the Sweet 16 without much challenge.
Having set that standard, let’s say at least six will be in the Sweet 16 and three of them can win Regionals. Though one of them has to go to Stanford to do it.
The Regional no one else will win is the once that gets UConn.
And, automatically, the SEC will be one of those conferences with two teams in at least one Sweet 16. The only other time Notre Dame hosted the least-attended Regional ever, three of the teams were Ole Miss, UT and Georgia, with Georgia winning its first Finals berth.
It says here Geno might even enjoy going to the Notre Dame Regional in this final year of on-campus (and therefore home team) sites. UConn has a sub-Regional walk of death for two opponents. Even Muffett McGraw of Notre Dame questions the integrity of allowing women’s teams to have such a Regional advantage.
The SEC top pick wants to play at Louisville, even if the now-damaged Cardinals are there, too.
Obviously UK would love to win the sub-Regional at home then stay in-state with a trip to the Final Four in Nashville on the line.
UT, after a Regional road trip (they go to either Notre Dame or Lincoln, Neb.) would come back to their home state for the finals as well.
On one amazing Saturday, three of the ranked SEC teams lost. The last of the undefeateds lost to a higher-ranked opponenet on the following day.
Our loyal critics don’t like to read this, but the SEC, top to bottom, is the toughest league in the country.
In the two months of league play, we mark the SEC Fab Five (those ranked in the AP poll). 51-7 against the world.
The next best four league teams (which does not even include Texas A&M at this point) are 45-5 against the world. These are the nine teams likely to be in the NCAA field, more than any other conference will have, and all are at lest halfway to that 20-win season marker.
As they unwrap presents this week, here’s how the Fab Five underperformed:•Kentucky:
The Wildcats were No. 5 in America when they lost by eight at home to the No. 2 team, Duke.
They only fell one spot.
The Blue Devils may be that team which is better than anyone else but UConn.
Tennessee used to play that role in the early days of the elite teams like Old Dominion and Louisiana Tech. They will be a formidable Regional foe in the NCAAs and likely the top seed at Louisville.
For a team which prides itself on preparation and defense, the Lady ‘Cats showed little of both as they simply could not control Duke All-America
The senior guard just mostly used her height and quickness to score easy layups no matter who was on her.
She scored a season-high 28.
The game had been moved to Rupp Arena to allow a larger crowd and 23,706 showed up, the largest crowd to see a women's game in Kentucky as well as the largest Duke has ever encountered.
Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie is one of the classiest in the game. She knows her history of the game, which is one reason she jumped from a Final Four team at Michigan State to a better opportunity in the ACC several seasons ago.
“It was a great crowd, super crowd for women’s basketball,” she said.
“I think that’s really important. We were thrilled to be here. I was really proud of our team’s poise and composure. I thought we had tremendous adversity with the foul trouble, too many people with four fouls.
“Wow, we had some serious foul trouble, but we continued to persevere as a team. I thought Tricia’s leadership was incredible. She is a very, very smart basketball player with a lot of experience. She was huge for us in terms of gluing it together.
“ We’ve played a great schedule in 2013. We have a lot more of that coming after Christmas. This was good for us, gives us a chance to grow a little bit.”
The 6-foot-1 Liston thrived on mismatches and was 10-of-19 from the field, including two 3s, finishing a point short of a career best. Duke's 6-3 center, Elizabeth Williams, was 6-of-10 with 17 points and eight rebounds.
The Blue Devils (12-1) stifled Kentucky (11-1) around the basket, limiting the home team to 25-of-75 shooting (33 percent) and 3-of-15 on 3s. Kentucky perhaps showed the most shakiness from the line, a season-worst 8-of-19.
Janee Thompson had 12 second-half points to lead Kentucky and helped cut the difference to 59-55 with 6:07 remaining.
Liston answered with consecutive layups to stretch Duke's lead back to eight and provide a safe cushion as the Blue Devils won their second in a row after the blowout loss to UConn.
"We just stayed more focused on what we needed to do, taking care of the ball and getting stops on defense, rather than worrying about it getting too tight," Liston said. "We needed to make sure not to get involved with the crowd and everything else that was going on. We did a really good job of staying poised and staying with our game plan."
UK coach Mitchell pulled no punches.
"They outworked us today and I think that's what happens in games with two really good teams going at it," Mitchell said. "They were just a team that worked harder. Not that our team didn't work hard, I just think Duke worked harder. You give them credit. They did a nice job."
The game began in a charged atmosphere with the Wildcats playing before a crowd four times their season average at nearby Memorial Coliseum.
Duke entered its third game in a week after blowing out Albany on Thursday.
There have been few easy opponents for the Blue Devils, particularly this month with Kentucky representing their fourth ranked foe in five games.
With size advantages at many positions including Williams having a two-inch edge over anyone guarding her, Duke simply exploited it on both ends.
Frequent layups helped the Blue Devils shoot 14-of-29 from the field including seven straight baskets during one stretch.
Again, Mitchell kept the harshest observations of his own team’s lack of transition defense.
“I thought it was poor,” he said.
“I thought that we didn't communicate well. That is the coach's fault. That's a direct result of practice and what they're doing in practice.
“So we'll take the blame for that one. We didn't have our players in good position to transition defense. Again, Duke outworked us there. Just ran by us a few times.
“So as a coach you need to have your team prepared much better than we were prepared today, so I feel bad for our players that I didn't have them any better prepared.”
"One thing that we talked about was being able to control the tempo this game, knowing they were a pressing team," Williams said. "We were aware of their pressure and overall we did a pretty good job."
Duke's length also made it difficult for Kentucky to pass and shoot against the zone. The Wildcats began 0-for-5 en route to 10 of 35 for the half, often finding hands in front of them as they struggled to work the ball inside and around the perimeter, keeping them from spotting up from long range
UK is still without senior team leader and leading scorer among the starters, DeNesha Stallworth, expected to miss at least another week while recovering from cleanup arthroscopic knee surgery.
Mitchell would not take the bait on a homer question about missing her.
“You can talk about that all you want to. It's not anything,” he said. “We won't know unless we play them again and DeNesha is in the game. So it's just not valuable in my mind to talk about it.
“It was Duke's players versus our players, and we did not get the job done.
The next team for the UK meat grinder is Grambling before a relatively light SEC opening at Alabama and home for Florida.•Tennessee:
It used to be UT played the toughest non-conference schedule. This year, only the second ranked team on their schedule was at Stanford.
That showed up when the then-No. 6 Cardinal (they moved to No. 4) pushed out to a halftime lead at home and held on to give UT (10-1) its only loss so far, 76-70.
At 13-0 run early basically won it for Stanford, ahead by seven at the break and outscored by a basket in the second half.
The Lady Vols have lost 13 straight road games against Top 10 teams dating back to 2008. Yet they remain No. 5 in America.
Tara VanDerveer had one simple message for her players before facing Tennessee: "If we rebound, we win."
Chiney Ogwumike and Co. answered that challenge. Ogwumike had 32 points, a season-best 20 rebounds -- 11 offensive -- and three blocks.
It is Ogwumike’s fourth game with 30 points or better already this season. She had 18 points and 11 rebounds at the break.
For the only time all season, Tennessee was outrebounded, 24-19 at the half, 43-40 for the game. They had been winning the backboards by 16 per game.
"I have a great support system," Ogwumike said. "It's just being aggressive. It's those little things."
Freshman Lili Thompson finished with a season-best 14 points. Taylor Greenfield hit a trio of 3-pointers in the first half on the way to 11 points off the bench.
"This game really boiled down to we had Chiney," VanDerveer said. "Chiney had a monster game. She's a warrior for us."
At the very end, Amber Orrange scored on a left-handed layin and was fouled with 25.8 seconds left. She hit the free throw, helping seal the deal. Stanford (10-1) has its first three-game winning streak in the rivalry between perennial national powers.
"We were playing some very young players," VanDerveer said. "I thought they did a really good job, handled the ball and worked hard."
Andraya Carter's baseline 3-pointer with 1:02 remaining cut the Cardinal's lead to 70-68 but Stanford kept possession with 36 seconds to go on a jump ball in a big break, and Orrange came through.
Ariel Massengale scored 17 and Meighan Simmons 15 to lead the Lady Vols (10-1). Stanford forced them into 35.8 percent from the floor.
After Bashaara Graves scored to cut the Cardinal's lead to 38-33 with 18:10 remaining.
Graves, Tennessee’s most athletic player was toast on defending Ogwumike.
Ogwumike drove the lane for easy layins, converted putbacks or simply out-jumped Tennessee to catch high lob passes into the paint before pivoting around to score.
“Everything I tried to do, I tried to box her out, it just didn’t work,” Graves said. “There's no way she should have had that many offensive rebounds.”
"I thought we got good looks," UT coach Warlick said. "You've got to make free throws, layups and free throws. If you don't make those you're not going to win games. At crucial times we didn't make free throws, and at crucial times we gave up the 3-point shot. Little things for us got magnified today."
Warlick, now firmly in charge of all areas of the program, has said they will not interrupt the SEC season any more once they play Notre Dame in the final game of a contract in January.
The next-to-last non-conference game is in state at Lipscomb. The Bisons have already been pounded by UK and Georgia. This will be more of the same.
Then the Lady Vols open the SEC with two ranked opponents, vs. LSU and at Georgia.•South Carolina:
The Gamecocks celebrated their arrival in the Top 10 by topping Winthrop, 69-61, then South Carolina State, 70-26. Then they fell to No. 13.
Tiffany Mitchell led the Winthrop game, with 20 points. 4 3s and 7-of-9 overall from the field. On one of the 3s, she was fouled and made the free throw for a four-point play.
"She would want to take those shots and more if it was up to her," Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said.
Her biggest basket came after Winthrop cut a 19-point lead down to 61-57 in the final four minutes. A jumper pushed the lead back to eight and Winthrop was out of comebacks.
"I think (Staley) is most comfortable, when we need big shots, to put the ball in my hands," said Mitchell, a 5-foot-9 sophomore guard. "Not necessarily to have me shooting the ball, but to get people open as well."
Mitchell said the other go-to player is senior Aleighsa Welch, who added 14 points.
The Gamecocks started strong,14-0.
"I actually think we relaxed a little bit on them and they came and slapped us in the face," Tiffany Davis said. "Kind of unexpected."
Winthrop forced the Gamecocks into a season-high 20 turnovers.
Against State, SC scored enough in either half to still win by double-digits.
The Lady Bulldogs (1-8) didn't have many answers for the faster, taller, stronger Gamecocks (11-1). Freshman Alaina Coates had her best effort, 23 points on perfect shooting (7-of-7 from the field, 9-of-9 from the free throw line) as South Carolina eventually built a 52-point lead against a conference championship team which went 20-9 last season.
Staley was naturally happy to see Coates put a full game together.
"I guess she straightened some things out," Staley said. "She's in control of the effort she puts out on the floor. Alaina just has to understand the talent and ability that she has."
Coates realized as the second half wore on she hadn't missed, but said that gave her more confidence to continue her run.
"It felt good out there," she said.
Coates finished with five rebounds and three of the team's five blocked shots. The Gamecocks went on a 19-0 run in the first half and a 24-2 run to start the second.
"I think we're in a good place right now heading into the hardest part of the year," Welch said.
South Carolina State was held to under 25 percent shooting (12 of 49), which included a 2-of-19 on 3s. Leading scorer Kourtney Williams, averaging18.8 points coming, scored six on 3-of-14 from the field.
The Gamecocks played without starting point guard Khadijah Sessions, who injured her left ankle in the North Carolina loss. Sessions was on crutches on the bench. SC has Savannah left in the year then has a relatively soft SEC opening at still-unbeaten Arkansas and at Vanderbilt.•Georgia:
The No. 19 Lady ’Dawgs found out legendary Rutgers leader C. Vivian Stringer can still coach ‘em up for at least one night. They slipped three spots in the poll.
The Scarlet Knights blew most of a lead before hanging on when the final 3 clanked off the rim, 61-58.
"We needed to have our confidence as this is a young group," Stringer said. "This is a major game to find out how well we're going to play at that level."
Rutgers (9-2) lost its only other game against a ranked SEC opponent this season, falling to LSU. The Scarlet Knights also had added incentive after losing at Georgia last year.
The Scarlet Knights scored six straight to make it 51-46 with 5 minutes left, then 59-52 with 21 seconds to go.
Shacobia Barbee hit a 3-pointer to make it a four-point game. After a missed free throw Barbee did it again, and it was 59-58 with seven seconds left. Two free throws later, it was up to Khaalidah Miller's try for a 3 from 35-feet at the buzzer. It hit the front of the rim.
Barbee finished with a season-high 18 -- 17 of them in the second half -- to lead 11-1 Georgia.
The 24 turnovers forced by Rutgers was the difference. The Lady ‘Dawgs turned it over on their first six possessions. They didn't score for nearly 6 minutes.
“We weren't executing and something we learned was that we need to take care of the ball every possession," Barbee said.
This was only the second trip out of the state of Georgia for the Lady Bulldogs, who played at Belmont earlier this month.
"I'm proud of the fact that we didn't fold," Georgia coach Andy Landers said. "They handed it to us the first five or six minutes and we got our balance and fought back. From that point on really played pretty decent."
"As everyone knows the SEC is a tough league," Miller said. "We knew it would be a really good game against a really good team and it's what we'll see in the SEC as well."
Georgia plays Illinois to close the year before starting the SEC with the Tennessee two-step, at Vanderbilt and then Tennessee at home.•LSU:
The 16th-ranked Tigers had the seven-game win streak mangled on the road by unranked North Carolina State, 89-79. They fell four places in the poll.
State (11-1) won both halves. Markeisha Gatling and Kody Burke each scored 25. Gatling hit 11-of-13 from the field and grabbed eight rebounds.
Burke drilled three straight jumpers to help NC State to a 12-6 lead to start the game, but the Lady Tigers clawed their way back in, taking a lead on a Theresa Plaisance 3 with 9:44 left.
Gatling's layup with 8:01 left sparked an 11-1 run that put the Wolfpack back in the lead for good.
Plaisance finished with 18 points off the bench to lead LSU (9-2). Jeanne Kenney added 17 points. Freshman Rina Hill had her best showing with 15, 7-of-8 from the floor.
“We did not have our best night defensively,” said LSU coach Nikki Caldwell. “Gatling and Burke really exploited us and were dominant in the paint. We had an opportunity to cut into the lead but we kept swapping baskets. We had to get stops. We couldn’t get anything working in our favor defensively.
“We have to be better defensively. “We can’t go on the road and give up that many points because of our lack of intensity. We are going to take ownership of it. We are going to have to dial up our intensity in defensive drills.”
LSU has Jackson State left to close the year before the SEC opens for them at Tennessee on Jan. 2.
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