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.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Tennessee Gets Vindication

By Mike Siroky

It has always been abut playing their own game and not someone else’s.

That sounds like a simplification of the success of the Tennessee women’s basketball team, champions of the Southeastern Conference again after collapsing Kentucky, 71-70, in the title game on Sunday in an Atlanta suburb.

The Lady Vols are likely headed to Lincoln, Neb., after Selection Monday next week, with a first round sub-Regional at home and a ticket already punched to the Sweet 16. They will be the highest-ranked team in the best conference in the land. They won the conference when it counts most, the official conference title for the season.

The last time the league earned a No. 1 seed was 2011 and – surprise! – it was Tennessee then as evermore.

The Lady Vols have won 17 of these tournaments (73-18) and why they don’t rename the trophy in honor of all-time great Pat Summitt is just misplaced jealousy. UT has won four of five and seven of the latest 10.

Coach Holly Warlick won recognition last season as the best rookie coach in the nation. She deserves more this season.

No. 12 Kentucky can go home to its own sub-Regional secure as a No. 3 seed at worst, as we previously discussed maybe even using its own sub-Regional to avoid the nearby Louisville Regional where UConn will be No 1 and the home team likely the No. 2.

There will be as many as six other NCAA picks, including Texas A&M and LSU, also hosting first-round gatherings. Two others could get lesser post-season invites as home teams.

So, while everyone gets to look at tomorrow’s new ratings, all can begin an extended season of practice.

Here is what happened in the championship final:

No. 6 Tennessee, the two seed here, started out behind for its third straight league tournament game, 11-6 in the first five minutes, the difference being the five points freshman center Linnae Harper brought from the bench as UK coach Matthew Stafford was blazing with all he had from the get-go.

Senior leader Meighan Simmons for Tennessee was her usual gunning self, missing two of her first three shots.

Harper stayed hot and had half of the first 18 UK points when it was 18-10.

Senior Denesha Stallworth had 12 points, 6-of-8 from the field. UK outscored UT, 10-4, to close the half.

No. 12 Kentucky, the four seed, had a halftime edge on the No. 2 seed, 38-32, based on that well-managed start.

The Lady Vols were being outshot from the field, 53-44 percent. No one was in double figures. Enter Izzy Harrison, dominant until now in the tournament, was the best 3-of-5 from the field; Simmons was 4-of-10.

She finished with 17 and surpassed the 2,000 career scoring mark by four, the fourth Lady Vol to do that. She scored the final four points, six of the final eight, two of them at the free-throw line with 10 seconds left. That gave UT a four-point edge. Before that, he only second-half basket was a 3 less than two minutes into the second segment. But, with the game on the line, she got the ball.

Tennessee called three timeouts and Kentucky two in those precious last seconds. Simmons stole the ball, but Cierra Burdick botched it.

A mind freeze by Burdick on a 3 try by Jennifer O’Neill let the super sub go to the line with one second left.

But the deficit was four and she could only hit three.

Leading up to that, Kentucky could never push the lead past five as UT had an answer for every hit.

There was some extracurricular activity at the 8:35 mark. Burdick and UK senior Samarie Walker were called for technical fouls after some jawing.

Walker then fouled Harrison who made both free throws.

Then another double-technical, this time on Tennessee’s Jasmine Jones and UK senior DeNesha Walker.

UK coach Mitchell would say in the post-game he was disappointed two of his seniors lost their composure, even if drawn into it.

As intense as the end was, both teams hit a drought from 7:22 to 5:27 with no points but many missed opportunities. Harrison scored 10 of her 16 in the second half.

As we said yesterday, she was the tournament MVP without a ballot. She is also the MVP with a ballot now. Burdick, Harper and Stallworth are also all-tournament selections.

Harper only scored one free throw in the half. Stallworth said farewell to league play with 21 points.

Warlick, as exhausted as the players, said, “It’s very, very special, it really is.”

She is the first SEC player to win a conference title and come back and win one as a coach.

“You got to have players making plays. It’s all about talent, I promise you that. You got to have player step up.

“I thought Jordan (Reynolds) stepped up. Cierra got some big rebounds. You can just go down the line.”

She said her halftime talks are improving, though she wishes the score was not always a deficit.

“Our halftime talks are different,” she said. “I wish we would get up early once. I wI would just like to step up earlier than, what seven or eight minutes left in the game. I wouldn’t be as hoarse or look as bad as I do.”

Harrison said keeping calm through the coach’s lead is important.

"I think the important thing was we stayed together. There were times when there was confusion, but at the end of the day we consistently talked to each other, what defense we were going to be in. There was never a moment when we didn’t talk. We were never quiet.”

She also said, having missed the end of her first two seasons with injuries, this one is special and not just because she is the league MVP.

“I honestly never thought something like that would happen to me,” said Harrison.

“My teammates helped me get there. That’s something that I’ve seen every time we win.”

Warlick said Harrison worked for everything she has achieved.

“Izzy herself deserves the credit because she has put in the work,” Warlick said. “She’s battled. I can’t tell you how many shots she’s put in on the post move on free throws, things like that.”

Burdick brings home a special memory.

“There was about 11 seconds to go. All 11 of us in the huddle, all four coaches. I mean there was no room for anyone else. I remember thinking in my head, ‘This is what it’s all about.’

“I have never been on a team that is as close as this team. Just the relationship we have with our coaches; the relationship that we have with our teammates.

“That moment showed how we strong we are as a unit. It was like you weren’t going to push us. That moment knew we were going to win this game.”

On that final foul . . .

“I was so mad at myself. I always play fast-forward,” Burdick said. “It was a dumb foul. But I looked at my teammates and they helped me hold my head high. I was distraught. But they told me it was all right, that we were going to win. They had my back.”

While some observers thought the game was physical, Burdick said no more than usual. UK’s Mitchell spent a good deal of his post-game time talking about the technicals and, while he did not name names, he did single out No. 11, saying you could see game films and know this coming. That is Burdick’s number.

Warlick said she goes crazy over every foul call anyway and didn’t notice the ones called on the double-technicals were very special.

Burdick rose above it all.

“It’s physical basketball; it’s SEC basketball,” she said.

“It’s one of the most physical conferences in the country. We compete. That’s what we’re going to do, day in and day out. It happens. This is basketball; it happens every single day. Words were said but words are words. The refs did a fine job of avoiding altercations. Nothing happened.”

UT may well move in as a No. 1 seed at Lincoln now, with the NCAA fiddling with the sub-Regional feeds to allow that.

Still an unknown for the Lady Vols is the status of starting point guard Ariel Massengale. She received a concussion at home on Jan. 23 and hasn’t played since. She is practicing. Playing for her, freshman Reynolds was 4-of-6 from the field and 3-of-3 from the line.

“She was not going to play in this tournament. I sit here and I’m thinking she will be back for the tournament, but only if she is headache-free,” said Warlick.

This may or may not be a steal from Tennessee, but UK signee Jacee Coe, a shooting guard from Gainesboro, was named Miss Basketball in Tennessee.

Georgia was also interested in her.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


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