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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.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Looking at the Top League From the Inside

By Mike Siroky

The top women’s basketball teams in the Southeastern Conference are a bit of a muddle. The scrum that is the early league games have not settled anything except for a peculiar early pecking order.

The latest teams to ascend – in the past couple of years – are showing all signs of staying with the new tradition while the traditional powers are adjusting to being challenged every week.

There are no walkovers at the top. Previous results are no guarantees of future dividends.

The team with four wins in four tries is building in the new traditions while the likely champions hover at .500, both having already lost one conference game at home and the defending conference champ with as many losses in league play as it had all of last season.

Sure it is early, but that is what makes it fun.

OK, maybe not for coaches. Holly Warlick at Tennessee has the longest association with the best conference in America, back to her playing days as an All-America at Tennessee , which started in her hometown in 1976.

She said one of the more interesting aspects f coaching nowadays is the mental game.

“You think you know and you have some cumulative knowledge, but every kid is different,” she said.

“A player coming off injury is different than the last one.

“So no one really knows. You are dealing with things every year that you never dreamed you’d be dealing with.”

Since she has been associated with the SEC, expectations, from parents, fans and even other league coaches have risen year by year.

The SEC is a playoff-like battleground every night. The top teams know anyone brings their best game for their teams. If a non-ranked team can even be competitive with one of the ranked ones, the coaches on the lesser side can use the motivation on their players and in recruiting.

“I think about that, how competitive it is,” Warlick said. “And to get a ‘W’ is the only goal, every game.”

Her Lady Vols will easily win conference – they are the defending season champs – if they win out because there are ranked teams left to deal with, including the traditional season-ender with Kentucky.

Last year, they had clinched the title before that game, so the pressure was off.

Then neither won the post-season tournament and the “automatic” NCAA bid.

As if either was going to be overlooked.

“I am having fun” Walrick said. “Believe it or not and that’s the main thing, to do what you love, to have the passion for the game and to see the kids develop every year.”

The five ranked teams in the AP poll, whom we have been calling the Fab 5, extended back to the Select Six again, even with one ranked team dropping out. No other conference has six of the AP Top 25. The ranked teams seem destined to lead the SEC pack at the end and to propel any 20-game winner into the NCAA draw.

Here’s how the week went for the Select Six, with one undefeated vs. undefeated matchup guaranteeing there’s only one left:

•No. 9 Kentucky: The Wildcats stopped talking about program win 700 after the 1-2 league start. So, naturally, without the hype, they got it when Missouri came to town, 80-69.

It didn’t start well. UK fell into a hole at home, likely because two stalwarts were unable to go, Kastine Evans and Bernisha Pinkett, both with undiagnosed “leg pain” that limited their effectiveness.

Evans has had a recurrence of this problem throughout her career. UK coach Mathhew Mitchell asked her before the game if she could go full-out, because if she couldn’t, he needed an alternate plan.

“This was going to be such a hard game on defense, you were going to have to hustle and be so tough and if you couldn’t go full speed against Missouri she needed to tell me and -- to her credit being the high-character young woman she is -- she let me know. She said, ‘Coach, I just don’t think that I can go full speed today.’ ”

He amped up junior guard Bria Goss and she responded.

“Yeah, I am telling you, you just have no idea how nervous I was before the game,” Mitchell said.

“Just with where our psyche was after the two losses and we were just not full-speed and I just thought today we were going to have to play extremely well and extremely tough and I was talking to the coaches before the game and I just said, ‘Bria Goss has to play today. We really need Bria Goss to have a big game.’

“I thought all of us, not just Bria, but when it was 25-16 – whatever that big margin was there in the first half – everybody was playing tentative and everybody was worrying about a shooting slump and all that stuff that goes into your mind that if you let that affect you then you are beating yourself. You are giving the opponent a pass.

“We didn’t need to give Missouri a pass.”

They didn’t.

Mitchell had broken it down for his team.

“I count on the experience as a coach to make sure that the players understand that if you look at our season in totality we are in good position,” Mitchell said. “If you focus on the last two games like most people do, then the sky is falling and everything is out of whack.

“As a coach, you rely on that experience and you need to let your players know that everything is not out of whack. There are some things that we need to get better at doing. We just need to practice well and come out and give a supreme effort. That is really all you have to focus on right now.

“I just told them that we were playing like we were scared to lose and I tried to talk to them about that before the game. I am telling you, it’s been an amazing thing to watch as a coach.

“You are kind of rolling along there at 13-1 and you have a couple of bad games and now all of a sudden everybody thinks they are a bad player and looking around and wondering and thinking somebody is going to do something and give them something.

“I just called that timeout and really got onto Janee Thompson. I thought she missed three or four shots early on and she started thinking about maybe hanging her head tentatively.”

Senior forward Bri Kulas was leading the Tigers in scoring at 18.2 and was second in rebounding with 6.1. In league games only, Kulas led the league in scoring with 22.7. She scored 27.

But, with 5,279 frenzied Wildcat fans backing her, Goss scored 20 with eight rebounds. Thompson scored 10 of 16 in the second half. Senior Samarie Walker led a rebounding advantage of 42-38, the first time that’s happened in league play, with 13 rebounds and 10 points.

With the nagging injuries and the continued rehabilitation of senior DeNesha Stallworth after a knee ’scope, it is the perfect time for 14-3 Kentucky to take a week off, next resuming play at beatable Auburn on Sunday.

•No. 12 Tennessee: The traditions here have been defense first. Warlick has not see that this season and it frustrates her.

If Tennessee is to play in Nashville again this season – in the Final Four – they need to resurrect their reputation.

Right now, the best chance Lady Vol players have for being involved in the championships is as volunteer towel girls or locker room attendants.

They came to Nashville. The Lady Volunteers had bested Vanderbilt 71 of 79 games. The rematch is Feb. 10 at Knoxville.

Not this time. Vanderbilt popped into the Top 25 for the first time this season at No. 24. rallied. The Commodores rallied magnificently in the second half – including a13-2 run that erased a 10-point deficit – and won, 74-63. That put UT at 2-2 and among the bottom-feeders of the top eight in the league. They lost only two all of last conference season, when they took the regular-season title.

Izzy Harrison picked a bad game from which to foul out and a sillier way to end her play date, with 10 minutes total and the last foul a technical arguing a call on an attempted block.

Warlick had said before the game they were playing merely “good enough to win.”

That effort was not good enough this time and she focused on that.

“We get up, and we can't stop anybody penetrating so it has nothing to do with Harrison,” Warlick said. “It’s about what’s important on the other end ... until defense is important to us, we're going to struggle.”

Meighan Simmons scored 19 for the Lady Vols.

For Vandy, Jasmine Lister scored 22 and Christina Foggie 21.

Coach Melanie Balcomb said she reminded her Commodores not to do anything different than normal just because of a big crowd or the opponent.

The crowd of 9,412 was on its feet, applauding, the final two minutes.

"The discipline that they showed to be able to do that I'm really proud of that," Balcomb said. "That makes me smile because that's a lot to look forward to. This is very early in the season."

Marqu'es Webb added 12 for Vanderbilt, which had won 11 of its past 12.
Balcomb remembers her teams being booed early in her 12-year tenure when hosting Tennessee.

“Tonight I felt like this was our home court,” Balcomb said. “I thought we had more black and gold, and I could feel it in the crowd. That's the neatest thing for me after 12 years. ... It didn't happen overnight."

For Tennessee, there is nothing like a schedule which includes Mississippi State, a team to which they never have lost.

So what ifg this one was close, 67-63, it was a road slump-buster in two ways.
Bashaara Graves came back to the front of the scoring, with 13, finally shaking off nagging injuries. She had not led the team in scoring in any game since mid-December.

“With Bashaara, she hurt her calf and then tweaked a knee and here’s a kid who has never had a serious injury,” Warlick said. “These were not serious, but it weighed on her. That’s what we had to work on.”

Tennessee made nine of their final 11 field goal attempts -- including six in row.

"It was a great win for us,” Warlick said. “It was a tough place to play. We did some good things. We hit our layups and we hit our free throws, but we probably could have done a little better. We battled and towards the end -- we do a battle in practice, it's a persistance drill -- I said, 'If we can get a couple of stops in persistance drill, we've got it.' We did and we held onto the ball.

“Hey, I'm proud of them battling. It didn't go perfect. It didn't look good all the time, but we battled through it and I'm proud of it."

She finally had a game to talk about a good defense,.

“Our defense, got us rolling and it was huge,” Warlick said.

“When I came in today, I told the staff, 'You're going to think I'm crazy. We're opening up with our 2-3 zone.’ I just felt like I wanted a change. You know how you get a gut feeling? I had a gut feeling and we went with it.

"We hit some big shots and we got the ball inside when we needed to.”:

Of course, Tennessee also has scheduled national No. 2 Notre Dame to come in Monday which is a silly way to interrupt the conference season. A win does not help conference concentration, it breaks it. A loss only causes more negative introspection and also does not impact league play. This likely ends a contract which demands a game during conference play. UT is 1-2 against ranked teams so far this season.

•No. 8 South Carolina: The Gamecocks had beaten Vanderbilt by 10
and so continued on a roll with a 72-66 win at woeful Auburn. The result is they are ranked as highly as they have ever been in quite some time.

A 10-4 run to close the half helped. So did the defense, which held the home team to 25.5 from the field after intermission while hitting 68 percent their own selves.

The Gamecocks seem destined to be the first of eight teams to win 20 this season. The 4-0 league mark was a school first.

Three from SC were in double figures, led by sophomore Tiffany Mitchell’s 18 and 14 from freshman Alaina Coates, all in the first half. Coates earned her third league freshman of the week honor.

“We’re the hunted at this point,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “We knew Auburn would come out and play extremely well at home. We just had to keep our heads, stay calm and know that throughout the course of the game, there are going to be runs. We just had to wait for our run.”

Then came the game at Texas A&M, the last two undefeateds in league play.

Texas A&M solidified the faith folks had in returning them to the AP Top 25 by winning at home in overtime, 67-65.

SC rallied magnificently after being outscored by double, 34-17, in the first half.

But Texas and the unshakeable coach Gary Blair eked out an 11-9 OT.
Karla Gilbert scored the Aggies’ first two baskets of overtime in heavy traffic underneath. Jordan Jones came up with one last steal and a layup to close it.

"I'm worn out," Blair said. "Absolutely worn out. That was a great college basketball game."

A&M, at 4-0 in conference, leads it. It has won seven straight, including three on the road in conference against teams ranked at the time when they were not.

Jones had four steals, including the big play that helped A&M take a 63-58 lead in overtime.

"Jordan Jones is playing as good as any point guard in the league right now," Blair said.

"We're 4-0 in the SEC, and I'm not sure how good we are," Blair said. "But we play hard -- and I know we have good guards."

A&M also can get it done inside, outscoring the Gamecocks 38-24 in points in the paint.

"Give Karla Gilbert credit," Blair said. "She gave us some big baskets and big rebounds." Four Aggies scored in double figures, with Courtney Walker's 18 points leading ot.

The Gamecocks had their heroines as well.

Tiffany Mitchell banked in a 3-pointer in the final seconds of regulation, momentarily subduing a raucous crowd of 5,778, tying it at 56 and finally erasing the 17-point halftime deficit

Aleighsa Welch had 20 points for South Carolina and Mitchell scored 19 in the Gamecocks' first loss since Dec. 18.

"Sometimes when you dig yourselves a hole like we did, your shots come up short in the end," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said.

South Carolina outrebounded A&M, 53-41, and the reserves outscored the A&M bench, 15-0.

"We wanted to erase that 17-point halftime deficit and get ourselves back in the game," Staley said. "The players believed it was going to happen and it happened. But we didn't make baskets when we needed to."

Neither team scored in the first 2:21 of overtime. Gilbert then converted an offensive rebound into a layup.

"We were just worried about stopping South Carolina, and for us to get out in transition and finish our plays like we needed to," Gilbert said of the Aggies' attitude entering overtime. "We knew we just needed to keep busting our butts and going hard."

The Aggies have won all three of their meetings against the Gamecocks after joining the SEC in the summer of 2012, including last season in Columbia, S.C., and in the SEC tournament quarterfinals.

Texas A&M has won seven in a row to climb back into the top 25. It had won its two previous SEC games on the road at LSU and Georgia. SC had also just won seven in a row.

SC is back home again this Sunday in a game which will feature a tribute to Staley upon her selection for the real Hall of Fame.

SC assistant Nikki McCray, an All-American as a player at Tennessee, disclosed she has been diagnosed with breast cancer and is into immediate therapy. Her doctors have told her it is treatable.

"This will definitely be a challenge, but I am getting prepared to fight and win this battle," McCray said. "We are a close family here at South Carolina, and I will draw my strength from God, my family and friends, our team, our staff and the fans. I am thankful for everyone's continued to support."

"When Nikki called me with the unexpected news, my immediate reaction was to become the best supporter for her through this process," coach Staley said.

"Family is important to us, and we all have embraced Nikki's diagnosis with that mindset and providing her with all the moral and physical support she needs. Our `Play 4 Kay' game will definitely have an even more personal meaning for us this year."

One of the things they agreed to do was hold onto the knowledge of the challenge, which was known to them in November. This way, the players, now that they have been told, can recognize McCray and Staley have been steady and not over react.

McCray was twice All-American as a Lady Vol. She was the SEC Player of the Year in her junior and senior seasons. They won three regular-season titles, two conference tournaments and were in the NCAAs every season.

It is her sixth season as the Gamecocks' assistant under Staley.

They have back-to-back 25-win seasons. Her work with the guards has helped four of them earn All-SEC honors in the four seasons, including 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year Ieasia Walker.

McCray had a professional playing career that included two Olympic Gold medals and three WNBA All-Star selections in nine seasons there.

•No. 12 LSU: There was a reason Florida was undefeated in conference until their Baton Rouge visit. They are a determined, unflappable team which had already won at Kentucky.

But there is also a reason LSU is better than them.

Senior Theresa Plaisance matched a season-high with 19 points, while Danielle Ballard provided her first career double-double with 14 points and a season-best 12 rebounds in LSU’s 82-68 victory.

Bayou attendance is growing there as well, with 3,672 showing for this one.
The Bengals ended the Gators’ nine-game winning streak and snapped a three-game losing skid to Florida.

“I thought we could learn from Texas A&M (LSU’s only conference loss),” coach Nikki Caldwell said. “I thought their guards set the tone, and they really disrupted our rhythm. They were showing that they were ready to play. We talked about that leading into our preparation.

“We got on the floor 30 minutes earlier than we typically do. We got on the floor and got mentally prepared for what we needed to do today. I think you have to play that way in the SEC. The team that comes out more aggressive and plays with a lot of energy, effort and plays together – those are the teams that will prevail in the end.”

For Plaisance, 15 points came on 5-of-6 from the floor and 5-for-5 at the foul line during the second half. She has reached double figures in six straight games and has four consecutive 15-plus scoring efforts.

“I thought she (Ballard) was two different players. I think (against Texas A&M) she played as complacent as I’ve seen her play all year,” Caldwell said. “Today, I felt like she was aggressive and had a ‘You can’t stop me’ mentality. I thought she was ready to set the tone for our team, and she did just that.”

Super rookie Raigyne Moncrief came away with six points and matched a career-best with nine rebounds. She has started every game for LSU.

Florida had four players register double figures led by Cassie Peoples’ 22 and Carlie Needles’ 17. Kayla Lewis tacked on 15 points and 17 rebounds.

The Lady Tigers took a 50-29 rebounding advantage and a 26-5 edge in second-chance points.

“I think it’s a combination of effort, energy and making sure we try to keep them off the boards,” Caldwell said. “(Kayla) Lewis was the one who was really hurting us on the offensive glass in the first half. We really tried to key in keeping her off the glass. Our size was an advantage for us. I like the fact we had Moncrief and Ballard get on the boards. Our guards were rebounding the basketball so that makes a big difference. Derreyal Youngblood came in there and got some nice defensive rebounds which made a statement.”

A 14-2 opening for LSU coupled with Florida missing 15 of its first 17 field goal attempts set the standard. It was a 15-point lead at halftime for the home team.

“We definitely wanted to come out and start off better than we did in the first half against Texas A&M,” Plaisance said. “That is where we feel we lost that game was in the first half. We didn’t come out with intensity or focused ready to play. We knew Florida was a great team, and they were on a nine-game winning streak. We knew we didn’t have room for any errors. Coming out strong was something we definitely focused on.”

As a team, LSU was 32-of-68 from the floor, the fourth time this season they made 30 or more field goals.

Missouri hung tough for a half but LSU extended them beyond their limits and won. 87-68. In the second half, LSU averaged three baskets for every two by Missouri.

it was Jeanne Kennedy’s turn to lead in scoring, with 30. LSU is among those one game back of Texas A&M in conference. Plaisance added 15 points and seven rebounds.

LSU could easily win its next four straight before going to Kentucky to start February.

Coaches cannot control everything and Florida got smacked right in the face with news that top reserve forward Christin Mercer needed to be suspended.

She did not play against LSU.

She has been arrested on home invasion/robbery from a May crime. It is a third-degree felony. There is a co-defendant in the conspiracy to commit the robbery and three others charged with first-degree felonies for the home invasion robbery with a mask and a firearm.

Mercer, a sophomore from Douglasville, Ga., was averaging 11.2 points and 5.8 rebounds. Her exit leaves them with seven healthy players at the moment and a week off to plan.

•No. 24 Vanderbilt: The Commodores celebrated their national notice by outscoring Ole Miss by seven in the second half and winning by six, 80-74, on the road. They are another one-loss SEC team, having won 12 of the past 13 overall.

The league’s leading scorer, Christina Foggie, scored 28 including seven in 78 seconds to push the Commodores’ lead to five with as many minutes to go.

Senior classmate Jasmine Lister added 17 The Commodores outscored Ole Miss 43-36 on the road in the second half, after trailing by a point at halftime.

"It wasn't easy," said Vandy coach Melanie Balcomb. "But that's OK. In the SEC, it's not going to be easy. This was a game we needed."

They play four ranked teams in the next five games.

•No. 25 Texas A&M: Respect for the conference has never shown better than here. The Aggies, ranked in the pre-league season while losing four to ranked teams, have won seven straight in conference play and are one of two nationally-respected teams with four losses.

Their second straight win over a then-ranked team 1) got them back into the national conversation and 2) Finished Georgia’s four-game freefall, 58-44.

Undefeated in conference it’s not as if anyone forgets Gary Blair can coach.
A&M won the boards, 50-35 – Achiri Ade had 16 rebounds -- and the defense allowed only 29 percent from the floor. A 17-4 run for A&M in the first half decided this one early.

It was a very balanced offensive effort, with Jordan Jones scoring a career-best 13 and Tori Scott 11 to lead A&M.

“We played a great first half just like we did last year when we were here at Georgia,” said Blair. “Second half we are just happy they didn’t get hot because they started throwing the ball away as much as we were. It was just an ugly offensive game in the second half. Their zone gave us some problems but I thought our patience, particularly in the first half . . .we made the extra pass.

“Tori Scott, Courtney Walker, and Jordan Jones all hit some big shots for us. We are going to take the win . . . typical SEC game. It’s basically a defensive conference. I think that is what showed today.

“I told Jordan...I said you’ve got to be a 30-minute player, at least, for us. She understands what penetration and what setting a person up to give them an easy shot. Some of the others still struggle with that and that’s why our assists are not as high as they should be. She’s the heart and soul of this basketball team.

“She had a heck of a ball game.”

A&M has two beatable opponents in Mississippi State and Missouri before Tennessee comes in for the Jan. 26 showdown of last season’s conference tournament champion vs. the regular-season champion.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


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