By Mike Siroky
The Big 5 – Southeastern Conference women’s basketball teams ranked in the AP poll -- took the few days after Thanksgiving off to tend to travel issues (one went to Hawaii as another returned, for instance) but generally got back at it on Wednesday.
Some of those December openers were mismatches with traditional in-state opponents and the one that put two ranked teams together was a dismal effort by each, according to both coaches.
But a Longhorn team did make consecutive statements for another conference and an unranked ACC team won one in that conference challenge.
It showed that there might be good teams in other conferences but not so much depth.
Unranked Missouri has eight wins, as does Georgia. The ’Dawgs have a win over a ranked team. Two of the other unranked SEC teams – Vanderbilt, and Alabama – each have seven wins. The distress flag is flying at LSU.
*At No. 2 South Carolina, A’ja Wilson made her rookie of the year season interesting by coming off the bench.
She is in the starting lineup at last, this past week as co- conference SEC Player-of-the-Week.
Wilson scored a career-high 28 with 11 rebounds as the Gamecocks kept underperforming Duke right there, 66-55. Two others hit double figures.
South Carolina managed only a four-point halftime edge against the Blue Devils, all in the second quarter. The inside game finally showed up as Alaina Coates hit 5-of-6 from the field to lead them with little help. She finished 7-of-9.
Duke adjusted and scored 10 of the first 11 points after break and took the lead. But SC stormed back, seized control and had its four-point lead back after a 16-all third, then they turned up the tempo in a 66-55 win.
Coach Dawn Staley said of Wilson: “She was the only one being aggressive and making shots.
“But we do run a lot of our offense through her. She had the opportunity to showcase all the tools in her toolbox. She played pretty special; that was really encouraging.
SC is the first to eight wins, in as many games, an impressive five of them on the road. They now take a week off. An impressive 16,429 came to see the show. Just a few seasons ago, Staley was campaigning for crowds.
*This rollercoaster Top 10 season was joined in progress with No. 8 Tennessee coach Holly Warlick adjusting to the loss of starting guard Jasmine Jones to yet another concussive injury (she missed all but seven games last season to the same symptoms). At least this season she can do something about it instead of playing with a never-ready for prime time point
She has the luxury of Diamond DeShields coming off the bench, an ever-ready option.
DeShields was placed in the starting set against traditional in-state foe East Tennessee State and freshman point guard T’ea Cooper was moved to first alternate. Andrea Carter effectively is back as a fifth starter, starting 28 games in last season’s run when Jones was out.
During a first half timeout Warlick tore into her team, very reminiscent of the way her mentor, Pat Head Summitt, did early in Summit’s career when Warlick was a walk-on point guard.
Warlick then let her assistants run the team from the start of halftime until the end of the game.
"I was just glad I didn't have a mic on me. I will say this: I am not going to coach effort. I'm not going to do it,” Warlick said of her verbal explosion.
“I am here to teach and make them better as basketball players and young women. I am not going to coach effort. The first two quarters -- our fans deserves more. Our former Lady Vols deserve more.
"As we have talent, we have to play like the house is on fire. I am not going to stand on the sideline and watch us not have any emotion.
“So, I sat down. Good, bad, I'm not coaching it. As I feel they take a couple games off, I took the second half off. The third and fourth quarters were night and day. They had energy. They were together. It is probably the first time I have seen this team have team chemistry. They like each other.
"It isn't that they don't like each other, but we have to have that sense of urgency that we had in the third and fourth quarters all the time. They have to find it within them.
“I can no longer pull things out of them. I know how competitive I am. I know how intense [I am]. I promise you, it was extremely hard for me to sit down for two quarters and half of the second quarter."
She skipped the halftime discussion.
" I enjoyed some iced tea and watched our assistants step into the head coaching role."
So, after the tirade and halftime, the team was back in cruise control.
By the third quarter, it was over as UT had enough to win and rolled to an 85-49 win, its sixth in seven tries, all still at home. The 9,38 in attendance approved of Warlick and the result.
"I don't know if I want to take credit for it,” Warlick said, “but something bothered them. I think they got my message.
"It's not risky for me. We are going to play hard. That is the foundation that this program has been built on. Playing hard and playing relentless. That is the only way I know. That is the only way I played it, I have coached it. Like I said, it was hard for me to sit there, and I'm sure a lot of people won't understand it. But, I was trying to get my point across.
"I thought in the third and fourth quarter, it was a totally different team. It was the Tennessee team that I want to see, you all want to see, people in the stands want to see across the country. That is what we have to be all the time."
Afterwards, “I told them I took half the game off because I refuse to coach effort, hustle, and heart. I refuse to do it. I said they have it in them. I said great job, to the staff, and just reminded them of how it looks when the fans react and you go from shooting 36 percent in the first quarter to the third quarter shooting 58, and the fourth quarter shooting 62 percent.
“That is generated by your effort, by steals, by layups, ball movement, and playing together. It's playing with a passion. Look how much harder we played on defense. As coaches we keep thinking we're out of shape because we've been getting winded that first two or three minutes of the first quarter. We're in great shape. It's mental for us, it's mental. If we play like we did tonight in the third and fourth quarter. Look at our minutes.
“Everybody is going to get minutes, because we're going to press, we're going to run. When you do that a lot of people are going to play, but people are not going to come and watch talented people be average, and I'm not going to sit back and watch it as well.”
DeShields finished with 31 points, eight rebounds, seven steals and five assists. Cooper scored 20 and steady Mercedes Russell 13, with 10 rebounds. Russell is the only one to start all seven this season.
None of these three were on the roster last season.
DeShields spent last season watching Warlick coach in her transfer season, providing the best player on the practice team and then was with her and Russell at the World University Games this summer
“She always is like, ‘This team is so talented.’ We're so talented,” said DeShields “We're this, we're that. I don't know what it's going to take. What's it going to take?' I think that's what it took. That was the straw that broke the camel's back.
"Seeing her get that upset really changed us, especially in the second half. (Coach) said it was like night-and-day. We all felt that way too. We're sorry it had to go that far, but maybe that's what it took.
“Just an effort thing, that's really it. You see what happens when we really put our best foot forward. We're able to turn the game around in a half. Even in a quarter. “The third quarter was awesome. Really, we've just got to play with 100 percent effort 100 percent of the time. I think we can do great things this year."
She even felt a release from on-court pressure as the outside shots began to fall.
“Oh, I love it because they've been triple-teaming, double-teaming me lately. When the guards hit shots, they've got to go out and guard them, so that relieves a lot of pressure from me on the inside," DeShields said.
She said seven steals is part of the team together thing
"I find it funny, because I haven't really been doing much offensively this season. Last game I had a good offensive game, but that was really it,” DeShields said. “She is just trying to ingrain that in me early because my identity is as a scorer.
"So I think early on she just wants to see me play on both ends of the floor. I think putting me at the front of the press was really helpful in accomplishing that goal."
Russell, like DeShields, sat out last season, but to recover from foot problems.
“This is the first time I've ever really seen her like that, said Russell.
“I think it was just how we were playing that made her so mad. We were pretty stagnant on defense, and then we picked it up. But yeah, I've never really seen her like that before.”
Cooper, a freshman had her first viewing of the Warlick fire.
“I think it motivated us,” Cooper said. “We felt like we disappointed her and we just wanted to get out there and show her that we're capable of doing what she wanted us to do.”
However, after all that what came next no one among the most ardent of Lady Vols fans saw coming.
The lineup remained the same for the final of the eight-game home opening, a non-drama loss to Virginia Tech, 57-43, in the SEC/ACC challenge.
Sure they have five players currently out, but the lack of passion was in evidence once again for almost all the players who were available. UT had six points – not a typo – in the final quarter while giving up 21.
Russell (six) and DeShields (four) spurred the 10-4 start. Russell had two defensive rebounds and Bashaara Graves three in the opening quarter.
The early trends continued as the 25-22 first half closed.
DeShields had double figures with 15 and Cooper was in to hassle the Hokies on defense, even if the visitors never trailed by more than seven. DeShields needs the others to stop watching her highlight reel and play, especially inside.
She did not score in the second half. Russell did double with 15 points and 14 rebounds.
And as Warlick has said, Tennessee is the place to visit if you want to hit 3s. That kept Tech in the game, with nine 3s. The crowd of 9,431 was very dead, as if also awaiting something to happen.
It never did. Tech stayed calm and the inside game of the Lady Vols never showed up as the second loss in three games knocked them out of the Top 10 for sure. Warlick was stunned on the sideline. All the talk of renewed passion proved to be just much smoke and mirrors.
“The seven people we have are very capable of playing 40 minutes,” Warlick said “We have to get some kind of discipline in our game and in our heads. I don't quite understand it, but it is my job to figure it out.
"We weren't very good. We are not a very good basketball team right now. We just have to get better."
The 44-game win streak against unranked teams at home is done. They have a week to work on it before slinking away to Wichita State, which is coached by former Lady Vol Jody Adams (1989-93) and assisted by Bridgette Gordon (1985-89).
*No. 8 Texas took an 18-9 advantage over visiting No. 12 Mississippi State at the first break but had to settle for a 26-21 halftime as the ’Dogs shut them out in the final few minutes.
Didn’t matter much. Texas took care of the second half and State had its first defeat, 53-47. The only question is does losing to higher-ranked team at their place cost you anything in the national standings?
Then again, all the other games were really little more than scrimmages against lesser foes, so were they ready for this challenge?
Leading scorer Victoria Vivians scored six in each half, but she missed 15 of 20 shots as State hit for 31 percent, with 19 turnovers. Then again, the longhorns hit 39 percent with 21 turnovers.
Luckily, only a little more than 2,000 fans showed.
Vivians, who came in averaging 18 a game, said the poor shooting was “all my fault.”
Her coach, Vic Schaefer, said Texas defended Vivians well.
“She's taking responsibility; hats off to her,” Schaefer said. “I’m gonna disagree and give them a little credit. They were chasing her pretty hard.”
Mississippi State shot 31.5 percent and committed 19 turnovers.
Schaefer's team missed all 10 of its 3-point attempts in the second half. Both teams cited extreme physical play for the substandard offense.
“We usually win the grinder games,” Schaefer said. “We’re a grinder team and take great pride in that. (But) they have some really tough kids. They guarded as well as anybody has guarded us in a long time. We probably set the game back 30 years on offense.”
Mississippi State has its sixth win in seven tries, 83-54 over Tennessee State, all the victories at home. They sped away from a 35-34 halftime lead. Blair Schaefer had nine, all on 3s. Center Chinwe Okorie had eight rebounds, six offensive.
A 21-10 third settled this hash. Brianna Richardson had a dozen off the bench. Vivians awoke for 22 points and Okorie doubled with 12 points and13 rebounds. It drew a decent State crowd of 3,828.
“Hats off to Tennessee State,” Schaefer said. “Their energy and effort was outstanding. Their energy was a lot better than ours. They had kids make shots, but most of them were uncontested. I was disappointed in myself.
“The team was not ready to play. We had no energy or effort. There was no enthusiasm on the floor. One thing we are failing to do is communicating on the floor. We just don’t communicate well on the floor. I am not doing a good enough job of convincing the girls how important we have to be at communicating.”
*No. 11 Kentucky took its second road trip, a bus to Northern Kentucky, and to an 84-65 victory to hit 7-0. Like UT-ETSU, these two play most every season with The Kats having a 12-4 series lead after seven straight wins. That doesn’t matter much? They drew better than 4,000 or twice what ranked teams Mississippi State at Texas attracted. It’s only a 90-minute bus ride from Lexington to Highland Heights (near Cincinnati).
In each of UK’s road trips this season, they have trailed at the half (by four this time).
Janee Thompson hit 3-of-4 3s and scored 21, with seven assists.
And all of that with a stomach flu.
“She just battled; she was fantastic,” Mitchell said.
“Her shooting in the second half those were pivotal moments … We just needed a lift. Our team needed a lift of confidence, and the way she’s shooting the ball really settles everybody down, puts everybody at ease. She played a whale of a game.
“Our team really responded with much more poise, much more patience and a lot more toughness in the second half,” said Mitchell. The Kats shot 62.1 percent in the half, 55.2 percent for the game.
“We changed our mentality at the half,” said Makayla Epps. She had 16 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
“They gave us their best shot in the second quarter,” Epps said. “They were hitting us with all the haymakers they possibly had.”
Evelyn Akhator scored 13 and had five rebounds, three blocks and three rebounds as UK won the backboards, 37-26.
It’s possible the success of Ukhator led to the departure of 6-1 junior forward Kyvin Goodin-Rogers.
She is a sophomore in eligibility and likely will carry three seasons with her after a transfer sit out season.
Then again, she is the fourth player to leave the program (one with Pac 12 experience was dismissed).
Rogers was an in-state recruit and a high school teammate and good friend of Makayla Epps.
The university gave her the usual “we wish her well” technique as the second former starter to leave the program this season. Linnae Harper, a player on the international level for the United States and he projected star and leader for this team, left just before the start of the season. She has not signed on with anyone new.
Rogers started the first 15 games of the previous season.
Her dad, Tick Rogers, is a former Mr. Basketball in the state and starred at Louisville, so there may be a legacy transfer.
In the formative years of women’s basketball, especially in the AIAW era, players would routinely move up by going to better programs.
UT was laughingly referred to as the University of Transfer, because former coach Pat Head Summitt attracted, among others, Jill Rankin, already an All-American, to the Lady Vols.
Then again it was usually freshmen who left a program feeling unready for the big time. The most-impactful player of late was Elena Della Donne leaving a admittedly loaded UConn and single-handedly elevating Delaware to a short stint on the national stage.
Samarie Walker left UConn for UK after one semester and had a nice run ending in 2013-14, even if she forfeited a chance at any national titles. By the way, even her own parents did not know she was leaving UConn until she did. She had committed as a national top prospect after her junior year in high school. She plays on in the Spain professional leagues.
Still, four players in a season is unusual.
Kentucky’s biggest non-conference game of the season is welcoming Louisville in to a rare Rupp Arena game on Thursday. It is usually a fair barometer of each side and usually decided by a few points.
*No. 12 Texas A&M revisited what South Carolina had done last week, blasting Hawaii at their place, in fact doubling them up, 82-41. Then they did what Aggie teams have done in the past and lost a game to an unrjeanked team.
A&M won every quarter against Hawaii by hitting double figures and holding the rainbows to singles. Courtney Williams led scoring with 12 and rebounds with six. Three others also hit 10 points each. Courtney Walker also had seven assists. “Our kids were really ready, they are very grateful to our administration for sending us to Hawaii,” said coach Gary Blair.
“Our post players played very well tonight, and they needed this confidence. I was able to rest Williams and Walker and Jones a bunch tonight, because we’re going to need every bit of it tomorrow night against BYU.”
They needed it and didn’t have it. The next night, they allowed Brigham Young to defend them into their second loss, 7-64. Another one this month will jettison them from the rankings.
The defense and a game-high 28 points from tournament MVP Lexi Eaton Rydalch was the difference the next evening.
The Cougars focused on A&M’s leading scorers, the two Courtneys, and no one else stepped up. It is A&M’s lowest score so far and the Williams and Walker duo combined for 9-of-25 from the floor.
They had been averaging 18 points each.
“This was a great defensive effort and a huge win for our program,” BYU coach Jeff Judkins said. “Everyone came in and did what they were supposed to do. Lexi had probably one of her best all-around games.
"Makenzi did a great job defending their top player. Kylie had another tremendous game and she handled their pressure. She did a great job.”
The former Boston Celtic player hasn’t had his team in the NCAAs since 2007.
Rydalch also had seven rebounds, three assists and one steal.
Makenzi Morrison Pulsipher added 16 points, going 2-of-6 on 3s. Kalani Purcell scored 12, with 10 rebounds and seven assists.
A&M cut it to three to start the second half but BYU scored the next four.
Despite having the deficit down to two points in the final few minutes, A&M only scored one basket in the final four minutes. The BYU free throw parade ended it as A&M had to foul.
Guard Chelsea Jennings scored a career-high 17 to lead A&M.