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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, February 21, 2014

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Final Four Conference Style Comes Thundering Down the Stretch

By Mike Siroky

With three games left in the regular season, the Southeastern Conference women’s basketball race remains undecided. The final four games started with the late-week matchups. Only three teams have a shot at winning it.

The experts that picked the league race at the start – writers and coaches – each subscribed to the Tennessee legend.

One of us picked Kentucky.

We were all wrong . . . probably. OK, our UK pic was all wrong.

The genius conference schedulers put South Carolina at Tennessee to end the season. It still might be the deciding game; the home team would not be favored.

All of it is prelude to the conference tournament champ as the NCAA’s “automatic” bid. Conference tournament champs have been seeded lower in the NCAAs than regular-season champs in the SEC.

Texas A&M, Tennessee. LSU and Kentucky all host NCAA sub-Regionals, so all are already in the NCAA bracket someplace. Three of them plus SC are likely penciled in to the Sweet 16 and, as in seasons past, that is one-fourth of that group.

Of all the SEC teams hosting first-round NCAA sets, Tennessee, as ever, far and away leads the home attendance average, at 11,212. Next is Kentucky, 7,037; Texas A&M, 5,121; and LSU 3,003.

Included in every bid to host an NCAA event is guaranteed ticket sales (meaning the host school buys that many to start).

Incidentally, South Carolina’s attendance is second in the league, with an all-time best 5,638. SC is also in the top four of the natonal rankings, making them a potential No. 1 seed.


Tennessee vs. Kentucky was easily the competitive game of the week.

South Carolina is 7-0 in the Final 10 games, (an NCAA point of emphasis in seeding). Beating two ranked teams in succession this week on the road, at LSU and Kentucky also surely helps.

UT is 6-1 and they still have two tough games left against ranked teams.

Texas A&M exceeded the 20-win plateau, is all alone in second place in conference, 5-2 in the final 10

Kentucky was routed by South Carolina, back in the pattern of winning on Sunday and losing on Thursday, UK has 19 wins but now six conference losses, 4-3 in the rundown and next goes to A&M.

Mississippi State has 18 wins. State’s upset of then-ranked Vanderbilt was special. The final game against Georgia could make or break a 20-win season.

LSU is 3-4 in the Final 10, lost twice and only has Tennessee left among ranked teams. They will get 20 wins before the post-season if they win two of the last three, but six conference losses have them out of the race.

Unranked Florida is 4-3 in the Final 10. It has 17 wins, but now has three ranked teams to close the season; 20 wins will be a dicey proposition. The loss Sunday to Georgia was costly.

Unranked Arkansas has 17 wins, plays two ranked teams next and has eight league losses.

Unranked Georgia has 18 wins, but have seven conference losses and is 4-3 in the closing sprint.

Vanderbilt dropped out of the national poll out entirely – a loss of at least nine positions -- after the loss to State at home. Coach Melanie Balcomb publicly asked if some of her players were “hiding” or afraid to step up.

The Commodores also have 18 wins, but are 2-5 in the Final 10, which shows the value of that computation. If they win their final two homes games, they can get to 20 before the conference tournament.

No SEC team with 20 wins has ever missed an NCAA tournament.

That’s life in the toughest league in America, with five teams ranked in the Top 20 of the Associated Press poll.

Here’s how the week went for the Fab Five:

•No. 4 South Carolina: This was the week for South Carolina to establish itself as the rock-solid best team in the conference, with No. 19 LSU coming in and then a game at No. 18 Kentucky.

It moved them up one spot in the national rankings, to No. 1 NCAA seed territory. It is the headiest time there since the Gamecocks were No. 2 in the country during the 1981 season.

They did the job in workmanlike fashion at LSU, winning each half by eight in a 73-57 final. It is their first win Baton Rouge in 20 years.

The home team scored no points from the final 4:19 until less than a minute was left. SC was continually fouled and continued to make free throws in that span, six straight, the first four by Khadijah Sessions. They had 21-of-28 free throws; LSU, 2-of-4. Junior Aleighsa Welch and sophomore Tiffany Mitchell scored 19 each for the victors.

It made SC coach Dawn Staley the first to 24 wins this season; the-now 13 conference wins bests last season’s record; the seven conference road wins is also is a record. They won 25 each of the past two seasons.

The wins also meant Staley has raised the total number of conference wins in each of her seasons at Columbia, as she has rebuilt a team back to the national prominence it held in the ‘80s when it spent a few weeks at No. 2 in the nation.

Staley said, “At this point, all wins in this league are good. We haven’t been very successful (at LSU). A lot of that has to do with the atmosphere, a lot has to do with the teams they put on the floor. It was the same today, but I think for longer stretches we played a little more disciplined.”

LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said, “We’ve got to give a lot of credit to South Carolina. I thought they did a nice job, especially in the second half, of competing on the offensive end.

“When we were trying to cut into their lead, I thought we had some momentum going in our favor. But, with the swing of a couple of calls, the game was shifted. It went from a one-possession game to a three-possession game in a matter of minutes.

“When you’re playing a team like South Carolina, it’s going to be hard to dig yourself out of a hole. They did a nice job today, especially when you look at what Aleighsa Welch and Tiffany Mitchell brought to the table.”

Welch was happy to accept the win and the comments.

“Getting wins on the road, especially this season, is imperative for us,” she said. “To be able to come down here and handle our business and keep it up for two halves is a huge confidence-builder for us.”

They did that at Kentucky, 81-58, winningt he second half by 15. Almost 6,000 came out, probably in appreciation of South Carolina.

Welch scored 21 as four starters trashed Kentucky’s once-reliable defense with at least a dozen points each. The rebounds difference was an enormous plus-25 for SC. Only reserves hit double figures for the home team which hit 38 percent form the field. Forced to foul, SC took the gifts at the lone, hitting 17-of-20.

UK had shot 30 percent in the first matchup this serason and coach Matthew Mitchell had said beforehand not repeating that would be a key. He lost the key. Instead, the visitors hit 60 percent from the field in the second half.

“It was a) tough game for us tonight,” he said. “We ran into a really, really tough opponent, extremely talented, plays real hard. They were tough defensively, tough offensively, really active on the boards and we got whipped tonight. We didn’t compete nearly as hard as South Carolina and that’s what makes tonight so disappointing.”

Staley said, “I think we gave Kentucky a taste of its own medicine. They like to push the ball and get the ball into the paint. Sometimes when that is your strength, it is also your weakness. We wanted to make sure we were equally as aggressive getting the ball to the paint, whether that was through our post players or through penetration.”

As for all those rebounds . . . “I’m just as surprised as you are. I thought (it was) a great team effort in making sure one shot. The rebound is one of our keys. We want to outrebound them. If we can do that, it puts us in a great position to win.”

Welch said: “We emphasize boxing out. That is one thing that we really knew we had to do and also secure the rebounds. I think we did a great job of taking our defensive assignments, boxing out when the shot went up, we communicated, we were able to secure rebounds and were able to get out in transition.

“So I don’t think we really noticed in the heat of the game that was the rebounding margin. I think it just pays off to us working hard in practice.”

SC closes their fabulous home season, still without a league loss, against unranked Florida and Georgia. Kentucky is at A&M before stumbling to a close against two unranked teams.

•No. 10 Tennessee: The game against visiting Kentucky was the statement game everyone expected. The Kats needs to recover their swagger.

Tennessee wanted to defend its homecourt, already sullied once this season.

The Lady Vols were but a game back in the league race with a showdown left with conference leader South Carolina. Kentucky is way out of the league race but still has pride.

Kentucky’s only basket in the final 2:38 of the half was a 3 by Kastine Evans.

UT’s only scores in the same sequence were a layup and free throw by Bashaara Graves. There had been a similar drought earlier in the half when each side went minutes without scoring. The difference at the break was 38-34, UK.

Each side had turned up the defense.

Kentucky was getting the worst of the calls. Three of four starters had three fouls and two reserves had four. Tennessee had no such worries.

But on rolled the Wildcats.

SEC Player of the Week, junior point guard Jennifer O’Neill was nearly unstoppable. She made three straight jumpers in the final 3:25 and Kentucky ruled, 72-69, with a minute left. She had 24 points, off the bench as per usual.

That’s 11 above her average.

Meighan Simons missed a 3 coming out of a UT timeout with less than a minute to go. Cierra Burdick fouled Kastine Evans who hit one free throw.

Bashaara Graves took a Simons feed to the hoop on the other end and it was 73-71. Another Lady Vol timeout. They fouled on the inbound with 14 seconds left.

There was one last chance. Sophomore guard Janee Thompson missed the free throw. Izzy Harrison got the rebound. UT had a timeout left and used it, six seconds to go. Kentucky also called a timeout.

Evans stole the ball. She was fouled and hit both free throws. It was over, 75-71, each side holding the other at least 10 points below the league-leading scoring averages.

No. 18 had dumped No. 8 on their own homecourt. A six-game conference win streak was ended. Tennessee lost two spots in the national ranking and Kentucky gained three.

The Big Blue swagger was back, if but for one game. UT’s title defense seemed in shambles, with two league losses at home. It’s 15,664 witnesses went home shocked.

It is only the third win in the series at Knoxville, with Tennessee winning the other 21. It is the closest win at Knoxville since 1985.

O’Neill had 24, Thompson 15, 5-of-7 from the line. Graves and Harrison each had 20. UK had four more 3s than the home team. That may have been the difference, 41 percent to 20 percent.

UT had a week to prepare for this. Well, not for the loss, but for the opposition.

“We struggled on the defensive end, had a chance the second half and gave up a three-point shot that O’Neill banked in and we turned the ball over four out of the last six possessions,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “Tough game, but we couldn’t get over the hump.

“I just think we didn’t . . . defense wasn’t important for us today. So, that’s about it.”

Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell first paid tribute to the late Betty Jaynes.

The Lady Kats are wearing a patch honoring her for the rest of the season.

Then, about the game: “For our team, we just have great respect for Tennessee and how good they are and the team they have. We had to work hard in preparation to win down here today. I couldn’t be more proud of our players.

“They couldn’t have played any harder. Tennessee played a real tough game, and our team played a tough game. It was a great win.”

As for the first win in Knoxville since 1985: “This something that you look back at after the season when you highlight some things, but this team needed to win today because they could. They needed to believe in themselves, and they did.

“That is the significant thing in my mind. We have a good team, and we knew that. Over the last couple of weeks, we have been focusing on making sure our players know we have a good team. What they did today is something they have already done this year. We beat another Top 10 team away from home on a big stage and environment. I have just been trying to get them to understand that they are a good team and players.”

Auburn stumbled into a meat grinder by being next in line at Knoxville. The Lady Vols won by 30, building a 21-point lead by halftime in front of 10,1111 witnesses.

Simmons was 10-of-22 from the field for 26. She had 25 points in the game’s first 21, Burdick led the other four Lady Vols in double figurers with 17. UT won the rebounds, 47-33.

Warlick celebrated.

“Loved our effort,” Warlick said. “I wasn’t thrilled about the last nine minutes, but we’re still striving to play a perfect game. I guess that’s why I have a job right now. “

One reason might be they are still without starting point guard Ariel Massengale, going on a month since she bonked her head on the home floor.
“It’s still day-to-day,” Warlick said. “I just listen to what the doctors and the trainers say and continue to do what we’ve been doing; just hope that she gets back soon.”

Back to this game, Warlick noted they cut down on turnoevrs from the Kentucky loss and that Simmons was back to being a shooter.

“When the ball was leaving her hand, I thought it was in just about every time,” Warlick said. “I keep saying, ‘Meighan is taking great looks for Meighan;’ she really is. I don’t see her taking a lot of bad shots right now and she had five assists.

“I’m probably more proud of her because she had six rebounds. We’re trying to get her to get on the boards. I think Meighan took good looks for Meighan. If she keeps doing that, she’s going to score a high percentage and she’s going to probably continue to be our leading scorer.”

Simons said it remains all about the team and the support of the faithful Tennessee fans.

“I think it just gives us the mentality that we know what we’re capable of,” Simmons said. “When we lose, we know there are some things we need to change in order to be better the next game.

“In the four years I’ve been here, this team is completely different. When adversity hits, we come together even more. We talk to each other in the locker room, making sure we stay encouraged and don’t get discouraged at any point in time when we do lose. We knew we had to bounce back. We have to take it one game at a time, win or loss.”

The Lady Vols are at Missouri and then the minefield that has been LSU. The Bayou Ben-Gals won by three at Tennessee to start the league season and are the reason UT is not in first place in defense of its conference regular-season title.

•No. 16 Texas A&M: Given the Tennessee loss to start the week, the Aggies took no prisoners at Alabama and wasted the Tide, 71-46.

A&M took a 15-point halftime edge and won the second half by 10
Senior center Karla Gilbert continues to assert herself in her last games. She scored 15. The sophomore Courtneys, Walker and Williams, scored a dozen each. The team only attempted one 3. A guard, Jordan Jones, led them in rebounding, with 10.

A&M has hung the only league loss on South Carolina, by two points in overtime, and are all alone in second place. If the Gamecocks lose the last game of the season, at Tennessee, A&M wins the regular-season title on the margin of those two points.

At Alabama, the 20th A&M win marked the ninth straight for coach Gary Blair, the 24th of his Hall of Fame career.

Blair was quick to praise Alabama.

““We came in with as much respect for Alabama as we do for anyone else in the SEC. When you can do what Kristy (Curry) has done in her first year, you’ve got to give the young lady some kudos. She’s going to get it done on the recruiting trail.

“I thought we did a pretty good job overall. We had shut (Alabama) out on 3s until the last one. That’s why we are in the top 10 in 3-point percentage defense. We do it because we play man-to-man, where we open up in the zone. (Alabama) missed a few, but then got good looks so we switched back to man coverage.”

As always, he made adjustments once he figured out the opponent.

“I thought our shot selection by most of our starters were very good,” Blair said. “It was good for Williams once the second half started. Sometimes she was shooting because she was open, and that’s what the defense wants sometimes, but if you look at the shooting percentage of our first five kids, it was pretty good.

“Gilbert was a load in there. She could have gone for 30 tonight if I kept her in. We don’t see man-for-man; we see zone. This is the most man-for-man we’ve seen. It’s not that Gilbert is Shaquille O’Neal or something, but she takes up three people converging on her and does a pretty good job with dumping the ball out. She only has one turnover in 22 minutes and 15 points. That’s pretty good.

Normally when you triple or double-team them, she travels a lot.

“We are going to take the win. I don’t know how good we are.

“We’ve played Georgia and LSU for the last two games, which both went down to the last second and we were lucky enough to play them both at home and won.

“This is our 20th win. I feel good about basketball team. We keep finding ways. My sophomore guards out there are going to be pretty good by the time they are seniors.”

“I think Jordan Jones is the best defensive point guard in our league. I think she does a great job. The charge that she took and the other things she did against Alabama’s guards early, she did really well.”

Using his entire bench, he had a dozen players score.

“I have balance,” he said “and I have depth. When you win a national championship, people want to come to Alabama football and Texas A&M basketball.

When I signed those six sophomores, and that No. 2 recruiting class, I still got five out of six. They are all perimeter players, and they are all good. That’s what happens. You have to build up depth and find kids who are willing to share.

Kids come to Alabama because of tradition, and they come to A&M because of tradition, too.”

At Ole Miss, it was more of the same, 73-61, A&M winning the first half by 14 and coasting. Williams scored 26. Gilbert had 21, 8-of-10 from the field.

It is the 14th win in the past 16 games. At 11-2 in the league, they have matched their conference win total of a year ago.

“The first half was the difference in the game,” Ole miss coach Matt Insell said.
“We played a little intimidated offensively in the first half. We got the same shots in the second half as the first, but we were intimidated by their size. They were a lot bigger than us.

“In the second half, we had a big run to start and played with a lot of fire. We played one of the better teams in our league that’s ranked in the top 15 in the country. They made more plays than we did, but if we play the first half like the second half, it would have been a different game.”

“We’re preparing for a run in the SEC Tournament.”

Figure this out if you can . . . A&M won twice, took over second in the toughest conference in the land and dropped two spots in the national poll.

Kentucky comes to visit Sunday in what could be the last challenge of the regular season. Arkansas closes the home schedule, the last game at Aggieland before the sub-Regional.

•No. 19 LSU closed out its week at Georgia. Their loss to South Carolina cost them not at all in the national picture. The 71-67 loss to unranked Georgia might knock them out of the rankings.

Theresa Plaisance scored 29 – 21 in the second half -- and Jeanne Kennedy 21.

Guard Erika Ford led Georgia, with 20 – 16 after intermission – and the Lady ‘Dawgs suddenly have 18 wins and history on their side for an NCA bid. A decent crowd of 3,421 came for the upset.

They are only 4-3 in this closing 10. They have yet to go to South Carolina, so need to win the other two on the schedule to get 20 before the post-season.

Three other Georgia players hit double figures.

“I thought early on we got the 3 balls, the shooting, the movement of the ball and getting it to the right person at the right time,” Georgia coach Andy Landers said. “We ran out to a big lead early and they were shocked. If Kenney doesn’t drop four 3s on us, this thing is ugly at the half.

“Now what you saw late in the game what their guards were doing was what they wanted to do all game . . . and then you go down to the other end and here comes Erika Ford, who made plays tonight off the bounce like it was her job. It was a terrific win for us tonight.”

Both of Georgia’s key post players – Halle Washington and Merritt Hempe – fouled out with plenty of time left, Washington at 6:46 and Hempe at 5:01. Kaelyn Causwell, off the bench for Hempe, made one of the biggest plays of the game with 1:11 left when she used her length to disrupt an LSU dribble and fell to the floor to claim the ball. Her only steal of the game.

“Play of the game,” said Landers.

Ford scored her final four in the closing 63 seconds, two free throws and a jumper to keep SC just out of reach. Sophomore Shacobia Barbee hit the final two of her 13 from the free-throw line with 14 seconds left.

LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said she continues to stress the positive.

“We’ve talked about how you’ve got to get in the gym and fill that confidence tank back up,” Caldwell said. “We’ve talked about them being OK. It’s not the end of the world. Tomorrow is another day to compete, and we’re OK, reassuring them of that.”

Caldwell said she and her coaches have decided to shelve the bad memories, and focus on the good times. Like their trip in August to play exhibition games in Spain, or their wins in New York over the Thanksgiving holiday to take the title in the Barclays Center tournament.

“I’m just trying not to add any more pressure than what they may be feeling,” Caldwell said, “any more than they can handle right now.”

LSU welcomes Arkansas and Tennessee this week.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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