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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 10, 2014

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Elite Producing Surprising Results in Early Action

By Mike Siroky

Most all of the Southeastern Conference women’s basketball teams have played three games in the league by now.

No other conference has five ranked teams or three in the Top 10 nationally.

So far, that negates all the naysayers who deny the SEC is the best conference in the land.

The five ranked teams in the AP poll, whom we have been calling the Fab 5, seem destined to lead the pack at the end.

But, here in the beginning, one of them started 0-3 in conference and another is 1-2. Pre-season favorites have each lost its first league game at home, one to an unranked team. It’s early, but someone needs to take control, even if one drops out of the rankings and another league team moves back in

One unranked team is undefeated in league play after the early games.

Here’s how the week went for the Fab 5

•No. 9 Kentucky: The Wildcats started their home league season with Florida. Boom! went the dynamite. The unranked Gators pulled the upset by 10, including a nine-point second-half edge.

UK coach Matthew Mitchell was his usual no-excuses self: “They just came in here and beat us,” he said.

On attempting the comeback, The Mildcats missed all five second-half 3s. They hit for 35 percent from the field.

The thing is, the home team led by one with four minutes left before the Gators snapped off a 14-3 run to end it.

Kentucky guard Kastine Evans was naturally disappointed with her own team.

"We weren't finishing anything inside the paint or outside the paint and that just comes from staying composed in a tough game like that, especially when Florida is playing at such a high pace and pushing ourselves to do things we weren't comfortable doing," Evans said. "It was really a lack of composure in those last 13 minutes."

Kentucky did not score a field goal in the final eight minutes. Florida hit 12-of-16 from the line.

Florida coach Amanda Butler immediately recognized the significance of the win, her first after six straight losses.

“It's a fantastic win, not only to play and beat them, but beat them here,” Butler said. “It was very significant. It's a great opportunity for our team that we took advantage of. This is a team that works very hard every day and got what they deserved and took advantage of the chance they had this evening.”

The starters did not do the job for UK.

Even the emotional return of senior leader DeNesha Stallworth from knee rehab did not help. She played seven minutes.

Reserve Jennifer O’Neill, as she has all season, led the 40 bench points with 15.

She knew it was not a good effort, terming the disappointing endgame, as “a letdown and a lack of focus.

"We had a lot of unforced turnovers and poor shots," O'Neill said. "We let an opportunity go."

Florida senior guard Jaterra Bonds, a gracious winner in her first-ever victory over Kentucky, acknowledged Kentucky as one of the great teams in the country. She scored 32.

“Every huddle, I was just telling my teammates to stay composed and be smart,” Bonds said. “It's a big win for us, especially in the road, because they count double."

The rematch is at Florida Feb. 9.

UK then did not answer the call at South Carolina, the national No. 9 at No 10, 68-59. UK is 1-2 in conference with the two straight losses.

South Carolina leads the league at 3-0 and seems to be living up to promises made two seasons ago.

Not that the win was easy.

After leading by as many as 22, SC kept UK at bay. Sophomore guard Tiffany Mitchell scored the game-high 17, senior forward Aleighsa Welch posted a double-double with 16 points and 14 rebounds and freshman center Alaina Coates recorded her third straight double-double with 10 points and 17 rebounds, the rookie’s best effort so far.

South Carolina’s defense, allowing almost 50 per game, held the best-scoring team in the conference to 35 under its average.

“I’m truly proud of our players. They’ve worked so hard all season long, and it was a great win for our program," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said.

“There have been a lot of people that have come before them and have put us in a position where we can win basketball games like this. I thought the crowd was great. They gave us an extra push when we were running out of gas.

“Kentucky got into our lead in a big way and when you have this type of atmosphere, it usually helps you get over the hump to hold on to get the win.”

Junior center Elem Ibiam led the defense, with six blocks, a school conference record.

The defense was devastating as the half closed. SC took a 23-20 lead to a 10-point advantage by holding UK to one basket in the final three minutes before the break.

The Gamecocks started the second half on a 10-2 run.

Though they trailed as many as 22 at 54-32 with just over eight minutes to go, UK showed some determination, slicing points off the lead. Back-to-back baskets

Made it 57-47 even as the home team started missing from the line in a 2-of-7 span. It was still 10 with four minutes left and UK was out of gas

•No. 8 Tennessee: Tennessee had never been 0-1 in league play. So, no way, they’d be 0-2. Heck, they haven’t lost two straight in conference since 1997.

Georgia, in its home opener, had the unlucky scheduling to catch an angry Lady Vol team. The Lady Bulldogs were 0-2 in conference for the first time since 1993.

Ariel Massengale and Izzy Harrison took turns directing the 85-70 road win.

"The main focus at halftime was getting paint points and getting the ball inside," Massengale said. "Whether it was our posts scoring or our guards getting to the rim, we just wanted to score in the paint."

Massengale scored a career-high 28 and Harrison added 18 points and 10 rebounds.

The Lady Vols have won six straight and 14 of the past 15 matchups with Georgia.

Krista Donald finished with a career-high 18 points and Tiaria Griffin added 15 for the Lady Bulldogs.

Georgia did have its run, 31-11 to cut the lead to six with 72 seconds left.

“We can’t relax and we have to keep playing defense,” Harrison said. “I think we can definitely take away that, no matter what the score is, we definitely have to keep pushing.”

Four straight free throws sealed the deal.

Of the comeback, Donald said, “We put some grit into it. We were going to lose anyway -- we didn't do anything else so we put the pedal to the metal and tried to make a big comeback. It was a heartbreaker to not start the way we finished.”

The Lady Vols had their big run -- 23-11 -- to close the half. During that stretch, Harrison had 12 points, six rebounds, one steal and one assist.
Mercedes Russell, Tennessee's highly touted freshman center, made her second career start, replacing former favorite Bashaara Graves.

Massengale credited Tennessee coach Holly Warlick with using plenty of high screens that Georgia failed to defend properly.

"They didn't do a very good job," Massengale said. "I saw openings. The posts set great screens. Their post players had to help and it's easier for a guard to go against a post and get by them."

Warlick focused on inside play, which drew 23 fouls and hit 30-of-33 free throws.

"We hit free throws when we needed to, got the ball inside and for the most part made our layups," Warlick said. "I thought we at times looked outstanding, so I'll take that. I thought we played with a lot of heart."

Tennessee came back home for unchallenging Ole Miss, stretching a 16-point haftime advantage to a 94-70 win.

Tennessee is among the gaggle at 2-1 in conference

Also, as expected, the Lady Vols got their firepower from pre-season projected star Massengale, 23 points and seven rebounds. The junior was 10 points above her season scoring average. She is among those players allowed to coast in the pre-conference season while others got game experience. Now that it counts, she will average better than 20 each time out.

Coach Warlick appreciates the effort, citing senior guard Megan Simmons for leadership.

“Megan is a senior and she’s trying to lead this team to where they haven't been in five years,” Warlick said.

“I think Megan has a lot of pressure on her and I’ll be honest, I’m OK with Megan. She busts her butt in practice, she comes in here and has a great, great attitude and she’s a team player.

“I know at times all we say is ‘Megan can shoot’ but she busts her butt and she comes in and she plays as hard as anybody on this team. This is not about Megan and her being a senior. Megan wants us to get to where we need to go more than anybody else on this team.”

Warlick cpntinued to play her two bigs together, freshman Rusell in a third straight start with Harrison. Harrison responded with the move to true forward by hitting 6-of-10 for 16 with 10 rebounds. It is a school-record seventh straight double-double. The Lady Vols won the boards – a point of focus from Warlick of late – by 16.

"It was a good win for us. We played in spurts and we played, at times, good enough to win,” Warlick observed.

“Don't get me wrong – I'm happy we won, but I’m a realist and it’s not going to get done the way we're playing right now. We're getting by. The conference is too tough.”

The Lady Vols claim to have surpassed 5 million in all-time home attendance.

No one knows if UT is the first women’s program to do that, as the pre-NCAA attendance numbers were often “estimated” and the NCAA will not validate them.

It is the 25th consecutive time UT has beaten Ole Miss. Next are two more winnable conference games, at Vandy and Mississippi State.

•No. 10 South Carolina: The Gamecocks opened their home SEC season against Vanderbilt, with a 10-point win.

Freshman center Alaina Coates scored a career-high 24, on 11-of-16 from the field, with 10 rebounds and three blocks and sophomore guard Tiffany Mitchell scored 19 on 6-of-9 from the field. The Gamecocks withstood a 20-9 run late in the game.

Coach Dawn Staley said earlier this season her basic plan was to use two centers, sometimes simultaneously, and nothing she has seen in league play has changed that concept.

“Feeding the ball inside to Alaina and Elem Ibiam was exactly what we wanted to do,” Staley said. Ibiam was 3-of-4 from the field with eight rebounds.

“Watching Vanderbilt on film and seeing what they had to offer; we just felt like our bigs would be able to get great looks in the paint. So, we wanted to pound it in there as much as possible and let them do their thing.

“We haven't had the luxury of playing big and putting the ball down on the block to make people guard us. Elem and Alaina are only going to get better.”

Christina Foggie scored 14 of 16 in the second half for the Commodores.
The Gamecocks go on the road for two, a winnable one at Auburn and then a showdown at recovering Texas A&M.

•No. 12 LSU: The Bengals followed their first week upset at Tennessee by stopping at state rival Tulane and then coming home for previously ranked Texas A&M.

The Tulane game is a tradition and LSU followed the tradition of winning, 63-35.

New Orleans is the hometown of defending SEC scoring leader Theresa Plaisance. The senior scored 15 with 14 rebounds and three blocks in LSU’s third straight win, moving the national mark to 57-7 for the Fab 5 this season.
Jeanne Kenney led LSU with 17 points. She hit four 3s to start and thus had the first dozen points for the team.

“We wanted to carry the momentum that we had coming off the Tennessee game into (this) game, especially on the defensive end,” coach Nikki Caldwell said. “Our efforts were to try and disrupt Tulane’s guard play and keep them off the offensive glass. We talked about setting the tone during the first four minutes off the game especially on the road, and we did that well.

“The great thing about our team is that we have a lot of versatility,” Caldwell said. “The other night at Tennessee it was the Danielle Ballard show. I like the fact we have a balanced attack. Our players are understanding and buying into the fact it may not always be their night to score and take a lot of shots. It may be their night to be a great screener or a great defender.

“Being selfless and making that sacrifice for our team, that’s been a huge positive for us. We’re going to continue to talk to our team about it because it’s the difference between good teams and great teams.”

Then came a game that mattered. The distraction of playing a waffle out of conference may have cost LSU.

The A&M game was a letdown as A&M continued its renovation run with a 52-48 edging. The Aggies share the conference lead at 2-0, 12-4 overall.

“Texas A&M came in with a game plan,” Caldwell said. “It started with their defensive pressure and they executed their game plan more efficiently.

“Their players made plays when they had to. When they needed to build their momentum, they did it through their defensive pressure and turned us over almost 20 times. We’ve got to learn how to be a team that takes care of the basketball. We can’t have all these empty possessions.

“Defensively, we did good enough when you keep a team at 52 points in a game. But offensively, we did not handle their pressure.”

Texas A&M was led by Courtney Williams’ 17 points and seven rebounds.

Courtney Walker scored 12 with six rebounds. She drained the go-ahead basket from 18 feet out with 47 seconds left. Then she stole the ball, was fouled and hit the final two free throws with 13 seconds left

“I saw A&M go to another level (after Williams fouled out with five minutes left),” Caldwell said. “I thought they really did a nice job of cutting into our lead. They were really efficient in the last minute. We were less efficient, and our focus wasn’t there. If you look at the last four minutes down the stretch, they were more efficient than we were.”

Plaisance scored 10 in the second half.

“We got easy looks,” said Caldwell.

“We got the ball inside quite a bit. We shot a horrendous percentage (26 percent). I think that’s the lowest we’ve shot on the season.

“Offensively, we didn’t handle their pressure. Having 19 turnovers is way too many against an explosive team like A&M who does a great job of capitalizing on those turnovers. Almost half their points came from turnovers. I give a lot of credit to A&M for really bringing the defensive heat and putting us on our heels.”

The defense of A&M did give LSU some free throws chances, 21, all in the second half. They hit 15

Caldwell said it comes down to the competitiveness of the league.

“It’s extremely competitive. You don’t look at anybody’s record prior to that game. You don’t look at the standings or where you’re ranked because there’s a different level of competition in this conference. We’re going to have to move forward from this game. We have a tough opponent (Florida) coming in on Sunday. There’s no time for us to hold our head down. We’ve got to focus and really come back together as a group.”

•No. 25 Georgia: The Lady ’Dawgs’ other league game this week was at unrated Missouri and the free-fall continued, 66-56, thanks to a lackluster 33-21 second half. They are 0-3 in the league.

Brianna Kulas scored 24 with 13 rebounds for Missouri’s 13th win in 16 starts including a 2-1 conference record. Kayla McDowell added 13.

Junior Morgan Eye set a school record – we cannot avoid saying Eye of the Tigers – by hitting her 227th 3.

As in most conference games, it was the defense that did it. Georgia hit 22 percent from the field after intermission. They were throwing up 3s in an attempted comeback and ended 3-of-20 beyond the arc.

They head to Lexington to face an angry UK team.

Georgia coach Andy Landers remains calm in this storm.

“Missouri did what Missouri does,” Landers said. “They hit some open 3s. What they really don’t do is drive the ball a lot, certainly not as much as they did on us tonight.

“We were very vulnerable to the drive, which is disappointing. We knew that was an option they would use if we took the 3 away and we really did for a good part of the game."

Georgia has two real challenges upcoming, though both are at home, against improving Texas A&M and Arkansas.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


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