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, December 22, 2014

Mike Siroky's SEC Notebook: Miss. State Still Rolling As League Race Nears

By Mike Siroky

It is not easy being undefeated in women's college basketball at this juncture.

Only four undefeated Division teams had as many as 11 wins and three of the four -- the fourth being Ivy League Princeton -- are in the Southeastern Conference.

While the magic NCAA number remains 20 season wins, it is best to get what you can before the slamdowns in the SEC start just days away.

Two of the league's best lost to other ranked teams, one falling out of the unbeaten list.

So, while the SEC is 131-32 against the country, there are cracks in the invincibility armor.

But let's start with the amazing run of No. 19 Mississippi State, in the Top 20 at last. They won four games in one week, part of six in 10 days and moved to 14-0.

That they will reach 20 wins is now without doubt. They are not likely to climb into the Top 16 and so earn two home NCAA games, but they also were not expected to be where they are right now.

It's a very merry Christmas in Starkville.

The Bulldogs started with a season-high in points, 104-41, over in-state rival Mississippi Valley State.

The 62 in the second half are three shy of the program record. The 11th win is one away from a starting program record.

Throughout the week, different players stepped up.

"I think this game really showed our depth," MSU freshman guard Blair Schaefer said. "We have a lot of players who stepped up tonight. We played with a lot of intensity and we showed how many players we have who can make plays."

"It was fun to get to see all of these kids get to play," coach Vic Schaefer said.

"(Our reserves) came with a lot of energy tonight. We had 73 points from the bench. Our starting five was not going to be pushed too far. Once we got into the game and things were going the way they were, we were looking to the next game."

At one stretch, the defense held the Devilettes five minutes without a point.

They caused 37 turnovers.

"We are learning a lot about ourselves," MSU senior guard Savannah Carter said. "We don't really have any other choice but to play all of these games and get better in a hurry."

Next up was a road win at another traditional rival, 66-51 win over Louisiana-Lafayette.

The Bulldogs finished on a 44-17 run in the final 24 minutes to win a program-record 12th straight to start the season.

And that includes a rally from a 14-2 first-half of a 68-19 rally with a 47-33 rebounding advantage

“They came out well-prepared,” Schaefer said. "They attacked us and had us on our heels for the first 16 minutes of the game. We went to a 2-3 zone, which we had not practiced one minute since I came to Mississippi State.

“It was heck of a game. We didn’t play well at times.”

Freshman Morgan William had six of State’s final 10 points to close the first half. she finished with 21. Super classmate Victoria Vivians posted her third double-double with 17 points and 12 rebounds.

“It was our third game in four days but that is not an excuse because we play a lot of kids,” Schaefer said. “Part of our problem is that we have not practiced a lot of late, due to finals and so many games. I am proud of my kids because we adjusted. We did a pretty good job on defense in something we haven’t practiced.”

Next was the two-night Las Vegas Holiday Hoops Classic. The first opponent is Illinois-Chicago, which was dispatched easily, 73-36.

Kendra Grant scored 14 (a season best for her), and Dominique Dillingham had her 10 in the second half when MSU 34-17 double the points on IC, 34-17. Of course in the first half, they held IC to 5-of-20 from the field.

"We forced 30 turnovers tonight,” Schaefer said. “I was really proud of our effort tonight. I thought we played with great energy and great focus. We were committed defensively. I am really proud of our kids. This is the team that I am used to seeing night in, night out. It was a good step for us.

“We are going to need Kendra Grant, I have said that all along,” Schaefer said. “She came out and really gave us some solid minutes. She made some shots.

"I thought (Jerica) James had a great game, floor general-wise. She did a good job as our point guard. It was one of her best games, if not the best game, of her season.”

Vivians scored 20 in the 14th win, 68-42 at Las Vegas.

"These kids have done a lot, played awfully hard, played a lot of games in a short amount of time," Schaefer said. "We have been through two demanding months, so it will be nice for them to get away for five games and refresh.

"I am excited about how hard we are playing defensively," Schaefer said. "I am concerned about how good we are. There are nights when I think we are really good. There are other nights when I am concerned about how good we are.

"We are excited about the future. There is a long way to go with a lot of work to do. We have to get ready in a hurry when we get back for league play.

"Victoria played well tonight," Schaefer said. "She is getting more comfortable. She bailed us out of a couple of shot clock situations. I am excited for her.

"When these freshmen come back, they won't be freshmen anymore."

In a great computer-generated matchup, their first SEC game is at home against Georgia, yes 'Dogs vs. 'Dawgs.

•Top-ranked South Carolina is one of those with 12 wins and they completed an interesting three-game week before Christmas.

They started at home with one of their traditional games (before they became an elite team) by dismissing Hampton, 69-49. Tiffany Mitchell made six 3s and scored 20.

A 19-5 first-half run and a 29-9 rebounding edge at halftime all but decided it, but they used the exclamation mark of a 12-0 run in the second half anyway.

Bianca Cuevas started and finished the burst with a pair of 3-pointers.

Then they tried an unusual back-to-back, at mid-major Central Michigan — but played at Minneapolis because of a sandwich sponsorship — and home the next afternoon for another in-state team, Liberty.

Against the Chippewas, they turned in yet another wipeout, 80-45. At 11-0 they had made the best start in program history. Coach Dawn Staley said she is happy with the understated progress.

"We're moving in the right direction," Staley said. "We're really proud of our players to be one of a few teams still undefeated the year — that's like being the toughest Muppet — was smacked in the nose 14 minutes into the game.
It's a novel way to try and slow a star.

Patched up (she had a bloody nose) Mitchell returned and finished with 18 points, five steals and four rebounds

Alaina Coates added 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting and had 10 rebounds. South Carolina won the second half, 43-21.

"I felt in the second half we took better care of the ball," Staley said. "Once we did that, we were able to open the lead up."

The win on Sunday made the best overall run, 12 games, in program history.

This was back at home, against Liberty and an 84-44 runaway.

Aleighsa Welch scored 15 points and Tiffany Mitchell added 14 for the Gamecocks.

Freshman (12-0), who have 12 days off before beginning Southeastern Conference play. But it was stellar freshman A'ja Wilson, off the bench for 17 points and 10 rebounds who once again impressed.

"I'm very proud because their minds could have been any place besides trying to win a game here, but they focused in at the task at hand," said coach Dawn Staley.

"We're just playing our game, we're just taking it in stride," Wilson said. "I'm very excited for conference play. ... There's so much I have to learn. I want to learn everything there is to learn about this game. I'm getting used to the collegiate level. I think, day-by-day, I'm getting better and getting a feel for it."

So she is added to the mix that returns all five starters and 10 returning letterwinners overall.

"A'ja's just playing hard and inspired, being real aggressive," Staley said. "She should have a double-double every time she steps on the floor. She can score the ball.

"Five rebounds are going to be in her area, she just has to go get the other five that are outside her area. We're constantly working on her and just trying to teach her some of the things she'll need once the novelty wears off."

When the SEC season starts, all of the SC games are winnable, but the first three more than most others. So the first real conference test should be at home for Kentucky on Jan. 11. SC won the conference last season by being the only team to wins all of its conference home games.

•No. 14 Georgia played only Furman this week but became 11-0.

These 'Dawgs were happy to be home. Despite being undefeated, they are ranked beneath two-loss Tennessee, in anticipation of the coming SEC season.

Shacobia Barbee scored a career-high 25 with 12 rebounds and five steals.

Georgis closed on a 7-0 run and that was the difference in the 58-51 final against Furman.

Barbee's 3r from the right wing made it 56-51 with 1:53 to play.

Georgia had 27 offensive rebounds and outrebounded the Paladins, 45-34 overall.

"We missed shots early -- a lot of shots early. I think it affected confidence," said coach Andy Landers. "For the most part other than Shacobia, we missed shots for the rest of the day. It's hard to win basketball games if you don't score and we had a difficult time scoring it inside, outside and we were very poor at the free throw line as well.

"We played it well defensively. We were tough as nails, we got on the floor after balls, we rebounded the ball and we took a couple charges. We made a lot of plays in the last three minutes and we doubled on the post, so defensively we were very, very good."

•When will Tennessee's Holly Warlick keep the attention of her No. 8 Lady Vols.?

It was another disillusioning week, despite two wins at home.

The first, the win, played out in a totally unexpected manner.

It took almost all the team had to outlast unheralded Wichita State, 54-51. It took a double-double by senior Cierra Burdick 10 points (but only two after intermission) and a career-high 17 rebounds, and 14 more points and nine rebounds from classmate Izzy Harrison.Freshman Alexa Middleton provided 10 points off 4-of-4 shooting off the bench.

Two former Lady Vols, coaches Jody Adams and assistant coach Bridgette Gordon, got this game as a nice-to-see-you-again setup and almost left with a lovely parting gift.

Harrison made a layup with 38 seconds left to push the Lady Vols' lead to 52-48. Kesley Jacobs hit a 3 for the visitors with 24 seconds remaining. Ariel Massengale made two free throws with 5.1 seconds on the clock to put Tennessee's lead back to three at 54-51.

The Lady Vols blew a 10-point second-half lead.

"We started getting real casual with the ball and we ended up having 13 turnovers in the second half," Warlick said.

Burdick said she always thinks more of rebounds than points.

"My mindset coming into every game is to go after the boards. I think that's one of my strengths, and that's what my teammates and my coaches expect out of me.

"So, sometimes the balls, they just drop in the right place. You know? Some of rebounding is heart, and some of it is luck, and I think I just had both on my side tonight."

Then came a win against Stanford, famous this season for being the only team to defeat UConn in two years.

But the Cardinal lost their next game, at Texas, and had lost at Chattanooga (as did Tennessee) right before coming to Knoxville.

So to call the UT win an upset is in mythic proportions only.

Truth is, these are two of the top teams in america but that's a long dropoff after UConn, which is a few shelves above Notre Dame, which is a few shelves above the rest of the mess.

In the new math of the NCAA, both Tennessee and Stanford will open the NCAAs at home with all the other top teams, which means this could be a preview of an NCAA Regional and, if so, it's a sad overall commentary on the stale state of the game.

The Lady Vols won, Ariel Massengale scoring 14 of 18 points in the second half of a 59-40 win. She had four 3s.

For all of statistical nerds, that's the lowest a Top 10 team, has ever scored against Tennessee. But the Cardinal hit below 30 percent, as they had against Chattanooga.

"I loved it," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "I'm sure everybody else loved watching it. I enjoyed watching it."

Stanford had not had back-to-back offensive efforts of less than 50 since almost the start of women's college basketball, 1976-77, way before Tara Vanderveer arrived on campus, so this is a low mark for her as well.

"Well, we've played a lot better than that," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "To compliment Tennessee, they came out with a lot of energy. They worked really hard. They were extremely physical. I don't think we adjusted."

Tennessee legend Pat Head Summitt was at the game and someone tweeted congratulations off her account afterwards.

Tennessee's bowl-bound football team and the men's basketball also attended and sat in the student section for a university on holiday break.

Redshirt freshman guard Jannah Tucker played against Stanford, her first action in two years. Tucker redshirted last year while recovering from a knee injury that also prevented her from playing her senior season in high school.

•Kentucky lost at home to Duke. Yes that No. 10 Duke, losers of close games to South Carolina and Texas A&M, but now 89-68 dominators of the No. 12 Wildcats. For a building team, this was a statement game. For the losing team, this underlines observations of having plateaued in terms of national contention.

Freshman Azura Stevens scored 17 and fellow newbies Rebecca Greenwell and Sierra Calhoun had 13 apiece; teammate Elizabeth Williams had 13 points and 10 rebounds.

UK ought to be wondering how three rookies did this to them. Or maybe they know.

Duke never trailed. They hit the UK defense for 56 percent -- including 61 percent in the first half while they built a 24-point lead. Duke hit 11 of its final 12 shots before halftime.

It took UK's Jennifer O'Neill 21 shots (she hit five) to accumulate 17 points.

When someone shoots that much, the payoff is not so great as it automatically eliminates everyone else's chance. O'Neill was just 2 of 13 during a first half in which Duke built its huge lead. Alexis Jennings also had 17.

Kentucky was held to fewer than 70 points for the first time while shooting a season-low 31 percent, missing 18 of its first 22 shots and finishing just 2-of-24 from 3-point range.

"You've got to be tougher in a game like this," UK coach Matthew Mitchell said.

"You can't let your offense affect your defense . . . It takes a really mature, tough basketball team to not let offense affect defense."

UK's Jennifer O'Neill said, "The whole team felt like it was another comeback we had coming. But we missed a lot of assignments on defense, which is why we got so far behind."

Mitchell said he hopes his team learns from this.

"You either let this defeat you or you let it develop you," he said.

Kentucky ought win four more before that game at South Carolina.

•Texas A&M also lost that undefeated thing after starting 11-0, to undefeated Texas on a lay-in at the buzzer, by Empress Davenport with 4.2 seconds remaining, 67-65.

The game, part of a weirdly spaced tournament, was in North Little Rock Arkansas, not even Little Rock proper. A&M only slipped one spot, to No. 5, by losing to No. 3 Texas.

Everything about this game for A&M was set up with the postseason in mind at Verizon Arena, the site of this season's Southeastern Conference women's tournament.

"This was a ballgame that was good enough to be an NCAA Elite Eight game," Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said.

Then again, Texas has already won at Stanford and Tennessee.

Jordan Jones led Texas A&M with 21 points. She had one final opportunity after Davenport's shot, but her shot after driving the length of the court came up short at the buzzer. Courtney Williams added 19 points for the Aggies, who won the national championship in 2011 and were a game away from reaching the Final Four last season.

"We got complacent and lax with the ball," Jones said. "We started to play not to lose instead of playing to win and sticking with all the things that helped us get the lead."

"I hope to see them again, because both of these teams you'll see in the NCAA tournament if we keep playing this well," Blair said.

Blair coached the Razorbacks for 10 seasons from 1993-2003 and still has
family in northwest Arkansas.

A&M's first tough conference game is Jan. 8 at Tennessee. The Lady Vols handed Blair's team its only home loss last season and that cost the Aggies the SEC title.

Mike Siroky has been covering women's college basketball since an undergraduate at Indiana in 1975. He was covering the SEC when the NCAA took over the women's game from the AIAW. He and Mel Greenberg have been friends since Mel started the Associated Press poll and there were few writers interested enough in the women's game to help. Yes, they are old.




- Posted using BlogPress from the Guru's iPad

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