Mike Siroky's SEC Report: The Real Deals and the Pretenders
In women’s basketball of the Southeastern Conference, there are real teams and hollow teams.
Tennessee and South Carolina are undefeated through league games; Texas A&M has one loss.
Then there are five teams with two league losses each, among them ranked teams Mississippi State, Georgia and Kentucky.
State is a sure bet for an NCAA bid, but without real expectations. They had 18 of the prerequisite 20 wins last week for NCAA entry but lost to an unranked team that hadn't even won 10 then beat another to hit 19 first.
Kentucky is in the mix of ranked teams with two conference losses, as is Georgia.
In other conferences, just getting ranked is enough. Look at DePaul which has never won anything representing the diluted Big East and still their coach was given a contract extension through the end of the decade.
Expectations are much higher in the best league in the land.
Here’s the example about the SEC: Auburn brought back four starters (eight letterwinners) from a 19-5 team last season that missed the NCAAs. Hasina Muhamad is averaging eight points higher than her season average since league play began.
So, naturally, the Lady Vols had the advantage because it is the quality of players as much as the number of them that matters.
Tennessee has held the Tigers to less than 61 points per game in six of the past eight meetings and that is four more than they have averaged this season.
Then, of course, Tennessee ended its series with Notre Dame, this last one on the road in a Monday night made-for-TV game.
It is unlikely UT coach Holly Warlick will ever interrupt league play again for anyone but UConn, now on her radar for resumption of a classic back-and-forth.
No. 5 UT has the luxury of a real star, Ariel Massengale, coming off the bench her senior season.
In the first game of the week, she had the most minutes of the reserves once again.
"I think she's comfortable with it," Warlick said. "She's getting just as much playing time, if not more. I think she's been really positive. I think she likes it. She's able to sit and see how the game flows, then come in and try to make a difference. I think she's handled it really, really well. We've needed her to do that. If she's going to keep playing the way she's playing, we're going to keep bringing her off the bench."
Massengale has contributed 178 of her 184 points as a reserve in 2014-15, including 96 points coming via 3s. The 5-foot-7 poinr guard started 73 games in the three seasons prior to this.
She said she has kept confidence and put in extra shooting work.
"I don't know what it is, honestly," Massengale said. "Extra shots in the gym always help. I definitely think my confidence is at an all-time high when it comes to shooting the three-ball."
"It's amazing. It brings so much energy to us on the offensive end when you're making shots. It makes it that much harder on the defense, and it can change a game like it did at Arkansas.
"I didn't even know the score at one point. I knew we were losing, and next thing I knew we were up 42-40 and they were calling a timeout that quick. It's a lot of fun."
The starters did not need much offensive help against Auburn, their 11th straight win (12th in conference overall), 54-42. The win streak is the longest by Tennessee since a 25-game streak at the end of the 2011 season.
The Lady Vols improved to 15-2 overall and remained perfect in the SEC at 5-0.
Sophomore Jordan Reynolds and junior Andraya Carter each scored 11. Cierra Burdick added 10, her fourth game in a row in double figures. Izzy Harrison had nine points and a game-high 11 rebounds.
"It was an ugly game," said Warlick. "We just got ran out of the gym.
"The last two games for us, we're underachieving and you can't continue to win games when you're not bringing your best. We missed easy shots. You know defensively you think we are solid, and we gave up 18 offensive rebounds. You know eventually it's going to come back and catch up to you. You're not going to continue to win if you keep playing like that."
•No. 14 Kentucky started life without its starting point guard Janee Thompson but did get back previously injured guard Bria Goss. She was averaging 7.4 points and 3.1 rebounds per. It was her offensive rebound in the closing seconds that set up Mikayla Epps' distancing free throws with 32 seconds left in a 62-56 win at home against Florida.
“She could have come back (earlier),” coach Matthew Mitchell said of Goss. "She participated in practice and was working hard. That’s a blessing that we can get her back. I know she can perform very well defensively. She is shooting the ball great right now. That will help us tremendously.”
"She has the biggest shoes on the team to fill," Epps said. "It's weird not having her out there."
Epps made all eight of her free throws, including six in the final two minutes. She shot 6-of-10 from the field and also had four assists. "Thank goodness that she got some on-the-job training and we won," Mitchell said.
Linnae Harper had 14 points and nine rebounds for the Wildcats.
"It was a game that just epitomizes our league," Florida coach Amanda Butler said. "It was a great women's basketball contest in the best league in the country.
"It came down to two, three and four plays. They made those two, three and four plays," she said.
Kentucky made 7-of-10 free throws in the final two minutes in a game that had 17 lead changes.
Kentucky then went to improving LSU and lost to an unranked team with not even 10 wins yet. LSU thus had two wins against ranked teams after starting 0-4 against ranked teams this season.
The Ben-Gals won the half by five at home and then matched UK point-for-point in the second half of an 84-79 win. Each are left 4-2 in conference, solid in the second tier of the league. LSU has won at home for three straight seasons against UK; each time UK was No. 10 coming in.
Kentucky could not take advantage of a free-throw overbalance, 27-of-32 from the line, 84.4 percent.
The LSU points are the most for them this season, against a once-feared UK defense.
They scored 27 points off 26 UK turnovers.
Jennifer O'Neill scored 19 for Kentucky, Linnae Harper had 16 with 15 rebounds.
LSU's Sheila Boykin equaled her career-best with 14 points and 11 rebounds. It was Boykin's third double-double of the season. Raigyne Moncrief had 15 points and seven rebounds.
LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said, "When we talked about how we were going to play, we talked about it being a game where you’ve got to do ‘Whatever it’s going to take.’
"We had play action that showed that. I thought our defensive effort, we did whatever we needed to do to disrupt a very good basketball team in Kentucky.
"That was the 'W' in 'W-I-N.' We talked about the ‘I’ standing for ‘I can’t do this alone’ and ‘this is a team sport.’ When you’ve got (Danielle) Ballard with five assists or (Shelia) Boykin getting on the offensive glass with five offensive boards, again, it’s about being givers.
"We talked about how ‘Nothing is ever going to be given to you.’ You’ve got to earn it. Today, we went out and earned a quality victory over a very good basketball team.
“I thought offensively we had some very good looks at the basket. I thought our shot selection was very good.
"We did a nice job of sharing the basketball, especially (Danielle) Ballard with five assists. We didn’t turn the ball over as much so that gave us those extra possessions.
"When you look and you get almost 70 attempts, we shot 40-to-45 percent. That’s a good number for us.
"We also got ourselves to the free throw line, and that’s a goal too trying to get there 20-plus times. We were able to do that, and we were able to knock down our free throws, so that helps us have a very good offensive night.
"Defensively, our ability to really turn people over, we’re buying into that. We’re becoming a much better defensive team, which is allowing us to get those transition baskets and not have to rely just on jump shots or things like that. We’re able to run the basketball.
“In the first segment of the game, Kentucky beat us Round 1. We talked about how they were up by one possession, but we now have to win some segments. We can do it one possession at a time.
“This team has now started to believe. I think that a couple of weeks ago, we were OK when we were playing some of the best teams in the country.
"We were okay with playing with South Carolina and playing with Texas A&M. When you finally turn the switch in your favor and you come out with a victory against an SEC opponent at Mississippi State, which is a hard place to play, it was hostile.
"They believe now.”
Kentucky turned the ball over 26 times, leading to 27 LSU points.
LSU is next at Tennessee, where an unlikely win would certainly get them ranked nationally. Ballard earned conference player of the week honors for her two-game effort.
•No. 22 Georgia went on the road and that other Mississippi team announced itself as ready to play be winning, 55-52. The Rebels outscored then-No. 18 Georgia 8-0 over the final 2:13.
The Lady Bulldogs went up 52-47 on a pair of Tiaria Griffin free throws with 2:22 remaining but failed to score the rest of the way.
Four starters reached double figures for Ole Miss, a surprising 4-1 in league play and still unranked.
"Ole Miss played hard," Georgia coach Andy Landers said. "They were well-prepared, and they did a nice job defensively disrupting what we wanted to do.
"Defensively, we played well," Landers observed. "We did have a couple of breakdowns, back-door breakdowns to layups. Offensively, there were too many turnovers that led to easy points for Mississippi. End of the day, turnovers...missed free throws -- and we've been shooting those well -- did us end."
The Lady Bulldogs were next home for Vanderbilt and easily defended the home court, 64-53, winning each half.
Shacobia Barbee scored 14 with 11 rebounds, Krista Donald 13 points with seven boards and Merritt Hempe and Marjorie Butler had 11 points apiece. Georgia was 24-of-30 from the line.
"Today we took really good care of the ball," Landers said. "I thought we were doing a nice job of managing things for the most part, and then we made our free throws."
Georgia is among the group at 4-2 in conference.
The next home court challenge is Thursday when A&M visits.
"It's going to be a competitive game, and if you play reasonably well, you're going to have a chance to win it," Landers said. "We welcome the challenge of Texas A&M coming in."
•Mississippi State hosted LSU that started the Ben-Gals winning week.
This is the dangerous State stretch. LSU needs to prove itself now and started here with a win in two overtimes, 71-69, its first win in four tries against ranked teams this season.
Sure, State came back from an 11-point deficit. But not all the way back. This is where a contender settles in as a pretender.
They'll get to 20 wins and the national stage. But not if they keep playing like this will they be taken seriously. They have lost defense of the home court.
“Awfully proud of the team, hate the outcome,” MSU coach Vic Schaefer said in an attempt to shock the heartbeat back into his team.
With nine less wins, LSU tied No. 18 State at 3-2 in conference (each are 4-2 now).
State's second in the toughest conference in the land. One more and they will be out of the Top 20.
“I am very disappointed for our kids. We had close to 5,000 (4,727, sixth-largest in school history). Our fans have been outstanding this year. LSU just made one more shot than we did.”
LSU scored the first seven points and held the momentum, hitting shot 66.7 percent from the field in the opening half.
The Bulldogs trailed by three points at 11-8, 15-12 and 17-14. The Tigers scored the next seven points and eventually built a 27-16 lead with 4:25 left in the opening half.
In the second half, MSU turned up the heat defensively, holding the Tigers to 36.0 percent shooting from the field but is was not enough.
Dominique Dillingham blocked LSU's last shot attempt to maintain a 53-all tie. The Bulldogs thrice took three-point leads and blew them all. LSU's Danielle Ballard erased the last one on a 3 at the end of the first extra period.
In the second overtime, the Bulldogs took another lead on back-to-back 3s by Dillingham. State then committed back-to-back turnovers and LSU scored the final six.
“It was a knock-down drag-out game,” Schaefer said. “I hate it for these kids. They played their guts out. LSU is a Top 25 team (even if no rankings say so). Now that Ballard is back, they are a really good team. I am proud of the effort. It hurts to lose a game like this. I love the fight of my team.”
The Bulldogs hit 20 of 58 shots from the field (34.5 percent) and had a 37-32 rebounding advantage. The Bulldogs had 14 assists and 24 turnovers, while the Tigers had eight assists and 26 turnovers. Again, statistics don't win games, players with heart do.
Next was another home game, with the always-gettable Tide and they rolled 'em, winning each half of a 66-50 for victory No. `19. Kendra Grant scored 17 off the bench and another reserve, Morgan Hempe, scored a dozen.
The defense was dominant, holding the Tide to 30 percent from the floor, 1-of-7 from 3-point range and forcing 22 turnovers.
Another reserve, former starter Martha Alwal, grabbed 10 rebounds, had three steals and three blocks.
Alabama stayed alive with 23-of-31 from the line.
State again drew well, with 4,557 for this, the eight-best in program history. It is the first time they drew back-to-back crowds of 4,500-plus.
“We are so appreciative of the fans and numbers that we are getting,” Schaefer said. “We are meeting people every day who would go to football and baseball games and now they are going to women’s basketball games.
"Our ladies deserve the support they are getting. I think they represent the name on the front as well as they represent the name on the back.
“We are struggling offensively right now,” Schaefer said. “We are having a tough time putting together stretches of great offensively play. Defensively, I have no complaints. We simply are struggling on offense. I think we have some good offensive weapons. We have to figure that part out.
“I am really proud of our kids. We made some stops late in the game. (Alabama) had some empty possessions. It’s a W. In this league, we will take them. Winning can mask a lot of issues. In this league, those issues can get exposed. So we have to work hard at continuing to get better.”
•Top-ranked South Carolina was at Missouri and then at Florida for the Monday night national cable game, so two games with one challenge: Do not lose.
They did not.
The win at Missouri, 60-49, was thanks to clutch free throws late. They hit 5-0 in SEC play for the first time in program history. Tiffany Mitchell posted her second-straight 19-point outing to lead South Carolina to its 17th win while Aleighsa Welch grabbed a season-high 14 rebounds.
Down the stretch, the Gamecocks hit 11-of-12 from the line in the final two minutes.
"Every time that we take the floor, we're learning," coach Dawn Staley said. "We've got a lot of young players that need to see this action night in and night out so they know what to expect.
"I thought our team did a really good job of just keeping their composure and just playing through things."
•No. 10 Texas A&M hosted Ole Miss in the Agggies’ only game of the week.
Courtney Williams scored 21 in the 58-49 win for the Aggies.
Courtney Walker added 12 points, Achiri Ade nine with 13 rebounds and Jordan Jones had eight rebounds, six assists and six steals for A&M's 16th win. It is Ade's fifth straight double rebounds effort.
The defense held Ole Miss to its lowest score of the season. The Rebels had won eight of their last nine games and three in a row.
"I think we did better on defense," said Williams. “We took away the right handed drives like coach told us. Coach just stressed right-handed drives, because not to many people can finish with their left.”
A&M coach Gary Blair said there is much to be done.
“We’ve been behind at half every ball game, five straight games," he said. "We found a way to win four of them. We found some things that would work. We talked about our turnovers that killed us. We gave up 10 offensive boards in the first half. And we turned it over 10 times. Now the difference is in the second half we had one turnover. One turnover, that’s good point guard play.
“It was just a hard ball game. When you can win shooting 31 percent then you’ve done something right. So give our kids a little bit of credit. It started with three straight days of great practices.”
With these games, Ole Miss is the next SEC team in line behind some of the ranked ones but their two games started four of five against ranked teams.
The once-proud Rebels start February against South Carolina and then play Tennessee 11 days later, both at home.
This is when a team will get noticed or buried.
While they are also at the new tipping point of two losses in league play, danger is on the horizon.
CRIME TIME: Antoinette Bannister has been dismissed from Florida's women's basketball team after she stole a teammate's credit card from the locker room (she told police she found it outside) and showed up on a mall security camera using it multiple times.
A junior from Jacksonville, Bannister was arrested Friday and charged with theft of a credit card, a misdemeanor, and two felony counts of fraudulent use of a credit card.
All Florida will say is she is no longer a member of the team.
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