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.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Mike Siroky's NCAA SEC Report: No Surprises in First Round


By Mike Siroky

The eight Southeastern Conference teams in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament played four games on each of the opening days.

The two No. 1 seeds easily upheld the honor of the conference.

The league losers were not unexpected. Overall, six survive into the round of 32 – the former litmus test for national inclusion – with four on track; three at home -- for the Sweet 16. Then again, all the top four seeds nationwide won their opening games.

•No. 1 Tennessee 70, No. 16 Northwestern State 46: The Lady Vols drew State to their home party for the Louisville Regional and gave the Southland Conference champs a lovely parting gift of a second-half Demons demolition in their first NCAA appearance since 2004.

The Lady Vols, with senior Meighan Simmons propelling them, started 11-2, as Simmons scored five while everyone else settled in. Each side was in the 30 percent from the field range with only UT center Izzy Harrison (2-of-3) showing any consistency.

When it was 22-20 at the half, their coach sick and not being able to stand, the Lady Vols and their 7,128 fans suddenly realized how much of a quagmire a first-round game can be, with expectations and energy brought down to earth by the play of the thing.

So, as so often has happened, UT played better after halftime and another Holly Warlick talk. UT outscored the Demons by 12 in the first four minutes after intermission.

Bashaara Garves had a dozen rebounds, seven defensive, by the 11-minute mark. She and Harrison were helping establish inside dominance and State had no answers. Harrison was 5-of-8 as it stretched to 24 with about four minutes left. The Lady Vols had hit all but one of their 16 free throws.

Harrison finished with a dozen points, as did freshman Mercedes Russel of the bench and as did Simmons, but Simmons had to try a little harder as she was 4-of-15 from the field.

The seven-game win streak was shattered; Tennessee (29-5) has won nine in a row, 15-3 at home.

Warlick almost skipped the game with an illness. She said as of 9 a.m. on game day, she was staying away. But she took a lot of fluids, had an IV and soldiered on. She had a doctor come to her house at 3 a.m. The players knew she was sick. She said it was either food poisoning or a bug. She went with the bug idea.

As for the game, “We could tell we hadn't played in about two weeks. We missed a lot of easy shots. Our defense wasn't a priority but I think in the second half we got our point across. We got the ball inside. We showed a little bit of what our defense is supposed to be like.”

She had literally sat out the first half on the bench.

“Then I couldn't sit there any longer,” she said. “When we went back at halftime, we tried to do some more IV, but that wasn't my focus so we took the IV out of my hand. It's difficult when you have someone who is up and you have a voice. I'm not up and coaching the basketball team. Kyra (Elzy) did a great job.

“You're not going to do too many good things when you're shooting 22 percent in the first half. We were quick shooting the basketball. I felt I needed to get up.

“Somehow I found a lot of energy after the first half. I had a lot of energy and decided I needed to get up and coach this basketball team."

Harrison said the players knew what to do to get the win.

“I think we went away from some of our defensive assignments and we might have gotten a little comfortable, but that just shows from not playing in two weeks,” Harrison said. “We've got to get back in our rhythm of having a sense of urgency for the full 40 minutes.

“I definitely wanted to establish a presence on the inside early and a I guess I decided to get into the feel of it and I knew that people were looking towards me to get the offensive energy going and I took it upon myself to do that.

“But it also helped our defensive side as well and it got us going. Everyone was talking to each other and correcting one another and you saw that we were a different team.”

She said even the reinvirgorated coach made a difference.

“I definitely noticed, Holly gets to stomping and yelling, it draws your attention, and that’s just her and her care for us and for this team and her passion for the game. She trying to put it into us, so if we had any confusion, we looked towards her and she lets us know, so I think we really fed off of that.”

UT now awaits St. John’s.

•No. 1 South Carolina 73, No. 16 Cal State Northridge 48: Northridge and the Big West found out what everyone in the SEC knew all season: SC can turn up the inside heat when it needs to.

Conference Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell scored 24, Alaina Coates 13 and it is on to Round 2 at Seattle in the Stanford Regional.

Conference coach of the year Coach Dawn Staley has seen this enough; her team is still considered young and is not necessarily built for overwhelming starts.

"I wasn't surprised. This is March. Welcome to the madness," Staley said. "I'm glad I'm sitting here able to prepare for a game on Tuesday."

South Carolina (28-4) is still celebrating its first top seed (a No. 3 was the previous high) and every victory is another one for the program record book.

South Carolina outscored Northridge, 27-11, at the line and had 20 second-chance points.

"We just tried to go out there and do what we did to get the No. 1 seed and stick to our game plan," Mitchell said.

The defense held Ashley Guay, the Big West player of the year, to six points, 2-of-9 from the floor. She literally knocked herself out of the game with 4:34 left, diving and fouling when after a loose ball. She had to be helped off the court after hitting her head hard on the floor going for a rebound, a play where she was called for a foul.

"I'm proud of them as young women," Northridge coach Jason Flowers said. "They showed a bigger audience today what they are as young women, what we are as a program."

After losing just twice over the first four months of the season, South Carolina lost two of their final three games entering the tournament. The season-ender at Tennessee and the first conference tournament playoff game.

The centers, Aleighsa Welch and Elem Ibiam, each had 11 points for South Carolina.

"I think they made big plays, especially toward the end of the game," Welch said. "... They were scrappy. They were scrappy the entire game. They weren't going to lie down and let us run them over."

SC twice built momentum, first with an 11-point advantage and then again on a 10-0 run using their two-center offense for multiple second-chance opportunities from Coates and Ibiam.

"I think it shows us what we need to work on as far as going forward,” Welch said. “It’s always good to get that first one.”

South Carolina will face No. 9 seed Oregon State next.

•No. 3 Texas A&M 70, No. 14 North Dakota 55: Another home team took advantage of its familiar surroundings to move along. A&M kept getting stronger as the game progressed, fashioning a 40-29 second half. A 14-0 start had made the implication of which is the better team very clear.

All-conference player Courtney Walker again proved she is the best sophomore in America with 19 points, eight rebounds and three steals.

“We’ve got to play a lot better if we expect to go anywhere else in the NCAA tournament,” coach Gary Blair said. "We're going to take the ‘W’ and learn from it and grow from it.”

Every time A&M took off on a little run, North Dakota was come back, once causing Blair to call a time out which he used to stand with his arms crossed, shaking his head and looking at his team.

“By far this was one of the worst games we’ve played, but I was glad we were able to pick it up and pull it out in the second half,” A&M's Karla Gilbert said.

The senior center had 14 with eight rebounds and five blocks, matched in points by guard Tori Scott. The home team attracted 6,075 fans.

“We didn’t have much offense tonight,” Blair said. "We were shooting jumpers when we should have gone inside and when we went inside our bigs were not finishing. What we were not doing well is make decisions.

“But, when you hold them to 30 percent from the field and outrebound them 49-36, you have to do better than we did.

“It is not we took North Dakota for granted; we took ourselves for granted. But give the kids a break, it’s the first game in 15 days.”

No. 11 James Madison (28-5) is up next, having disposed of No. 6 Gonzaga.

•No. 3 Kentucky 106, No. 14 Wright State 60: The Wildcats roared to a start as their reinvented competitive selves started at home for a feed-in to the Notre Dame Regional.

UK has gone 6-1 with quality wins over Texas A&M and South Carolina and only a one-point loss at Tennessee in that string.

Opponents must anxiously watch the UK bench, wondering when super-sixth man junior Jennifer O’Neill will appear. She leads UK in scoring and not having her start works for coach Matthew Mitchell.

This time, she scored 21, senior Samarie Walker had 12 with 14 rebounds, a school record for rebounds for an NCAA tournament.

It was Wright State’s first NCAA appearance and it showed. Familiar with the home territory, UK hit 55 percent, shot 55 percent from the field, had a school-record 67 rebounds and recorded a season-high 12 blocks. Five blocks by senior Denesha Stallworth is also a school tournament record.

Walker had her season's ninth double-double at halftime. The Wildcats achieved their season best in blocks early in the second half.

Depending on which bench you backed, it got better or worse in the second half.

O'Neill was 8-of-11 from the field including two of her four 3s during Kentucky's 68-percent second half, another school NCAA record. The Wildcats made 44-of-80 overall while topping a rebounding mark 67 (49 defensive), the best since 1982, to Wright State’s 40 boards. The points are also a school tournament record, as is the margin.

Wright State shot 23 percent (19-of-83) from the field.

State had won the Horizon League, but lost its best player to a left knee injury, furthering the imbalance.

The Wildcats took off on a starting 16-5 run capped by O'Neill's basket off a steal for a 16-5 lead after 5½ minutes. That burst was the first of several by Kentucky, which also ran off stretches of 10 and 14 unanswered points en route to a 51-25 halftime lead.

Wright State missed its first seven shots and 8-of-40 from the field.

It’s all about focus, said Mitchell.

“What we’ve really tried to talk to the players about is how important this 40 minutes is and you have to throw the seeds out right now and get prepared for a really formidable opponent.

“Certainly, I would rather be playing here than in Wright State’s gym (it is the program’s first post-season game at home). It’s an advantage, but we’re really trying to focus on our play and what we need to do to be successful.

“The benefit of practicing in the gym all week and getting to shoot more shots than Wright State hopefully will be an advantage but we haven’t focused a lot on that because I don’t want the players to think somehow the building is going to win the game for them because that’s not what’s going to happen.

“What’s going to happen is our players will do the things necessary. We have the players in a hotel trying to make it very much like every other NCAA Tournament game.

"I just don’t think you can afford, at this point in time, to artificially boost your team up. I think you really need to stay squarely focused on the 40 minutes that is in front of you because it’s the only game that you have guaranteed right now.”

The Wildcats hit a fifth consecutive 25-win season.

“I thought we had a chance to play well today,” Mitchell said. “It’s hard on a coach. You don’t know exactly what’s going on.”

O’Neill said focus is the thing.

“We’ve been off of for a couple of days, but we haven’t been off of practice,” she said. “That’s the way we’ve been practicing. Today everybody was just clicking on all cylinders.”

Walker, with one more home game in her career, said, “After our loss in the (SEC) Tournament, (coach) gave us a few days off just to refocus and kind of get past that.

“When we came back to practice, it was like a totally new team. Even during the (SEC), it was a totally new team. I think we kind of felt that sadness from the loss and we wanted to make a run in the (NCAA) Tournament. That’s what we came here to do.”

Next up is No. 6 Syracuse (23-9), which eliminated Chattanooga and legendary coach Jim Foster.

•No. 7 LSU 98, No. 10 Georgia Tech 78: The Ben-Gals started with a surprising win –in that any win by LSU this season is a surprise – at home against the ACC’s seventh-best team (as was LSU No. 7 in the SEC).

It started with a flurry of offense, 51-44 at half. Leading LSU was Danielle Ballard, already with 19 at the break. They were hitting 46 percent from the field and winning rebounds by 12. What kept Tech in the game was hitting better than half its shots from the field.

Ballard scored 24, Theresa Plaisance 21 and DaShawn Harden 17 as LSU hit half its shots form the field and finally hit 20 wins on the season with a 27-rebound margin. It is their 16th straight opening round game, nine of those at home. A 17-5 run early in the second half decided it.

The win exorcises some of the nightmare that began in February with losses in eight of 10, four at home.

"This isn't the same LSU team you saw two weeks ago," Plaisance said. "We've completely transformed ourselves."

"Ballard just played like a woman possessed," LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said. "When you have your point guard playing with that type of attitude, that mentality, it filters throughout our team. So she did set the tone for us, that we can be aggressive against pressure."

Tech was known as the up-temp team coming in, yet it was LSU on a 17-5 run in the second half that decided it.

"They kept getting exhausted and we just kept trying to continue doing what's best for us, and that was to push down on offense and keep getting them tired," Ballard said. "We were running each and every day in practice, so we were in better shape than they were. So I felt like we had the upper hand."

Even Tech coach Machelle Joseph came away impressed with LSU’s awakening.

"That was a totally different team that I saw today than the last 10 games on film," Joseph said. "They had players making shots that I didn't see them making" previously.

West Virginia (29-4), the No. 2 in the Louisville Regional, is next after eliminating Albany.

•No. 11 Florida 83, No. 6 Dayton 69: Florida proved it belongs in the tournament by simply ascending to the Round of 32 as the sixth SEC team still in it. A 54-37 second half was enough of a rally to earn a second game and a matchup with Penn State on the Nittany Lions’ home court, feeding the Stanford Regional.

All five starters were in double figures and the Gators hit the 20-win success mark, back in the tournament after a year away.

Cassie Peoples scored 21 and was immediately ready for the home team next, even as an 11 seed. Jaterra Bonds and Ronni Williams each had 15 points for Florida.

"We're all focused for Game 2," she said, "but also for Games 3-4-5, however long we keep going."

"That's not what we came here for, to just beat Dayton," Bonds said. "We came to get that Round 2 win. We want to get to the Sweet 16."

It was all happy talk after the win, but in the game itself, Florida was behind by more than 10 in the second half before buckling down, shooting 51 percent from the field after intermission.

Coach Amanda Butler said the halftime talk was simple: “We were just talking about or decisions and our energy level. Cassie woke up and there is no quit on this team. Everyone just kept bouncing back and believing in each other.”

Peoples said, “I think our team just needed a spark and it was the perfect opportunity to do that. I am glad were strong enough to do that and play another day.

“Our game plan always is to defend as hard as we can.”

The Gators shot 51 percent in the second half to wipe out the deficit and stun Dayton. Carlie Needles hit a trio of 3s. Dayton, beginning to panic, missed 14 3 attempts.

"Carlie hitting the 3s really gave us that confidence to seal the game off," Peoples said. "It really put a dagger in them when Carlie was hitting those 3s. We're all just grateful she still had the confidence to take them after (a slow start)."

Florida plays eight players. So everyone has to contribute.

Guard Kayla Lewis had 11 points and 11 rebounds. Led by Lewis, Florida outrebounded Dayton 41-26. The Gators have no starters taller than 6-foot.
Coach Butler has her team believing.

"All of the energy that's not directed in your favor on someone else's home court, all those things are something I think my team thrives on," Butler said.

• No. 8 St. Joseph’s 67, No. 9 Georgia 57: No sooner had Georgia coach Andy Landers established his legacy as the SEC coach with the most NCAA tournament appearances – 31 -- than his young ’Dawgs were through for the season, as suspect as was Vanderbilt in even getting in at all. Georgia lost four of its last six and two straight.

They had no way to halt senior guard Erin Shields. She scored 18 with seven rebounds. A year earlier, she scored just five in a loss to another SEC team, Vanderbilt.

Of course the reward is playing No. 1 UConn on its home court for chance to get to the Lincoln, Neb., Regional. But that elimination is days away.

“I felt better this year,” she said. “Coming into the game, coach said, ‘You’ve got to be ready to shoot.’ ”

She hit five of her first nine shots, including 4-of-6 on 3s.

Erika Ford had 16 points to lead Georgia, Merritt Hempe 13 points and Krista Donald 10, with 10 rebounds.

Saint Joseph's led by eight points at halftime and was up 42-32 early in the second half. Georgia got back into it with a 14-4 run.

A foul shot by Merritt Hempe tied the game at 46, and a 3 shot by Tiaria Griffin midway through the half gave Georgia a 50-49 lead.

That was the Lady Bulldogs' only lead of the second half.

The Hawks answered with a 10-0 run.

"During that period, we just dissolved," said Landers. "We didn't defend very well. We didn't go after loose balls or rebound very well."

•No. 9 Arizona state 69, No. 8 Vanderbilt 61: Many folks felt the Commodores, in their 27th appearance in the tournament, 15th consecutive overall did not really belong in this one.

They were correct. An 18-12 record underlines their 2-10 collapse at the end.

Senior Christina Foggie scored 16 but so what. Only one other Commodore hit double-figures.

Vandy was outrebounded, 33-20, with but eight defensive rebounds. It allowed 62 percent from the field, 67 percent in the second half.

"The way (State) rotates in player after player wears on you, as well as last-second 3-point shots that go in," Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. "The things that we could control -- making free throws, missing layups -- we didn't control.

“Arizona State came out aggressive, that’s what they do. They took away a lot of our looks on offense and made us go fast. By the time we adjusted, we couldn’t make the stops.

“They beat us, they were the better team.”

Foggie said, "Emotionally, it deflates you a little bit; but there is not enough time to dwell on it.

“When we made our runs, we have to keep momentum and we didn’t communicate better to continue momentum.”


- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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