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 03, 2014

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: The Deep Cleansing Breath

By Mike Siroky

The final Sunday of the Southeastern Conference women’s basketball season did little more than decide who is second, third and fourth.

South Carolina had already won the top seed in the post-season league tournament.

The upset win allows Tennessee to claim No. 2 for the SEC post-season tournament that jumps off Wednesday. The Lady Vols have thus swept both SC and Texas A&M and finish just one game back of the Gamecocks. The win at A&M is the tiebreaker for the No. 2 seed. SC may fall to a high No. 2 seed now.

A&M’s win assured Kentucky of the fourth-place position and a bye through the first two nights of the league tournament.

If they play by the numbers – and that seldom happens in this league – A&M and Tennessee will still tussle for the right to play SC in the finals. UK would draw SC in the other semifinal.

The league and the NCAA recognize, by contract, the conference tournament winner as the SEC champ. Traditionalists – and this includes most coaches – like the overall conference season winner as the SEC champ but that is unofficial and will be dressed up for next year’s PR guidebooks.

Sunday’s games also finished the statistical runs that help set the all-conference awards.

The votes will go as they always do, with statistical leaders getting an unfair imbalance on the All-SEC teams. Coaches have always voted this way and always will.

Doesn’t a player who also elevates her never-been-there team mean more than the one who labors under the scrutiny of being the latest greatest on a traditional powerhouse?

Meighan Simmons of Tennessee is a returning Player of the Year. She is seventh overall in league scoring. No one dares deny her a spot on the all-Conference team, which is official for the regular season work.

Who gets to be Player of the Year?

SC is a team of wonderful working parts, with not much domination from one player to the next. Simmons is fine, but her team did not win the regular season.

The best scorer in league games this season was Bria Kulas of Missouri, at 20.3 the only one averaging more than 20. Missouri is far out of the NCAA picture.

The best rebounder in league games this season was Tia Faleru of Ole Miss, at 9.5 one-tenths better than teammate Martha Alwal. They have only an outside shot at the NCAAs.

None are on the better teams in the league, of course, but how do you choose a player from a team of equally-functioning parts, as happens on the top teams everywhere?

Same with Rookie of the Year.

Does the player who started all but the last weeks of the season on a team ranked most of the season count more than the backup center on the conference regular-season champs?

Does a player on a team loaded with returning players who works into the vaunted system slowly (she’d be a starter on the lower-tier teams) count less?

Surely all the top rookies will be all-SEC in years to come and then we’ll refer to her rookie season as a statistical reference.

Coach of the Year?

Easy to pick the regular-season No. 1 coach.

But what about the ones who accepted the challenge this season of rebuilding once-respected NCAA playoff contenders.

Or even the guy who is tanking a team towards 20 wins for the first time. And in this toughest of all conferences.

You’ll see the official lists this week. You’ll see where the teams with those players and that coach end up in a few weeks.

It has been ever thus.

UT and South Carolina are both 9-1 in the Final 10 games, (an NCAA point of emphasis in seeding).

Texas A&M and Kentucky are each 7-3 in the final 10.

Unranked Georgia has 19 wins.

Unranked Arkansas has 19 wins.

Unranked Vanderbilt has 18 wins.

Unranked Florida has 18 wins.

Unranked Mississippi State has 18 wins.

Unranked LSU has 18 wins, has stumbled badly and will welcome in a higher-seed to its sub-Regional.

No SEC team with 20 wins has ever missed an NCAA tournament, even when the 20th came in the conference tournament.

So, here’s how the regular season ended for the Fab Four, those listed in the AP Top 25:

•No. 10 Tennessee: It was Lady Vols’ Senior Day and the last home game until at least the first game of the sub-Regional. That two-step feeds into the Stanford Regional, projected now as the easiest route to the Final Four.

Center Izzy Harrison kept the celebration rolling with 20 points -- 9-of-11 from the field -- and 15 rebounds.

Meighan Simmons was honored as the lone senior on Senior Afternoon and scored 16 in front of 14,072 fans, which will outdraw most-sub-Regionals.

Tennessee won each half with diligence and effort, a 73-61 end.

Tennessee never trailed in winning its 10th of the past 11. South Carolina had a 10-game win streak dashed.

"It's huge for us," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "We talked a lot about seeding for the SEC tournament, talked a lot about seeding for the NCAA tournament. We thought it was really important for us to go out and make a statement. Obviously, I thought we did."

Tennessee also ended an eight-game losing streak against Top 5 opponents.

"It really got us back to where we need to be and showed us how when we play hard, who we can defeat," said Harrison.

Andraya Carter added 14 points for Tennessee. For South Carolina, Aleighsa Welch had 16 points, Tiffany Mitchell 11 and Alaina Coates 10.

"We're a lot more efficient basketball team than we displayed," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "Part of it is I thought the pace of the game was a lot quicker than we'd like to play. They forced us to play fast and probably take quicker shots than we normally take. I think Tennessee had a lot to do with it because they want to get up and down in transition. We just tried to keep up pace with them, but that's just really not our pace."

A videotape showing Simmons' career highlights was shown on the overhead scoreboard before the game. Simmons was introduced with her family before the game, and she received a framed jersey.

As is her usual pregame custom, Simmons went into the front row of the stands to embrace former Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt before lineup introductions. After the game, Simmons blew a kiss to the crowd while walking to a team gathering at midcourt.

Summitt, who remains on staff as Tennessee's head coach emeritus, coached Simmons during the guard's first two seasons with the Lady Vols.

"A lot of people were saying, `This is your day. But it wasn't really about me," Simmons said. "It was about this team. It was about us getting a `W,' taking care of business and trying to think about the future."

Harrison led Tennessee to a 38-30 halftime advantage by continuing her recent mastery of South Carolina. Harrison shot 7 of 8 and scored 14 points in the first half. In a 73-53 victory at South Carolina last season, Harrison shot 9 of 12 and had 18 points and 14 rebounds.

Tennessee committed a season-low seven turnovers.

"It was a huge deal because, as everyone knows, we've struggled a little bit with turnovers this season," Carter said. "The fact we had seven turnovers against a Top 5 team and a great defensive team -- South Carolina's so athletic, they're known for their defense -- the fact we were able to have seven turnovers against them, it's no cut-down to them. It's just huge for us. We took care of the basketball, which is something we know we have to do in postseason."

No. 4 Carolina started a magical mystery tour with this one. Next up is at least one game in the SEC league tournament, then a likely No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAAs and a trip to somewhere that likely feeds the Nebraska Regional. The closest sub-Regional to home without a good home team is Ames, Iowa. Seattle is the destination for a sub-Regional without any home team.

•No. 12 Kentucky: The Wildcats honored their four seniors – including usual starters DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker – in the last home game until the sub-Regional by starting all of them. That feeds into the Louisville Regional, where UConn would be the Sweet 16 opponent.

Vanderbilt, on its usual elevator to end the season, stepped off once again on a lower floor in the 65-63 loss.

Walker made sure of it with 18 points and offset tragedy with the clinching free throws
She said she finally felt like she was in game shape.

“I think it’s mentally me not worrying about reinjuring my knee or me not thinking too much, just going out and rebounding has been my main focus,” Walker said.

“As I’ve made that my main focus everything else just kind of falls into play and just trying to contribute to my team as much as possible.

“I know I’m an important piece, so just leaving them out to dry in the month of January really bothered me a lot, so I really wanted to step up and just try to do the best I could for them.”

The outcome was in doubt until Janee Thompson's jumper with 1:19 remaining broke a 56-56 deadlock. The lead stood despite a furious rally by the visitors. Bria Goss made five of six free throws in the last 38 seconds to fend off Vanderbilt, which rallied from a 17-point deficit in the first half.

The only free throw miss by Goss came with 12.9 seconds left and allowed Vanderbilt an opportunity to pull off the upset, but Jasmine Jenkins missed a driving jumper at the buzzer.
Goss finished with 12 points for Kentucky, which got 34 points from its bench. The Wildcats won six of the final eight games. The 6,551 fans responded with elation.
Coach Matthew Mitchell said hard work has paid off.

“Well, you work so hard all season long and it comes down to the final game of the season and you’re at home and you just want to get a victory so badly for the seniors and for the team,” he said.

“They worked really hard. I’m going to tell you, this team worked so hard to get ready for today’s game. So, I’m really, really proud of the team.”

•No. 17 Texas A&M: The Aggies stormed to a nice finish in Gatorland, 83-72.

It is A&M’s highest score of the season.

The 13th win matches the best conference finish. Last year, A&M jumped into the league tournament and won a place in the NCAAs with the title.

A&M also has a home sub-Regional, one that feeds into the Lincoln Regional, when a Texas shootout against Baylor (also qualifying at home) would be the likely Sweet 16 opponent with SC (if it survives as well) for the Elite Eight matchup.

Not that Florida went easily on their Senior Afternoon.

The Gators hung tough. It was 35-34, A&M, at the break. Guard Tori Scott had almost a third of the points, 12. For Florida, senior guard Jaterra Bonds had almost half of the points, 15, 5-of-7 from the floor and 4-of-4 from the line. Thanks to her, Florida was hitting 52 percent from the field.

The Gators have closed the season with losses in four of the final five.

Four Aggies scored in double figures. Karla Gilbert had 23 points and three blocks, moving her into second on A&M’s single season block list and within one of the Texas A&M single season block record.

Jordan Jones had a career-high 14 assists, the fifth-most in a single game in A&M history. Jones has 10-plus assists in back-to-back games. She is 26 assists off of the school single-season record.

Achiri Ade had a double double with 14 points and 13 rebounds. Scott also matched a career-high with 19 points, while Courtney Walker had 17 points to reach double figures.

“It was a great ballgame,” said A&M coach Gary Blair.

“ I think the difference was we continually held the lead in the first half even when we were not playing our best and we were in a lot of foul trouble. They called it real tight early, Williams for them got two quick fouls and all my guards were in foul trouble but Jordan (Jones) played the whole second half without getting a foul. I thought Tori Scott’s defense was tremendous.

“Florida has done a tremendous job all year with their injuries and transfers and everything that has gone wrong. Amanda (Butler) should get a lot of votes for Coach of the Year because I think she’s done a tremendous job.

“You don’t know how hard it is when basically she loses three starters and she’s doing it with a volleyball player or somebody like that coming off the bench.”

We’ll report back on Tuesday with the conference tournament preview.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


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