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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 03, 2014

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: One Nice Upset Highlights Conference Launch

By Mike Siroky

The Southeastern Conference women’s basketball teams all but finished the pre-conference season with wins.

Then they started the league season, with three of the four ranked teams winning on the road. The interesting thing about the schedule this season is no one has two road games back-to-back until the second month. Is that more travel or less?

The SEC Fab Five (those ranked in the AP poll) set a 56-7 mark against the world. The next best five league teams (which does not even include perennially ranked Texas A&M), all have at least 10 wins, and went 58-8.

Next up was league play with one ranked team vs. ranked team resulting in the upset.

Here’s how the week of transition went, including a recruiting Christmas presence for a top team.

•Kentucky: Grambling arrived without its coach (recovering from surgery) and only seven players, sot the result was predictably a doubling, 109-46.

Brianna Goss broke away from her sophomore slump with a junior-best 23 points and eight rebounds.

"I told the team during warmups that we were coming off a loss and it was an important game," Goss said. "We came out (early) and set the tone."

Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell noted it is the fifth time this season they have scored more than 100, four at home. The 60 first-half points is a season record.

"It was a good win for us," Mitchell said. "Our players played hard and made some good things happen out there today. I'm just really happy that the players came back from Christmas break and got some things going that we've worked on in practice. It was a great job by the team handling the non-conference schedule to go 12-1."

In all, six Wildcats hit double figures, freshman Linnae Harper the best of the rest with 15.

"I had a game-high today, but tomorrow it might be somebody else," Goss said. "That's what's so special about our team. We all have a tendency to score at will on offense."

The SEC opener at nondescript Alabama was notable only because new coach Kristy Curry is trying to revive a once-promising career there. She made her bones at Purdue, then fled for the brighter spotlight at Texas Tech, following a legend, which seldom works.

Curry assessed her own team and the work to be done after the 85-63 wipeout.

Kentucky made it look too easy.

The Wildcats built a 30-16 lead, Alabama cut it 34-29 and Kentucky finished the half on a 16-9 run for a 50-38 advantage.

Kentucky's backups outscored Alabama reserves 34-12, matching the final margin. Kentucky finished a 15-7 run to close it out.

“That is the reason they are the No. 6 team in the country,” Curry said. “The difference today showed what we need to do in recruiting. What can I say about them? They are really good.”

Jennifer O'Neill continued to be really good for the ’Cats, who will move up at least one spot since someone ahead of them finally lost. She scored 17. Azia Bishop scored 16 with eight rebounds. Kastine Evans had 15 points and Samarie Walker finished with 12 and 12, points and rebounds.

"Samarie had a big game today,” Mitchell said. “She was working hard inside. She was letting the game come to her.”

The Wildcats were 10-for-20 from 3-point range

Senior leader DeNesha Stallworth is almost through her rehab for cleanup arthroscopic knee surgery. She will likely come back full strength for the Jan. 9 game at South Carolina. She has missed five games so far.

UK is in the top 25 nationally in seven statistical categories: Third in scoring offense (94.5 ppg) and steals per game (13.3); sixth in turnover margin (8.62); ninth in won-lost percentage (92.3); 10th in scoring margin (26.9); 23rd in field goal percentage (46.3) and 24th in rebounding margin (10.3).

Kentucky opens the home conference season with Florida and then it’s on to SC.

Tennessee: No. 5 Tennessee erased Lipscomb, 110-42, then prepared for the SEC opener against only their third ranked opponent in the first 13 games.

Perhaps the Lipscomb game was important to erase the memory of the only loss – at Stanford – or perhaps it was just a way to schedule practice under game conditions.

Junior Izzy Harrison had her fifth double-double of the season with a career-high 26 points and 15 rebounds in 18 miniutes. Her 14 second-half points poutscored the opposing team. She also had four steals and three blocks.
Six Lady Vols scored in double-figures.

Tennessee hit a season-best 57.9 percent from the floor; the defense stifled Lipscomb to 22.4 percent. Lipscomb started 1-of-16 and missed 12 shots in a row. The Lady Vols won the rebounds, 61-31.

“I thought we had a complete game,” said coach Holly Warlick. “ We shot the ball well, but we took shots that were great shots for us. Our defense was solid. I thought we had great performances by several individuals. Everybody got some great playing time. I am very pleased with the outcome.

“Our conditioning was really solid. I thought we pushed the ball

“Izzy was phenomenal.”

We said last week the Lady Vols have stepped away from their tradition as playing the toughest schedule in America, having played only two ranked teams in its pre-conference season and losing one.

Now they have played three and No. 16 LSU made it two losses for the Lady Vols against ranked opponents, winning at Knoxville, 80-77. The majority of the 14,437 fans in attendance had to be stunned.

When Shanece McKinney knocked down two free throws with 3:44 left, SC had fashioned a 10-point lead at Rocky Top. UT wsn't done, with five steals in the final four minutes.

With 16 second left, Harrison made one of two free throws and it was a one-point game. That completed an 18-3 run, 11 by Harrison.

Freshman Raigyne Moncrief – our pick a few weeks back for rookie of the year – grabbed a rebound off a Tennessee miss, was fouled and hit both free throws in a trial by fire. SC had scored thir final 10 from the line. A desperation free throw clanged in and out and Tennessee’s unblemished home record was through. Each side has an 11-2 record.

Among the free throws were four caused by a technical on Tennessee’s Meighan Simmons and then on Warlick reacting to it. In what was essentially a one-point game, those were as big as any free points awaded.

Warlick said of the technicals: “Well apparently Meighan had some body language that wasn't very good and I guess he didn’t like what I said.”

LSU’s Danielle Ballard hit her career-best 24 points, 17 before half. Deshawn Harden hit for 17, including four 3s. The defense shut down Simmons in the second half; she was the preseason player of the year in some polls.

Warlick saw it through a prism of a lack of defense for her team.

“Our defense wasn't very highly motivated to play until probably like the last six minutes of the game. There's a time when you’ve got to open up and play defense whether it’s half-court or full- court and we just didn”t get the job done.”

She definitely was miffed at Ballard’s easy drives, coast-to-coast for layins.

“We didn’t have an answer for her and I hope they learn from that,” she said.

This was the home gym for former Tennessee all-American Nikki Caldwell, now the LSU coach.

She is mindful of the history and the impact it could have on her team.

“We knew it was going to be a hard-fought game,” Caldwell said. “I’m just so proud of our team for really taking our game plan and they executed. Players stepped up and made big plays. We knew Tennessee was going to come at us and make a run.

“That's who they are. Again, I can't say enough about how proud I am of this group. They really just laid it out on the line in this tough environment.”

She recalled legendary coach Pat Summitt and her words of encouragement.

“I think the one thing is -- and I told the team about this in our pregame speech about greatness – I’ve been fortunate to be part of this program as a player and as a coach. Obviously coach Summitt means the world to me. I said through us, Tasha Butts one of my assistant coaches and Tony Perotti another assistant coach, we all came through the Tennessee family. That's part of them too.

“We talked about that and what that means to come into this arena and play in this environment.

“One thing I will say about being a competitor that (Summitt) always instilled in us is the biggest competitor you’ll face is yourself. It doesn’t matter who’s on the other side. You have to respect their game, respect who they are. It's about these young ladies playing with tremendous passion for the game. We were together and we talked about in your life you'll have special moments. This is going to be a moment they remember, but it's more about the journey.”

Tennessee will play at Georgia this weekend, each coming off a conference loss. As Tennessee has never been 0-1 in conference, 0-2 is unthinkable.

Recruits arrive, it seems, at all times nowadays.

So it is with Tennessee and Jannah Tucker. She signed a letter of intent a year ago, then blew out her knee and missed her senior season in Randallstown, Md. She was in the Top 10 of all recruits by every major rating service.

She did not report this fall, as she told the Blue Star reporting group, she was a victim of “domestic violence” and was not quite ready for college.

But she is now. She is in classes and at practice, eligible but obviously headed for a rookie red shirt.

Warlick observed: “I don't think she's physically ready. I think her knee needs a little bit more (time). I’m excited to have her here.

"She's an exciting young kid. I think for her every day is Christmas."

•South Carolina: There was not much more than free-throw practice (30-of-48) for the 12th-ranked Gamecocks as they finished pre-SEC games with an 82-40 walkover against visiting Savannah State.

Sophomore guard Tiffany Mitchell scored 18, freshman Alaina Coates came off the bench with 17 and 12 rebounds. Mitchell led the balanced attack in the pre-conference season, averaging 14.8, 10th-best in conference. Three teammates are in double figures.

“I’m happy for Tiffany because she works so hard," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “She is always in the gym, and she wasn’t really getting a full return on being in the gym. Now she is, and she is more efficient at everything she does. She plays hard, and she always gets after it.”

“I was actually hesitant about playing today,” said Mitchell. “I hurt my wrist in the Savannah State game (before the break) and they said ‘Just play through it.’

“We know the cupcake games are over.”

South Carolina held the Tigers to 26.5 percent shooting and forced 19 turnovers.

The 12-1 Gamecocks opened the league against the mystery team in unranked but undefeated Arkansas, which had rolled up 12 straight home wins, having played just one road game.

Arkansas had the nation's leading scoring defense (44.6) and South Carolina was ranked No. 3 (48.3).

Tom Collen, the Arkansas coach, had said as much beforehand, projecting a final in the mid-40s.

With seven freshmen, Collen also had said league play and that experience is crucial to the Razorbacks.

As it was, South Carolina needed late free throws and defense to grab the 55-51 win and Arkansas was undefeated nevermore. Each side is 13-1.

The Gamecocks got double-doubles from Mitchell and Coates. The defense held the Razorbacks to 26.1 percent shooting and a 12-point lead at the half, propelled by an 8-0 run.

The second half was tighter because SC center Elem Ibiam committed a fourth foul less than four minutes into it.

Free throws were a challenge down the stretch, but SC hit just enough to stave off the charging Razorbacks, including four straight late by Mitchell. She had 16 points and 11 rebounds, including two in the final minute. Freshman Coates came off the bench in support of Ibiam with 11 points and 12 rebounds.

South Carolina is home for Vanderbilt on Sunday.

•Georgia: The No. 19 Lady ’Dawgs had 10 of their 12 pre-conference wins at home.

They took the measure of a Big Ten team, besting visiting Illinois, 80-62 to close their pre-conference season.

Sophomore Shacobia Barbee had 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists, Classmate Tiaria Griffin matched her with 17 and three others also hit double figures. They had runs of 11-0 and 18-6. The defense held Illinois to 33.8 percent from the field.

“I thought Barbee was outstanding on the defensive end,” Georgia coach Andy Landers said.

“She had a good day, a very good day. The assists ... she’s just got a really nice knack for seeing the open man and then she gives them the kind of pass that the play deserves. “She has a knack for being able to put a touch on the ball that allows that person that's open to catch it.”

Georgia started the SEC with their familiar Tennessee two-step, with Vanderbilt first up.

Vanderbilt mauled them in the second half, winning the half by nine and the game by eight, 66-58. Each side is 12-2 and perhaps equally unranked.

The Commodores’ four-guard offense was led by senior Jasmine Lister with 24, 16 after intermission. And half of those came in the 16-5 run that clinched it.

Christina Foggie, until this game the best scorer in the league, hit for 11 on 4-of-12 from the field (2-of-7 3s).

For Georgia, Khaalidah Miller had a dozen. Barbee and Griffin were each missing in action, with five points apiece.

“Honestly, I didn’t think we ever really looked that good," Landers said.

“The scoreboard looked good when we were up seven, but we turned the ball over 24 times. We started it off turning it over and we were turning it over the last five minutes.

“You really don't have to go any further than that.”

A much-anticipated matchup with an angry Tennessee at home highlights the week to come.

•LSU: had Jackson State before opening at Tennessee. Senior guard Jeanne Kenney matched a career-high 22 points on 6-of-7 from 3-point range (another career high).

The Tigers ended the week break for the holidays, 72-45. They have won 11straight at home, six this season by an average of 21.7 points per game.

Superb freshman Raigyne Moncrief, having started every game so far, scored 13, the ninth time she had hit double figures.

The defense harassed Jackson State to 17-of-47 from the field, including 4-of-18 3s.

“They were setting the tone the way we wanted to play,” said LSU coach Nikki Caldwell. “I keep reminding our team this it’s a 40-minute game. We are very capable. When we play fast-paced, we do a lot of good things and a lot of positives come from that.

“The team was disruptive defensively by being more aggressive. It was a group effort.

She had praise for Kenney.

“Jeanne does a great job of being in the gym and getting extra shots up off the bounce. She’s able to stretch any defense and she was very aggressive.

“But, more importantly, I thought her teammates did a great job of finding her and getting her some good looks.”

Moncrief said they are building towards stability.

“We need to be more efficient,” she said. “We tried to set the tone on defense first and then take care of the ball on offense.”

This night, that meant going to Kenney.

“She had the hot hand so we had to give it to her. She’s an awesome player,” said Moncrief. “Not just her shot, but her leadership and defense as well. She has a full package, and she was able to knock down shots. She’s going to do that for us for the rest of the season.”

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


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