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 14, 2014

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Thundering Down the Stretch

By Mike Siroky

With five games left in the regular season, the Southeastern Conference is South Carolina’s to lose.

Sure, the conference tournament champ is the money ball pick for the NCAAs “automatic” bid, but the only real romance there is if Georgia can rescue its season over a hot weekend, like Texas A&M did last season.

A&M, Tennessee. LSU and Kentucky all host NCAA sub-Regionals, so all are already in the NCAA bracket someplace. Three of them plus South Carolina are likely therefore into the Sweet 16 as of now.

Coaches, being traditionalists will still salute the regular conference champ for surviving the meat grinder. A few weeks ago, Holly Warlick of Tennessee told us all her team had to do was win out and they’d defend the regular-season title.

They have won six straight.

And so it is they are 5-0 in the Final 10 games (an NCAA point of emphasis in seeding). Yet they still have four tough games left against ranked teams.

South Carolina, also 5-0, plays two ranked teams in succession next week on the road, LSU and Kentucky and is at Tennessee for the regular-season finale. If South Carolina wins out and if it also wins the conference tournament, they are suddenly favored for a top seed in the NCAAs, though most likely at Stanford.

Texas A&M has the most favorable games to go schedule of the top teams, but is 3-2 halfway though its Final 10. The Aggies have only one ranked team left, so have the luxury of watching the others carve each other up. With 19 wins, they are assured of 20.

LSU is 4-1 in the Final 10 but has three ranked teams left and must win one of those to eclipse 20 before the post-season.

Kentucky is still looking for a steady pulse. With five league losses and 3-2 in the Final 10 countdown, the Wildcats still play at Tennessee and at Texas A&M with home games against South Carolina and Vandy. They are out of the regular-season race and one more loss could drop them from the rankings altogether.

But they do have 18 wins.

Unranked Florida is 4-1 in the Final 10 and has swept Kentucky.

It, like LSU and Kentucky, has four league losses, but 17 wins. As it still has South Carolina, Vandy and Texas A&M left, making 20 in the regular season seem unlikely.

Mississippi State and Arkansas also have 17 wins each. State’s loss to Auburn this week (with 15 second-half points) may cost them a shot at 20 in the regular season. The final game against Georgia could make or break that. Arkansas has three ranked teams left and eight league losses.

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

In another NCAA projection note, the guy who does a brackets guess each week for another web site moved UConn to the closest geographical destination, Louisville, as we suggested a few weeks back. This means Louisville would either be less than a No. 2 seed or the last of the No. 2s, as UConn will be the No 1 of all No. 1s and get the least of the No. 2s in its bracket.

This projection affects the SEC in several ways. Kentucky seems destined to be in that bracket, no matter how they are seeded. It moves South Carolina into the South Bend Regional as the best of all SEC teams and a top No. 2. It moves Tennessee into Stanford’s Regional, as another tough No. 2. So far, all three of those SEC teams have earned just those considerations, with UT and SC the teams most likely to beat a top seed in a Regional Final.

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. 14 Texas A&M: The home win over then-No. 16 LSU was mammoth and the next, over Georgia, was unexpectedly tough, overtime. They are alone among ranked league teams to win twice this week.

The 72-67 win over a higher-ranked team (A&M was No. 19 at game time) is by no means unexpected anymore, but it was still fun for the home team and its 5,926 faithful fans at this one. It completes the season sweep of LSU.

A&M coach Gary Blair will not be the league coach of the year. SC’s Dawn Staley seemingly has that locked up. But if there were an award for doing more with less, then Blair would have it already hanging on his wall.

After Kelsey Bone defected to the WNBA with a season of eligibility left, depriving the Aggies of the natural conference Player of the year, Blair has rallied.

They will exceed 20 wins easily.

The sophomore Courtneys, Walker and Williams, have continued to come through. Walker scored 22 and Williams 16 against LSU and each played the entire 40 minutes. Williams was 6-of-9 from the line. Walker hit a layup inside of a minute as A&M clung to a one-point lead. For LSU, only rookie Raigyne Moncrief was stable, with 15 points and nine rebounds.

A&M coach Gary Blair, not one given to overstatement, said, “That was arguably the best game in the SEC all year. I am just glad to be a part of it. I don’t know how I would have felt if we would have lost the game.

“Both teams, in the second half, were just throwing haymakers at each other and delivered. We’d make a shot; they’d make a shot. We couldn’t stop Moncrief from getting to the lane.

“They couldn’t stop Walker and Williams. And then we finally got the ball into Karla (Gilbert) enough times. It was just a great basketball game. It was just the longest second half I have ever been a part of because of how many fouls there were. This is what starts a rivalry. You’ve got to have close games. You’ve got to have mutual respect for each other. You’ve got to have kids that both of us have recruited to be on each other’s teams, and you’ve got to go right down to the wire and have a national television audience watching.

“It was just a great basketball game. Both teams played well. It was hard game to officiate. Both coaches were riding them. I’m sure LSU probably thinks of it a different way. We had a lot of those fouls we didn’t agree with too. It was tough. It was women’s basketball at its best. I’m just glad our fans, the ones that were here, had the great chance to see it.”

He said he knows his own team’s limitations as well as anyone.

“We’re not good enough to blow anybody away. Nobody in this league … it’s not
going to happen. We make too many mistakes on our zone offense to be able to be predictable. But we’re seeing 90-95 percent zone the whole year, and it’s not going to change. It’s that they think we’re not a great 3-pointing team. They’re right, so we’re going to shoot less of them, and we’re going to shoot a lot more mid-range shots.”

Walker was relaxed afterwards

“It came right to me. I was just in the right place in the right time. I was kind of spontaneous. Coach likes us to pull the ball out, especially because they are big inside. But when I got it and saw the open court on the other side, I just laid it in.”

Williams said the mission was simplified as the game went on.

“Just attack,” said Walker. “We are a good free-throwing team. We were just trying to get it in to Karla and just attack.”

LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said she expected no less from these teams.

“We knew this was going to be a hard-fought game. Both teams did a lot of good things to position themselves to win. I thought A&M did what they needed to do down the stretch especially with their board play. They got a lot of second and third opportunities. They were the better team and they played with a lot of toughness.”

At the end . . .

“I felt as though our coverage was there,” Caldwell said. “We had the right people in the right spots. I thought A&M was tougher. They went to the boards harder. I thought that they wanted it more. You could see it in their body language to attack the glass. We didn’t match that physicality at all.”

Georgia sprinted to a 29-17 halftime lead, the worst A&M offensive output of the season. Williams had only five points and the Aggies were hitting 24 percent from the field. Georgia was winning the backboards by five. A&M had but two baskets in the first 12 minutes and it was 19-4. That A&M won the closing minutes 13-10 may have shown a spark.

A 45-33 second half got it to overtime. Walker made two free throws and two jumpers, the last with 97 seconds left to push A&M up by one. Tori Scott stole the ball and was rewarded with a layup on the other end to make it 72-71 with a minute left.

With 35 seconds left, Walker hit a jumper and it was a two-point game. In the final 22 seconds, Jordan Jones and Scott each hit a pair of free throws and the final was 78-73. Walker scored 25, including 5-of-6 from the line. A&M was 20-of-27 from the line.
Blair was exhausted.

“Folks, I thought we were lucky to only be down 12 at half,” he said. “I’m tired of starting ball games at home like that.”

In the second half, he said, “We went to ‘Hope They Miss defense’; ‘HTM defense is our 2-3 zone. They proceeded to miss.”

His team, he said, never gave up even when playing poorly.

“I loved my fight on the team. They let me get after them pretty good at half and that’s what you have to do. Sometimes I’ve either got to be calmer on the bench or I’ve got to be harsher to get their attention.

“I thought it would have been devastating if we would have lost and continued to play the second half like we did the first half.”

Williams is obviously listening to her coach.

We came out expecting to beat them,” Williams said. “Every time A&M has played Georgia the past three times we blew them out, and the last two times were at their house and we took them for granted.

“I knew that we had a run in us coming out of halftime, we didn’t want to lose at home and we want to win another SEC Championship, either in the tournament or the conference championship or both. I feel like we had them on the run especially when we started to get stops and got our offense going.”

With five games to go in the Final 10 countdown, A&M is positioned to win out.

They are a solid second in the conference, with two league losses.

LSU dropped to No. 19, in its only game of the week; all that is left to is take a week to plan for the challenge to the league’s best team, South Carolina. They could also play spoiler when Tennessee comes in for the next-to-last game of the season, but that is small consolation.

•No. 5 South Carolina: Against Arkansas, a team never ranked even when it was 13-0 before the league season started, the Gamecocks won easily, 67-49, to remain atop the conference with one league loss.

Coach Dawn Staley is the first to 22 wins this season SC is as highly ranked as ever it has been, moving up one notch in the national poll, and the only SEC team with a chance to win a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs.

Arkansas tried to pack the middle, but 6-0 freshman Aleighsa Welch scored 16 and had a season-best five blocks. Her 6-4 frontline mates Elem Ibiam and Alaina Coates scored 10 each to lead SC to its sixth straight victory, The trio combined for 21 rebounds.

The Razorbacks, hit under less than 30 percent from the field, just as had happened in the January game.

“When you’re down double digits --15 points -- you’re looking up and you feel like your players are a little stressed,” Arkansas coach Tom Collen said. “ I think it is what it is and South Carolina is probably the best defensive team in the country.

“We’ve been struggling offensively and we played them on their home floor in front of a big crowd. They made great shots and it’s a hard thing to overcome. I give our team credit, because I don’t think they quit in the second half. They battled and we shot the ball better in the second half, but South Carolina is arguably a Final Four team. I think they’re the best team in this league.”

Staley said she’s cautiously optimistic

She thanked the 7,545 fans for their support. “Basically, we wanted to pound he ball inside because, over time, we knew it would loosen up,” she said of the frontcourt dominance.

“They have the green light to do what they want. We take high-percentage shots.

They just stayed committed to it all game long. We have to get comfortable playing like that,” she said.

“Our team has always been a team that is in the moment, so all we’ll talk the next week is LSU. We’ll let the rest of the games come as they come.”

South Carolina is the only team to be undefeated at home in conference, with the final two home stands of the season left. They have a week off to prepare for LSU.

•No. 8 Tennessee: The Lady Vols know the history of the team includes never losing twice to instate rivals. No. 16 Vanderbilt, the best of those, had bopped them at Nashville.

“When you get beat down in Nashville, you’re not happy campers,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “We haven’t been happy for a while. Yeah, we had a little chip on our shoulder and I loved it. I love that we’re competing. I thought tonight we played every play like it’s our last play.”

With the 81-53 win, the Lady Vols remained in the same national position, giving the SEC two Top 10 teams. They have 20 wins for a 38th straight season and are just a game back in the league standings.

Izzy Harrison ruled the middle in the first half against Vanderbilt, with 14 points at the break. She was 7-of-7 from the field. Foggie had 15, including another 3. UT scored the final five of the half, thus the 11-point edge.

Two 3s by the league’s leading scorer, Christiana Foggie and a shorty by Morgan Bateman in the final six minutes of the half kept it close. Still, UT had hit more than 65 percent of its shots and was easily imposing its will.

Harrison is the daughter of former Vanderbilt defensive lineman and assistant football coach Dennis Harrison.

“Ever since we lost in Nashville, I’ve been kind of upset about that in my mind,” Harrison said. “I feel like let my team down, my coaches down. And since it was in Nashville, I felt I let my family down. I really wanted to play my best and take care of business.”

UT scored the first 14 of 16 in the second half, two 3s and a layup by senior leader Meighan Simmons doing the most damage. In the first eight minutes after intermission, Vandy only scored on two free throws.

The winning edge was set. Tennessee has the best scoring offense in the league, 76.2, and exceeded it. Vandy had been allowing 66, so the 81-53 final was once again a matter of one team playing its game while destroying the plan of the foe. It is the fewest points Vanderbilt has produced all season.

Foggie only scored seven points in the second half. Simmons finished with 22. There were 11,382 roaring Orange fans.

“They just dominated us inside,” Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. “They used their height this time. We really, from the tip, had trouble guarding their size inside. They buried us. They were on the boards, and basically in the paint we got killed. They were very aggressive from the tip at doing that, which they weren’t last time.”

“I think we’re just having fun, honestly,” Harrison said. “We weren’t thinking about anything. I feel like in Nashville, we were kind of overthinking a lot of stuff. This is home for us. It allowed us to be a lot more open, free and carefree, I guess.”

Tennessee had a week off to prepare for the next challenge, Kentucky coming in on Sunday.

•No. 16 Vanderbilt: Back at home, the Commodores continued to slump, losing to Auburn, 68-62. The Tigers made an eight-point halftime lead hold up.

Tyrese Tanner scored 18 for the winners. Christina Foggie was without help for Vandy, with 24 the only Commodore to score more than eight. In the end, Auburn held them off by hitting four free throws in the final minute much to the disappointment of the 3,022 in attendance.

"I think when you come out and allow an 8-0 run to start the game and I have to call a time out, that's not really where you want to be on your home court,” Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said “I think that we had to be mad at some point and we didn't play like we were mad to start the game.”

Auburn had lost 21 straight to Vanderbilt.

Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said, “Oh I didn't even know the streak was that much. You know, it’s the one thing we didn’t tell our players this time, because I think they listened to it too much last time.

“People kept saying ‘You haven’t beat Vandy in so many years, you haven’t beat Vandy, you haven't beat Vandy.’ I said, ‘We’re not listening to that anymore.

“Right now under me, we were 0-2 against Vandy. We were not 0-100 against Vandy; we were 0-2. And both of those games we played well enough. We went back and looked at all the reasons why we lost, and we didn’t want to do that again.”

“The next three games are winnable, but so was Auburn. With 17 wins on the way to 20, they are locked into the NCAAs once again. As they are 1-4 in the Final 10 countdown, a seed out of the Top 16 is likely.

"I think, as a coach, I'm just disappointed in our execution and not being able to do the things, defensively or offensively, that we prepared for this team,” Balcomb said. “I know we only we had one day to prepare so, if you want to find excuses, you can. But we played this team already so it should've been something where we have enough confidence, we're on our home court and I certainly can't explain it for them."

•No. 18 Kentucky: Florida? Really?

No one thought Florida could take UK twice, with UK ranked each time and the Gators not. Then again, some of us thought UK was going to win the SEC and now they are clearly out of that race.

But the Gators swept, the one at home 86-80.

Junior guard Jennifer O’Neill is about all Kentucky has on offense right now. She scored 20 in this one, including a last-second layup that ended a scoring zero for the final two minutes. Four teammates stumbled into double figures, including rookie Linnae Harper with 10 points and five rebounds.

UK cut is as close as one in the final minutes but never could edge past the home team, which was backed by a nice little crowd of 2,759.

Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said this team had not learned its lesson from the previous loss and it cost them again.

He spoke of a mindset that had UK feeling “entitled to win” and the sudden loss of defensive integrity this season.

“We weren’t tough enough and we weren’t working hard enough to guard and we were just going to be driven on,” he summarized.

Here’s a statistical perspective: Kentucky recently became the highest-scoring by average team in the league (80.3) but remains 10th in defense. As Mitchell has said repeatedly, he seldom can recall a championship-caliber team that does not start with defense.

Prior to the Ole Miss game, Mitchell spent a good amount of time discussing their coach, a great friend and former assistant Matt Insell. They talk at least once a week.

Insell had been Mitchell’s UK assistant for five seasons and had been an instructor at the Tennessee basketball camps. His specialty is guards. At 5-4, senior Valencia McFarland is nonetheless leads the Rebels in scoring at 16 points per game and in assists, with 152, more than the next four teammates combined. She scored 21 and was the only player in the game to play the entire 40 minutes. Teammate Tie Faleru had a career-best 38 points (15-of-23 free throws) and 16 rebounds.

Kentucky took out its frustrations, 108-78. A season-high 60 points after intermission made it a party. UT is 15-2 when leading at the half.
A crowd of 6,503 turned up in support.

O’Neill came off the bench with 27 points and a career-best five 3-pointers.
Senior Denesha Harper had her best overall game after taking time off earlier this season for a knee ’scope, including 19 points and 11 rebounds.

“I just thought that we – two things – we handled adversity better tonight,” said Mitchell.

“We weren’t always really sharp, but we were able to make some runs and when the energy dropped, we were able to get it back and recreate it. I think that’s because more people played well tonight and played with some pop and pep in their step so that helped us.

“ We just need to play with a lot of confidence and fire offensively. If people score on us, we need to run it right back at them and make tempo a factor. I thought we were able to do that tonight.”

Insell received a nice ovation and was appreciative

“I really want to thank them,” he said. “For the fans to cheer for that was special. It was a real special moment for me for their sign of respect there.

“We got beat by a really good basketball team today.”

For six straight sets, UK has won one then lost one. The Ole Miss was the win that started the next set. With a game at Tennessee coming up next, the sequence doesn’t look to change. It’ll be a statement game for somebody. As much fun as the regular season is, if the SEC post-season swap meet started right now, two venerable teams would face off first, Georgia vs. Kentucky.

Competition in the SEC is always thus.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Post a Comment

<< Home