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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.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: The King Ruled S.C. in Connecticut To Return to No. 1

( Guru note: Info used from some wire reports in compilation to speed turnaround for posting and Guru helped provide conn coverage postgame..)

By Mike Siroky

The week for this report was extended one day and ended with the season’s national Game of the Week.

UConn showed Monday night why it is still the team no one wants to play in any NCAA Regional.

The Huskies had stumbled against Stanford in overtime by two points in the second game of the season.

While Stanford is not even leading the Pac 12 now, UConn has been dominant and undeniably one of the most-feared teams in America.

The Southeastern Conference is the best conference in America.

South Carolina has not lost in the league for two regular seasons.

Admittedly, it did not win the post-season conference tournament last year and so was not the official – for NCAA tournament purposes – league champ, but was a top seed nonetheless.

When you play in a strong conference, there is some doubt about taking on an interrupting challenge.

In the early days of women’s NCAA basketball, it might have been necessary to schedule a non-conference foe for the attention it brings.

The SEC is 145-40 vs. America this season.

South Carolina has the freshman of the year in A’ja Wilson, already a five-time freshman of-the-week in conference.

Naturally, she was also a top recruit of UConn.

Wilson averages 13.2 points per game, hitting 51.4 percent of her shots from the field, with seven rebounds.
The Gamecocks have an All-American guard in Tiffany Mitchell, 14.8 points per game.

The real strength is in the two bigs, seniors Elem Ebian, 6-4, and Aleighsa Welch, 6-0.

They are beginning to play with the effort seniors bring, realizing their college games are of finite numbers and the big game potentials have bigger impact.

When needed, there are two more at 6-4, sophomore Alaina Coates and freshman Jaterie White.

They had been riding a 22-game winning streak.

As a team they win rebounds by almost 12 per game and outscore their opponents, 78-50.

So they are formidable.

UConn is, of course always reloading more then rebuilding.

At 6-4, Breanna Stewart is an easy selection as a national Player-of-the-Year nominee.

She is a junior and already has been the most valuable player in a Final Four as well as the leader on every national age-group team on which she has played in international competition.

She and Wilson, for example, are past teammates, as are several of the other SC leaders. She averages 16.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.

Sophomore Morgan Tuck averages 14.3 as the entire starting five averages double figures and team averages 89.8 points per game while allowing an amazing 48.6.

The opponent points are more an indication of a weak conference, but is still impressive.

In summary, coming in, both had a strong defensive average with UConn scoring 11 points per game more.

Each coach is in the Hall of Fame. Each has built a program.

Geno Auriemma has 900 wins and the best-ever nine NCAA titles, as a coach.

Dawn Staley is in as a player.

In fact, Auriemma has selected Staley to stay on his assistant's staff in international play, for the Rio Games, along with the rest of his World Championship Gold Medal Staff, whichs USA formally announced in Connecticut Monday afternoon several hours prior to the game.

Staley had suspended Coates, her third-best scorer, for the previous game, for the usual “violation of team rules."

Of Coates, Staley said, no surprise, she was available against the Huskies,

"She served her time and we keep it moving."

Not be be outdone, Auriemma had an in-game suspension of Stewart and Tuck when he benched both five minutes into the previous game.

''This isn't some subliminal message I'm sending to them where I expect them to read between the lines,'' Auriemma said. ''This is very flat out.''

He said he didn't care ''if you're the national player of the year or the greatest thing that's ever walked the face of the Earth playing basketball. There's a certain level of play that I've been accustomed to at Connecticut. If you're not there, then you're not playing.''

So that was the setup when they met at UConn on Monday night, 1-2 in the country however you choose and just past the national rankings deadline of Monday afternoon. All the suspensions were ignored.

Everyone was ready to play.

It is better to be the king.

Auriemma had them ready.

Asia Dozier made a layup for SC and it was 9-7 four minutes in.

UConn made it 36-20 with four minutes to go in the half, a 21-11 run.

Mitchell had 11 for SC and no one else more than six.

For UConn, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Morgan Tuck each had a dozen, in other words more than the whole SC team combined.

The Huskies were hitting better than 60 percent from the field, including 5-of-6 3s, while allowing 40 percent.

Breanna Stewart scored the final three points, keeping the 16-point margin.

SC gave it all it had to cut the deficit to 10.

UConn stepped on the gas again and led by 70-49 with 7:30 to go. Four of the five Huskies starters were in double-figures, led by Stewart’s 19. Mosqueda-Lewis’ 18 (she led at the end with 23) and Tuck’s 12 as Auriemma basically used the starters all the way.

Don’t forget, SC had been accustomed to scoring 78 points per game and it was evident to all that was not going to happen.

UConn had blasted past the 48 SC had been allowing just four minutes into the second half.

It was over. The final was mere formality,

UConn is once again the top seed of all top seeds and will rule the Regional no other contending team wants to visit.

“No one can run with us,” said Stewart. “We handled their size really well, forcing them to take tough shots. The fact they had to take tough shots, we liked that very much.”

SC hit 39 percent from the floor; UConn 55 percent.

“I think one of the hardest things to do is be the point guard, a guard, with the ball on a team with a lot of scorers because your natural instinct is to keep everyone happy…get them the ball and you kind of overlook your own abilities a lot of times. It is walking a fine line,” Aurienma said of Jefferson’s play.

“You want to be able to make sure that the right guys get the right shots at the right times. At the same time you’ve got to provide some stuff to keep the whole thing working. I thought tonight she had the perfect balance, it was unbelievable. When to shoot, when to drive, when to pass it.

“She was really spectacular tonight at both ends of the floor. Her defense was great, her pushing the pace, I don’t think anybody can push the pace of the game the way she can. Tonight was a perfect example of that.”

While he plans to win every game, he isn’t always sure of the outcome.

“I don’t know that the game played out exactly as I thought. I didn’t think that we would be able to keep them off the backboard, obviously we didn’t, and they had 21 offensive rebounds.

“At the same time we seemed to get every loose ball and made a bunch of shots. Again, the game played out at the pace that I wanted it to play. I didn’t want, necessarily, for it to be a half-court game. That part of the game played out exactly the way I wanted it to play out.

“The rest, you know, you don’t go in to any game thinking that four of your starters are going to play their ‘A’ game . . . if you’ve got two that’s a lot, and we had four. When we have that, I don’t know, that is a tough task for anybody. South Carolina is a great team, they are hard to play against, really hard to play against, but when you get four guys playing the way those guys played…it’s hard to play against us…really hard, especially in the atmosphere we were able to feed off.

"We fed off our crowd a lot. In the second half, we came out up 16 and they cut it to 10 right away.

“I remember going to the bench at one point and Breanna Stewart, ‘That’s it…they are done, that’s their run,’ and that’s the way it played out…usually Stewart doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t say anything,” Auriemma added discussing the chip on his team's collective shoulders.

He said the scale of the game on the national stage is all part of playing at UConn.

“I tell kids all of the time when we are recruiting players this is what they want. This is the game that they want to play in, a game like this. I guess this was a slow night in the sports world because I guess this was the biggest thing on television tonight.

"The point of coming to Connecticut is to play in these games. Whether it's January, February, March, April, it doesn’t matter, these are the games you come to Connecticut for, these are the games we practice for, games like today.”

SC has three winnable games before Tennessee visits Feb. 23.

"I learned we got beat by a really good basketball team," Staley said.

Back in the league . .

It has been quite the season so far for women's basketball in the mighty Southeastern Conference as well as in the rest of America.

Among the unsettled arguments is who is best player. There is no standout claiming the national marquee.

Even in the SEC, there are logical All-Americans but the balance is so keen that none stand out as the top player.

It is the same nationally.

It is easy to pick the top teams and find great players of a big game moment.

But each of the top four teams are so balanced there is little separation on any given team.

Logically, the best player with the hardware at the end and the line in the record books should come from the national champions.

Coming into the season that favored Stewart, one of those impact players who is yet but a junior.

She as the NCAA'S Most Valuable in the previous Final Four.

But even she has competition on her own team. She is the leading scorer, having attempted the most shots and free throws and is the second-best rebounder.

But the silly 50-point win margins in their terribly weak conference keeps the pilot light low for UConn individuals just now.

The same scenario poorly served Old Dominion or Louisiana Tech when those programs scorched all other national teams but had to first stay on task in awful leagues.

Each has been in decades of rebuilding once the power conferences began dominating when the NCAA took over the women's game.

•No. 15 Texas A&M went to Mizzou for its 18th win, 55-48, then to No. 13 Mississippi State in the league game of the week.

Gary Blair is masterfully hiding the fact he is staying ranked in a rebuilding season, out of league contention with now four conference losses.

State has its benchmark win, 63-61 in overtime, a newbie jumping a traditionally ranked team.

Neither side gave in at the State game as 4,641 roared in apreciation.

A&M was ahead by four at the half, 32-28. Both teams stalled twice with State ahead by two for about two minutes each time.

In the final minutes of the half, Gary Blair's mantra of close each half strong took effect as the visitors outscored the home team, 6-0.

Courtney Walker was unstoppable, with 19 at the break, including 6-of-6 from the line. But she only scored six more.

In the second half, State stalled at 32 (and a two-point deficit) for four minutes while A&M scored eight more to establish their cushion, heading into the final nine minutes.

It was tied with seven minutes left. In the final 4:20, A&M made one basket and State one free throw. It was a two-point edge with 90 seconds left. Kendra Grant tied it with a jumper. Both called time out, State with possession, 39 seconds left.

It went to overtime. Jordan Jones made two free throws and Courtney Williams a layup. Grant made two free throws and Williams one.

The lead was two with a minute left. Williams hit two free throws and State's Breanna Richardson hit a layup.

Then super freshman Victoria Vivians rained in a 3, only her second basket of the game. Williams missed her last jumper and State had the win.

Williams, at 14, was the only other Aggie than Walker in double figures. State center Martha Alwal had 16 points and 10 rebounds. It is Alwal's only win ever against State.

"I'm so proud of the kids for their effort," State coach Vic Schaefer said. "It was a tremendous basketball game between two tremendous teams. It is rewarding to see where we were and to see where we are now.

"What a great crowd and a great atmosphere. I really want to get this team to the NCAA tournament for the three seniors we inherited.

"To see how hard these kids work every day and to see them rewarded against a great university means a lot," Schaefer said. "If we are going to have a chance to have a bye in the SEC Tournament, this is one of those games we had to have."

"I want to do it for the whole team. However, I really want to do it for the three seniors. They are really special to us."

A&M left town with four conference losses, eliminated from the regular season title. State is almost there, with three losses but 23 wins.

The Mizzou game was a normal win for A&M.

The game was tight at the start, Courtney Walker scoring a dozen in the first half, a 28-21 edge for A&M. Two junior reserve guards, Chelsea Jennings for the Aggies and Maddie Stack for the Tigers, each had eight at the break.

Stack hit a layup to cut it to three with a little under five minutes left.

It stayed at that edge until, coming out of a Missouri time out, Walker hit a jumper followed by a Jordan Jones layup and it was seven with 75 seconds left. Jones made two free throws and the difference was nine with 23 seconds to go.

And that is how a ranked team takes out a road win against an unranked one.

Walker scored 17 and Jones 10.

A&M stayed at three league losses; Mizzou is, as usual, long gone with eight.

It started a week with the top teams totally dashing the second and third-tier teams.

"I was just doing whatever my team needed at the moment," Jones said. She was coming off a bout with the flu.

"Coach told me I had to suck it up. I was feeling a little under the weather second half, but in big moments, big players step up.

" I just wanted to do whatever it took for my team to win. He ran a couple of plays for me at the end, and I missed a jump shot. He told me to keep wanting the ball, and I got a layup."

"On forcing turnovers . . . it has a huge impact. Coach told us we needed to make them feel uncomfortable. They're a flow team, and they can shoot in the flow from the 3-point line.

"He told us to be active on defense with our feet and hands and really disrupt them on offense. I think we did a good job of doing that with our quickness on defense. His game plan was excellent."

Coach Gary Blair said it always starts with defense.

"Right before half when we stretched it out, I thought that was key," he said.
"Our bench was very good tonight. We started Rachel Mitchell just to get the opening tip. I've never done that before, but at 6-7 I wanted to throw the first punch in the fight.

"We got the opening tip and I left her in there for a while. She wasn't hurting us, but generally that's not a game that I can play my five players against your team [Missouri] because you do not have a true five.

"I have to play small ball. As a result, that hurts me on rebounding. It was right before half when we got the steal and the easy basket; that was one of the few easy ones we had. I thought we stayed within our offense.

"They started guarding Walker a little bit tougher in the second half. She went 6-of-12, but then she started forcing it too deep. I want her to take that step back jumper.

"She's such a threat that she opens it up for everyone else. Tavarsha Scott-Williams came in because Williams was having problems today.

"We were able to win without Jordan feeling well and Williams feeling well, and we weren't feeling well because Missouri was playing us very tough. It's not going to be easy.

"What she (Missouri's coach) has gone through, four kids out for the year, that's unbelievable. That's tough. When you look at her games, how she played South Carolina, Tennessee, and us, I think they're playing better against the right teams.

"She's going to get a few more of those. She does such a good job, and they're going to be one of the teams next year to make that NCAA run."

Texas A&M features the league's leading scorer (Courtney Williams, 14.9), third-leading rebounder (Achiri Ade, 9.8), and top assister (Jordan Jones, 7.4) in SEC play. A&M has its third win over a ranked opponent this season, but their first such in SEC play.

When he hits 20, it will be No. 21 in the NCAA for Blair and, not coincidentally, a 24th NCAA tournament entry.

He has coached 10 times in the NCAA Sweet 16 Appearances 20 NCAA Tournament Appearances 23 20-Win Seasons

State has to next go to UK and potentially its fourth league loss. The rest of its games are winnable, except for the Feb. 26 trip to SC.

It is unclear and less and less likely they can claim a magic ticket by getting to No. 16 in the nation and earning two home games to start the NCAAs.

Twenty-five wins might not be enough. The unlikely winning of the conference post-season tournament would do it, though.

•South Carolina's SEC week: So what does the top team in America from a power conference do on the edge of visiting UConn to start this week?

The Gamecocks went to Georgia and brought along a fan bus for a road trip with home benefits.

The result did not knock the 'Dawgs from the national rankings, because shouldn't the No. 1 team distress the No. 24 team? However what happens next after Monday's loss to unranked Arkansas may be another matter for Georgia.

SC doubled the 'Dawgs by halftime, 30-14. No one was in double figures, but reserve freshman point guard Bianca Cuevas had nine points on her way to a game-leading 16 and Aleighsa Welch had nine rebounds, five offensive.

"B is beginning to get it, to see the game a little bit differently," coach Dawn Staley said. "She's still trying to figure out when to go and when to pull back, and she did a really good job tonight with that. We're going to need that going forward."

With Georgia's leading rebounder, Krista Donald, suspended for the game for violations on unspecified team policies, perhaps coach Andy Landers had it all set up to lose with dignity, 58-35. This was the game Coates had missed.

Not that Georgia could do much about her absence.

It never got much better. It was 52-28 with 7:39 left, as Tiffany Mitchell scored 10 after intermission. Georgia did not score in the final 3:08. No Bulldog hit double figures.

Georgia was out of contention again, with five league losses. SC is 10-0.

•No. 6 Tennessee got a road win in its easiest week of the season a nice Florida vacation, 64-56.

It is UT's 20th win, assuring its record of being the only team to make every NCAA tournament.

It is a league-best 17 straight conference wins. UT had the highest RPI nationally of the week, which will drop after Monday's main event.

Tennessee stays unbeaten in the league this season through 10.

Izzy Harrison had the first 11 points on 5-of-8 from the field with two blocks. The Lady Vols were behind by two at the half and won the second by 10.

"Maybe I need to make my halftime speeches before the game starts," UT coach Holly Warlick suggested.

Florida stalled at 40 and Tennessee spread around 15 unanswered points. The Lady Vols led by nine in the closing minutes as they traded baskets. Florida was in danger of scoring less than 50 at home. UT allows just 54 on average. A late 3 gave the home team 52 with a minute left in the 64-56 loss

Harrison finished with 17 and guard Jordan Reynolds 13. Tennessee only shot 39 percent against a poor team. Something to work on: Formerly prolific scorer Ariel Massengale, now a bench player, was 0-for-8.

She just doesn't look very confident shooting," Warlick said.

Cierra Burdick 2-of-10. Of course, Burdick always starts gets jacked against Kentucky; she was actually called out in a dismal show of lack of professionalism by UK coach Matthew Mitchell last season.

Tennessee is at Ole Miss and then has the rematch with Kentucky at home this week. The UK game is their last chance to lose at home.

•No. 10 Kentucky went to Vanderbilt for its only game of the week and got a road win, 82-60.

Alyssa Rice hit three of her first four shots with two blocksand Linnae Harper scored 18 after intermission as the Kats won the second segment, 50-37. The Kats hit 19-of-20 free throws in the second half.

"I'm really, really proud of our team today because I thought Vanderbilt played very hard, played with a lot of fight," Mitchell said. "I thought they wanted to win the game and they were extremely prepared. ... This is a very big victory for us."

UK stays with three league losses with its next three against ranked teams, Mississippi State, at Tennessee and A&M. It will likely win 20 again. Vanderbilt will struggle to stay above .500 overall.

"In the last 12 minutes things changed. All of a sudden, they end up with 29 off turnovers and we were not able to stop them because of who they are," said Vandy coach Melanie Balcomb.

•Georgia could not bounce back even against everyone's favorite non-entity, at Arkansas.

The 'Dawgs have 17 overall wins, so Andy Landers ought to continue his record of most NCAA appearances by any active coach (and certainly any SEC team) when he hits 20 wins again, though they will certainly all be on the road.

The Razorbacks started out ahead 20-6,_the scoring spread out among four players. Georgia missed 12 shots._Georgia finally showed up and won the rest of the game, 42-34. They held their own in the next spree, 14-13. It was 29-15 with 2:30 in the half and Georgia had confidence.__

It was 30-6 at half. Arkansas had hit half of its shots and Georgia half of that. The Razorbacks only had one more rebound than did Georgia._

But merely matching is not good enough.

A 15-13 start of the second half left is 45-29 halfway through the second segment. With 6:30 left, it was only down to 11. With 4:38 left, it was down to six and that is all you need to know about Arkansas, with all of its players, and an injury-diminished Georgia.

At this point, no matter who won, the better team was evident. Georgia got it down to one before succumbing, 54-48. The disastrous start was too much to overcome,

Landers was hit by back-to-back technical fouls, was ejected, and Arkansas hit three of the four free throws.

He was protesting a non-call on a rebound battle.

"If I had to do it over again (protest), I would,” said Landers.

"I thought the game was won in the first 10 minutes. I thought Arkansas was very, very sharp, ready to play on both ends of the floor and we weren't.

Consequently, we dug ourselves a deep, dark hole that we spent the rest of the night trying to dig out of. Arkansas tattooed us."

The week’s two league losses should unrank the ‘Dawgs. With six league losses, all Landers can do is get them ready for the post-season.

- Posted using BlogPress from the Guru's iPad


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