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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.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Fab Five Still Alive

By Mike Siroky

The Southeastern Conference moved its top five teams to the Sweet 16, more than any other conference.

Throughout the year, we have been referring to the best of the SEC teams as the Fab Five, as proof of why the league is the best in America.

LSU has recovered its reputation in these playoffs, perhaps because it was at home, but nonetheless is back in the elite lists and will be ranked nationally again.

Texas A&M avoided the embarrassment of last season by winning its sub-Regional and also reascending to position itself in the final national rankings.

Kentucky won its sub-Regional and has been ranked all season.

The two No,. 1 seeds, regular-season champ South Carolina and league champ Tennessee, stampeded to their expected Regional positions. Each has a home team likely awaiting them in this last season of allowing such silliness, if the seedings play out through the Sweet 16 semifinals.

This week, we will find out if any SEC team can make a Final Four. It would be a first for Kentucky or South Carolina, a second in this decade for LSU (though the first with this coaching group), a first for A&M as a member of the conference and a continuation of tradition for Tennessee, though the first in four seasons, including this one.

Here’s how the Fab Five got to the Regional levels:

•No. 1 Tennessee 67, St. John’s 51: One of the reasons you bid for home sub-Regionals is to attract a favorable crowd. If you can also get a top seed, you also get a favorable draw.

So it is that the Lady Vols move on to the Louisville Regional Sweet 16 with winning margins of 24 and 16.

The energizing Cierra Burdick made sure lone senior Meighan Simmons continued her phenomenal career, Burdick scoring 21 with 11 rebounds.

The ride that coach Holly Warlick and Simmons have been on is not through just yet.

With 1:57 to go, Simmons got her final home celebration moment. Freshman Jordan Reynolds was sent in for her and the place erupted, 5,961 in approval.

“All I could do was smile,” Simmons said. “It's one of those things where it will always be a memorable moment in my life. The fans are just amazing. That's one thing that helped me make my decision to come here was the fan base. I couldn't be more happy with the way I played the last four years and how I've grown as a player. I was glad I was able to share the gift I have with the fans, my teammates and my coaches.
“I was speechless,” she said of the moment.

Simmons scored 17 points despite being limited to 26 minutes with foul trouble in the first and early in the second half. She also forced a pair of steals, both of which led to fast-break buckets that helped push the Lady Vol advantage as high as 21 points down the stretch.

Each of those steals led to cheers, a thunder that reached its peak when Simmons finished each with a layup. Simmons scored eight points during a 16-2 spurt that turned a 43-41 advantage into a 59-43 runaway.

Her final home record is 60-8, 6-0 in NCAA Tournament home games. She scored in double figures in all 18 home contests this season.

“I will tell you this, that kid has been under just a tremendous amount of pressure since she has been here,” Warlick said. She was the recruiter who found and signed her.

“As a freshman we asked her to step in and start and score a lot of points. So everybody's expectations have just been greatness for Meighan. I have just watched her grow. I love her respect for this program, her love for this university, love for these fans.”

Center Izzy Harrison could coast in this one. The junior center, receiving a lot of All-America votes, was only needed for 10 points and 11 rebounds.

The rebounds margin put the pride of Tennessee, its defense, was on full display. St. John's shot 5-of-24 overall and 5-of-11 from the free throw line and committed 13 turnovers in the second half.

“"I think in the beginning of the season, we let our offense dictate our defense,” Burdick said. “That’s why we weren’t successful sometimes. I think we’ve really become smarter. We know that defense and rebounding are going to win us basketball games. At first, we just would say it because it was the right thing to say, but now we actually believe it.”

Tennessee (29-5) has won 15 of 16, including a final home upset of league leader South Carolina and the league conference tournament.

UT moves on to the Louisville Regional, where the home team still lives as the No. 2 seed. The historical significance is that UT is seeking Final Four for the first time in three seasons after a program record in which every player who stayed four seasons made at least one Final Four. That means Simmons is the only one left with Final Four experience.

Tennessee gets No. 4 Maryland in its Elite eight matchup as the turtles finish their ACC tenure with a flourish before joining the Big Ten next season.

•No. 1 South Carolina 78, No. 9 Oregon state 69: The Gamecocks were sent to Seattle in the Stanford Regional, so there would be no host team in the sub-Regional to challenge them in the opening games. The West positioning is reflective of the loss in the conference league tournament as well as underlining the reputation is just now flowering but does not yet demand close-to-home credits.

In this qualifier, they erased last year’s disappointment of losing in Game 2 last season.

The Gamecocks left no doubt Tuesday night, leaving Oregon State bruised and erasing all those memories of being upset in the second round a year ago.

So they head to their second Sweet 16 in the past three seasons.

"We knew from the get-go we wanted to be aggressive and not back down to their size," Aleighsa Welch said. "What we wanted to emphasize was to go right through them. Not try and go around them or try to go over the top but go right through them, through their chest. I think it paid off."

All-conference selection Welch had 21 points and 11 rebounds, conference player-of-the-Year Tiffany Mitchell scored all 20 of her points in the second half and grabbed 10 rebounds.

Welch's quickness around the rim had the Beavers flustered. Whether she was following up misses or getting open for her own shot, Oregon State struggled to slow the junior forward. Welch made 8-of-11 from the field.

South Carolina also outscored Oregon State 34-9 at the free throw line, many of those coming in the final two minutes, when all OSU could do was foul and hope for a miss Mitchell was 10-of-11 at the line.

"We're not satisfied with making it to the Sweet 16," Welch said. "We want to make a deeper run in this tournament. We can't get caught up in the fact we're here. This isn't where we want our season to end."

Leading scorer Sydney Wiese, a freshman was coming off a career-high 26 in the first round. South Carolina showed SEC defense and harassed her into missing her first 12 shots before hitting a 3-pointer with 1:30 left. Wiese finished with eight points.

"That's a hard feat. Sydney Wiese is a really good player. She really is," Staley said.

"She can stroke it, find other teammates, controls the tempo. I thought we did a terrific job of controlling all those aspects of her game. The only reason why we win this game is we don't allow her to get her average and allow her to play comfortably in the flow of their offense."

"The interesting thing about this team in just watching, there's times when we think, 'Oh, we can play with that team,' and then as soon as you get close, they hit a different gear," Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said of the Gamecocks. "I think that's what's special about this group."

Now comes North Carolina, the No. 4 in this 1-2-3-4 bracket. The Tar Heels won at home by 12 this season in the only SC loss of a 16-1 start. "This is a matchup we wanted to see later on in the season," Welch said.

The second seed is homestanding Stanford, a tradition-rich program which had three straight Final Fours end last year. No doubt, they want to celebrate at home with another championship round trip.

"I think it (stinks). I do," Staley said. "The people out at Stanford appreciate good basketball. I know that because we have played out there on a number of occasions, but when it's the Final Four at stake, I think it should be at neutral sites."

•No. 3 Kentucky 64, No. 6 Syracuse 59: The Wildcats, at home, continued to resurrect what once was a dislocated season with a third straight Sweet 16 run, the fifth in program history. This time to The Notre Dame Regional, where they are the lowest surviving seed. They take on No. 2 seed Baylor on Saturday.

Their Sweet 16 qualifier was not easy.

But they had the backing of the home crowd of 4,661 and the game of the season from junior starter Bria Goss to overcome the upset challenge.

Goss scored 17, including 11-of-12 from the line.

Her steady play, said coach Matthew Mitchell . . . “helped us tremendously tonight. On a night where the ball wasn’t going into the basket. She had no fear, getting to the rim, getting to the foul line and it really saved the day.”

The 12th-ranked Wildcats (26-8) used the free throws opportunities to counter Syracuse’s usual physical play. The zone defense was just enough of a hindrance to cause the home team to shoot only 36 percent from the field.

UK’s defense wasn’t bad itself, holding the Orange to 33 percent from the field and scoring 23 off 21 turnovers. Star guard Brittney Sykes was lost to a first-round knee injury.

The closest they got down the stretch was four, twice, but there were only 23 seconds left the second time. O’Neill started a 9-1 run the first time with a 3.

In her final home game, senior Denesha Stallworth scored 13, 10 in the first half. UK led at the half, 32-25 and is 22-2 this season when leading at the half.

UK had 15 steals, the most since end of 2013.

“We just had to trust the process and see it through,” said Stallworth.

“It was tough,” said Kentucky forward Azia Bishop. "They played really hard and I think we did a good job of attacking. The referees let us play a little physical, so that helped a lot too.”

Next up in the Notre Dame Regional is No. 2 Baylor, with the top-seeded and No. 2-ranked Irish still lurking there as well. The Baylor-Kentucky matchup went four overtimes in December, won by the visiting Wildcats with a total of 263 points scored.

•No. 3 Texas A&M 85, No. 11 James Madison 67: At home, the always-entertaining coach Gary Blair had forewarned his team to get better after the opening game.

They did, led by sophomore guard Courtney Williams, already getting some all-America votes and by patient senior Karla Gilbert with 20 and a career-best 15 rebounds in the last game on her home floor.

It was Gilbert, at 6-5, who had the size JMU could not match.

"We got the ball inside all night long," Blair said. "They were at a disadvantage because of their size."

The Aggies (26-8) are in the round of 16 for the sixth time and the first since being eliminated at this stage last season.

"I'm glad we're beyond this game. That's all I kept thinking about," Gilbert said of last year's loss. "We cannot end at Reed Arena. This can't be it. We're not done. We're hungry. We didn't want it to end like last year."

Several players had to spend time on the bench after picking up multiple fouls trying to slow down Gilbert.

"It handcuffed us. It really did," James Madison coach Kenny Brooks said. "We played zone way more than I anticipated and way more than I wanted to do. When we get in foul trouble, it dampers our enthusiasm."

The Aggies shot a season-high 37 free throws and made 24.

Blair raved about Gilbert, a senior who is in her first season as a starter after waiting her turn behind stars Danielle Adams and Kelsey Bone for the previous three seasons.

"She's just got heart," Blair said. "She takes control of our team ... nothing ever rattles her, and I'm proud to say that I'm her coach."

Courtney Walker, who finished with 18 points, and Williams led the Aggies as they built the lead to 10 early in the second half. James Madison missed seven shots, including three layups in that stretch.

Some 7,095 showed up in appreciation.

Next up is unexpected No. 7 DePaul (28-6), champs of the realigned Big East and a common Sweet 16 competitor. Blair has said he likes meeting new people on other teams come tournament time, so he gets his wish.

If A&M wins again, the final Final Four challenge would likely be UConn, the ghost no one has exorcised for two seasons, the No. 1 team in the land.

•No. 7 LSU 76, No. 2 West Virginia 67: No doubt this is the surprise of the playoffs and the biggest upset so far, with the only No. 2 eliminated. The former Big East member Mountaineers did not have enough to withstand LSU’s powerful determination.

The Ben-Gals showed they learned tough lessons in taking whippings during the SEC season and now can revisit those lessons learned from the other side.

Being home helped.

But they may have lost their emotional leader.

For now, Danielle Ballard helped them fight through a seven-point deficit and foul trouble.

She scored 22 with 15 rebounds and they are in their second straight advancement from LSU to the Sweet 16. As a sophomore, she has seen this scene before.

“I was like, 'We did it again!’ I was super excited,” said Ballard. She had 24 points and 17 rebounds in the first round. She and senior teammate Theresa Plaisance did the happy dance at midcourt as the buzzer sounded.

“All of my frustration went out on the ball. ... It was just a joyful moment."

Playing the last 12 minutes with four fouls, Shanece McKiney had 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocks, while DaShawn Harden added 12 point.

The Tigers (21-2) played most of the game without senior guard Jeanne Kenney, who not only averages 11.6 points per game but has been the team's emotional leader.

After Kenney left with a concussion in the first half, younger, less experienced players had to pick up the slack. Jasmine Rhodes was one of them, scoring 11 on 5-of-7 shooting after not scoring in her previous five games.

The effect of the injury, once the realization sets in this week, cannot be minimalized.

Conference foe Tennessee had its point guard with a concussion in January and she has yet to return.

"They chose to dig a little deeper and give a little more for Jeanne, because she's been just that for them for a long time," LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said. "I'm extremely proud of this team for realizing how great they can be."

Caldwell said LSU will be "very cautious" in handling Kenney's playing status going forward. She also revealed outstanding freshman guard Raigyne Moncrief injured her knee in the first round and is through for now.

Holding a seven-point lead with 5:05 left, West Virginia was on the verge of winning the first second-round NCAA game in program history, but instead fell to 0-8 in second-round games.

"We won 30 basketball games this season but we felt like we gave one away here tonight," West Virginia coach Mike Carey said.

"But we just lost our focus and weren't defending," Bussie said. "Just down the stretch, we didn't do the things we were supposed to do."

By contrast, LSU survived with two its best frontcourt players, Plaisance and McKiney, on the bench with four fouls each with 12 minutes left.

That allowed WVU to exploit mismatches with its top interior players during a 16-2 run that gave the Mountaineers a 57-50 lead.

McKiney returned with about nine minutes left and Plaisance with 6:40 to go.

Plaisance finished with nine rebounds and eight points in 28 minutes, and LSU outrebounded WVU 55-40.

West Virginia also hurt itself with poor shooting, 19-of-63 from the field (30.2 percent).

Now the challenge is homestanding Louisville (placed as a No. 3 behind West Virginia. ).

Of course, if LSU pulls the upset, the likely foe is Tennessee, a fierce rival with whom LSU has had good fortune until this season. And it would guarantee an SEC team in the Elite Eight.

The Cardinals came away with a 21-point win in the pre-season NIT.

Caldwell said what is past is not important.

“I want them to understand what they just did and what they accomplished, with the challenges that we had, was amazing. I want them to enjoy the moment. ... They deserve a full day to just enjoy beating a very good West Virginia team ... to advance to another Sweet 16,” she said.

With five SEC teams in, this is the Regional that has two.

•No. 3 Penn State 83, No. 11 Florida 61: Not an unexpected end of the season for the Gators, who never quite found a consistent rhythm all season. State is the last Big Ten survivor and was at home, which only underlines the difference of competitive conference strengths.

The Nittany Lions (24-7) led by as many as 28 with 11:37 to go and won each half by at least 10.

Dara Taylor and Maggie Lucas each scored 22. Taylor also had eight rebounds. Kayla Lewis was best for Florida, with 20 points and nine rebounds.

Two-time conference Player-of-the-Year Maggie Lucas had a fine farewell for a last home game in front of 3,500 fans. She even kissed the school image at midcourt before she left, the final player to depart for the trip to California and the Stanford Regional, where they will take on the No. 2 home team (30-2).

"That we're able to share it with the fans, it's just a whole better feeling," Lucas said. "It's a great way to go out."

She passed the 2,500 career-point milestone. She has her team in the Sweet 16 for the second time in three seasons. 13th overall.

Ariel Edwards added 16 points for Penn State. The Lady Lions are in the Sweet 16 for the 13th time.

“It’s just sweet,” coach Coquese Washington said. “It’s like dark chocolate with caramel sweet.”

Lucas picked up her fourth foul with 7:50 left in the game, but no danger, the Lions were ahead by 16. She took a seat for about three minutes. She could have sat out the rest until California.

Lucas got her due in her final home game, leaving for the final time to a standing ovation. She clapped her hands, waved her arms and pointed to the fans before hugging her teammates.

“It isn’t about history, it isn’t about the future,” Washington said. “It was, ‘What do we have to do tonight to play against a really good Florida team.’ ”

Penn State started with pressure defense that rattled the Gators early and eventually forced them into 20. They rarely hit a slow patch on offense, shooting 52 percent in the second halfs.

Kayla Lewis led the 11th-seeeded Gators (20-13) with 20 points and nine rebounds. Jaterra Bonds scored 14 in her final game, a career in which she was won 80 games in 116 starts.

"They pressured us up," Lewis said. "We turned the ball over a little bit too much."

The Gators, who surprised No. 6 Dayton in the first round, could never dig out of a cold start, missing 10 of 13 shots to open the game.

Much like how they put away Wichita State in the opener with a 17-0 run, the Lady Lions used an early 11-0 spurt to build a lead they would never surrender.

Carlie Needles hit a pair of 3s to straighten out the offense, and Florida chipped the deficit to six.

"I'm sure the folks that are here that aren't familiar with our team figured we'd fold our hands and go away," coach Amanda Butler said.

But the run didn't last long. Butler let her emotions get the best of her in a big game, waving her arms in protest over a call, and was whistled for a technical.

Lucas, a 95 percent free throw shooter, hit both free throws to help send the Lady Lions into halftime with a 43-32 lead.

Now, it's off to California.

"Let's go for a ride and see how it turns out," Washington said, as a coast-to-coast chase begins.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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