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.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Mike Siroky's SEC Notebook: Holidays Bring Easy Wins for Ranked Conference Teams

By Mike Siroky

As the first half of the season ends, those of the Select Six in the Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball – the teams rated in the Associated Press national poll – began the occasional one game per team holiday weeks.

All won of course, setting up the start of the toughest conference races in America as 2016 dawns. 

The six are almost all halfway to the magic 20-win mark; no conference team with 20 wins has ever been left out of the NCAA tournament.

But so are some others, unranked in conference but each of who would be competitive in any other conference in the land.

And that’s what puts the SEC ahead of all other leagues; the second set of teams is also better than most everyone else.

Alabama and Auburn each has 10 wins and Florida has 11.

First-year coach Joni Taylor at Georgia also has her ‘Dawgs at 11-1, with a split of the two ranked teams she has played. She is the early leader for league coach of the year, with trepidation as the real competition starts. 

They open the league with a reality check of three nationally ranked teams.

Of course, if South Carolina does what South Carolina has done recently and takes the top seed of the Lexington Regional, you cannot discount Dawn Staley, who will spin immediately into assisting at the Rio Games. This is simply her time.

SC also will avoid the messy boycott when it earns a Sweet 16 first and second-round hosting gig again as the state this year eliminated displays of the Confederate flag, which was a disqualifier until last season when SC earned a hosting site.

The NCAA may have parsed the letter of its own law by allowing them to host, but Mississippi State was obviously penalized quietly, for the same cultural indiscretion. That university has now banned the flag, but it is the campus not the state that banned the flag, so we shall see.

In this conference season, the Select 6 are playing for those earned first-round games; four would get one right now but the first five should in March.
 
The newcomer player of the year  is Evelyn Akhator. She has solidified Kentucky as its center. The Junior College player of the year has kept the Kats relevant, after four other players left the program, including a potential All-America.

But if she has kept Kentucky relevant another first-year player in conference has kept the league’s legendary program alive/ Diamond DeShields is leading Tennessee after transferring from North Carolina with All-America credentials.

There will be a new league MVP, because two-time All-Conference leader Tiffany Mitchell is not even her team’s best player. That’s A’ja Wilson, a for-sure All-America as a sophomore and hard to discount as the league’s best if she stays healthy; an annual battle with shin splints is the only thing that can derail her. Mitchell has been recovering from minor foot surgery.

As for other teams anxious to keep rolling, Missouri is 12-0, in the Top 25 and has its own freshman high scorer awaiting the challenge of real defenses. 

So let the battle royale begin. We’ll be here all season and through the NCAA finals at Indy.

The latest results:

*No. 2 South Carolina finished its pre-conference season first and took most of two weeks off.

The Gamecock's one opponent, Elon, took most of the game off in a Carolinas battle that has become one-sided, 78-63, as Staley continued to shuffle her own lineup against future necessities.

 Elon has not won in the series since 1975.

A reason they play on: Staley and Elon coach Charlotte Smith, the former UNC great, played together for the Charlotte Sting of the WNBA for six years.

Mitchell scored 18 and was even told to play on with two early fouls when Elon peskily hung around and even led by seven, the furthest SC has been behind. 

Her presence led to a 27–2 run.

"I didn't think twice about it," Staley said.

Twice, Mitchell hit 3s that not only settled her side down but also interrupted Elon’s flow.

"Really good players have a sense when they need to make shots and stop a run," Staley said of her senior guard.

Alaina Coates scored 16 with eight rebounds, and Wilson had 12 with eight rebounds for the Gamecocks.

"You hold them to 34 rebounds, that's a pretty good job," Elon coach  Smith said. "But there were times we just couldn't stop second-chance opportunities."

South Carolina had 11 of its 15 offensive rebounds in the second half of the 10th straight home win this season.

The Gamecocks won their 40th game in a row at home, the second-longest home winning streak in the nation.

Mitchell wants to continue as a success enabler and stop inconsistency. "You can't do that going into SEC play," she said.

Staley thinks this team takes a more deliberate approach than last year's Final Four squad.

"They just take things in at the beginning of the game," Staley said. "I don't think a slow start is intentional."

*No. 8 Mississippi State went first in the work week and almost blew it. Here was State at the Puerto Rico tournament and in its third game in three days. 

Southern Methodist was also in its third in three, but was 5-5 after also winning two, after three losses.

The Bulldogs won the first quarter by 10 and here we go again.

Nope.

It was still an eight-point halftime advantage and State extended the lead in the third. 

Then came a boom! in the endgame. State only scored seven and all those early points were needed for a 72-70 escape.

Luckily, Victoria Vivians broke the shackles of a few bad games and the league’s premier points machine hit for 18, but 16 in the first half, 4-of-7 on 3s.

 New running mate Ketara Chapel had figured prominently as the scorer in Vivians’ time on the struggle bus. She had 13 this time.

“We just had a lot of things go wrong that could have spelled defeat, but it didn’t,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. “We found a way to get a stop late.”

Vivians started the game on a roll with 16 points in the first half, 4-of-7 from 3-point range. But she was just 1-of-10 from the field in the second half, as her team dropped its shooting by 10 percentage points, but still earned a warm feeling for the holiday break.

“It wasn’t pretty,” Schaefer said. “They had 13 more makes at the free throw line than we did. We shot 33 percent in the second half (of course the 12-of-13 from the field in the opening quarter could not last). We had a lot of things go wrong that could spell defeat, but we found a way to get a couple of stops late.

“We found a way to win. That’s three wins in three days. SMU played really well. That is a smart basketball team. We need to get back into the gym and practice, but we are glad to be 11-1.”

“My goal has been to be more aggressive,” Chapel said. “Coach showed me the film of some of my games from last season. The biggest thing is having more confidence and believing in my teammates.”

Schaefer said more confidence on the offensive end of the floor has done it.

“Ketara had a great tournament,” Schaefer said. “I called her in two weeks ago and showed her some stats from a year ago. She really responded. She has always been a great defender, but right now she plays with some great confidence on offense.”

*No. 16 Texas A&M has the potential to climb back into NCAA hosting potential. It had the same most of last season before it flatlined at the end and left the party early. 

The team which ended the previous season was Arkansas-Little Rock, not even the main campus program, in the very first NCAA game. 

Joy of Joys for A&M was this scheduled rematch wit a familiar regional foe..

Courtney Walker had a personal avenging with a career-high 29 points (more than 10 above her average) in a 69-39 beatdown.

She was 10-of-11 from the field and 9-of-10 from the line. She hit 12 of the Aggies’ first 15, then led the defense which threw an six-point first and eight-point third quarter at the Trojans. 

“I was just able to relax and find my shots today,” Walker said.

“At Oklahoma (the previous game loss) I was a little but nervous. But back home in College Station I was relaxed all the way. I had some good cuts and let the shots come off easy. A lot of defensive momentum led into the offense. We weren’t really complicating things today. We played mostly bread-and-butter sets.”

So well did A&M defend that Little Rock never earned a free an obvious school and NCAA record, of which the 3,852 present approved.

“The loss last year was the one thing that kept us focused ,” Walker said. “ I think it was up to the seniors to keep the team’s minds here just for a couple of more hours (efofe Christmas break) because, we were facing a good team. Little Rock has played a lot of teams close like Oklahoma. We knew it was going to be a big challenge and we couldn’t come out lackadaisical.”

A&M coach Gary Blair never misses a chance to enhance the living history of the women's game.

This is one of a few games in which each coach has at least 700 career wins.

“Little Rock coach Joe Foley is an institution over there in Arkansas,” Blair said. “I think he’s the best coach, men’s or women’s, in the state. He just does a tremendous job, but Little Rock was short-handed today. Their best player hasn’t played the past two games and I think that hurt them in scoring. That’s what let them play so well against LSU, Texas and Oklahoma because of his coaching and how they run motion.”

He praised the play play of his own point  guard, Jordan Jones.

“I thought Jordan came out well in the second half after she was committing too many fouls in the last two first halves of each game. It shows you how deep we are that we can overcome that. It scared us that Little Rock outscored us in the second half when Jordan wasn’t on the floor. Our offense doesn’t flow as well as it should we she isn’t in there. My backups are getting better out there.”

Then, of course, was Walker’s show.

“I’m really happy for Walker,” he said. “I’m that glad people can see that you don’t have to get to the rim a lot or shoot 3s all the time. 

"You can have a mid-range game and I don’t think there’s a player in the country that has a better mid-range game than her. I’d like to take credit for that it but she was shooting that well when she got out of High school. So, give the credit to her high school coaches and her parents.  She was just on fire individually against a pretty good defensive team. No one has been able to light up Little Rock like Walker did today.”

*No. 25 Missouri earned the positioning with a 12-0 start. Looming big is the Jan. 4 SEC opener with stumbling Tennessee; it is big for both programs. Then it is on to Georgia and South Carolina. So we will know all about them early.

So far, these Tigers have not played a ranked team.

The latest win was, for example, 82-56, at home over 5-5 Texas State. 

They have three seniors and none of them score much or even start.

  Freshman Sophie Cunningham leads the scorers at 16.6. The McDonald’s All-American is legit, with USA basketball age-group experience. She has been SEC rookie of the week three times already.

The coach is Robin Pingeton, in her sixth season there. She is so ready for an NCAA invite. They take nothing for granted. The big win last year was a February upset at A&M. But they stopped at 19 wins.

In the 12th win of this season, they won every quarter and even threw an eight-point defensive stand in the last one. It is the best start in program history.

Cunningham had 21 points with 14 assists and nine rebounds. They drew 3,884.

“I thought our kids played with toughness and resiliency,” Pingeton said. 

*No. 14 Tennessee knocked former No. 7 Oregon State out of the Top 10 and took the week off. No. 7 Kentucky also had a week’s break.

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