Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Conference Already Reloading For 2014-15
As if the rest of America has not noticed the best league in the country, early returns on the next rookie class show promise.
The SEC is well-represented in the McDonald High School All-America game.
Tennessee has two (Jaime Nared and Alea Middleton); South Carolina has two Bianca Cuevas and Jatarie White); and Kentucky has one (Alyssa Rice).
The best player in high school America still has not committed. A’ja Wilson has grown up in SEC country, Hopkinsville, S.C., but we still think she is going to UConn, as we projected this summer.
The SEC teams with high school All-Americans are half of the ranked teams in the AP poll, whom we call the Select Six. The elite group had two conference games featuring a ranked team vs. a ranked team.
As it stands right now, the No. 7 and No. 17 teams in the country are tied for first in the SEC; both of them will say the latter rating is the more significant one.
All the SEC teams play on Super Bowl Sunday, by the way, with Tennessee unafraid to let its 4 p.m. start detract for the Super hype. The matchups featuring two ranked teams are also both on Sunday.
Here’s how the week went for the Select Six:
•No. 7 South Carolina: The Gamecocks know one thing for sure: They can beat Vanderbilt. They gave the Commodores their second league loss, a bookend to the first, winning by four at Nashville.
Interestingly, SC was No. 10 and moved up to its highest ranking ever while Vandy, with the loss, also moved up one spot
The visitors carved out a four-point halftime lead and played them even in the second half. It is Vandy’s only home loss this season
SC never faltered.
Tiffany Mitchell scored on a driving layup with 50.9 seconds left to cement it.
Coach Dawn Staley has never lost at Nashville.
Mitchell beat the shot clock for the next-to-last basket, then stole the ball and finished off the fast break with another layup with 34.3 seconds to seal the deal.
Vanderbilt’s four-game winning streak was over, despite Christina Foggie’s 23 points. She had little help. Classmate Jasmine Lister is the third-best league scorer at nearly 17 per, but scored just four this time.
“They made me look good,” Staley said.
She also credited her defense.
The Gamecocks held the SEC's best 3-point shooting team to its worst performance this season, 1-for-5. Vanderbilt averages more than six 3s per game.
"If they are able to get off more 3-point shots or makes, they win this basketball game," Staley said. "So kudos to our kids for buying into our game plan and executing it to a T."
Next up was another walkover at home, Ole Miss.
The Gamecocks took a 14-point halftime lead to a 99-70 win. A 19-1 run closed the half.
Alaina Coates continued a sensational rookie season with 24 points and 12 rebounds. It is her fourth double-double. Center Elem Ibiam had 14 points, eight rebounds and five blocks.
Staley had planned to experiment with both of them in the lineup at the same time. It is no longer an experiment.
“This game is made of runs,” Staley said. “Ole Miss has been in almost all its games, so we knew what we were faced with. We knew we were going to be challenged. I think that over 40 minutes, we were able to impose our will on them by getting the ball down low and being efficient on the offensive end.”
At 7-1 and numerically tied for first, it is Gamecocks' best start ever in conference. Texas A&M holds the tiebreak over them, having beaten SC in the only head-ro-head this season.
SC will be the first to 20 wins, sitting on 19. A hot Missouri team visits Sunday.
•No. 10 Tennessee: OK, so no team will get through the league season without a loss.
Tennessee underlined the message on the road at league leader Texas A&M.
You could hear Tennessee coach Holly Warlick’s exclamation of delight from College station to Knoxville on the 11-point win. Tennessee is just one back in the league standings. UT moved up one spot in the national rankings and A&M, losing to a high-ranked team, did not move.
Senior point guard Meighan Simmons was 12-of-19 from the field and led everyone with 26 points in 39 minutes. Sophomore forward Bashaara Graves, rounding back into shape after two minor injuries, was finally back in the starting lineup, one of four in double figures with 5-of-7 from the field. Off the bench, freshman forward/center Mercedes Russell had 11 rebounds, her best effort.
A&M’s leading scorer, Courtney Walker, hit for 20 in front of 7,207 witnesses. They cannot meet again this season until the SEC tournament.
A 36-20 halftime lead established who was likely to win. It was 8-0 in the first six minutes for the Lady Vols, then 18-10 on a Simmons steal and feed to Jordan Reynolds for a jumper.
With five minutes to go in the half, another feed from Simmons to junior forward Cierra Burdick made it 25-10. A steal and layup by redshirt freshman Andraya Carter finished the half with the visitors ahead by 16.
“What a performance, what a great team effort,” said Warlick
“On one of those shots, it was where where I said, ‘Don't shoot. Good shot!’
“I'm just proud of our effort. Ten turnovers -- we've been working on that so much. We thought we had a chance if we could take care of the ball and not give them fastbreak points. It was just a great win for us.”
She said they never got out of sync in this one.
“They learned and I learned too. I think I’ve got to be a little bit more strategic on my timeouts. I thought that if they hit four points in a row, I was calling my timeouts. So, I kind of stuck to that and it settled them down. We just answered their runs.
“I thought we came up with some big defensive rebounds. They were one-and-done. They settled a little bit and hit outside shots, but we wanted to make sure that we were contesting. We didn't want to give them and-ones with the fouling. I thought we gave them long shots, but they weren't 3.”
So now Warlick, wjho pointed out the obvious last week that all they have to do it win out, can voice a little more theory on conference play.
“It gives us confidence,” she said. “We didn’t want to go down three losses in the SEC. We thought we could make a very good statement here. We thought it would be a tough place to play, which it was. We're just building our momentum.
“If we play solid and play together with each other, we're a daggone good basketball team.”
Hot shooting – 62 percent from the floor – doomed Arkansas in a 70-60 UT win.
Burdick and Simmons each hit 16 points as the Lady Vols hung in second in the league with just two conference losses.
"That was a great win for us- different first half, great second half. I'll tell you, Arkansas is a very good basketball team,” Warlick said.
“Their record is no indication of the talent that they have. We were concerned about this game. We have a lot of respect for them and it proved to be true. I think we battled, we hung tough. In the second half, we decided to get a little bit serious about our defense- good win for us.”
She said Burdick’s effort could not be overstated.
“I didn’t realize she played 39 minutes, but she’s just been solid for us. I'll tell you this: She stayed, she played pretty hard, she stayed pretty focused in the leadership role she was in tonight, so I'm proud of her.
“I thought she hit big, it seemed like every shot she took was a big shot for us. I think Cierra is playing within herself, meaning she’s not having to shoot a spectacular shot. She’s taking the shots that are given to her and she's making them, so I think she's taking very makeable shots for her and she's always been a great rebounder for us, so I thought she played a great game; it was one of the reasons we stayed in the game and then took the lead as well.”
Ever coaching the mental aspect of the game, Warlick had banned the Lady Vols from using their own locker room a few games back.
They have been allowed back in.
“Well they lost it just because of a couple of things. It was a coaches’ choice and I thought we needed to put value in practice and value in wearing a Tennessee uniform and I think after the Notre Dame game and after we had our meeting -- and I thought the result of how good we played together against Florida and A&M -- I thought they deserved to get it back.
“It’s not a guaranteed thing. They’re renters right now. So they’re renting the locker room and they can get evicted any time the owner or the landlord feels like they could be evicted.
“They did not (have it) for the past two weeks, it was before Notre Dame. I just think that we got comfortable with things and I think we got comfortable with things in the locker room and I think we got comfortable with things in practice and we can’t get comfortable. We've got to keep battling and I thought they had to get uncomfortable.”
As projected last week, starting point guard Ariel Massengale skipped the two games this week with symptoms of a concussion after banging her head into the home court last week.
"Ariel is still day to day,” Warlick said. “I can't tell you, they just continue to evaluate her and hopefully we'll get her back soon. Obviously we miss her. We want her back on this team. It'd be really nice to have her back and have 11 strong."
UT goes for an 18th win at unchallenging Alabama on Sunday. With hosting an NCAA sub-regional and having a 20-win season all but assured, they are also assured of an NCAA bid.
•No. 13 Kentucky: The Wildcats fell out of the Top 10 again after two straight losses then came back with a split week.
First up was Arkansas, a team undefeated against the world and, after this, 2-5 against the league.
UK coach Matthew Mitchell has been trying all sorts of things to shake up his team. This time it was starting with a 2-3 zone and saving the man-to-man for the second half.
Which is where UK won it, a 37-26 second half and a 10-point win at home. Arkansas had one basket in the final 2:39. And the Razorbacks had a 43-33 lead with 17 to go, which made this a 20-point swing.
The Wildcats have 16 wins, all but assured of another 20-win season, They are 4-3 in the conference.
“With the way we have been acting and feeling sorry for ourselves that was a critical juncture down 10 with no life whatsoever,” said Mitchell.
“So you give credit to those kids that went out there and flipped that 20-point swing and I did need to see that. That was huge and really, really big. What we have to do is get everybody feeling that way and everybody working like that.
"Really happy with the freshmen on the bench, playing three minutes apiece, but they were exuberant and happy after the victory, that is what we need.”
“(Their defense) sped us up and got the crowd in the game,” Arkansas coach Tom Collen said. “I’ve played here enough times, when they get sped up, they speed you up and the crowd starts roaring. Before you know it, it slides away from you pretty quick. I thought that was a key decision on their part. They got a much-needed win and we let one slip away.”
The mind game worked as well.
“We never practiced against the zone the entire week," Collen said. "We had no anticipation or thought they would do it.”
That's when things fell apart for Arkansas.
Backed by a noisy 5,396, Kentucky used an 11-2 run to make it a one-point deficit as junior guard Bria Goss scored five in the run.
Senior forward Samarie Walker’s basket gave the Wildcats a 53-50 lead with 8:36 remaining.
Thompson scored seven points in a 9-0 run by Kentucky.
Among the other changes by Mitchell was starting senior guard Jennifer O'Neill for only the second time all season and starting junior forward Jilleah Sidney for the first time ever. Mitchell said they earned the time during workouts.
O’Neill scored 21 – 16 in the contentious first half -- to lead three UK players in
double figures. She hit 8-of-12 from the field with five of Kentucky's nine 3s
“Yeah, we just tried to put (the losses) behind us. You will never be able to figure that one out and why players did what they did.
“But, my job was to come in and make sure the atmosphere was such that that was not acceptable the way that we performed. I just had a conversation with (O’Neill) this morning.
"We were dragging around like we were feeling sorry for ourselves and the weight of the world was on us. What is going to happen from here on out is that people are going to compete in practice every day and they are going to fight for Kentucky every day and if they are not they are going to be really, really unhappy.
"So Jennifer was in that boat and had to step up and she is a very talented player and you could see today she was the best player on the floor. That is how she has to play and she made things happen today and I am so proud of her defense. She just has to have her mind right.“
The Atlanta area had been closed down for two days by a rare Deep South deep freeze. Kentucky had to land at Atlanta then bus to Georgia.
The visitors never thawed out and lost an embarrassing game, 58-56. The ’Dawgs had started the season 11-0 and ranked nationally, but the league decimated them to 0-4 and way out of national consideration. Still, Georgia’s defense has been tops in the league, allowing 55.9 in the conference games.
So this game was more of UK’s failure to produce offensively and falling to Georgia’s defense. They hit 30 percent from the field after coming in as the nation’s fifth high-scoring team.
Among the players, Walker has no answer.
“We're just trying to keep our heads up right now, but I think as a whole we’re getting down on ourselves,” Walker said. “We have to stay together and keep being tough.”
She was the only Kentucky player to hit double figures. They had five players averaging double figures as the game began. O’Neill, Kentucky's leading scorer this season, finished with two points and 0-for-7 from the field.
Georgia is an extremely young team. Sophomore Merritt Hempe had 15 points and 11 rebounds -- a first career double-double – to lead Georgia.
“I just kept saying that we had this the whole time,” Hempe said. “I just kept thinking we had this, and there's no way that we weren’t going to have this game. We all just wanted it so bad, and we fought so hard. There was no way we were giving that game away.”
With four league losses, Kentucky is all but out of the conference race. As a sub-Regional host, they’ll still be in the NCAA tournament but may well be one of those hosts with a higher-seeded team in their gym.
With 22 seconds remaining, Marjorie Butler hit one free throw to give the Lady Bulldogs a 58-56 lead, but missed the second, and DeNesha Stallworth grabbed the rebound for Kentucky.
But O'Neill turned it over with 10 seconds left.
“We've got to find a way to get her back going,” UK coach Mitchell said of O’Neill. “I’m sure she wanted to win and was trying hard. The ball just didn't fall for her tonight.”
“We just couldn’t knock down shots tonight, couldn’t finish layups," Walker said about Kentucky getting outscored 36-18 underneath.
“A lot of that stuff was short. I think just the pace of the game -- we didn't really push the pace of the game. We weren’t getting a lot of shots off, and when we did, we weren't making them.”
The Wildcats' past seven SEC games have been decided by 11 points or less. They are 3-4 in that stretch.
LSU at Kentucky on Sunday now becomes a pivotal season game.
UK was participating in the fund-raiser for Alzheimer’s research as part of the leaguewide “We Back Pat” campaign honoring former Tennessee coach Pat Summittt.
The crowd made UK’s donation $20,236. Mitchell quietly doubled it himself, for a total donation of $40,472.
•No. 14 LSU: The Ben-Gals are hanging around with only two conference losses, the same as Tennessee. Ole Miss was not about to change that in a 10-point LSU win.
On the road, senior forward Theresa Plaisance scored 23 with 10 rebounds.
The LSU defense did not allow a point in the final three-and-a-half minutes, just when the home team had cut the deficit to one.
LSU hit 5-of-6 from the line and the Rebels were 0-of-6 from the field. Just 737 witnessed it.
“Theresa did a nice job of showing the toughness that it takes to play in the SEC,” coach Nikki Caldwell said. “We rode her. We talked about doing a nice job for our team by establishing an inside attack. We obviously need Theresa to perform every game, but I think her 10 rebounds and her board play were keys for us.
“She played nicely out of the double teams, and she was able to find some of her teammates. You got to see what we have always known existed in Theresa that she is a well-rounded basketball player.”
She also said the defense made the difference.
“When you come on the road especially in the SEC, we understand that you have to bring your defense and your board play,” Caldwell said.
“I felt as though Ole Miss did a nice job in the first half of exploiting us in their transition game and they were running it to perfection. They did a nice job of setting the tone after the first four minutes.
“For the second half, we talked about how we needed to establish an inside attack and did just that. That was the difference in the game. Defensively, we did a nice job of forcing Ole Miss into some jump shots and taking away some paint points.”
Mississippi State is just as unchallenging as their neighbors, though they did take a six-point halftime lead. LSU scored the first four of the second segment and the game was on.
LSU won for the fifth time this season after trailing at halftime, 65-56.
For the third time this season, LSU had four players in double figures including Shanece McKinney’s career-high 19 points and freshman Raigyne Moncrief’s SEC high 17.
In the second half, LSU was 17-of-26 from the floor for 65.4 percent.
LSU moved up one spot in the national poll. With hosting an NCAA sub-regional and having a 20-win season all but assured, LSU is assured of an NCAA bid.
•No. 16 Vanderbilt: The Commodores weren’t able to shake off the SC loss. Losing next at Missouri, 59-54. The Tigers took a 33-20 halftime edge. And this was supposed to be the break in playing four of five ranked teams in succession, Missouri being the unranked one.
The game opened agonizingly slowly, with only a 5-4 lead for the home team after the first five minutes and 8-8 with eight minutes left.
Vandy’s only scoring in the final six minutes were free throws. Missouri’s bench had begun to produce, with 20 points to six for Vandy.
The Commodores were on their way to shooting 22 percent for the game, 15 percent below their league average. Missouri only needs six more wins to nab an elusive NCAA invitation, as every league team with 20 wins has gotten in.
Freshman Kayla McDowell, forced into early action when foul trouble hit the starters responded with her best effort, 13 points and eight rebounds.
The defense really showed in the endgame when Missouri got two stops in the final minute,
“I thought defensively we were spot on for 40 minutes,” said Missouri coach Robin Pingeton.
“We had some silly ticky-tack fouls there at the end and we gave them a chance, but down the stretch we played with great toughness and it's a great win for us.”
The win ended a four-game losing streak. Pingeton said she constantly reminds the players about perspective.
“We talk so much about the process and I feel there have been so many great things that have happened in the last couple of weeks,” she said. “We are so much better than what we were a year ago, but we are also playing some of the top teams in the country, some of the best teams in our league, so it is really important to keep things in perspective.”
Missouri has 14 wins, 10 at home. Vandy sinks to three losses in the league and must greet A&M on Sunday followed by a trip to Tennessee a week later.
•No. 17 Texas A&M: The Aggies forgot the Tennessee loss at Auburn, 71-54. A&M doubled them in the first half, 32-16, and cruised. It is the the fifth time in eight SEC games the Aggies held their opponent to 20 or fewer points in the first half.
Conference player of the week Courtney Williams scored 17, center Karla Gilbert 16 with seven defensive rebounds and Courtney Walker 13 with five assists. It is Walker’s seventh straight game in double figures.
Texas A&M won for the seventh time in eight SEC games.
After allowing the first basket, A&M scored the next 14 points to take a 14-3 lead over the Tigers. The Aggies led 32-16 at halftime.
A&M is No. 10 in America in defense, allowing an average 55 points per game.
So that aspect of their game has been tuned up for this league run.
A&M has 17 wins. With hosting an NCAA sub-regional and a 20-win season assured, the Aggies have likely qualified for the NCAA draw.
The Aggies are at Vanderbilt on Sunday, then has LSU at home Feb. 9.
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