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Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: The Crunch is Under Way

By Mike Siroky

Kentucky’s Matthew Mitchell has been around long enough to know it’s as much his job to coach the mind game as the physical game.

“It is such an interesting part of being a teacher and coach, such a journey to try and figure out each and every year what work,” he said.

His team split again this week, losing another home game to an unranked team.

“As players change from year to year, you can’t ever coach by making assumptions,” he said. “You find out what you don’t know.

“I admire the coaches who get consistency year in and year out. Players must want really hard to prepare.”

The ranked teams in the AP poll, whom we call the Select Six, had two conference games featuring ranked teams.

Tennessee lost to the No. 2 team in the nation and ended the out of conference mark for the Select Six at 67-11 this season.

Here’s how the rest of the week went for the Select Six:

•No. 17 Texas A&M: The Aggies started their week at Auburn, which allowed them to solidify the national ranking and the undefeated run in the first five league games, 73-35.

A&M won the opening half by 13 and then allowed only 15 points in the second. For the game, state hit .203 from the floor. Courtney Walker scored 16 and Courtney Williams 15. The rebounds difference was 51-29.

Walker earned conference player of the week honors, scoring double figures now in five straight, averaging 17 for the week.

"We were well-prepared," said Walker. “We had some really long practices the past few days based on the fact that they know all of our plays. We executed more and got to the hole by being aggressive.”

Next up was a road trip to Missouri. Walker hit for 21 and Williams 14 and the Aggies had their ninth straight win and a 6-0 conference start.

A&M coach Gary Blair said it is all a matter of sticking with the game plan.

“They shoot 3s and shoot them well (7-of-20, including 5-of-8 by Morgan Eye). In the second half, we did a better job of getting out there instead of running into screens. They were setting a lot of double-screens. We'd get by the first one and then we'd run right into the second one.

“I think sometimes when you completely rely on that 3, you can win a lot of ballgames that way because I don't have a lot of 3-point shooters; so what we want to do is shoot less 3s.”

He spread the praise for Missouri, complimenting coach Robin Pingeton and superstar and junior guard Eye.

“What a catch-and-shoot person,” he said of Eye. “You can play Division I college basketball if you can catch and shoot and play adequate defense and she represents y'all very well; did a great job.

“But then give our defense some credit in the second half because I think we did a few things to hurt them. I could not play my bigs against y'all. It's like guarding a five-guard offense and we got hurt a couple of times, but I had to go to what it took to win the game.

“As a result, we lose the rebounding battle that way. But it was a good college basketball game. Robin is doing a great job with her team there. I give a lot of credit to Missouri; they're going through a tough stretch: Seven out of eight ranked teams that they've played. But this is the SEC. We're not in the Big 12 anymore. You play against Olympians and All-Americans everyday in every sport. “

Walker supported her coach’s game plan.

”We really did the same thing as the first half except we did no-catch on Morgan Eye because she's such a quick catch-and-shoot that any type of help is a shot and a make,” Walker observed.

“There was no-help, no-catch on her at all opposed to the first half where we were just tight on everyone and just small help and get back. I think that really helped, her not getting touches. We really had to adjust, like (Bair) said.”

Now A&M has a shot at another statement game when Tennessee comes in Sunday for the showdown of last season’s conference tournament champion vs. the regular-season champion.

•No. 9 Kentucky: The Wildcats used their week off, apparently, to get rusty in time for the Alabama two-step, first at Auburn, a 73-71 win.

Once again, it was Jennifer O’Neill, off the bench with 16 points, to lead them.
UK missed its first eight shots and was behind at the half, 37-36.

Meagan Tucker hit a jumper with 67 seconds left to cut the deficit to two, bringing Auburn within two points. The Wildcats worked 20 seconds off the clock and then called timeout. O'Neill missed two long jumpers in the final seconds, but freshman Linnae Harper and senior Samarie Walker grabbed the offensive rebounds.

Walker missed two free throws with 6 seconds remaining. Tyrese Tanner, who scored 28 points, rebounded and threw it to Katie Frerking. O'Neill smothered her in the corner and Auburn couldn't get a final shot off.

Walker’s missed free throws continued a trend as they missed 8-of-19 after the break. They finished 17 points below their season average.

Thanks to O’Neill and 13 from Harper, the UK bench outscored the home bench, 40-3.
“I really want to compliment Auburn, they played a really tough game and made it real hard on us to win the game,” said UK coach Matthew Mitchell.

“We had to make some big plays to get the victory. To come on the road against a really good team that's motivated to win and plays hard, these are difficult games to win.”

He said his own defense let him down.

“We just couldn't get much done on our man-to-man defense today which was disappointing. It has really been the hallmark of our program,” he said, adding his team’s D is better than it showed in this game.

On the free-throw lack of concentration, Mitchell observes: “We really failed to cash in at the free throw line today and that’s been a real problem for us and I can’t explain it. We are good shooters, we are good free throw shooters and we are just struggling there.”

Auburn’s players agreed the back-to-back rebounds allowed at the end was very frustrating.

Auburn coach Terri Williams-Fournoy said of the missed opportunity to make a statement win, “The opportunity was there. We played hard. Sometimes we just didn’t do everything that we needed to do like rebounding the basketball on the defensive end.

”They got too many offensive possessions. At that point you have to box out and get that defensive rebound to even give yourself a chance. That was hurting us in some possessions. Kentucky is a very good offensive rebounding team. It doesn't take a whole lot of skill, but it really takes a whole lot of effort.

“We just didn't box out. We weren't as sharp as we weren't ready to shoot sometimes. There are so many aspects of the game you can look at, but it is that one possession that stands out the most.”

Auburn's No. 2 scorer, Hasina Muhammad, missed the game, injured.

The next foe was at home against unranked Alabama, a team they had smashed by 25 to open the SEC season, including hitting 10-of-20 3s.

Alabama’s Daisah Simmon scored on a layup with three seconds left and the Tide had an important road win, 57-55. It was the visitors’ first points in the final 3:49. All UK could manage in the time span were four free throws by junior point guard O’Neill.

UK has lost two league games at home. In the first game, O’Neill led the UK scoring with 17, five above her team-leading average now. She had four points in this game.
Simmons, meanwhile, scored 21 and the visitors outrebounded the Wildcats by two. Walker led UK with 18 points on 8-of-9 from the field. But she fouled out and was not available at the end when her rebounding strength was most needed.

The bench was outscored, 15-8. UK sunk to 3-3 in the league, three games off Texas A&M’s undefeated pace.

It is Alabama’s first win in Lexington since 2002 and the first road win against a Top 10 team since 1998.

“You have to congratulate Alabama for playing really hard,” Mitchell said.

“I thought their team really fought hard and as we let the game extend and they were able to stay in the game all night long. We just never could get enough separation.

“I thought we had maybe the momentum turned when we got it to an eight-point lead but they fought back hard and you have to give them credit for winning. Clearly we are struggling right now and need to find some way to right the ship and get back headed in the right direction. We need to get that way fast.

“We needed to find some way to win the game and I just thought that if we could have done that no matter what was going on in the game, if you could just find some kind of energy to make some plays and get some stops.

“Clearly our offense wasn’t very good tonight, but still thought we could have played better defensively and worked harder there. It was just a tough, tough night for us.

"When we have played our best we have been able to hold our own at the 3-point stripe and make five or six of those in a game. If you could have gotten that to happen tonight you would have been OK. It is a tough go right now and there is just no other thing to do but to go back to work and fight your way out of it.”

He admitted his team had been outhustled at home, as they had the superior energy in the win at Alabama.

“Yeah, I thought that in Tuscaloosa we really hustled hard and we were able to score 82 points and able to put some pressure on them and sort of get some separation and get them down. We just couldn’t do that tonight.

“Defensively, we are just really struggling to set a tone with tempo and we played much faster and more energetic down there. They scored less points tonight, we were much more sharp and in-tune and hustled together a lot more. But our psyche was totally different at that point in time and pour psyche has taken a hit and you can’t stay down in that and keep talking about it. You just have to find a way to battle back and get a victory.”

So now the focus shifts to worrying only about the next game.

“You just come back and practice really hard tomorrow and you get into one-game season mode,” Mitchell said.

“Listen, you can spend hours and hours running things through your head and trying to figure this out and that out and there is a bottom line. We will look at the film and there will be a lot of reasons why we lost the game.

“Listen, we are 3-3 and that is not where anybody wanted to be after six games, but it is not 0-6 and it is certainly not time to start folding the tent up and saying the season is over. We just have to go back and win a game. There is nowhere to go or nowhere to hide or no magic pill that we can take.”

UK next plays the two mystery teams of the league, Arkansas and at Georgia.

•No. 11 Tennessee: OK, so here’s this game we have been pointing out as meaningless to the conference, No. 2 Notre Dame visiting. The rankings were out before this game was played and UT likely will not be penalized for losing to a team ranked nine spots higher.

Still, it was a blowout at home, by 16. And there were 13,346 witnesses.

It continues the unhealthy Lady Vol trend of losing to ranked teams all season.

A 45-24 second half was just embarrassing. The Irish bench outscored UT, 36-15.

Best for the Muffeteers was Kayla McBride with 22, which includes three 3s. Four others hit double figures. ND has won four straight in this soon-to-be abbreviated series, after losing the first 20 against the previous coach. The only chance they will see each other again soon is if UT gets sent to the Notre Dame Regional, a distinct possibility if UT is a runnerup in conference. It’s the kind of marquee matchup the NCAA loves to schedule in the Sweet 16.

ND coach Muffet McGraw said it always helps to play a top team.

“You know, we’re veterans. I thought, ‘We’re going to learn a lesson win or lose, it’s going to help us down the road, prepare us for the ACC.’

“I mean a great crowd, a hostile environment. We haven’t really seen anything quite this big this year. So, I thought it was a great opportunity for us to see where we are and it wasn’t really going to change a lot of things if we lost the game, but we would've had a little more focus heading into the ACC games.”

She was naturally satisfied her team, once down by 12 in the opening half, held steady and eventually rocked the home team.

"I thought at halftime we were lucky to be down five,” she said. “I thought we really could’ve been down a lot. Got down 11 and had a nice run at the end of the half to kind of tighten the gap. I thought our bench was outstanding.

“I think there were two really big positives. One, we can come back from a deficit. That was the biggest one we've faced this year and didn't panic. Two, our bench is really ready to play. I thought we got great contributions off the bench.

”Yeah, we really haven't been challenged as much in games with this kind of crowd and all this hype on somebody else’s court, so I think it was good for us. It was good for the freshmen to be in this environment, first time on ESPN for them. I think the veterans really carried today.”

Meighan Simmons once again led UT, with 10-of-14 from the floor and an eventual 23 points.

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick was surprisingly upbeat, taking the attitude the event itself meant little other than facing a tough team under game conditions.

“I’m just proud of our kids’ effort,” Warlick said. “We had a great first half, just couldn’t sustain what we had. We went against a tough team and we just came up short. Loved our effort. It's a great foundation for us.

“We played hard and we played together in the first half. I just loved our energy. I loved our passion from the game and I think it's been so up and down the last couple games but I thought we came out and competed and that’s what I wanted them to do: Compete. Just couldn't finish the job.”

Florida had the unlucky draw of playing at a miffed Tennessee in their second game without the their best sub (she is suspended for the season) and with eight healthy players available.

Tennessee took advantage of that and Warlick’s good mood to punish the Gators, 89-69.

Bashaara Graves, rounding back into shape after two minor injuries, scored 17 with eight rebounds. Simmons led all scorers with 21 as five Lady Vols hit double-digits. UT is all alone at fourth in the league at 4-2. They had 10,541 fans at this one.

"Great win for us,” Warlick said. “Any win is a great win. We did some great things, played together and we talked a lot about that this week. Just proud of our effort. We had some great hustle plays and distributed the ball. I know we had some great assists. I can't even think right now. I'm kind of happy on how we played."

She said maintaining an edge in the second half is a point of emphasis right now.
"Absolutely. We talked a lot about that this week. This team seems to let things affect them. They do one thing wrong, and then we seem to drop our shoulders. We talked a lot about refocusing.

“I've said on defense the last two days, ‘I don't care if you make a mistake, I want the effort and the energy. Just fly around. I just wanted them to fly around and move around.’ I think, for the most part, they did that.”

“Can we get better on defense? Absolutely, but I thought we communicated. We shot the ball well, but we took shots that we could make. Makeable shots.”

Tennessee guard Ariel Massengale didn't return to the game after getting hit in the face and falling to the floor while making a steal late in the first half.

"I think they're evaluating her,” Warlick said. “My first thought was that it's a concussion, but from this point I don't think it is. I think they're just going to evaluate her. I think she got hit in the head pretty incidentally. Got hit in the head pretty hard.”

Now Tennessee goes Sunday to the madhouse that is Texas A&M. The Aggies swept the conference tournament last season after Tennessee had won the regular season with games to spare.

Before the game, the Pat Summitt Foundation received three checks totaling $30,000 in honor of the SEC's "We Back Pat" Week, an initiative focused on recognizing the foundation's fight against Alzheimer's disease. All league schools participated in the event at the Thursday games this week.

•No. 16 Vanderbilt: The Commodores started a string of having four ranked teams in five games. Is it an upset when a lower-ranked team beats a higher-ranked team, if the lower-ranked team is at home?

Well, Vandy was 24th and LSU 14th when the Ben-Gals visited. The Commodores won both halves and the game by nine, 79-70.

The new rankings are reflected in this report. Vanderbilt is one game back in the conference race.

The league’s leading scorer, Christina Foggie, scored 19 and senior classmate Jasmine Lister continued their 1-2 offensive punch with 15, 10-of-10 from the line with three 3s.

An 23-10 second-half run enabled Vandy to coast at the end, hitting 5-of-6 from the line to close it out.

"We just both took what the defense gave us, and what the offense gave us as well," said Lister. "Our team just executed well and set good screens. ... It's a team effort and our team did a great job of finding us shots."

Foggie seconded that idea.

“There’s a leadership role that goes along with just playing,” she said. “So you can’t just go out there and play. You’ve got to count for other people on your team. It’s good to have a partner to do it.”

”I have two seniors playing like seniors, very composed, big down the stretch, keeping the team together,” said coach Melanie Balcomb. “Then, a lot of players doing their role and doing their job to the best they can at the time. So you’re seeing different people step up. I thought we were really a team today.”

Vanderbilt, ranked among the Top-5 in the nation in field goal percentage and 3-point percentage, hit 52 percent from the floor, including 59 percent in the second half, and 7-of-11 from 3-point range (63.6).

Vanderbilt also made 24-of-30 attempts from the foul line to continue a season-long trend. The Commodores entered the game second in the SEC and 12th in the nation in free-throw percentage.

No. 10 South Carolina visits Sunday.

•No. 10 South Carolina: Rebounding from the loss at Texas A&M, the Gamecocks came home for Alabama. The game against the Tide featured a tribute to coach Dawn Staley upon her selection for the real Hall of Fame. It’s sorta like scheduling the pancake game in football for homecoming.

A 17-point halftime advantage led to a 71-55 victory and kept SC one game back of A&M in the conference standings.

Center Elem Ibiam scored 18 and South Carolina had its 17th win of the season.
She hit 7-of-11 from the floor with seven rebounds and two blocks.

Forward Aleighsa Welch notched her second-straight double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

“I think we had to figure out how to get our bigs the ball, even when a team is playing a zone and they are crowding our bigs down low," coach Dawn Staley said. "I thought we made a conscious effort to do that. Elem got us started in the first half, and then Aleighsa got going, and Alaina Coates came in and kind of finished it off. For us, it was a great team effort on both sides of the ball, and we need that type of effort every time we step on the floor.”

Now they go to Vanderbilt and then come home for Ole Miss.

•No. 15 LSU: The Ben-Gals followed the Vanderbilt visit with one by Auburn.

Midway through the second half, a 9-0 run propelled them to a 71-60 victory. Senior Theresa Plaisance had her fourth double-double of the season, 19 points and 11 rebounds, the points a season-best.

“We looked at the fact we were missing too many paint points (at halftime),” coach Nikki Caldwell said. “We have to be able to make those shots. That takes a little of the pressure off our guard play. In the second half, it was about us playing defense. We talked about that is the way that you win ball games. You have to eliminate your opponent’s execution on the offensive end, and that’s what we did in the second half.”

LSU is 4-2 in conference, two back of A&M. They have two winnable games next before heading to suddenly gettable Kentucky to start February.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


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