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, January 12, 2015

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Top Four Are Still The Conference Best

By Mike Siroky

For most teams, the season is already half over.

The second half – especially of women’s basketball in the Southeastern Conference – is tougher than anywhere else because every team (almost) can beat any other team on a given night.

Already, the angling is under way to get to one of two NCAA Regionals.

Greensboro is where South Carolina is likely to be the top seed, based on NCAA history of rewarding the top teams with sites closest to their home court.

Albany is the East site, so therefore UConn will await there. Like all other Sweet 16 teams to be, these two will host the opening rounds at home and more or less walk into the Sweet 16.

So Oklahoma City becomes a destination for almost any other SEC team, though at least one of the top conference teams will be fed towards UConn or SC as a No. 2 or No. 3 because, with five or six conference teams in annually, there’s got to be doubling up.

Tennessee and USC proved last season a top seed does not guarantee anything in the Sweet 16.

The wild card regional, as always, is out West and this time again at Spokane which does a great hosting job.

Given the choice of avoiding UConn and SC, this is not a bad assignment.

SC accepted the top seed in the West last season and Georgia has had great luck as a lower West seed.

For now, though, how well you defend your home court is so crucial as all angle for good seeds.

Last season, as we have hammered home, only South Carolina won all their SEC homes game and so took the regular-season top spot.

Tennessee, however, won the official SEC title in the conference tournament.

Both were awarded No. 1 seeds.

Old-timers like me like the marathon better than the sprint, because you have to play everyone in the regular season and not so in the post-season.

Not that even winning the post-season tournament matters if you are in the SEC because every team that has ever won 20 games gets in along with a few with one less.

This season, the magnificent NCAA leaders have all but given 16 teams passage into the Regionals by declaring first-round games will all be hosted by the top 16 teams.

So it is safe to say the SEC will have at least a quarter of the Sweet 16 teams, as usual.

In the second week of the SEC season, the two top games were Texas A&M at Tennessee and Kentucky at South Carolina.

All were Top 10 teams when the games started.

Tennessee had snuffed A&M’s undefeated home season the previous year and Kentucky hadn’t beaten SC.

On top of all that, let’s not ignore already 18-game winner No. 15 Mississippi State.

•Tennessee 81, Texas A&M 58. This proved simpler than it seemed coming in.

The then-No. 6 Lady Vols erased then-No. 9 A&M.

No other conference could offer such a matchup of two programs with multiple NCAA titles.

Tennessee's senior trio of Izzy Harrison, co-player of the week in conference Cierra Burdick, and Ariel Massengale combined for 49 points and 23 rebounds.

Harrison scored a season-best 21 with eight rebounds. Burdick scored 14 with 11 rebounds. Massengale also scored 14.

Taking on the top team in field goal percentage defense in Texas A&M (32.3 entering the game), Tennessee shot a season-best 52.4 from the floor. That was the best percentage against the Aggies all season.

Courtney Walker led the Aggies with 25; going back to the coaching techniques of Pat Head Summitt, Tennessee will allow a starting foe to get her points as she works for them, but then they concentrate on everyone else.

Tennessee hit 10 of its first 17 and the game was set with a 22-7 lead nine minutes into it.

They dismantled the defense, hitting 58.8 percent from the field and led 47-31 at the break. The lead spread to a game-high 27 on Bashaara Graves’ jumper with 2:25 left, making it 79-52.

The Lady Vols stretched their win streak to nine, their 14th straight home win.

Including coaching wins as an assistant wins, Holly Warlick has 900, impressive by any barometer.

“I just thought we stepped up, individuals stepped up,” Warlick said . “Our team defense was just, it was just solid. Our offense was probably the best, most efficient that we have had in a while. Really, really, obviously extremely proud of our basketball team and just hope we can keep it rolling.

“I hope it was something we did to cause them to have a bad game. I have a lot of respect for Gary Blair. I think he does a great job and his kids are solid. He did have one of his kids out because they were hurt.

"I'm sure that probably affected them as well. I hope we did some things to make them have to adjust, adjust their shot and other things they normally do."

Blair said it was all about the opponent.

"Tennessee looked like a Top 10 team today,” he said.

“A lot of us during the season are trying to find ourselves as we go forward. The best way to find yourself is when you play at home, then you have some seniors step up like Isabelle Harrison and Ariel Massengale and do the little things right that you had to have in the ball game.

“Tonight y'all were getting every midrange shot that you wanted, the high post shot was wide open and you didn't kill us on the boards, for once, for one reason -- you made every shot.

"That's a misnomer, sometimes, when you're looking at `Well, you stayed with them on the boards.' Not really.

"They still rebound the ball better than any team in the league. It wasn't our best of days, but sometimes that's what the road will do to you and a good opponent like Tennessee.

“I've had a history of coming over here and playing a whole lot better than what we did tonight, but I just didn't think we had it upstairs. It wasn't our legs. It wasn't the cold weather. I just think mentally we lacked a lot of effort and want to that we've got to do.

"[Courtney Walker] played her butt off. She had a chance for her dad to come over from Atlanta and be able to see her play for the first time this year. It's good that he was able to come over and see her play."

Tennessee then went to Arkansas and struggled through a 60-51 comeback win.

Massengale's sharp 3-point shooting in the second half helped Tennessee erase a nine-point deficit.

Tennessee scored 42 in the second half (eighth-best second-half effort in program history) to remain undefeated in four conference competitions. Arkansas is 0-3 in the SEC games.

Harrison came through in a physical game in the paint. She posted her fourth double-double of the year and the 28th of her career with 13 points and a season-high 13 rebounds.

The Lady Vols matched their season-high blocks with nine. Cierra Burdick and Andraya Carter each recorded three. Harrison had two.

Massengale had four assists and finished with 16 points, 4-of-8 3s. Burdick came alive in the second half, scoring 14 of 17 in the second half. The Lady Vols clawed back from a nine-point deficit with a 16-3 run that featured Massengale’s 11 points in that stretch.

After going 0-of-6 from long distance in the first half, the Lady Vols hit 6-of-7 after halftime to surge in the final 10 minutes of the game.

•No. 11 A&M righted itself at home, as it often does, against lower SEC second-tier team LSU, 55-48.

Whatever happened to the Ben-Gals? They still have Raigyne Moncrief, but her showing has slowed to barely double-digits in a true sophomore slump, now that graduates have left her to shoulder the offensive load.

Senior guard Deshawn Harden is averaging 12, but has not even started six games. They only have two newcomers, so do not expect much acceleration.

The Aggies, getting no calls at home, didn’t even attempt a free throw until 11 minutes were left but did close it out at the line, with three free throws for their 12th straight win at home.

Blair needs 13 more win to reach 700 as a coach.

He said he was exhausted after this lackluster performance.

"I don't like to have to coach that hard," he deadpanned. "But when you get zero execution in the first half because we refused to penetrate the zone it was just frustrating."

Jordan Jones had 12 points and Curtyce Knox added a career-high 10, including a key basket late to help the Aggies to a 55-48 win over LSU on Sunday.

The Tigers led by as many as seven early and got within 2 twice in the game's final minutes. The second time they had a chance to tie it, but Achiri Ade stole the ball from Danielle Ballard and Knox finished on the other end with a layup to make it 52-48.

"They continued to play hard, but we just played harder I think," Knox said. "We wanted it."

"When you don't have your good game it's tough and we had no game," Blair said, summing up his team's first-half performance.

•Top-ranked South Carolina opened the week with a run-through at Alabama, then welcomed in No. 10 UK.

A No. 1 is supposed to beat No. 10, so their national rankings did not change.

With all the challenges it has already overcome, how about scoring 100 or more in an SEC game?

That’s what the Gamecocks did in the road win erasing of Alabama, 102-59, their 15th win.

SC closed the half 11-of-11 from the field. Aleighsa Welch hit 5-of-6 from the field.

The team finished 17-of-20 from the line. Alaina Coates matched a season high with 20 points. Asia Dozier was 6-of-8 from the field and 3-of-5 from the line.

Against Kentucky, SC continued the nation’s longest home winning streak at 26. Tiffany Mitchell scored 13 of 19 in the second half. UK is 1-17 all-time against No. 1 teams. The Gamecocks held the Wildcats to 23.5 percent from the field in the second half. Welch had a season-high 11 recounds.

“It comes down to will,” SC coach Dawn Staley said. “At some point, I think what we do best is going to show up. Hopefully we don’t dig ourselves too big of a hole where we can’t get out of it.

“It’s a tough, slug-out, SEC basketball game,” Staley said. “I’m glad we played at home, in front of 17,000, to will us to a win.”

Mitchell was 11-of-12 from the free-throw line, including 9-of-10 in the second half.

Four of those came after two technical fouls were called on UK coach Mitchell, which pushed the Gamecocks' lead to 12 with 2:15 to play.

Kentucky’s starting point guard, Janee Thompson will miss the rest of the season after dislocating her left ankle and breaking her fibula. She was carried off the court.

Mitchell was ejected soon after for arguing with the game officials.

She had surgery on Monday. She has one year left.

“We are so sad for Janee,” Mitchell said. “We never want to see a player sustain an injury like that.

"We are particularly sad for Janee because she’s worked so hard and has really come into her own. She will continue to make an impact on our team with her leadership. She will stay heavily involved and everyone will just have to raise their level up to contribute and make up for a tough loss. We are going to play as hard as we can for Janee and make sure we have a special season for her.”

South Carolina closes UK's home season on the Kats' Senior Night

In an interesting note, South Carolina is organizing a bus trip to the Georgia game in early February.

It was not so long ago that SC worried over home support; now they are bringing it on the road. The $50 trip price includes transportation, game ticket, T-shirt, box lunch, assorted snacks and soft drinks, and other Gamecock items.

•No. 10 Kentucky had started with second-tier SEC competitor Auburn and did what they are supposed to do, win easily, 78-57, for their 14th win, the 12th straight at home, with 4,587 witnesses.

Sophomore Linnae Harper led the starters with 15 but senior Jennifer O’Neill, once again the spark of the bench, scored 17, with five 3s.

"I think we did a good job of starting off strong,” said O’Neill. “Usually, we start off real flat or real slow. We started out faster than we normally do which got us off to a good pace. "The fact that we were able to take care of the ball better played a big factor in us having the margin.

"I think we need to come out focused and ready to go at the beginning of the game. We don't need to allow ourselves to get down in order to start playing hard and hustling. Coming back to practice and working on our rebounds is going to be big."

Kentucky accepted its latest transfer, former Pac-12 rookie of the year and all-conference selection Chrishae Rowe of Oregon. While she can immediately begin working out with the team, she cannot play until the fall.

She led the Ducks in scoring with 21.6 points in 32 games,, the most ever by an Oregon freshman and four off the program season record for any player.

She also has the school record for single-game scoring at 41. She came out of California as a Top 10 national recruit. Apparently, a complete change in coaching staffs affected her commitment to Oregon,

•No. 15 Mississippi State had what was supposed to be two relatively easy (this season) tests, welcoming in free-falling Arkansas, 72-57, and going to Vanderbilt and getting its first loss, 78-62.

Of the two, only Vanderbilt has NCAA credit for past performance (which does not guarantee future earnings).

But they held home court. It shows the strength of the conference that an undefeated team could lose so brutally.

State had held 13 of its last 14 opponents to under 60 points. And it had averaged 81 itself.

Vanderbilt shot 62.9 percent from the field. State is 18-1 overall, 3-1 in conference play. Vanderbilt improved to 9-7 and 1-3.

The Bulldogs started the day as one of the final three undefeated teams nationwide (conference foe SC being another, of course). The 18 wins are still the most by any team in the nation.

“Give Vanderbilt credit,” said State coach Vic Schaefer. “They played very well with a lot of energy on their end. I was disappointed with our inability to keep the ball in front of us and to keep them from getting shots at the rim.

“I thought we fought. I am proud of the kids for playing hard. I didn’t think we quit for one second.

Vanderbilt has made 15 straight NCAAs, should be 16 this year. We put them at the line 42 times and you just can’t do that and win.”

State hit 21-of-64 shots from the field (32.8 percent), 3 of 13 shots from 3-point range (23.1 percent) and 17 of 28 shots from the foul line (60.7 percent). The Commodores hit 22 of 35 shots from the field (62.9 percent), 1 of 3 shots from 3-point range (33.3 percent) and 33 of 42 shots from the foul line (78.6 percent).

Vanderbilt held a 37-31 rebounding advantage. The Bulldogs had nine assists and 15 turnovers, while the Commodores had 18 assists and 24 turnovers.

State will try to repair the confidence and get to 20 wins this week, with home games against LSU and Alabama.

Against Arkansas, State ended on a 21-3 run.

They held Arkansas to 13.8 percent shooting (4-of-29) from the field in the second half and they had their 18th win. The Bulldogs were 3-0 in conference play for the first time in program history. MSU won for the fourth time when trailing at halftime, with three of those wins coming by double figures.

“It was heckuva basketball game,” Schaefer said. “The score was not indicative of how close that game was. We were down 54-51 and they scored three points the rest of the way.

"I have no explanation for allowing 60.9 percent shooting in the first half and allowing 13.8 percent shooting in the second half other than we had a different commitment, different passion coming out of the locker room.

“We had to refocus at the half,” Schaefer said. “The players decided it was time to regroup and do a better job on the defensive end. There is no question for anyone who watched the game the best defensive player on the floor for either team was Dominique Dillingham.

“Dominique had five steals and seven rebounds and made a big shot. Morgan William energizes the whole building. It is great that she gets to learn from (Jerica James). When she comes in, she knows what needs to be altered or fixed, or what needs to stay the same. Victoria Vivians decided she had enough at halftime. She wasn’t at her best offensively or defensively in the first half but she took over in the second half.

“It was a great basketball game,” Schaefer said. “They had us on our heels the first 25, 30 minutes of the game. We were prepared for this. Glad they are out of our way. Arkansas was very focused and very smart.

“It was Thursday night at 8 o’clock with freezing temperatures outside and we had another great crowd.

Our crowd really helped us when we needed a lift. We are thankful for everybody coming out. It is a testament to the way these girls play. Our fans come out for that reason. I am awfully proud to be their coach.”

•No. 18 Georgia welcomed Missouri and then the Dawgs had a nice road trip to Auburn.

Fueled by a 16-point night from league co-player of the week Tiaria Griffin, Georgia defeated Missouri, 69-48, to remain undefeated at home with 10 straight. Griffin led Georgia with 16 points, and Shacobia Barbee added 12.

Georgia outscored the Tigers 14-4 in the opening minutes of the second half. Spanning both periods, the Lady Bulldogs kept Missouri away from the basket for more than eight minutes.

"It was an excellent team effort," coach Andy Landers said. "That's what it was going to take because when you run people off as many screens as they do and the motion that they do defensively, you have to have five people ready to help each other and ready to jump switch. And I thought we were really good."

Georgia capitalized on turnovers, converting 22 by Missouri into 29 points.

At Auburn, Griffin again scored 16 and Barbee had a double-double, 15 points and 11 rebounds, in the 57-52 escape.

Griffin scored seven points in the final 3:16 as her team finished on an 11-5 spree.

"Those buckets were huge and I couldn't figure out her shot," Landers said. "I've never seen her hold the ball like that and work the step back, so I wasn't quite sure how it was going to end, especially that last one. She shot the ball well. She's been shooting the ball well and her teammates do a good job of finding her. The best thing about the last eight to 10 games is that she is starting to create her own shots."

After a defensive stop, Marjorie Butler knocked down a pair of free throws to make it a three-possession game with 80 second left.

"I thought defensively we stayed the course," Landers said. "We were very good changing from one to other, 2-3 to man. They ran some isolation and scored. We were pretty good defensively and then opportunistic on offense."

Though out-rebounded 37-33, the Lady Bulldogs owned a 19-7 advantage on second-chance points.

The Georgia program is six wins away from 900 wins; Landers is 11 away from his 950th as a coach.

SEC Legends

•The league has decided its legends of the game for this season. All will be honored on their respective campuses and then at the basketball conference playoffs where those still living will do a meet-n-greet.

In basketball, the conference honorees include Mary Ostrowski (Tennessee); Lisa Branch (A&M); Victoria Dunlap (Kentucky); coach Sharon Fanning (Mississippi State); Temeka Johnson (LSU); LaTonya McGhee (Florida); Sarah Pfeifer (Arkanasas); Armintie Price-Herrington (Ole Miss); coach Joann Rutherford (Missouri); and Saudia Roundtree (Georgia).

•Mike Siroky has been covering women’s college basketball before the NCAA, back to 1975. He and Mel Greenberg are two of the originators of coverage.

- Posted using BlogPress from the Guru's iPad


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