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, December 21, 2015

Mike Siroky's SEC Notebook: League's Best Prevail

By Mike Siroky

As the teams in the toughest women’s basketball conference in America – the Southeastern – prepared to celebrate the season with friends and family, the Big 5 – those still ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 – had one of the chosen split on the left coast road but the rest prevailed.

*No. 2 South Carolina let its premier player, Aja Wilson, sit out for a second straight game, protecting her statistical averages while missing meaningless games against outclassed foes. She also was resting shin splints.

SC had two of those non-competition games, the first being a home win, 86-48, over Hampton, another school that used to fill the schedule well before the Gamecocks ascended. 

An example of a not-qualified team: This is the second straight foe visiting to score less than 10 in the opening quarter.

Once the idea of which team would win was settled early, coach Dawn Staley went back to the coaching lab and tried new potentially potent mixtures.

The frontcourt was featured, junior Alaina Coates and senior Sarah Imovbioh. Coates scored 22 and got the double-double with 12 rebounds, her fourth double in the 10-0 start. Yes they are already halfway to 20. Imovbioh was allowed a career high 19 points on 6-of-8 from the floor.

The team was fouled a lot and hit their free throws a lot, 23-of-30. Apparently the focus was to be on rebounding drills, which SC won, 52-19, 34 defensive.

“Rebounding puts you in a position to win every night,” Staley observed. “Whether it’s offensive or defensive rebounding, it means you’re diminishing the amount of times an opponent can score. For us, it’s always a point of emphasis to outrebound our opponent and box out. That’s something we’re going to have to continue to do.”

The problem, which most coaches would welcome, is no challenge so far in the recent games and unbeaten through 11 by Christmas, 6-0 at home. They are on their way to 30 again after the 88-57 runaway against East Carolina.

EC has been another traditional rival, if not a competitive one. SC threw a nine-points-allowed final quarter at them, as an example.

A’ja Wilson returned from her break as one of five in double figures, 15 with 10 rebounds. Tiffany Mitchell scored 16.The team had 54 rebounds, 39 defensive.

Maybe they need to work on free throws after going 5-of-18.

Mitchell had foot surgery in August.

“I have given myself until January to kind of get things going, but I’m starting to feel a lot better,” she said.

“Tiffany Mitchell looked like Tiffany Mitchell on both sides of the ball,” Staley said.

The trip to the tournament in Myrtle Beach is associated with a state high scooll tournament for which SC is an annual attention-getter. Gamecocks fans had two busloads in attendance.

“It’s impressive when you look out into the stands and all you see is Garnet and Black,” Staley said.

*No.8 Kentucky celebrated Makayla Epps, the team leader who plays more minutes (34 per) than anyone else in conference as she was selected as player of the week in the league which caused another national web site to name her its national player of the week. 

UK is also just whomping less-than-challenging teams while building to a prime time matchup against No. 14 Duke. It was at Rupp Arena and drew 17,150, the fourth-best in program history. 

UK started ahead and stayed ahead in the 71-61 win.

“I think we battled in a lot of ways,” said UK coach Matt Mitchell. “I wish we had rebounded better but I think our defensive  intensity wore down Duke a little bit.

“We have got to get better.”

He did give this effort an “A” grade. “Because we beat a good team.”

Evelyn Akhator had 12 of the first 14 Kat points, 5-of-5 from the field and 2-of-2 at the line. Duke had 13 at the first break, but UK had 22.

UK played steady on in the second quarter. Duke was only a point closer with 7:45 until break. The Devils cut it to one but UK struck again and had a 38-30 halftime advantage. Duke did adjust inside when Ekhator sat with two fouls after her hot start.

But it never changed in the second half. Ekhator finished with 18. Epps and Janee Thompson had 17 points apiece, Epps 11 after halftime. She had eight assists.

“The atmosphere here is crazy and it’s a big help,” said Thompson. “We got the momentum going from our crowd.”

Epps said: “I wasn’t about to rush anything. I let the game come to me.”

Former UK starter and international-level player Linnae Harper has opted for building powerhouse Ohio State. She did not play at all for UK this season. Tennessee was interested but lost out.

Harper is already enrolled at OSU which means she can become a practice player when they return to campus after break. She will be eligible after the end of the fall term, so basically will have a year and a half. 

Think dominoes. Her arrival meant freshman Kaylan Pugh bolted,

Pugh is a native of Collierville, Tenn., so she may be headed to the Lady Vols.

She would have the second half of this season wherever she lands plus three more years. She had 18 points and 12 rebounds in her last Buckeye experience. She was a four-star Top 100 recruit. She also considered Ole Miss

*No. 9 Mississippi State will finish in the Top 3 in conference and will be among the16 teams ready to host first and second-round NCAA games of the NCAAs, if the conference’s leading scorer, sophomore Victoria Vivians at 20.1, stays healthy.

They took out state opponent Southern Miss, 78-65, as all starters hit double figures.

Vivians had a rare off night, with 10, 4-of-14 from the floor, 2-of-10 from the line. So junior guards Dominique Dillingham, 15 points, and Chinwe Okorie, 13, led the backcourt charge and the Bulldogs to 8-1. They won each of the first three quarters, built a 20-point edge and closed it out. It was good enough for the home crowd of 3,505.

Junior forward Ketara Chapel scored 17, 6-of-8 from the field with seven rebounds and seven steals.
“I was just being aggressive,” Chapel said. “Coach has been on me about being aggressive, going to the basket and finishing.”

“I knew they’d come in and compete,” Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer said. “I was proud of our team coming out of the locker room (in the second half) and getting up 20. It was a hard fought, tough game.”

The Bulldogs converted 17 turnovers into 28 points.

“I’m really proud of Ketara. She came to play tonight,” Schaefer said. “Tonight was her night and she really played well. I was proud of her aggressiveness. She’s really played well.”

The Bulldogs had won 41 of their past 43 regular-season nonconference games. 

Naturally, they went all the way to Puerto Rico for a holiday “classic” and drew a team from Florida.

The ninth win (fourth straight) came with a balanced attack led by Vivians’ 12 points and 14 from Morgan William, in the 65-60 final.

Seldom-ranked Florida Gulf Coast cut what had been a 12-point lead to a basket late, but State bailed itself out at the line, 14-of-17.  That balanced the woeful shooting from the field, 6-of-13, in the second half. The Bulldogs won three of four quarters, including the last one.

Breanna Richardson had 11, eight in the closing quarter.

William has bought into Schaefer’s “keep trying” manta.

“We found a way,” she said. “On a neutral floor like this, you’ve just got to come together, fight and get the win.” She hit all four free throws she was awarded down the stretch.

Schaefer said he was pleased with another hang-tough win.

“We answered the bell down the stretch,” Schaefer said. “Morgan iced the game at the free-throw line on back-to-back possessions and then we got some defensive stops.”

They made the threepeat against Western Michigan.

As usual, the Bulldogs won every quarter, which makes cruise control easy on the coach. State knew it had won its 10th by Christmas by the end of the third, with a 67-49 lead. The final was 90-68, which means they only needed one basket in the fourth to surpass what SMU eventually got.

They are a solid Top 10 national team. Vivians is in a shooting slump but still managed 15. She is, after all, a known quantity and the defensive focus of every opponent.

Freshman Teaira McCowan scored 24, with 13 rebounds, 6-of-8 from the line off the bench. State had 22 second-chance points after turnovers and 32 points from the reserves, who all saw additional action with the blowout and fifth straight win. Chapel, a starter, had her third straight good effort, with 12, 5-of-6 from the field.

“You just have to take advantage of it, produce and do as much as you can when you’re in,” McCowan said. 

“When we can get her to play hard every possession and establish her presence inside it’s just hard to get around her,” Schaefer said. You can make two left turns and you’re still only halfway there. She’s really coming along.

“We came out in the second half and played much, much better,” Schaefer said. “We probably played our worst half of the year and we were still up two.”

*No. 14 Tennessee was projected by us to possibly lose at both its Pac 12 opponents. We were only half right: They lost to the team ranked below them at the time, at  No. 15 Stanford and won to the team ranked ahead of them, at No. 9 Oregon.

Fans of women’s college hoops know that OSU had seldom been significant in the national sense but they are now.

At home, the Lady Vols lead the attendance game at 8,802, better than 1,100 ahead of, say, South Carolina. So they still have yet to lose their fan base. They remain a premier team because of that.

But they are now cast in the situation of asking how winning at a significantly higher-ranked team will affect their national poll standings. 

Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, so the answer is in discussion.

They will at least still be in the Top 15 at Christmas break. All coach Holly Warlick wants for Christmas is all more injured players back. We do not count on the return of she-who-will-not-be-mentioned by the university (but we will say it is fragile senior point guard Jasmine Jones). 

A single-digit second quarter had them behind the Cardinal by 15 at half and that was about all they could do in the 69-55 loss. Stanford had 32 defensive rebounds.

Diamond DeShields scored a dozen but took 16 shots to do it and only hit four points after the opening quarter. Only 3,768 bothered to show for two of the legendary teams in the game. It is the first time in the 33-game series neither is in the Top 10 nor the leading program in their own conferences.

Tennessee, 7-3, has lost all three in the past five and now five straight at Stanford in the series. 

Warlick had coached up Stanford’s Erica McCall as the guards coach at the World University Games this summer and at least she got some enjoyment from seeing her former pupil still playing well, with 14 points and 10 rebounds.

“She’s a special kid,” Warlick said. “She goes all out. She plays with a desire. She’s hungry.” 

The Stanford football team attended and was introduced to the crowd at halftime. The Pac-12 championship trophy was on display.

 Cardinal players heckled DeShields for an early first-quarter airball and when DeShields sank another shot, she turned to them and gave them a “bring it on” wave. “I was excited the football team was here,”  Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “They bring great energy to the gym.

“Any time you beat Tennessee, it’s a great night. We had to battle. It’s a huge win.”

Sophomore Lady Vol Jaime Nared made her season debut after recovering from a broken left hand.

 She also scored 12. She is a native of Oregon, so maybe the air our there made her comfortable. She played in all 36 games last season.

“Offensively we couldn’t shoot the ball,” Warlick said. “We got away from our game plan and that was disruptive. Nine points in a quarter is . . . it’s just ridiculous.”

Then, in the last quarter, “We laid it all out and played like we should have all four quarters,” Warlick said. “To say we need a sense of urgency is an understatement.”

Oregon State had started 8-0, half of those at home. The Beavers led the nation in rebound margin +22.6 and are third nationally in field goal percentage, 53.1.

So here was the chance for all the work to come together. UT had a 35-18 halftime edge and needed every bit of it in a 53-50 win that made Christmas that much more bright. 

They had held the home team to a season-low seven in the second quarter then only scored eight their ownselves in the final quarter. They have gone W-L, W-L, W-L and now another W most recently. They might not lose again until the silly scheduling of Jan. 18 at Notre Dame, the annual interruption of the conference focus that means nothing to the league quest.

In this one, DeShields had 14 points and a team-high nine rebounds. She was once again a reserve as junior Oregon native Jordan Reynolds got a classy – by Warlick — start  in her final in-state appearance. 

DeShields made it a five-point lead with eight minutes to go. UT had never been topped after that first-half surge.

Tennessee missed everything in the next few minutes and the Beavers were not much better, but did score four. Mercedes Russell (also from Oregon) made a layup – her 12th point -- and the home team answered. Andraya Carter hit a jumper and the home team answered with three minutes to go.

UT missed three, but DeShields did power up for a block. The home team missed five shots.

Now there were 34 seconds left and UT was closing it out with the defensive urgency Warlick has sought. DeShields hit two free throws (of three made by the team in the game), fouled on the rebound of her own miss. Oregon State missed a jumper, but Tennessee had a foul to waste and used it. State took a 3 for the win, missed it, and Tennessee could exhale gratefully as 8,223 fans were stunned into silence.

“I think it was a huge win for us. It’s no secret we’ve been struggling the past couple of games,” Russell said.

On offense, Warlick said: “I want to run a million things, but our kids don’t understand it at times.”

They had played smart, allowing only a seven-point rebound difference. Nared (also from Oregon), starting again, had six by herself, four defensive, showing how much she had been missed. It is the statement win of this season. It is the first road win against a higher-ranked opponent since 2007.These players were not even in high school then.

“I think we came in here with something to prove, but more than that, our goal was to play hard. We hadn’t done that,” Warlick said. “We talk a lot about relentless effort. I thought our defense set the tone.”

*Then again, No. 18 Texas A&M tried one game in a week against a higher-ranked rival, No. 17 Oklahoma. They also won, 75-65.

It also matched two of the most enigmatic coaches in the game, A&M’s Gary Blair and Oklahoma’s Sherri Coale. She has had her teams in the NCAA tournament every season this century, twice in the Final Four and won of the victims of UConn in its decade of dominance. 

This was Oklahoma’s first game against a ranked team in a 9-1 run.

The Aggies used a very balanced offensive spread, but they allowed the final four points of the opening quarter to be scored by the Okies and it was 17-17.

Then Oklahoma took off just before half. From 28-all with 4:28 before intermission, it was a 9-2 sprint interrupted only by Courtney Williams hitting a jumper with 28 seconds left. She had 10. No one on the home team was yet in double figures but four 3s to none from A&M was the difference. 

A&M responded with a 26-10 third, the only quarter it won, Williams had 16 points by then, the team was nine rebounds ahead.

A&M found itself stuck on 60 after Chelsea Jennings hit a layup at 8:13 to go until Rachel Mitchell made a layup at 3:59. Fortunately, the defense was working and Oklahoma only pulled to 54 then Courtney Walker hit a jumper and it was a 10-point edge at 3:18.

A&M had a steal, a miss, a rebound, a turnover and a block while Oklahoma had a turnover, rebound, miss, foul, steal, miss, rebound, miss and another foul in the same time frame. With two minutes left, 
Jordan Jones fed a Walker layup.

Oklahoma hit the desperation deadline, two fouls surrounding a turnover and Williams hit two free throws.

Oklahoma cut the deficit to a dozen by finally hitting a layup, their first in five minutes. Time out home team, with 87 seconds left. Williams made one free throw. A home 3 cut it to 72-65, but there were only 17 seconds left.

A&M regained possession and Oklahoma native Taylor Cooper hit a 3 (A&M’s only one) for the final margin. The 2,403 in attendance were stunned.
Williams and Walker 18. 

Walker, an Oklahoma high school legend, drew friends and family to see her once again in state. 
“I think it was just a blessing,” Walker. “I'm just so happy to be able to come back and play. For my family to come see me was a great experience.

“I'm glad we won.”

They won the backboards by 10, with 33 defensive.

Despite some stumbles, A&M has eight wins with two winnable games before year’s end. They had been W-L, W-L, W-L in the previous six and now have another W.

 All the losses have been at home.

Coale knows exacty what happened.

We missed a bunch at the rim,” Coale said. “Right at the rim. I just thought we let that carry over into the way we defended and we lost our focus defensively.

“We've made it through poor shooting performances before. You can't let it affect everything else you do.”

“Sherri Coale's got a very good ball club,” said Blair. “I think she's going to give Texas and Baylor a lot of problems in the Big 12.”

Senior A&M point guard Jones graduated at mid-term and celebrated the weekend with this upset win.