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 14, 2015

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Tumbling, Stumbling, Along

By Mike Siroky

This idea of getting half of your 20 wins needed to make the NCAA tournament (no Southeastern Conference women’s basketball team with 20 wins has ever been left out) is full in focus with a little over half of the pre-conference last month left and coaches not stepping on the gas quite as much.

By now, they know what they have and – more importantly – have not and need to find a way to cover the latter.

For the non-ranked teams, wins now are essential because playing ranked teams in conference is great for strength of schedule but not so much for wins.

The SEC team that wins all of its home games will win the conference. Last season, there were two of them; naturally, South Carolina and Tennessee tied for the regular title.

So the Big 5 – those ranked in the AP poll – cruised to pick up whatever they could. 

One of them lost at home as the chance of winning 10 before the month is out became more elusive.

No.  2 South Carolina admitted last week this is A’ja Wilson’s team. 

The superlative sophomore has surpassed two-time leagur player of the year and preseason pick to repeat, Tiffany Mitchell, at five points less per game.

Wilson is the first back-to-back Player of the Week in conference this season.

The game against Winthrop was more like a scrimmage, of course, with a traditional in-state rival from a little campus that has more women’s teams than men’s teams. It also has six players at 5-8 or less. SC has four at least 6-0.

Winthrop could not compete, as the 13,409 in attendance would attest.

The 86-37 outcome was easily decided by the first quarter, so coach Dawn Staley made adjustments. She designed a game to get center Alaina Coates the Gamecocks' first triple-double in nine years.

It took her nearly the entire fourth quarter and four fouls, but the junior finally blocked a 10th shot (a school record) with 18 seconds left, accompanied by a career-best 29 points and 16 rebounds. Why they didn’t let her go for 10 assists is in debate.

"We wanted it to happen for her. Obviously, you get a little antsy about leaving her in being up so big," Staley said.

Staley has the luxury others in conference do not have right now: Quality depth. 

Wilson did not play, resting what Staley termed “nagging injuries. She is projected to skip the next game. Mitchell scored a dozen in 29 minutes. The bigs scored a combined 49 on 21-of-24 from the floor.

The Gamecocks are 9-0 and won’t play another ranked team until the middle of next month.

Staley practiced their zone work for much of the second half and put unusual lineups on the court.

And Coates had the spotlight. Her teammates rallied her for that last block and they slumped with each non-block.

"It was so frustrating,” Coates said “I was just trying to get it. My teammates were like, ‘Just keep your hands straight up.’ And when I did that, I finally got it. I was knocking people in the middle of the air with the body when I was trying to swat it."

Winthrop coach Kevin Cook said South Carolina's decision to experiment with different offenses is the only thing that stopped Coates.

"She probably could have had 50 if they continued to go inside," Cook said. He was an assistant coach for the WNBA's Houston Comets in 2005 when Staley was traded to the team for her final season. Cook said Staley has exceeded even his lofty expectations in her post-playing career. 

"She was going to be a great coach. I didn't know she was going to be that great a recruiter," Cook said. "Noah's Ark had two of everything. South Carolina has three of everything."

<b>*No. 8 Kentucky, </b> back in the Top 10, had its annual meeting with formerly ranked Louisville, a Rupp Arena game which drew 14,475.

The rivalry has diminished as Louisville has faltered in recent seasons. Kentucky is so good, according to the Associated Press, they have already nailed down a Sweet 16 spot which once again goes to the top 16 seeds, as posted by another web site. 

Guess the seeding committee does not have to meet this year huh AP?

Irregardless, Makayla Epps was nearly perfect against archrival Louisville. She scored the game high, 24, on 11-of-12 from the field in the 72-54 runaway.  No player on either team has seen Louisville win in this series.

Of course, the Cardinals did not even guard her at the start. Even Epps was surprised. “I really was,” she said. “I don't know if Louisville thinks I can't shoot, but if that's what they think, that's fine." 

Three others hit double figures in the wipeout. Evelyn Akhator, the SEC’s best rebounder, had nine rebounds for Kentucky.

"Not one time did we get three stops in a row," said Louisville coach Jeff Walz, clearly bothered by his team's lack of intensity. "You can't win many games like that.

"Our players weren't perfect, but they battled really hard," said Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell. "We're always happy to get a victory and always happy to get a victory in this series."

Kentucky is back to nine players with sophomore forward Alyssa Rice’s return. She missed the first seven games with a stress reaction in her right foot.

Then it was at Middle Tennessee State, another traditional rival.

That win was a little more than a nice scrimmage, 68-52. The Kats are 9-0, three on the road. UK didn’t even start scoring until 2:18 was gone, then returned the goose eggs to end the quarter by shutting out the home team in the final 4:29.

Even though UK was outrebounded for only the third time this season, Akhator had the most by anyone, 11. Epps led the scorers with 17.

"This was going to be a real hard game for us, real hard game," Mitchell said. "We put a lot into this whole week. We had to get better for ourselves. We had to prepare for two real tough opponents. Go on the road for the second one with very little preparation time. So this was a hard game, and I'm real proud we won."

Epps said she believes the 26 turnovers they caused would be appreciated. "I think he's going to be happy when he sees the box score," Epps said.

<b>*No. 9 Mississippi State </b>was somehow surpassed by the Kats, likely on a lack of strength of schedule and not showing any real effort despite being the third conference team in the national Top 10. 

The Bulldogs visited Louisiana Tech in its lone contest, the team led by Tyler Summitt, son of the legendary SEC coach. 

It was no contest, 93-63. State is 7-.

It wasn’t even as close as the final score. State led by a may as 48 before coach Vic Schaefer called off the attack.

Leading scorer Victoria Vivians is averaging 17 a game. She hit for 36 in basically three quarters. She had seven 3s. "I like shooting," Vivians said. "So if it's going in, I'm going to keep shooting." She did attempt 23 shots in 29 minutes.

"She was feeling it and I was running everything I could for her," said coach Vic Schaefer. "She really got some good, clean looks."

The team hit 62 percent from the field in the first half.

"You see our young team back down a little bit," Summitt said. "It's an experience for us and we've got to know that when somebody goes on a run, you've got to stay consistent and keep playing hard. It's a good learning point for us."

<b>*No. 15 Texas A&M </b>had lost two of its past three and slipped into the end of the third quadrant of the poll, one of two league teams not in the Top 10.

Courtney Williams and Courtney Walker, a pair of seniors, lead at 16 per.

They welcomed in state rival Southern Methodist and DePaul.

The senior Courtneys, Williams and Walker, reached their scoring averages, Williams with 16 and Walker with 15, in the 67-55 win over in-state unranked rival Southern Methodist.

The largest home crowd in the annual benefit for local elementary schools, (8,000) is the biggest in College Station since 2011.

Every time SMU threatened, A&M would go on a run, a 1-12 second quarter, a13-3 spike in the third and a 6-0 opener in the fourth. A 7-2 record is the result. SMU’s Alicia Froling had a school-record 21 rebounds.

Coach Gary Blair saw fatigue after a return a day earlier from Hawaii.

“We had no legs,” he said. “That’s not an excuse, we’re on scholarship but it was the only way we could get SMU to play on a Monday.

“I thought our seniors did a good job and let’s take the W and call it a good game, while giving our kids credit for playing three games in four days.”

Team leader Jordan Jones, another senior, led the win with six defensive rebounds and six steals. She tore her ACL last February, a crucial reason A&M flopped at the end of the season. She credited the school children with giving the team a lift “every time we needed it, because we were fatigued.”

A&M’s fans celebrated Blair’s 700th career win in the first game after that road victory.

Naturally, the team celebrated by losing to a lower-ranked team, No. 18 DePaul, in a 80-66 blowout. 

It is the Blue Demons’ signature win so far. A&M is the first team in the Top 5 of the league with three losses; this is the first at home.

A&M allowed DePaul its most game rebounds, 52, and the most offensive rebounds, 27, since 2007. Guess who won the backboards? DePaul, 52-36. 

Walker had 14 points and six assists for A&M, and Chelsea Jennings added 13 points. Williams, The other alleged A&M shooting star, scored four, more than 10 below her average.

“We got beat by a team that is playing a lot better basketball than we are playing right now at this level, Blair said.

 “The Two best players on the court tonight were Jessica January (13 assists) and Megan Podkowa (20 points, 18 rebounds).

 “That is about the fourth or fifth game in a row that we have let one player dominate either on the board or just by outplaying us. January did a great job running their ball club, made the right decision, that is why she had thirteen assists.”.

“We played a good team that was doing some things, it should be all about DePaul. I felt great going into halftime even though they scored three out of their last four possessions before half on wide open shots but I felt like we would turn the corner. We came out to start the second half missed an easy shot and they were off in transition and we didn’t get it done.”

Jones agrees with her coach.

“DePaul came out executed, playing very well,” Jones said “I felt like at the beginning of the game. We controlled the tempo more so than them. That is their game, more up-tempo basketball and they really came out and excelled at that.”

“We did not slow them down enough in second half and I felt like the third quarter run that they made, usually we can sustain it and come back but we didn’t do a good job of executing our half-court defense and they really executed against us.

“Coach really wanted us to start telling each other that we could live with the 3s but what we needed to do was take away their paint points. I feel like as a team we rebounded poorly on offense and on defense. Credit to DePaul; they really came out and showed more toughness than we did today.”

A&M had free student admission and old-school double-header with men to inflate attendance to 3,721. The Aggies have a full week off.

<b>*Free-falling (for this program) Tennessee </b> is at No.16 after losing two of three at home and are the lowest-ranked of the SEC teams.

Starting guard Jasmie Jones remains out with her second season of a concussive injury (she is not included in game notes anymore).

So Diamond DeShields has stepped up.

But what happened to Bashaara Graves in the challenging games? The Beast is the least effective of her career. 

New center Mercedes Russell has filled in admirably.

Another national (and former friendly) website took Warlick apart. In summary, the writer criticized lack of Lady Vol recruiting. 

Warlick enticed former Lady Vol Kyra Elzy back to campus – from Kentucky – to be the recruiting coordinator.

Well, Warlick was Pat Head’s Summitt’s recruiter. The legend swooped in to close the deals, but Warlick did the grunt work.

One of the funnier Summitt stories before Warlick returned to her was the recruitment of Shelia Collins.

 She was Georgia’s player of the year in high school and nonetheless wanted to follow the Georgia pipeline to Tennessee.

Summittt had a great friend, the father of a former player and himself the best high school coach in Georgia, rave about Collins to Summitt. Her recruiters at the time said no.

Summitt said look again. Same negativity. So the coach drove on down herself, signed Collins ASAP and she became an All-American after tearing her ACL. 

Summit herself had torn her ACL before the Olympic Trials in 1976 and still made the team.

The point is, Warlick took care of all of that for Summitt. She does not have a Holly scouting for her. She has not yet had time to become the game coach Summitt became. 

Remember, Warlick not only has lost the counsel of Sumitt but also lost veteran and well-traveled former SEC and Big 12 coach Mickie DeMoss, now helping Tyler Summitt at La. Tech.

Maybe UT needs a game coach to help Warlick while Warlick refocuses the recruiting. 

Summitt’s last few classes (who ended the Final Four traditions) were already signaling the fight had gotten tight and certainly everyone trails UConn. 

Despite that other site throwing Warlick under the bus, she did gain a co-title of the SEC last season and made the Elite 8 twice in a row.

So here was a first road trio of the season, to Wichita State.

The fact two Lady Vols run the program, coach Jody Adams (1989-93) and assistant Bridgette Gordon (1985-89) made it a little more homey.

Wichita’s leading scorer is out with concussion symptoms. Their center is 6-0. 
So it was a great break for Bashaara Graves, the Lady Vols’ 6-2 frontline player backed by 6-6 Mercedes Russell.

The Beast was back in play in the 58-51 UT win. She scored 18, 12 in the second half, with a season-high 13 rebounds. Among other shortcomings, it only drew 2,214 which is apparently acceptable in Wichita.

Still, as Wichita’s Rangie Bessard pointed out, they had seven available players and, at 1-6, gave UT all it wanted. 

UT only won rebounds by eight. UT had 20 turnovers and didn’t even hit 40 percent from the field. But neither did Wichita and it had 23 turnovers.

“That’s what is going to shock people the most is the heart and the grit that we have,” said Bessard. “People say we’re young, but youth doesn’t matter. It’s about heart. Heart will beat youth any time of the day.”

It was an ugly game, Tennessee by one with 105 seconds left. 

And Tennessee missed its next shot.

It became the free-throw parade.

The constant this season has been the UT ability to close.

Graves grabbed the offensive rebound and made both free throws, then two more then Andraya Carter hit two. Wichita State missed all three of its shots then and turned the ball over once.

“We knew this was going to be a tough game,” Carter said. She had her season best 14 points, also 12 in the second half.

“Most teams that are coached by anyone out of the Lady Vols’ program, they have a huge sense of pride and Wichita State showed that tonight.”

“Jody’s team takes on her personality,” said Warlick, an assistant coach when Adams was a guard on the 1991 national championship team. “They play hard and she expects a lot out of them, and I thought that they delivered tonight.”

“We proved we have the talent to do what we need to do to win,” Wichita junior TaQuandra Mike said. “We have this. We can shock the world, I know we can."

“We were right there and we just weren’t able to capitalize,” Adams said. “We’re right there ready to turn that corner and when we turn it, we’re not coming back.”

Tennessee tries to climb back into the national conversation with two Pac 12 opponents, starting with at Stanford this week. Each could easily be losses.

<b>*And the rest: </b>Missouri has 10 wins, Georgia and Florida have nine, Alabama and Vanderbilt have eight.

- Posted using BlogPress from the Guru's iPad