Womhoops Guru

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 07, 2014

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Is Anyone Paying Attention to the NCAAs?

By Mike Siroky

Coaches will not talk about it, though they all are watching it closely.

The next game is the only important one, they will tell you. To some degree, that is correct.

But they all are also guessing where they will land in the NCAA draw of 64.

With Six ranked teams carving each other up, the conference loses some cachet nationally, in that it is unlikely there is a No. 1 seed among them for the second straight season.

Not to say there are no SEC teams that can beat a No. 1 seed. Just to say it will play out that the SEC is likely to have two No. 2s.

The best gift from the NCAA Selection Committee this season will be to not be where UConn, the No. 1 of all No. 1s, will play.

If Geno gets to pick his spot, the most Eastern one is Louisville. Notre Dame is next closest and it would be devilishly delicious to send them there. But Louisville and ND could be No 1 seeds as well, so that won’t happen. No one likely wants to play in the Lincoln Regional, because that is where UConn sets up shop.

Stanford is likely to be the No. 2 seed at their own Regional. So a second ACC team (Duke?) could be the last No, 1 seed and sent West.

Then comes the seeding in order of the No. 2s, all the way through to the last team. The fourth No. 2 will be in UConn’s Regional.

Why worry about this now?

Because one NCAA qualifier is how well you do in your final 10 regular-season games.

Tennessee is 4-0 in that string. But the Lady Vols have four of the other Select Six to come, three at home. They only play Texas A&M once and they beat them at their place.

Still, Tennessee coach Holly Warlick knows if they win out, they defend the conference title.

The highest-ranked SEC team is No. 6 South Carolina. They also are 4-0 in their countdown. But their three games against ranked teams are all on the road.

LSU is 4-0 but next play at Texas A&M and then home for South Carolina, with a game at Tennessee left.

League leader Texas A&M started the final 10 with the loss at home to Tennessee. But the Aggies have the easiest path to win out, earn a No. 2 seed and then escape UConn after opening at home.

Vanderbilt had lost two in a row. The Commodores merely want to go somewhere in the tournament and likely will.

Kentucky is also trying to reinflate its lungs. The Wildcats had lost two in a row and still have to go to Aggieland. Sure, as a first-round host, they’re in, as is Tennessee and LSU, but UK is now only assured of being a lower seed than that to which they have become accustomed. Don’t discount Louisville coming to UK for a hot rematch.

Nationally, three teams ahead of Kentucky in the standings are ranked below them.

That’s life in the toughest league in America, the only one with six teams ranked in the top 20 of the Associated Press poll.

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

•No. 6 South Carolina: At home, the Gamecocks easily broke the tie for first place and moved to 4-0 in the final 10 Countdown and are as highly ranked as ever they have been.

Missouri is one of those teams that is on a tipping point of either gaining ground nationally or cementing themselves as an NCAA no-show. Carolina chose to make them look the latter in a 48-25 first-half statement.

Coach Dawn Staley is the first to 20 wins this season (now at 21), the third in succession. They are first in the conference, with one loss. A season-high crowd of 7,828 witnessed it.

Tiffany Mitchell had 10 at the break, on her way to 20. They pushed the advantage to 50-25 early in the second segment and cruised, 78-62.

The Gamecocks closed with six in double figures for the second game in a row, all five starters plus backup center Alaina Coates, the league’s Freshman of the Week.

Staley praised her defense.

“The baskets that they did get, they worked for,” Staley said. “We just wanted to stay in all plays. In the second half, when they got going, just having to play exhausted basketball in the first half really helped us hold on to get this win.”

She is ever-mindful of building a tradition

“If we’re this close, we might as well try to go ahead and push through and become one of those teams that win 25, 30 games every single year,” Staley said. “Hopefully, this team continues to do what got us here and, hopefully, we’ll see more and more glory days like now.

“I don’t think it’s going to be an easy thing, but this is the life,” Staley said. “If we win, this is the life we chose because we kept winning. I’d much rather be in first place than last place, or middle of the pack. Our team does a tremendous job of staying in the moment.”

A trip next to Mississippi State proved that any team in the league can challenge any other. At 3-7 in the league, the best State can hope to accomplish is a 20-win season. They are four short right now.

“It’s a product of playing in our league,” Staley said. “There are no easy games. We knew coming into the game that Mississippi State is playing extremely well. They’ve been in every game and it's only going to be a matter of time before they start winning games like this.”

In recent past seasons, this would have been an SC stumble. Instead, it took all the Gamecocks had for a 71-64 win.

The Gamecocks tied the school record with 14 blocked shots, including a career-high seven from Ilem Ibiam that gave her the program's individual single-season record with 63.

The 6-4 Ibiam takes it in stride, with being a talk person.

“We just put our hands up and it's easy,” Ibiam said. “It's just being taller.”

Junior forward Aleighsa Welch finished with her seventh double-double, 18 points, 11 rebounds.

Mitchell got two quick fouls. But the defense rose without her, stifling State to 28.1 percent from the field in the half. 33 percent for the game.

"We have a big front line," Welch said. "It's very tough, especially when both (Ibiam and Coates) are going to deal with it. You've got 6-3 and 6-4 down there battling. I credit them for being so consistent. That's the biggest thing."

A 9-0 run led to a five-point halftime edge. A 7-0 run in the start of the second half gave them a cushion.

At the end, a 3 from Tina Roy (one of her two baskets all night), then free throws down the stretch sealed it. The Gamecocks shot 80.7 percent, 20-of-23, from the free throw line.

Awaiting unchallenging Arkansas at home on Sunday likely means a stay in first place.

•No. 8 Tennessee: Coach Holly Warlick had the Lady Vols pumped.

At Alabama, they fell behind, 26-18 at half, a season-low for points.

A 27-13 spree to start the second put them back in control to stay of an eventual 64-54 win before 3,002 witnesses, the 40th straight in the series. After the second win this week, UT has its 19th win and remains tied for second in the league at 8-2 with a 4-0 start on the Final 10 countdown.

Among the starters against the Tide, junior guard Cierra Burdick led the UT scoring with a career-high 21. She is the league’s Player of the Week. Senior point guard Ariel Massengale is still missing in action, four games after she bonked her head on the home court. She did not travel with the team.

Among the reserves, Izzy Harrison had 11 rebounds and 11 points and Bashaara Graves seven rebounds as Warlick continues to base starts based on who practices best. So the fact the bench outrebounded the starters is a little misleading if factual.

UT hit 42 percent from the field, Alabama 31 percent. UT had 40 rebounds, Alabama 30.

Guard Meighan Simmons continues to lead by example.

“I wasn't worried at all about our deficit,” Simmons said.

“There was never a doubt in my mind that we were going to win this basketball game. “We’re too talented of a team and we’ve been in that situation before. We’ve been down at halftime before and we continue to fight until the clock hits zero.”

Ole Miss was the 19th victim, second on the road for the week. The 882 witnesses attest to the fact Ole Miss lacks much support.

Even the Lady Vol bench did well, an 18-2 scoring advantage that offset two woeful effortd on offense by those in the startting lineup.

Simmons may have once again led the team in scoring, with 20, but it was Harrison’s 8-of-11 from the field with 11 rebounds that solidified the 12-point win. Burdick scored 12, 6-of-6 from the line.

Simmons did it fighting off flu-like symptoms. She said her stomach hurt and that threw her shot off early, 3-of-13. She hit her next 3-of-4 including three straight 3s. She has won 100 games as a player.

“We did consider pulling her,” admitted Warlick.

But a shooter will shoot her way out of trouble.

“I knew that some way, somehow, I just had to keep shooting," Simmons said. "My teammates and my coaches were pushing me to keep shooting.”

"You never want to lose Simmons," Ole Miss coach Matt Insell said. "She can miss five shots in a row and then turn around and hit five in a row."

Warlick said the three straight 3s made all the difference.

“That separated us,” Warlick said. “They had a lot of energy and we weren’t very highly motivated. She was the difference-maker.”

Warlick said intensity is still a factor as she works on the mental game.

"We relax. We just think the game is over and ‘Let's all do our thing,’ ” Warlick said. “I don't have an answer. There’s two ends of the floor. You can't rely all on your offense.”

They now welcome in Vandy for the revenge rematch on Sunday, a matchup of two ranked teams, followed a week later by familiar foe Kentucky, also at home. They have moved up two spots in the national poll.

•No. 15 Kentucky: Technically the win over then-No.14 LSU was an upset, but the Wildcats needed this one more. So, once again on a Sunday, they got it, 63-56. It was not necessarily pretty. They had a nine-point halftime cushion and needed every bit of it. The national voters, unimpressed, dropped them two spots in the poll.

What has become obvious is the break senior leader Denesha Stallworth took for a cleanup knee ’scope has altered her game.

She is a starter, not a special threat anymore than any of the other Wildcats regularly in double figures. She had eight in this one, but with seven rebounds, very blue-collar.

Junior guard Brian Goss scored 11 – including two free throws with 11 seconds left -- and team scoring leader Jennifer O’Neill, coming off the bench as has been usual, scored 10. But UK started with 0-of-6 from the field, which didn’t say much for initial mental toughness. Holding LSU to 32 percent from the field – a season-best effort against conference opponents – did show a dogged determination.

Contrast that with LSU’s sensational freshman Raigyne Moncrief, 19 points and nine rebounds. Senior forward Theresa Plaisance had 13 points and six rebounds as the visitors outrebounded the ’Cats by four. The final seven home team points were all from the line.

Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said it was once again time to credit mental preparation.

“Friday (two days before the game), was mental. We didn’t take the floor Friday,” he said.
“We just sat in a room and weren’t leaving until we got some things straightened out about how we are going to move forward. I am telling you, this is not a physical thing. It is mental. It is a mindset.

“Then we had to go twice (Saturday) because we didn’t get to practice Friday. There was no use to practice Friday until we figured out a way forward. This was one of the top teams in the country and are not playing particularly well right now and we have to find ourselves and to gut this one out and find a way to win is huge.”

He said the turnaround, if there is a turnaround, is only just begun.

“We are working hard and in the woods right now trying to get through some briar patches and get some machetes out and hack our way through,” Mitchell said. “We are not even close to being out of the woods yet. We have a lot of work to do.”

LSU coach Nikki Caldwell appreciated the efforts of both teams and, as usual, focused on the defense.

“I think the one thing about Kentucky, and it’s been a staple of Matthew (Mitchell), is that he relies on his defense,” Caldwell said.

“They did a nice job of disrupting us. By doing so, it allowed them to get those transition baskets. This league is tough. It’s competitive and I think we are seeing that across the board.

"We talk about this as coaches, but we have a tendency within the SEC to beat up on each other . . . When you say who’s the champion this year. I think it’s up for grabs.”

Kentucky took the rest of the week off and at least broke the yo-yo effect of winning on Sunday and losing on Thursday.

The Wildcats are at unranked Florida on Sunday. The ’Gators were equally unranked when they bopped UK at their place by 10, starting UK on a 4-4 rollercoaster. Florida is actually a game ahead of Kentucky in the league standings.

•No. 16 LSU: Now having three league losses, the Tigers headed home for the catfight with the other Tigers. With the win, they are 3-1 in the Final 10 countdown. But, in losing at a higher-ranked team to start the week, they still dropped two positions in the national assessment.

Against Mizzou, they won each half easily and coasted to a 20-point win.

Theresa Plaisance scored 20 and Jeanne Kenney 19. Kenney kept the game alive when three other starters had two first-half fouls and stayed on the bench,

With the starters renewed, an impressive 14-0 run put it away in the second half. So did hitting 11-of-12 free throws in the final two minutes and a half. A disappointing 2,663 witnessed it.

She played like a senior who wasn’t going to let her team lose,” LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said of Kenney. “She did a lot of nice things for us in the half court and taking care of the basketball.

“When you have that type of composure with your guard play it makes things a lot smoother.”

Kenney deferred praise to her teammates.

“In the first half our aggressive play started with Danielle (Ballard) and Ray (Moncrief), and getting Theresa involved really opened up the outside,” Kenney said. “When you have an inside-outside game, you’re golden.

“We had that inside-outside play.”

In the next two games, make or break in conference for LSU, they visit Texas A&M and then take the rest of the week off to prepare the following Sunday for league leader South Carolina. They have 18 wins, third-best in conference.

•No. 18 Vanderbilt: The Commodores had one ranked team this week. They go to Tennessee in a state showdown on Monday.

But first, they welcomed in league leader, then-No. 17, Texas A&M and sent them home a loser, 71-69. Tori Scott fouled with two seconds to go and Morgan Batey made the most of the mental error with the winning free throws.

Batey scored the final five points for Vanderbilt, all in the final 19 seconds at home. She finished with 17 points and they stayed in the Top 20.

A&M had come back from a seven-point halftime deficit. So they are tied with South Carolina at 7-2 in the league but have the tiebreaker in having beaten the Gamecocks. What does it mean nationally to lose to a team at their place which is ranked one place higher nationally?

For A&M, it meant a change of positions down to No, 19.

A&M center Karla Gilbert tried to make up for the off day by the usual points leaders with 12 rebounds and 26 points. She scored the Aggies’ final four pints, all on free throws. “I was proud of Karla. That’s a way a senior is supposed to play, A&M coach Gary Blair said. He expected such a tussle.

“We thought coming in here this would be difficult — it’s always been difficult for me here, at Arkansas, wherever. “Their advantage works really well. It’s a great venue with a great basketball town.”

The usually classy Blair had no quibble with the final call.

”We allowed a team to shoot fifty-five percent. On the last drive, yep, we fouled. She made the two free throws. Ballgame.”

Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said she had been working on Batey’s aggressiveness.

“I’ve talked to Morgan for the last two weeks about just getting back to doing her job,” Balcomb said.

“ She knows what her job and her role is, and just getting re-focused. When she does that she all of a sudden becomes a star, doing the little things.”
She admitted this was a needed win

”We definitely needed this after Missouri; what’s hard is you play with your mind right now. You think, if we could’ve just beat Missouri then we could be 7-2 and be right there. But, if we beat Missouri, are we mad enough and do we want it badly enough to beat A&M, so you can’t second guess, you can’t look back.

“You gotta play whoever you’re playing that day and you gotta act like you need every game, and we did need it.”
She also said she was all but prepared for overtime as A&M lined up its final shot.

“That last shot? Absolutely. I thought that shot was in,” Balcomb said.

“I was ‘Like no this is not happening.’ It was the same way with the calls down the stretch, off the ball calls when you’re just playing defense that’s a rare situation. Nothing would have surprised me at that point. I think most of the last couple minutes I kept shaking my head thinking ‘This is not happening;’ but it happened, so I think it was our turn for it to go right, and it did.”

For her part, Batey agreed the mental preparation paid off.

“I think the most important thing is to understand and to come to the sideline and regroup. I talked to my teammates, my position coach, and keep cheering for my teammates. That really keeps me focused and with the game, so when I get the chance to get back out there we haven’t skipped a beat, because everyone else is stepping and making big plays too.”

You have to seize the opportunities, she said

”I just took what was given to me,” Batey observed. “I wasn’t really looking to attack, but I knew in certain plays that there were certain things that were going to be open. My teammates did a great job of hold seals and setting screens, and I was able to take advantage of that. I felt like it was all in the flow of the game really.

”I felt really confident stepping to the line. I’d been to the line a couple times before that so I thought ‘You’ve been making them all game, its just another free throw.’

“The preparation is there, we shoot free throws after every practice, 10 in a row before we leave, so I knew I had the confidence to make them.”

•No. 19 Texas A&M: The Aggies took a week off to prepare for their next ranked challenge, LSU, at home.

“We’ve got to become a smarter basketball team if we’re even going to think about winning the SEC. We had won four straight on the road with a couple good ones at LSU and Georgia,” Blair said.

“I’m very proud of my team, but my hair is getting to be gray. I’ve got to teach better for us to execute better. It doesn’t matter who has the most talented team. It’s about who plays within their framework of what they are trying to do... we’re an undisciplined team in crisis management time. Don’t you think I want my best three point shooter to be on the receiving end of a pass in with two seconds to go? That’s how far we have to go.”

He uses Gilbert as an example for the others.

”When your starters go 3-of-11, 1-of-7, 0-for-6, that’s a big-time problem. What we were trying to do was the same thing Vanderbilt did. Drive the ball.

That’s how you shoot 55 percent like they did in the second half. We were
going to her much more than we wanted to at the start of this ballgame. We were firing blanks from the outside, and then your kids refuse to drive, you’ve got problems.”

He cited another famous coach for inspiration.

“After the Duke game last night, Mike Krzyzewski said, ‘My kids did everything they could upstairs and downstairs. I’ve got no complaints. ’ I have no complaint with my team’s effort. I have complaints because my team is not playing up to their capability. That’s my complaint. I’m a teacher first, and I can’t handle a loss like that.”

Down the stretch, he still praises Tennessee, the first team to defeat his team in conference lay.

“It just depends on if Tennessee brings their A game like they did against us.

"They haven’t brought their A game. If they can continue to bring their A game in big games, they have the most talent. The difference is, the rest of us are playing with a lot of heart.”

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


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