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.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: South Carolina Tops Tennessee to Repeat Conference Crown

By Mike Siroky

No. 2 South Carolina welcomed in No. 6 Tennessee Monday night to decide the regular season champions of the Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball.

Just like last season, by remaining undefeated at home, SC won the title, 71-66.

One Gamecocks advantage was the loss of Lay Vol Izzy Harrison, a senior leader, to a torn ACL.

The Lady Vols were in their second game against SC playing without her.

The Gamecocks had been winning rebounds by 11.

With Harrison, UT had been averaging an 8.9 difference. She had been getting 6.2 defensive boards. In a balanced attack, her 12.8 average led the team and she had twice as many blocks as anyone else.

It was indeed a sad time to end a career. She is one of the few holdovers from the reign of former coach Pat Head Sunmitt, though recruited by current coach Holly Warlick and coached by her for three seasons,

SC had been scoring 78 and allowing 52. Tennessee had been scoring 72 and allowing 54.

So each scored five or more less and each allowed more than 15 than against everyone else in America.

Tennessee and South Carolina played to a 36-33 halftime. But SC had a seven-point lead with 10 minutes left. UT had to seize control or become SC’s 26th victim in 27 tries.

As usual, SC’s “bigs,” Aleigsha Welch and Elem Ebiam, led with 19 and 12. and the league’s best player – Tiffany Mitchell – also had 13.

Almost uncontested without Harrison to harass them, Welch was 9-0f-14 and Ebiam 6-of-9. Tennessee’s only big, Bashaara Graves, had 15 but was 6-of-14 as SC began to grind UT down with a 60-53 lead and 7:30 left.

It looked to be over, despite the less than 10-digit advantage,
There just seemed to be no escape route and trading baskets would not create one.

It was still a six-point lead with 2:50 left.

All SC had the to do to win a projected consecutive conference title was to maintain.

All the individual accolades will fall into place as well as the home games which get them to a Regional in which they are top seeds

The difference today in the programs is SC can only move up by winning it all.

That means the best thing to do is win out which they didn’t do last season by losing to UT in the league tourney.

So while a win at home on national cable TV is nice, they have risen to the point it’s just nice, not even spectacular, which a win by UT would have meant to them, and their second-year coach, Holly Warlick.

With 49 seconds left, SC had a three-point edge and missed a shot and a free throw.

UT contributed two fouls and SC had the ball back.

Another missed shot and Graves took a feed from Cierra Burdick to make it a one-point game.

There were 22 seconds left and each coach called a timeout.

Two fouls, a turnover and a missed free throw later, Asia Dozer made two free throws and this battle was over, SC by five.

The Gamecocks have won their title and an NCAA No. 1 seed.

Which means anyplace but wherever UConn lands.

Tennessee has probably has earned another No. 1 as well by taking it to the No. 2 in the nation (a team which has been No. 1 most of the season) at their home court will also avoid the other No. 1s.

That means No. 1 or No. 2 out West, which is fine even if they win the conference post-season again.

When you meet expectations, that is what happens.

Graves finished with 20 points and seven rebounds. Burdick had 16 and 10.

Unfortunately for the Lady Vols, Ariel Massengale slipped back to zero points.

No team can afford a senior leader who does that.

Last year, Tennessee’s Meighan Simmons finished her home career in a wire-to-wire blowout of SC with 16 points, for example.

This loss ended Tennessee’s streak of not having lost in conference for more than a year.

SC is halfway there.

For the winners it was 14 rebounds and 19 points for Welch and 16 points for Mitchell.

SC won the rebounds, 46-33, which is what happens most nights and why they have only one loss all season.

Tennessee can match the unbeaten home mark and probably will. No other team in the league will be undefeated at home.

The conference coaches had selected this finish, if not the improbability of the unbeaten at home part.

Then again, what other teams were going to be legitimate challengers.

Texas A&M was projected third, but took away at least the tiebreaker for fourth by winning at Kentucky.

Kentucky still has to play SC.

LSU – which defeated Kentucky – has to lose another to drop to fifth, and still has to play at A&M.

So fourth, and the final easier seed, is not determined

LSU skipped the NCAA for the 1991-1996 tournaments, then was a regular competitor with the exception of 2011 until now.

Under previous coaches, they made the Final Fours of 2005-2008, plus three more Elite Eights and six more Sweet 16s.

No one, not even really smart writers, thought Mississippi State would be near the top.

They were projected eighth and look to finish third. They’d earn a Sweet 16 qualifying two home games if they succeed.

If there is a sixth team in the NCAA mix, no one is stepping up to claim it.

Underachieving Georgia’s latest effort included an 11-point second half and gave Auburn its first SEC win, at Georgia.

LSU was pounded by awful Arkansas and has but 15 wins. Neither can hit 20 in the regular season. Georgia is in real danger of missing only its second NCAA tounament.

So, depending on the league conference tournament in a few weeks, if UT makes the finals (they did last season and SC did not), they’ll be a No. 1 seed.

If they lose and the NCAA committee punishes them for the loss of Harrison, they’ll be No. 2, out West either way with any luck. All the other projected No. 1s are better teams, so the best No. 2 to be is West.

The Week That Was

•South Carolina prepared for Tennessee with a blowout at Arkansas, 73-56.

The Gamecocks matched Mississippi Sate for the most overall wins in conference at 25.

All-American guard Tiffany Mitchell scored 15 and Alaina Coates brought 14 off the bench, as did rookie guard A’Ja Wilson in a well-balanced attack.

“We knew Monday's a big game, but we knew we had to take care of business here first," Mitchell said. "We're still trucking along and have a lot of season left. We're not going to hang our heads after one loss."

SC coach Dawn Staley said, “Our league prepares us.

"We're known for our bigs, but I thought our guards came to play with getting some blocked shots," Staley said.

The Gamecocks next go to Mississippi State.

•The Lady Vols started the experimental lineup with a visit by lowly Alabama, which was coming off a wasting at Texas A&M.

Yikes.

Before the game, UT coach Holly Warlick announced she was closing down a player for the second season with concussion after-effects. They are seeking another year for junior forward Jasmine Jones, using a request a medical hardship waiver to restore a year of eligibility.

She was injured in the December game against Stanford. So she joined starting center Izzy Harrison on the sidelines.

Tennessee won the first half over visiting Alabama, by 11, and the second by 10 to win another at home, 77-56.

The revived Ariel Massengale scored 17, 5-of-11 3s to lead the Lady Vols.

It set up the trip to South Carolina. It is only the senior guard’s third start of the season.

Adding to the confidence was Cierra Burdick with 16 points and Bashaara Graves’ with 14. UT hit all 18 free throws.

UT coach Holly Warlick likes the effort.

"We wanted to make sure, we talked about this being a statement game, just playing hard. I talk about that all the time. I thought that the Kentucky game we played hard and I wanted to carry it over to this game.

"I thought we did some really good things. My main concern was defensively how we were going to come out, where we going to guard someone one-on-one, make sure we didn't need Izzy [Harrison] in the paint.

"I thought it was a great game for us to experiment a little bit. I wanted to get Nia [Moore] in and get her some play with the starting group."

As for the free throws, UT has a tradition in practice back to Warlicks playing days of spending a generous amount of time doing free throws.

"We take time to do it. Free throws are just focus,” Warlick said. “It is mental.

They know how to shoot them, it is just total focus. We put a lot of time in our free throws. That is solid. That is awesome. I was really, really pleased with it.

"We didn't really go to the line that much.”

• No. 13 Kentucky and No.12 Texas &M decided No. 4 in the league, most likely, 81-69 A&M.

Each still play South Carolina to close the season but UK already has five league losses and the Aggies now have the tiebreaker.

Then again, A&M, Kentucky and Mississippi State could all have five league loss for the No. 3 and No. 4 conference seeds. State lost to UK and Tennessee as well as LSU.

No. 15 at No. 11 at the time; Kentucky is now out of the Top 10 for the remainder of the season.
Now they have to hold onto one of the 16 golden tickets for the NCAA draw.

UK started out ahead, 8-2 with two 3s by Mikayla Epps. Then A&M showed its mettle and handed UK its second home loss.

It was 38-31, A&M at halftime, from down, 30-31 with 1:48 before the break.

Tavarsha Scott-Williams scored two straight layups, followed by one by Jordan Jones and the finished by Courtney Williams.

Kentucky was without an answer, even at home. The Wildcats could not cut into the lead.

The Aggies were cool with that. Two minutes in, Walker hit a jumper and the lead was 41-33. Achiri Ade made two jumpers and, with 14 minutes left t was 47-36.

UK’s will to win seemed gone.

A flurry by Walker, Ade and Khaalia Hillsman made it a 20-point lead with 11 minutes left, then 73-55 with 3:47 to go.

It was officially a wipeout. A&M had five in double figures, led by Walker’s 19 and 16 by Courtney Williams.

A&M won the rebounds by 12. Epps had 19 for UK, which was sill in search of win No. 20.

Last year, A&M finished strongly.

They eventually ended up giving UConn its toughest game in the NCAA tournament as the last SEC standing. In a league of coaches, Gar Blair is always one of the best.

“The atmosphere here for basketball is unbelievable,” Blair said.

“I was walking around the mall over there by the Hyatt today and seeing all of the basketball stuff.

They have almost 6,000 people come out here on a snowy night like it is. I don’t know how (John) Calipari gets all those kids to come here in this bad weather but hey this is basketball country.

“Just appreciate the opportunity to play where Joe B. Hall and Adolph Rupp -- who they (Courtney Williams and Walker) don’t even know who the heck they are.

"But hey, this is history right here. First time I played at Pauley Pavilion, history. First time I played in Cameron Fieldhouse, history. Madison Square Garden you name it I’ve been there.

“We’ve played well on the road but we have never been able to finish. The end to the first half I think was the biggest change of the game and we had an even ball game, even behind and all of a sudden we made some plays.

" (Courtney) Williams carried us in the first half, this one (Courtney Walker) carried us in the second half and this is a kid who never gets to come to the press room because all she does is rebound and play hard.

"OK, she is probably not going to be a first-round draft pick, but she is not going to have to play in Ethiopia either.

“She will play somewhere but this is a senior who is a warrior. I’m happy for my team.”

UK, in its only game of the week, is 3-3 in its last six games and has lost two straight.

For the second straight loss, UK coach matt Mitchell had to own up to the fact his team played without much zest.

“It was a tough night for us. We didn’t really play hard and I thought Texas A&M played really hard and took it to us. They deserved to win the game and we just have to try to regroup here and see if we can start playing some Kentucky basketball because we’re not doing it right now.”

They gave up 52 points in the paint.

“We let them drive the ball wherever they wanted to drive and we knew they were drivers,” said Mitchell.

“They got to the rim. I think the main thing is hustle. I just have to create an environment where that is a non-negotiable. Right now we just have people that think it’s okay to not hustle and to get beat like this.

"A lot of it is on me and I have to change the atmosphere here to see if we can turn it around because tonight was all about a lack of effort. That’s the absolute worse case scenario for us here at Kentucky is not giving great effort.”

A&M started the week by blasting Alabama and ended at home again against Florida.

Against Alabama, the Aggies sprinted to a 31-19 halftime lead, led by
Courtney Walker’s dozen. They won the half 25-16 after four minutes were gone. They started the second half on a 10-6 run.

They closed it down, 70-49. Walker had a career-best 27 and moved to ninth on the program all-time scoring list. It is also the 10th straight 20-win season.

They are also in the NCAA draw, likely as a Top 16 seed, which means two home games.

Walker said, “The thing I focus on more than how many I score, is on percentages, being able to be efficient from the floor. I think last game I was 6-for-18, today I was 13-for 20, so I’m much more proud of it today than the other day.

"I would have rather been six-for-10 or something, so focus on shots calculation and being able to have a high percentage of those shots.

Texas A&M Associate Head Coach Kelly Bond-White handled the post-game questioners: “I thought our kids came out flat;, Chelsea (Jennings) alluded to it.

"I didn't think our energy was great to start the game. I think one of the things we talked about, our inefficiency offensively early and I thought we didn't get penetration whether it was penetration through the pass, penetration off the dribble.

“I thought we settled for passes around the arc and that was an adjustment we made at halftime and a lot of that starts with energy. Whether we were just walking off the screens of the zone, whether we weren't cutting as hard, that's what we wanted to change With three games in one week, this was a nice easy start.

“Not necessarily getting a chance to rest some people, but we just talked about efficiency,” said Bond-White.

“I think that's what it gives you more than anything when you talk about the milestones, the fact that they did it on percentage shooting, the fact that they did it within the flow of the offense.

"Courtney (Walker) mentioned she pays attention to that and that's something that we're pushing, the fact that Jordan came back and had 10 assisted buckets.

"That's what we're looking forward to, that's when our team plays at their best, so if we can carry that over into Kentucky, I like our chances.”

A&M stayed in comfort control against Florida, up by 10 at home at half and by at least that many in the second half, before winning. 66-46, their 17th straight home win.

Their game this week is the home finale before the anticipated home games in the NCAA tournament.

Junior Courtney Williams led this one with 11 points, needing only one in the second half and was held back with foul trouble.

Senior Achiri Ade scored 10. She has earned a fond farewell.

A&M has won three straight, five of six. They were 10 percent better from the field.

“First, about the game itself and what we were playing for,” said A&M coach Gary Blair. “I had a chance to watch North Carolina State beat Duke today. I talked to the girls about not just home court, not just about where we are in the SEC, but what we’re playing for.

“We really came out fired up, ready to play and start the ball game. We got into foul trouble with the two C.W.’s, but I trust my bench.

"They came in and did an excellent job. I thought (Chelsea) Jennings was very good, very active. She gave me eight rebounds and five points in 20 minutes. Tori Scott came in and looked like her old self today. I really wanted to leave
her in and give her more minutes, but (Courtney) Walker and Williams were playing so well.

They showed that they didn’t have to score to be effective.

“That was the first time in a long time Walker was under double digits. Williams played well in the second half too. I thought it was just a good team effort. We played 10 players before the 10-minute mark in the game and there was no drop off.

"Overall though, Jordan (Jones) directed my team. I thought we put the hammer down when we had to. We’re going to take the win and go back and figure out what we need to do against Missouri.”

“Everything depends on Teas A&M. Take care of business, hopefully, we can get third in the league. Worse comes to worse, fourth.”

“We talked about Florida coming off an emotional home loss that more or less knocked them out of everything. The question was how were they going to respond and how were we going to respond?

"We had the first blow, or the first punch. That’s what you want. The home court was good, the crowd was good, and the calls of the game were very good. I’m so proud of our sport and women’s basketball across the country getting behind this. ”

•No. 11 Mississippi State caught the end of Alabama’s terribly tough week.

The Tide did not go easy.

State had spread around its scoring, eight each from Martha Alwal and Victoria Vivians. But ‘Bama forward Ashley Williams went off for 15 and it was 27-25, State, at half.

It took awhile for either team to even start, 4-4 then 10-10 with nine minutes left in the period.

Williams scored twice in a row and Alabama had a five-point lead, which State erased in three minutes A Dominique Dillingham 3 put the Bulldogs ahead.

Vivians came out of the locker room hot and scored nine, but that only kept State ahead by five as every shot was contested,

Alabama was outshooting the visitors, 42-30 percent, to stay in it.

With 7:31 left, it was but a three-point advantage. With 86 seconds left, Vivians scored her final basket.

Sharon Rivers hit a 3 for the Tide with 55 seconds left.

Dillingham blocked the final home attempt with six seconds left and grabbed her fifth defensive rebound.

In the end, each side scored 30 in the second half. It ended 57-55.
State has its 25th win a school record and another with 10 in conference.

Vivians scored 14, Dillingham and Alwal each with 10. State was still outshot 41-31 percent and the home team had more free throws, 17-of-24 to 13-of-17 (there’s four points right there). Williams only scored six in the second half for Alabama. It was an important road win for State.

State goes to South Carolina then closes the season at home. Alwal is among three seniors who have, at least this season, put State on national notice.

“I don’t think you can say this is just another win,” State coach Vic Schaefer said. “There has been a lot of great basketball played at Mississippi State.

"Coach (Sharon) Fanning had a lot of great teams and a lot of great players.

"For the youth on this team, for us to get to 25, is a tremendous accomplishment.

“I am really proud of being the coach at Mississippi State. We are giving God the glory. It’s a great University. We are now looking forward to No. 26.”

“Life on the road is tough,” Schaefer said. “You are just trying to get out of here with a win. I am so proud of our fans and can’t thank them enough. It was great to be able to play with our fans cheering. We had more fans here than we did. They were the MVP because they got us through this game.

“It wasn’t our best day but we found a way.”

•Kentucky started the new week at Ole Miss. But it was the same old, same old.

It went about as expected for the league’s lowest-ranked team which we had projected from the stat as a second-tier team in the league.

Kentucky, desperate to stop a losing streak, against another also-ran, started out ahead, then failed miserably again.

They may have lost the chance to host the Sweet 16 play-instead be fed to either UConn or Note Dame, each of which won their conferences and already have earned top seeds.

We all await coach Mathew Mitchell’s latest explanations for a team which has not been able to win 20, has six league losses and still has South Carolina coming in on Senior Night.

UK started out barely in control, 15-11. Jennifer O’Neill, in the starting lineup, had eight, 3-of-3 from the line, 2-of-3 from the field. But when Gracie Frizzell hit a 3 with a few seconds left, the half was tied at 29. Shed led all scorers with a dozen points.

Ole Miss maintained. The Rebels had a 44-42 lead with 11 minutes to go, Tia Faleru had woken up with 10 points to complement Frizell. Each side was hitting about 33 percent from the field. Inside of four minutes, Ole Miss still held that two-point edge.

Then Boom! Went the dynamite. Ole Miss sprinted to a 10-point lead and blasted UK into insipidness. Ole Miss celebrated with the last four points at the line, UK also scored its final two there, to make it merely a 10-point loss to a team with 16 wins.

Linnae Harper scored 16 with 10 rebounds for the losers. The winners had four in double figures, led by Faleru’s 16 and Frizell’s 15. It is the kind of win Ole Miss can mention in next year’s guidebook,

It is especially meaningful for Ole Miss coach Matt Insell. He had recruited the upperclassmen when the top assistant at UK.

"It is a very special victory,” said Insell.

“It is a program victory. I can't put into words how satisfying it is to beat a ranked team like Kentucky. They have had unbelievable wins all year and we beat them by eight. Our team just really went out there and took control. I cannot say enough about our players. Danielle McCray, Tia Faleru, Gracie Frizzell, Erika Sisk, A'Queen Hayes, just everybody, came out and played so well.

Amber Singletary just battled the entire night. I could not be more proud of a basketball team than I am right now.

"Both teams were just sound defensively. Eight out of the last 10 possessions of the game we were able to get a stop. That is huge. We have worked since June on that. I told the girls to just take a chance, take a chance and see what happens.

“Maybe we can get to 8-8 (in conference) and put it in the tournament committee's hands. This is a huge win for us. The best is yet to come. We are just going to continue to improve every single day. We are growing up. I am so happy for our seniors and we have a lot of basketball left in this basketball team."

He then singled out one of his senior blue-collar workers as making the difference, as they outshot UK in the second half, 45-33 percent.

"Twelve of Danielle's rebounds were defensive. Kentucky is No. 1 in the league in offensive rebounds and she was able to do that.

"That is huge for us. Danielle was the difference in this game. She played like I know she can. I stay on Danielle harder than anybody, but that is because I believe that she can do it. She really came out and did it tonight, I am just so proud of her."

They have one home game left and cannot have a winning conference record without an upset in the conference tournament. UK has probably lost the chance to earn the two-game bye there that goes to the top four finishers.

More games like this and they may be wishing for an NIT redemption.

- Posted using BlogPress from the Guru's iPad

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