Siroky's SEC Report: Despite Two Hits Conference Still Going Strong
By Mike Siroky
The best conference in women’s college basketball, the Southeastern, has four teams in the Top 10 of the Associated Press national poll and a fifth at No. 12 prior to Monday's new rankings.
They all closed the month with at least five wins. If the first team goal is to reach 20 wins, then getting half before league play starts is the start. No SEC team with 20 wins has ever been left out of the NCAAs.
There were two big-time losses. Still, the Big 5 are 28-2 against America.
* Being the No. 2 team in the country is nice. So is being undefeated. A holiday in Hawaii isn’t bad for a group of teenager from South Carolina.
Of course, you have to make it all work out and, sometimes, the very reason a coach recruited every player on the roster becomes apparent.
Yes, the team and league’s best sophomore (last season’s conference rookie of the year) A’ja Wilson had to hit the final two free throws in the 60-58 win over No. 16/18 Arizona State with 0.6 to play in the opening game of the Waikiki Beach Rainbow Wahine Showdown.
It is her fourth double-double in five outings.
And State fans will argue from now on that you just don’t make that call that late in a good game.
But the referee did whistle and Wilson did hit the free throws.
Still, just to get to that point, the Gamecocks had to use all they had, coming back from a seven-point early deficit – the were behind at the end of the first and second quarters – and getting the only team 3 (of 11) from seldom-mentioned senior Alicia Roy with 3:14 to go.
It was tied at 58 with 56 seconds left and, after a tussle, the Sun Devils had possession with 18 seconds left. SC took possession off a misfire.
Wilson got a rebound off her team’s miss, her 11th, with 18 seconds left, put it back up, grabbed the rebound again and was fouled, setting up the final free throws.
“We wanted to make the emphasis to go inside and have A’ja kind of do what she did all game long, which was being able to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim,” said coach Dawn Staley.
“She did that, but with us you’ve got to take whatever the defense is giving us.
"They applied a lot of pressure on our perimeter players and made it hard for us to see our post players, so outside shots were the thing that they were giving us.
“We like to go inside,” Staley said. “I think when our post players touch the ball they create higher percentage shots for us.
"I thought A’ja Wilson did a really good job of catching and getting to the rim and forcing their post players back on their heels and she got some easy buckets.”
The Gamecocks rebounded the final three missed shots in the last minute of the game and outscored Arizona State, 42-16, in the paint.
Wilson had her fourth ddouble-double after having five all of last season.
Sophomore guard Bianca Cuevas had 18 points in 18 minutes.
“We played against a real good basketball team and the team that had the opportunity to make the last play was probably going to win it how the game was being played,” Staley said. “Thankfully, it was us.”
The next night was more of the same, but another win, 90-71, over CSU Bakersfield.
It took another strong fourth quarter. Wilson tied her career highs in points (26) and assists (four), while sophomore guard Bianca Cuevas delivered 20 points.
They combined to score 19 of the Gamecocks’ 26 fourth-quarter points.
“I think just as frustrated as we all were with Bianca last year, for her to have these back-to-back performances like this is great,” Staley said. “It’s great for her confidence, it’s great for her building trust with our coaching staff and I’m happy for her. I just don’t want her to get too high with the highs or too low with the lows, just maintain and she can have that kind of effort.”
South Carolina shot 54.7 percent (35-of-64 from the field, including 69.2 percent (9-of-13) in the fourth quarter.
“Our bench production is wonderful,” Wilson said. “Our bench production makes us who we are. They really help us kind of get that assist.
“They bring a lot of energy; Bianca brings a lot of energy, Shay Colley brings a lot of energy and that helps, so you never see a drop from the first five to the second five, so I think our bench production is something huge and it’s something that we take pride in, so they helped us out a lot.”
Her coach said even a player who earned All-America votes her rookie season is improving.
“She played extremely well,” Staley said. “I’m really proud of how she played, just played with a lot of poise, let the game come to her. I thought she was forceful in some areas, but her ability to play out of the double team and seeing teammates for easy baskets was a great thing for her to experience tonight.”
SC became the first of the SEC sorority sisters to hit 7-0 by using defense to pull away from hostess Hawaii in the tournament finale, 67-51.
Khadijah Sessions scored nine of 11 in the final4:18 of the decisive third quarter.
Sessions and Cuevas asserted themselves into the flow of the Hawaii offense, creating four turnovers in five Rainbow possessions to spark an 11-2 run that gave South Carolina its first double-digit lead at 45-32 with 1:56 left in the period.
A Sessions 3 from just over halfcourt at the buzzer put an exclamation point on the 22-point quarter, and the Gamecocks took a 51-35 lead into the final period.
Overall, they scored 23 off 20 takeaways.
“We changed up our defense,” Staley said about the run. “We just went to a zone and kind of made them think a little bit and then once we got a steal or two under your belt, it gave us a lot of energy to continue to play on that side of the ball.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us on that side of the ball. We’re not the team that we were in the past obviously, so slowly but surely we’re trying to figure things out on that side.”
Wilson scored 18 and was MVP of the tournament, averaging 20.7 for the three games. Cuevas also made the all-tournament team.
“I think this team is still trying to find its identity,” Staley said. “When our post players aren’t dominant I think anybody can beat us and I think for a large portion of the game they weren’t dominant.”
SC has the week off before welcoming underachieving Duke in on Sunday.
*The No. 4 Lady Vols were happy transfer Diamond DeShields chose to open the week with a coming out party, a 59-57 escape of one of their satellite schools, No. 24 UT-Chattanooga.
Chattanooga won the second half, 38-21.
This was supposed to be a revenge game for the past season’s upset.
The Lady Vols seemed helpless, schooled in their own gym with 9,449 witnesses.
But still, a win against a Hall of Fame coach means something early on. They never did fall behind, losing a 23-point lead.
And it likely set up UT coach Holly Warlick for a week of intense workouts.
“I was not happy, but we’ll take a win and move on,” she said.
Down the stretch, DeShields fed SEC co-Player of the Week Bashaara Graves for a layup that made it six with 5:32 left.
She then had a steal and two rebounds in the ensuing tussles. She led Mercedes Russell to a layup and then made her own to leave it at a comfortable six with about a minute left.
A free throw and an inconsequential 3 at the buzzer equated to the final score.
She had 17 off the bench, with six rebounds, two assists, four steals and – rare for a guard – two blocks. She had 16 in her first four games.
Two of the starters claimed double figures but no one else was close as UT shot 39 percent from the field.
Graves had 10 points and 11 rebounds (seven defensive) for another double-double.
Warlick had pulled the original starters after the dismal initial second-half effort.
Of course, that led to DeShields’ opportunity.
“We went in to halftime very comfortable, thought the game was over,” Warlick observed.
“We got that lead because of our efforts on the defensive end. We pressed. I thought toward the end of the second quarter, they adjusted. You can’t just limit it to two quarters.
“We just thought we could casually play defense, come down and jack up the shot. We gave them seven 3s. I’m getting the feeling, if you want to set records on 3-point shooting, you need to play Tennessee because we will give you that opportunity. I had seen enough, so I thought we would try five more.”
But DeShields came to play.
“She is still trying to come around,” Warlick said.
“I thought she took some kind of quick shots, not good shots for her at the beginning, but I thought she settled in, went to the basket and got some good looks. I thought, for the most part, she was solid on defense. She is coming around.
“She had only practiced a week before this stretch of games. We have had games, then off, then walkthrough games. It has been a tough stretch for us, but it was her best showing.
"I think she is getting some confidence back and getting a feel for the game. It’s hard. It’s difficult when you are out a year and a couple months. Your timing is off, and she is just trying to get that back.”
The clarifying statement was what hurts.
“This is my opinion,” said Warlick. “ I think she is still sore. I think it still bothers her, but it is something she just has to play through and get better. It’s her shin. I think just playing and getting used to playing (are good), but I think she is going to be fine.”
If there is one positive -- and there are few -- trait the Lady Vols showed during their first five wins (all at home), it was they know how to close.
Undefeated and never-ranked Albany came to play the Knoxville turkeys and played them tough, losing 63-55.
Tennessee won most every statistical category.
The players in the starting five and four of the second five all scored, led by starter Russell, 12, and bench gem DeShields, 11.
DeShields played 27 minutes as her time continues to grow. Among the big plays down the stretch was drawing a charging foul, accomplishing the turnover.
“She’s going to do what she needs to do to get a win,” said Warlick.
“She’s willing to put her body out there to draw a charge. I’m good with it. I love it. I love when our kids draw a charge and I love when they think that defense is important because tonight it was.
“I am just kind of taking her slow because of her soreness and injury. She is practicing. I couldn’t start a player who hadn’t practiced, but now, she is practicing.
"She is getting reps and practicing like everyone else. That has been my whole dilemma.”
It was 53-51 with 3:44 left. They each scored once in the next rugged two minutes.
Russell then Graves each made a free throw. The Danes scored a basket, then the free throw parade began. Graves hit two, then one, Russell made two and Graves finished with one. Not exciting, but mentally successful. Still, the 9,806 in attendance had their confidence wobbled.
But the coach remains steadfast.
“It was a great win,” said Warlick. “Great finish. We get out ahead and we give up the lead. I thought at the end we needed defensive stops and we got them. I’m really proud of our kids down the stretch for understanding that defense is a priority.
“I thought our effort was better. I thought our energy was better. I thought we wanted to press. We zone-pressed them. We man-pressed them. I thought we got a little fatigued towards the end when we man-pressed.
“But I’m really concerned about 21 turnovers. There were so many unforced turnovers, and I don’t have an answer for it, really. Quite frankly, I don’t have an answer for it. I thought the guards stood in the first half and in the second half we did a better job.
"They doubled down on our posts and I knew they would, but I thought we got better looks offensively.
"We need to shoot the ball better. I thought we had better looks, but we had 21 times that it was taken away from us and we don’t get a shot off. If I can tell you one thing, you’re not going to win a lot of ball games with 21 turnovers. We keep doing it and doing it. We’ve got to get ahold of that.”
It all came to bear on the visit from the other UT that still wears Orange, No. 8 Texas in a nationally cablecast game.
What the Tennessee-Texas game proved was, as has been eternal in women’s hoops, is there is one super team every season and then everyone else.
Put the other Top 10 names in a jar and draw them out and the lineup is likely as valid as any.
At this point, as was proven in the 64-53 home loss, UT is not four places better than UT. They are truly interchangeable.
Freshman guard Lashann Higgs had 14 off the bench to lead the Longhorns to a five-point halftime edge. She was 2–of-3 on 3s.
DeShields is also still coming of the bench for Tennessee. She led her side with 10 for the half. The starters off each bench were just in a tussle. The Lady Vols were even leading in rebounds, 27-19 (19 defensive).
Tennessee led by four several times in the opening quarter, so that means Texas outscored them by nine after that. Both were stuck at 18-18 for two minutes, still figuring each other out before Texas responded first.
Texas coach Karen Aston told her team at halftime that whoever corralled the most loose balls would win.
She may be new to this rivalry between two of the original AIAW big-time teams, but she has seized the imagination of her team.
This is the second group recruited exclusively by her staff. A 7-0 run early in the second half had the lead at 10.
The season-best 10,204 crowd was murmuring, as some of them have been in online rooms.
DeShields seemed once again a bit gimpy as her shins problems continue. But she played on and was the only Lady Vol in double figures, with 24. She doubled with 11 rebounds.
Tennessee won the rebound battle but it did not matter.
With 5:17 to go in the third, Texas had five fouls and Tennessee was already in the one-plus. Also didn’t matter.
The 16-8 second quarter held up as Texas won the final three quarters. Higgs finished with 18, one of three Longhorns to double.
“I am really proud of our team’s mentality,” Aston said. “We’ve talked a lot about how we had to have a better road mentality.
"It was a bit of an ugly game, but it usually is an aggressive game when these two teams play. Our defense from a team perspective was extremely good and we stayed disciplined defensively.
“Our guards made good decisions, especially in the first half, and that gave us a lot of confidence. The exciting thing is, I think we can get a lot better, but I am very proud of how we came in and played with a great road mentality today.”
Warlick agreed even as she assessed an injury to Jasmine Jones. She was out with seven minutes left after an on-court collision. She banged heads with teammate T’ea Cooper.
Last season, she missed all but seven games recovering from concussion-like symptoms.
“ When we started quick-shooting the basketball and not being on the same page, I felt it,” said Warlick “We have to deem what is important. We have to get a bit more disciplined. At times, we were doing our own thing.
"We have a talented team, but we are not getting it done. It goes back to talent doesn’t always win games.”
She was gracious in defeat.
“We got beat by a better team today. We’ve got to hit shots. We’ve got to take care of the ball. One of our goals was to keep them off of the free-throw line and they shot 27 free throws. We wanted to limit 3s and they scored six. We’re just not knocking down shots.
“In the fourth quarter we were 2-for-15 in the paint. In the fourth quarter, Texas got six points from layups and nine from the free-throw line. We’ve just got to get better. We’ve got to get a little more disciplined and stop fouling, more disciplined and quit turning over the basketball, and get in the gym making shots.”
Texas now welcomes in Mississippi State for State’s first real game after a feast on cupcakes.
*Mississippi Valley State came into No. 8 (then tied with Texas) Mississippi State without a win. They left after a spanking, 109-37.
Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said the performance by his young bench players is a nice sign.
“I need for all of them to play a role in our success this year,” Schaefer said. “It’s really good to see Kayla (Nevitt) come out and shoot the way she did.”
Nevitt scored a career-high 20 points on 9 of 16 shooting from the field. The 5-foot-10 sophomore also added six rebounds, four assists and two steals.
She had a limited role on last season’s team, averaging 2.9 points in 18 appearances.
Now Schaefer would like to see her presence on the court expand and have similar performances going forward.
“It puts something in the back of my mind that I can’t let him down,” Nevitt said. “I need to continue to work harder to prove his point.”
State led 59-14 at halftime and pushed that advantage to 80-18 and led by as many as 75.
It was the second double-double for 6-7 freshman center McCowan. She scored 17 with 10 rebounds. Six State players hit double figures and won the rebounds battle by 30. State’s bench scored 72. The Delta Devils were forced into 34 turnovers.
“I didn’t think offensively we were really good early, but I thought (Victora Vivians) was,” Schaefer said. “She got us going a little bit.”
His superstar hit four 3s at the start and then retired for the night.
The move was approved by the 3,566 in attendance.
Norfolk State hadn’t played a ranked team in more than a decade. It showed when they got steamrolled,92-34.
Freshman McCowan scored 20 (9-of-12 from the field) and grabbed 11 rebounds in 18 minutes and usually unheralded Bulldogs junior Chinwe Okorie scored 15 (7-of-8).
It is McCowan’s third double-double in four games.
“Boy, that’s a great place to start,” Schaefer said of his centers. But the guards did swell, too, 29 assists on 36 made field goals.
“I thought we shared the ball tonight and made extra passes,” Schaefer said. “We made shots when we were given the opportunity and our inside game was outstanding.”
Sophomore star Vivians had more points (20) than minutes allowed (18), including half of her eight 3 attempts.
“It’s just understanding what the coaches want from me,” Okorie said. “He’s not expecting 20 points from me. He just wants me to play hard, rebound the ball and get some putbacks. That’s what I’ve really been trying to focus on. I’m still working hard -- I’m not satisfied.”
They attracted 3,894 fans.
It was seemingly a replication of Kentucky’s walkover, as State capped its season-opening five-game homestand with a 92-25 win against Savannah State.
Vivians, naturally, led the attack with a season-high 27 points on 10-of-18 shooting.
Nevitt also finished in double figures with 12. McCowan had her fourth straight game with 10 or more rebounds as she had a team-high 12.
Sophomore Morgan William had a career-high 11 assists, which tied for the sixth most in a game in program history and matched the most ever by a Bulldog sophomore.
“It’s fun to see us passing the ball to teammates and seeing them get great shots,” William said. “We don’t have to create our shots or force shots. Coach tells us an extra pass is what makes a good shot become a great shot.”
“Defensively, we were good at times today,” Schaefer said. “If you hold someone to 25 points, you are doing something right. I was really pleased with Victoria tonight. She took some really good shots. She was also really good on the defensive end.
“I feel really good about our team right now. We have some really good chemistry. We shared the basketball tonight (27 assists on 31 made shots). I am excited about Wednesday (at Texas). Everyone wants to know how good we are, and we will certainly find out.”
*A day after Thanksgiving, Texas A&M coach Gary Blair won his 700th career game as No. 10 A&M defeated No. 16 Cal, 75-58, in the Las Vegas South Point Thanksgiving Shootout.
It set up a back-to-back challenge with the national team of the future, Ohio State.
Blair is the 16th Division I coach to reach 700, in his 31st season of coaching. He is ninth among active coaches in career wins, 292-119 at Texas A&M.
The Aggies used a 20-7 to establish this one. A&M led by as many as 29 in the second.
Courtney Williams led the Aggies with 22 points, a career high and the most for at Texas A&M since 2012.
Co-conference player of the week Courtney Walker scored 18, moving into 7th on the school’s career scoring list.
“Williams, Walker . . .whenever they graduate I feel like following out the door with them because they’ve been special,” Blair said.
“They put up a lot of those 700 wins with me, and I (also) think I’ve got the best point guards (Jordan Jones and Chelsea Jennings) in the country.”
As always, he was gracious in praising the foe.
“I’m a history buff of the game, and I learned by playing great coaches. If I got to 700 I wanted it to be against a quality opponent like California. (Coach) Lindsay (Gottlieb) is one of the rising stars of this game. She only has nine kids and plays six or seven at the most, and we were able to wear them out a little.”
“They ran their offense very well in the first quarter,” Blair said. “It was a one-possession game in the first quarter and in the second quarter Walker got in foul trouble and Williams took over. That’s what great players are supposed to do. We were able to rest Walker by halftime.”
In the first quarter, the lead changed seven times and the score was tied four times.
“Our kids played well,” Blair said. “We made shots, we had more steals and we had more transition opportunities. We got killed on the boards (36-27), but that’s not going to be the last time that happens.
"They (the Golden Bears) were just content to throwing it inside, and they were scoring.”
“I think it was our help defense and the post (defense that were the keys to the game),” Williams said. “We didn’t let them get their 3s off because they take 25 per game.”
The Buckeyes are positioned to be making noise for several seasons. Coach Kevin McDuff built up two other programs in his drive to 300 coaching wins – and was the recruiting coach for the one season Notre Dame won the national title – and has a crop of legitimate starters coming in next season, including massive transfer Stephanie Mavunga, all-ACC from North Carolina.
Seven on this year’s roster are in-state recruits as he honors the traditions of his state.
The only losses this season were to top-flight programs UConn and South Carolina. They next go to Notre Dame.
Ohio State handed the Aggies their first loss in six tries.
A&M could not contain a school-record effort by Kelsey Mitchell who scored 42 and Ohio State had its 95-80 win. She was 12-of-20 from the field, a school record 15-of-16 from the line, with 32 points in the second half.
She wears a sparkly Lucha Libre-like defensive mask. It’s an intimidating look.
Teammate Ameryst Alston scored 21.
“Being down, it sort of made us focus on what we needed to do as a team going into the second quarter,” Mitchell said. “We needed to bounce back better in the second quarter.”
The two Courtneys, Williams with 21 and Walker with 20, neared their 18-point averages, so it was the Buckeye offense overcoming the A&M defense.
The Buckeyes started the second half on a 20-3 run. Indeed, A&M lead by 15 at one point, so it was a sea-change swing of plus-30 for Ohio State.
“Kelsey was very efficient today,” McGuff said. “She’s a special player and a great kid, and she has a tremendous impact on our team. She is one of the best players in the country. She just wants to do everything she can to help us win.
“Ameryst is a great player, one of the best in the country,” McGuff said. “She makes others better and was terrific on both ends of the floor.
“Texas A&M is a great basketball team that is well coached,” McGuff said. “We switched from a man-to-man defense to zone, and that took them out of their rhythm and allowed us to get back in the game.”
*Back at home, No 12 Kentucky quickly dispatched of two unranked opponents.
First up was Eastern Michigan, 89-67, the 54th consecutive regular season non-conference win in their home Memorial Coliseum, a seven-year run.
The Kats hit .596 from the field, their best since 2007. The eagles hit .33.3 from the floor and were outrebounded, 46-34 (42-20 n the defensive end).
Newcomer Evelyn Akhator is among the Top 15 rebounders in league. She had seven, with 12 points.
The leading scorer was Makayla Epps, with 21.
“She has to understand that what I’m trying to get from her is supreme effort every day,” said coach Matt Mitchell of Epps.
“Now, that is very difficult to do. But, that’s why there are very few great players. Because great players have elite level talent that The Good Lord gave them and then they have incredible work ethic, and that makes a great player.
"There are a few good players that either they have so much talent and they work pretty hard, or they work so hard that they make themselves into a good player. But, I want her to be a great player and she has made tremendous strides in that area.”
Janee Thompson recorded the second double-double of her career with 17 points and 10 assists, a career assists high. Maci Morris also reached career marks with 17 points (5-of-6 3s) and six rebounds. The afternoon crowd 4,988, was bolstered by $1 tickets.
The only positive note to come out of the 92-24 wasting of Jackson (Mississippi) State is the Kats have now won 55 consecutive non-conference games at home. Jackson State was so overmatched it only hit four (not a typo) percent from the field after halftime, 15 percent overall.
Akhator got a good workout in, her third double-double, 20 points and 13 rebounds.
“I think high character crosses all boundaries and supersedes any type of barrier that might be created by someone’s nationality,” said Mitchell of his Lagos import.
By the way, she also considered Texas and Tennessee after becoming the national junior college Player-of-the-Year.
“She is an incredibly high-character person,” said Mitchell “She’s one of the best human beings we’ve signed here since I’ve been here in nine years. So that starts it all. It’s the kind of person she is.
"She’s incredibly caring about her teammates. She connects well with people. She has an incredible appreciation for being at Kentucky.
“She was the first person on Thanksgiving morning that shot me a text and said, ‘I’m thankful to be here.’ That’s the kind of person she is. That helped her integrate into the team very quickly. It’s not hard to like Evelyn Akhator. It’s not hard to get along with her. Then she works so hard and gives great effort.
“Sometimes kids will get off to a rocky start in academics and they’ll want to drop a class and try it again the next semester. Evelyn is the kind of kid that if it starts off rocky, ‘I’m going to figure this out and I’m going to make the grade.’ She just has tremendous character, is tremendously caring for people and a tremendous work ethic.
"So all of that makes it easy for her to be someone we all want to be around and that we all trust a lot. She’s going to give us all that she has. She makes a ton of mistakes right now from the transition from Junior College to here. It’s a higher level.
“She has to learn how to play the game at this level. She’s learning and getting better every day. But all that stuff will come because I have people like her succeed. She works real hard. She cares about other people. She cares about the team. She will be a success.”
He laughed off any suggestion of a language barrier.
“Well that’s not just her. There are a lot of people that have not been able to understand me over the years. Coming from Mississippi there’s a language barrier for everyone. She hasn’t had a particularly hard time lately.
" I think all of them have a hard time understanding me sometimes. I don’t think that’s been a big issue. I do try to stay aware of that and I do probably over communicate with her, just trying to make sure she understands me. But I think she’s good at that.
“As you all can see, her athleticism is sort of next level-type stuff. She looks different than everybody else out on the court a lot of times. She’s just tremendously athletic. She’s real aggressive on the boards and real strong. I think she’s in a hurry a lot and unsure a lot. That’s where you see her mishandle a lot of basketballs.
“So she needs to keep working to get that and I think she will. I think when we’re going to see her really blossom is when she doesn’t have to think. When she gets in a comfort level and figures out what’s going on there. But that is going to happen sooner rather than later.
"The way she impacts the game on the board is she’s so aggressive and wants to do it. And that’s really, in rebounding, 80-90 percent of it is wanting to.”
Just wait until the league gets a look at this unexpected predicament in January.