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.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: More National Honors While S.C. Has a Firm Grip on Postseason Top Seeds

By Mike Siroky

In a quick followup to last week’s Wooden Award report, the United States Basketball Writers Association issued its own list in the women's sector.

The USBWA has been selecting a national Player of the Year, named in 2012 for UCLA great Ann Meyers Drysdale, since the AIAW days.

 Its Kodak All-American team was the original national honors every team pursued and was announced at the Final Four as a highlight of that weekend.

The USBWA has a short watch list for its award, which undoubtedly will go to UConn’s Breanna Stewart, the only current college player on the final list for the Olympics cut.

The SEC nominees: A’ja Wilson and Tiffany Mitchell (South Carolina); Diamond DeShields (Tennessee); and Victoria Vivians (Mississippi State). These are clearly players under top consideration for the various All-American teams as coaches have great input.

The Dawn Staley Award is decided by the Phoenix Club of Philadelphia – Staley’s hometown – and goes to their choice as the top guard in the nation. Tiffan Mitchell of South Carolina won it last season. She is on the short list again, with Courtney Walker (Texas A&M).

Onto the games in the Southeastern Conference, the toughest women’s league in America.

South Carolina has all but officially won the regular-season title again. The Gamecocks were the first team in the league to 20 wins, a guaranteed host for the Sweet 16 qualifier and therefore the first team besides UConn to be in the Sweet 16, naturally, as its second consecutive No.1 seed. 

They are again the second of all No. 1 seeds behind UConn.

They will play in Lexington, Ky., as the closest available site to home base. UConn will stay in state until traveling to the Final Four in Indy.

SC could lose once – and that would likely allow some stress relief – before the end of the season but not twice and everyone else has three in conference.

A’ja Wilson keeps the league MVP on campus, but replaces senior teammate Tiffany Mitchell as the present and future of SEC basketball. Each are likely suspects as All-SEC.

Unlike men’s hoops, it has been ever thus: There is always one super elite team and then a falloff to the second team and another falloff to all the other marbles in the bag, pick ’ems at best in the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight.

SC has surpassed Notre Dame as that second team. 

Whatever happens in the made-for-cable TV event is when UConn needs a competitive game, SC can afford to play and lose without distraction now that it has virtually locked up the league.

If SC wins, it and UConn exchange 1-2 rankings until SC loses before the playoffs.

This is the time of the season wherein teams start getting an occasional week off.

The unranked teams tussled with each other in the opening games of the week,

In the second round of the week, the conference moved back to six ranked teams with the deserved drop of Florida.  Four of them are within the NCAA safe zone of the top 16, or hosts for the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament and a 93 percent chance of moving into the Sweet 16

As to the week’s actual conference confrontations, with the Associated Press rankings at game time:

*No. 2 South Carolina at No. 10 Mississippi State: The league game of the year turned out to be just that. 

At the end, A&M had given SC a better game. Either the Aggies or the Bulldogs will be No. 2 in the conference.

This ends all the other league teams without a home loss. It represents what the start of the NCAAs will look at with SC having a focus, the final 10 games of the regular season.

Senior Tiffany Mitchell asserted herself early for SC, with half of the opening 18 points.

State’s Victoria Vivians started 3-of-16 and two others also had six at half. They were only down by two, closing out the half, and that on a 3 off an inbounds with .4 left, SC’s only basket in the final 4:18.

“I gotta get better point guard play,” said Dawn Staley on her way to the locker room. “We’ll adjust and be better in the second half.” Her team had 14 turnovers at the break, already exceeding their season average.

The adjustment had an immediate impact as the second half began, a 6-0 run, all from guards, two of them layups.

 State used a time out. The eight-point deficit was the largest of the game and absolutely huge in this tussle. 

Vivians had not scored in the half until she was fouled on a truly ugly drive to end the third. Her two free throws made it four-point deficit.

With 7:47 to go, free throws tied it at 35. 

Alaina Coates’ first field goal of the night untied it for SC. 

A turnover and feed the monster again, Coates easily converting, against a 12-point average. The ball hit the floor and Coates dove into the pile to save it.

Tin Roy’s 3 made it seven, answered by Vivians. But then State turned it over on a five-second defensive stop.

Still, they would not fold. Vivians stole, scored and was fouled. The free throw made it a one-point deficit. 

Then another offensive mistake for SC, a push off and State had possession. Pressure caused a dribble out of bounds.

Vivians had 11 in the final quarter. SC senior point guard Khadijah Sessions could not guard her, as she had four fouls.

Vivians scored, but Mitchell, the two-time league MVP came back with a layup and was fouled. She also scored on the next drive and it was suddenly a six-point lead. Running mate A’ja Wilson had been silenced, mostly due to four fouls, her team-leading 16 point average missing in action. 

Three minutes left.

Sessions again, on a pullup. Six-point lead with two minutes left.

State pushed through a scoring play. Four-point lead with 77 seconds left.

Wilson got fouled. She missed twice.

The seconds were ticking away. Vivians missed but controlled the rebound. The best free-throw shooter in the league was fouled and Morgan Williams hit them both to make it 51-49.

State stayed man-to-man and Sessions hit. She ran into Williams, was fouled out and Williams made it two again, the team 16-of-17 from the line.

There were 27.8 seconds left. State was forced to foul and gambled on the foul. Asia Dozer had no points but hit both. SC by four.

There were 22.9 seconds left. State used its last time out. 

The Bulldogs got the shot they wanted, an uncontested drive, but it rolled away. State punched the rebound out to Mitchell who hit both free throws and finished with a game-high 21 points. The 57-51 win was secured.

The Gamecocks finished by winning the final three quarters and survived a season-worst 21 turnovers, but credit the defense to much of that. 

They average 65 percent from the line and matched it. The visitors had nine more rebounds 31 of them defensive.

 Each team had averaged 77 points per game. But State had only allowed 53 on average, while being held five less than SC usually allows.

State made its final basket with 1:47 to go. So the SC press was also fine.

Vivians had 11 fourth-quarter points but was 7-of-25 overall from the field. The rest of the starters had 24 attempts combined.

This made two straight losses for the Bulldogs.

“I think we just wore them down,” Mitchell said. “That’s what we do. We’re not going to blow everyone out in the first 10 or 15 minutes.

“We know we’ve got to keep pounding at them and then make a run.”

“The biggest thing is we’ve got to figure out how to stay in character from start to finish,” Staley said. “The crowd did have an effect on us. I thought it gave (Mississippi State) energy and we just have to do better.”

State coach Vic Schaefer knew this was perhaps his one chance for the marquee win up to that moment.

“At the end of the day, when you’re playing the No. 2 team in the country, you’ve got to make plays for 40 minutes,” Schaefer said. “We made plays for about 39 of them.
“We just ran out of time.

To go toe to toe with a team of that caliber is impressive. We are not here for moral victories but I am proud of how we executed and how hard we competed.

“When you play somebody in the Top 2 or 3 in the country, it comes down to possessions. You have to make the little plays for 40 minutes. We made them for 39. You talk about competing your tails off.”

State did all it could to attract a crowd and exceeded their goal with a program-record 10,626. There were $5 general admissions, students free. There was free pizza while it lasted.

At 5,800 per, they are third in league attendance after Tennessee and South Carolina. They had drawn 7,128 for the previous home game against state rival Ole Miss.

*No 22 Florida at No. 23 Missouri: Many conferences would love to offer two games in one day featuring ranked teams, with another the following day (and not including all the ranked teams in that conference), but in the SEC, it’s business as usual.

These two, despite being among the nation’s best, are fighting for recognition and are seasons away from being annual Sweet 16 contenders. 

Some might think the home team had the edge.

It was as competitive as expected from the get-go. Unfortunately for the home team, its best scorers – rookie sensation Sophie Cunningham (10.2) and juniors Jordan Frericks (11.7) and Cierra Porter (10) – each had two fouls. 

It was 21-all the end of one. 

Florida’s 10-of-15 at the line was the equalizer. 

None of the three with foul trouble scored in the second quarter.

 But the risk had reward as the Tigers maintained the tie until halftime’s 38-all. 

Senior guard Juanita Robinson made two 3s. She had one previously all season. 

Florida guard Ronni Williams had 10 points, 3-of-3 from the field. The free throws settled down, but the first quarter made sure the imbalance remained.

Cunningham rose to 10 points, but with four fouls, in the third quarter. Morgan Stock made two 3s, after hitting four all season, and hit a layup to double her season’s scoring average.

So on came the fourth.

 The crowd of 5,941 was roaring. Cunningham was in control. Even though she was fouled out when the game was already decided, she still managed 12 points and fed Stock for another 3 in the final run to a 79-64 win. 

Stock had a season-best 20. Robinson had a season-best 12, both off the bench. The Tiger reserves outscored the Gator reserves, 42-35.

It solidifies a shot at the NCAAs, this second conference win over a team ranked higher than themselves. 

They have 16 wins in pursuit of 20. 

Amazingly, the fouls called, ahem, adjusted in the second half the Tigers ended 19-of-25, with three more chances than the visitors.

 Missouri is 10-1 at home.

 They held Florida to 18 points below its average while hitting six more than their own average.

Mizzou coach Robin Pingeton is living in the moment.

She thanked the crowd and said how proud she is of her team.

“Florida, I have a lot of respect for Amanda (Butler, the Gator coach). They have a very, very talented ball club. We knew this was a big game for us for a lot of reasons. 

“I thought our seniors played outstanding. I thought our rotations off the bench gave us extremely valuable minutes. They really stepped to the plate for us, but a great overall team win. What a great turnout by our community.

 I appreciate them being here tonight. There were a lot of things we did well, but obviously 30 turnovers are a little concerning, but that is just kind of the way that Florida plays. 

“I think when you look at the kinds of turnovers they were . . .  It is not like we were careless. There were quite a few turnovers off travels and offensive charges, so we have to do a better job at that. 

“Overall, our goal was to hold them at 60 points, they scored 64. We wanted to outrebound them by eight, I think it was six. Overall, I think we did a great job on both ends of the court.”

Of course, coming home after two road losses is important.

“Yeah, we did.  We talked about it a little bit.  We talked about strength of schedule, RPI, what your resume looks like Selection Show Monday and just the importance of this game.” 

The home crowd helps.

“You know, sometimes I don’t hear them,” Pingeton said, “but I did notice a couple times tonight it got real loud.  I know our players probably feed off that more, but I was excited about the turnout. 

"It’s fun that we’re finally doing that.  I appreciate all the loyal supporters that have been in it for many, many years, and appreciate them bringing out 20 of their closest friends. 

“We didn’t feel like it was going to make or break our season; we still have a lot of games in front of us, but winning is hard in this league.  It’s really hard to win on the road.  I felt like we had some opportunities, maybe some calls down the stretch at A&M that could have gone either way.  And so that one lingered a little bit.  

“We all had to fight off constantly going back to that game moving forward, but I thought our players did a great job of it.  It was a gritty win for us, and we felt like it was, in proper perspective, a must-win for us.”

With Cunningham in foul trouble, on came the reserves, all with experience.

“It was huge.  Our team’s done a pretty good job of that all year.  We’ve told them, ‘There is going to be that game when we’ve got to have someone step up.’  I think we’ve all got a lot of confidence in our depth on the bench.  It’s hard to get them all minutes sometimes.  That’s the most challenging part, but it’s a great group and they care a lot about each other.
“They’ve all just said it’s the front of the jersey.  It’s about the big picture.  I think that speaks volumes about the kind of character and integrity we have with our players on this team

“I was so excited for our seniors.  We’ve talked a little bit the last week, just about making sure we finish this season on a strong note.  When you’re going through some struggling times and adversity, the importance of protecting that locker room, and the voices that are being heard.  

"That starts with your senior class and it can be really hard when your seniors aren’t getting a lot of minutes, so I really challenged them to stay the course and do it the right way.  Right now it’s basketball, but later on it’s going to be life.  You finish what you started, and they embrace that.

“Tonight, I just couldn’t help but put a smile on my face when I thought about the kind of impact that all four of our seniors made.  I was really excited for them in that kind of environment tonight, on that stage.”

Almost not noticed is the addition of another freshman, forward Hannah Schuchts cleared to help in practice in her redshirt season.

“She’s been on the bench all season,” said Pingeton.  “She’s just focused on getting better.  She wants to compete hard in practice, not only to get better but obviously to challenge our players.  She’s going to be a heck of a player for us.  It’s hard to redshirt, but she’s really embraced it.  She’s enjoyed the process.  Certainly looking forward to next season, but it’s a pretty close-knit group, 14 sisters that battle for each other, encourage each other, challenge each other, and she’s very valuable in regards to those kinds of things.”

Now to work on body control with Cunningham.

“We’ve just got to continue to continue to work through some of those,” she sad of the fouls. “I think it’s a combination of tough calls that are just tough calls.  But, because you’re going to get some tough calls, you’ve got to eliminate the reach ins, the ones you can control.  So we’ll just continue to watch film with her and try not to pick up some of those ticky tack fouls that she’s putting herself in a tough position, making it too close to even give them a chance to call.”

Stock is one of those seniors on which the teams rely. The points are no surprise.

“It was a mental thing for me for a while and I’ve figured out a way to just clear my mind and just have fun with it. I think that is just part of it I guess,” Stock said.

Robinson, another senior, “I think it just speaks to the depth of our team. I think Coach P preaches to always be ready because you never know when your number is going to be called, and I think we showed up tonight.

“It’s been hard, it hasn’t been easy, but it has been fun so I am not complaining. We got the win too so that is all that matters.

“It’s a good feeling because we were actually tired of losing so this was a big win for us. We all know we still have things to work on as a team so just some areas we need to get better at, especially myself.”

*No. 19 Tennessee at No. 12 Kentucky: The first quarter was pretty even, 19-18 Tennessee. The Lady Vols slowly built leads of 4-6-9-8 eight points with consistent play in the second segment.

The ever-improving Te’a Cooper had 10 off the bench and Diamond DeShields seven for UT. 

Rebounds were pretty even, but UT’s Bashaara Graves had seven defensive and Mercedes Russell five. 

In pregame comments, UK coach Matthew Mitchell has expressed concern about just that part of the game. Senior reserve Janee Thompson led UK with eight.

It was a 16-10 second quarter. UK center Evelyn Akhator had a frustration foul at the buzzer, her second.

So, naturally, UK ran off a 21-9 run in the third quarter. Makayla Epps scored seven in the first few minutes, 14 for the quarter. But Tennessee closed hard and only trailed by four.

Cooper made two layups for 18 points and Andraya Carter hit a free throw and the Lady Vols had cut the deficit to one with 28 seconds left. Each side hit another free throw and 10 second were left. The visitors missed two layups; the home team missed two fee throws.

Mercedes Russell commanded another defensive rebound. Four seconds left, but UT had no time outs to stop the clock and that was it, 64-63. UT once more followed a win with a loss.

Epps scored 23 for the winners, seven above average, Thompson 15, three above
UT won the rebounds battle, shot better from the field and hit more free throws; Russell doubled with 11 rebounds and 12 points but so what. They lost. 

The game defines each team’s season. Are either of them Top 20? Not really, not right now and UK is better at home, especially with 6,188 fans backing them.

Mitchell and Warlick each said they were proud of their own team’s effort, following the same script.

“It’s just there for everybody to see where our flaws are,” Mitchell said.

“And we have many. Tennessee is an extremely talented team and you saw what they could do there at the end when they really dialed up the pressure.” 

Of course, the Epps effort to give them the cushion they needed to withstand that ending was paramount.

He talked her into it

“Yeah, I did. I just, right there on the floor, talked to her. We shot the ball 16 more times than Tennessee in the first half. I thought that we had some really good execution. We’re just not a real confident bunch right. I just tried to tell them at halftime, ‘You don’t need to try harder, you need to do it right.’

 "And we were just breaking down on our fundamental shooting. So I just tried to remind Makayla, just get really fundamentally sound. The attitude she needs to have is that no one can guard her. 

"She is a fantastic player. She has to play with tremendous focus and confidence and she has to do it right with good footwork. She really, really took over in the third quarter and that was a huge positive development for our team.
“So I just tried to tell her to have some confidence and stop trying so hard and just focus in and do the right thing and shoot on balance and attack the rim and she’d have some success. She did that.

“They have great players. They have really tall, long, athletic, talented players. They are extremely talented and just so much bigger than us and probably a little bit quicker than us. When they turned that heat up, it was tough. 

“Listen: What you saw at the end of the game, we’ve been looking at in practice. That’s where we are right now. We have a lot of work, but we tried to go against seven guys today. We’re just going to put them in that situation and we just have to get tougher and we have to get the ball in the right spot and we have to start making some winning plays against pressure. I thought we did better at times tonight. 

“Only 10 turnovers is a miracle for us right now. That is really, if you don’t believe in God, you need to go check that out because that’s about like Him walking on water right there. That was a good development for us, 10 turnovers.”

In the almost fatal fourth, though.

“We were missing layups,” Mitchell said “We were breaking Tennessee’s initial pressure, then we were going down and we were all running this way. We miss a layup and now Tennessee is trailing and they were getting back.  If we could have made some of those layups we could have closed the game out pretty comfortably, but I told them our defense had been tough all second half. We just needed to believe in our defense. 

“Tennessee missed two layups there at the end of the game. We were fortunate enough that they missed but if we could some of ours it wouldn’t have been as close as it was. Where we are right now, a young, inexperienced team and we just have to find a way to improve everyday and I think we will.

“Oh I don’t think there was any doubt that were feeling it. We were up 10 and it evaporated just like that and there’s no question that we were feeling it and we just have to fight through it. 

“Oh, it’s great to win. We learned the lesson without a loss but we’ve got to stay firmly in reality so we know where we are. We’ve got to get a lot better against pressure defense we haven’t played good the last two games.”

Epps was ready for this.

“We lost one at Ole Miss that really hurt. It hurt my pride and hurt my teammates’ pride. We needed this win. The SEC is so crazy. Everyone’s winning and losing. You never know who’s going to win or lose next. 

“Every win from this point on matters.”

Warlick also talked of missed opportunities

“For me, it’s the 21 turnovers that set the tone of the whole game,” she said. “I thought that we passed up good shots for us to try to make that extra pass. We didn’t have an edge for those first minutes of the third quarter.

“They’re upset. They’re competitors. They’re upset and should be. They’ve worked hard to get to this point. This team has really done a great job of re-focusing.”   

Russell said, “It’s very frustrating. But I think we definitely lost it in the third quarter. They outscored us 21-9, so that’s where we really lost it. We just came out with no intensity in the third quarter and we just let Epps do whatever she wanted and score whenever she wanted to. But I was proud of our fight back in the fourth quarter. It just didn’t end up our way in the end. “

Tennessee has 12 wins overall (only three conference teams have less), UK 15. UT is just not competitive with the 17 teams ranked ahead of them and UK can still eke out a win with a reduced roster.

For the sixth time this season, UT has lost after a win. The Kats made up for a loss in its previous challenge. Whether beating UT is significant anymore is the question, as UT is qualified for an all-time low No. 6 seed in the conference tournament it once dominated.

To get to 20, Tennessee must find eight wins in the final 10 games and three of those are teams much better than they are, immediately for instance at Mississippi State.

 "It has never happened in the history of women ’s basketball that UT has played two conference teams ranked above them back-to- back.
It is unlikely a non-20 UT could be launched out of the big tournament, but they certainly will play all their playoff games on the road for the first time in the recent past and the scheme to keep Warlick involved suddenly has a shelf life.

*No. 10 Texas A&M at Alabama: The Aggies got busy heading for 20 wins after a road loss. The reappearace of second-leading scorer Courtney Williams, helped. The other senior Courtney, Walker, was one of a trio with four points each in a 17-6 opening, the team 8-of-11 from the floor.

The quarter ended 19-10. It was 40-26 as they stretched it out a little by halftime.

’Bama would not go easy and had it tied at 37 in the third quarter, after an 11-5 run. My, but A&M seems to do this a lot, suddenly shooting 11 percentage points worse. It was 44-all entering the final quarter.

A&M looked stronger. Williams had reappeared with nine points, but in one three-minute span ending at the 4:13 mark, they were outscored 6-3.

Alabama only needed lotsa Aggie misses and two free throws to cling to a six-point lead with 2:30 left.

Jones decided it was enough. She hit a 3, Walker strolled in for two layups and it was 57-56 with eight seconds to go. Alabama had muffed layups. Another turnover and a team technical and A&M had possession back. Walker made the free throws and her team won, 59-56.


Alabama had lost once a home this season. Now they have lost six of seven, with half of their final 10 against teams in the Top 25. It is a tough league.

Jones scored 15 and Walker 14, 4-of-4 at the line. Ariel Howard and Chelsea Jennings had nine rebounds each as the Aggies won the backboards, 41-28.

’Bama had won 11 of 12 at home. Instead, A&M has 15 wins and are a solid second in conference, 3-2, with a shot Sunday at home against South Carolina.

A&M had the week off. 

Jennings has stepped up, averaging 21.7 points in the previous three games. In fact, in the overtime win against Missouri, she, Walker and Jones all surpassed 20, the first time since 2001 three Aggies have scored more than 20 in the same game.

Alabama features a balanced offense, with seven players averaging at least 6.0 points per game. Only four of them hit the mark in this game, showing how whisker-thin the margin can be.

Nonetheless, this is where A&M makes a move to host one of those Sweet 16 qualifiers. At this point last season, the Aggies lost point guard Jones and crashed and burned. 

They must win half of their remaining games to get to 20, the first opportunity, which would also be a nice start to the final 10 games of the NCAA metric.

 But first up is No. 2 South Carolina, a potential marquee win at home, on Sunday, with the very least second place in the conference on the line and the chance to skip a game in the SEC conference tournament.

SC has already moved into a virtually uncatchable position in the conference.

“That’s a tear-filled locker room that I just left,” said Alabama coach Kristy Curry. “One that I have a lot of respect and love for and a lot of appreciation because I thought they played their hearts out tonight to the No. 10 team in the country. 

"I can say this: This program is headed in the right direction. It’s a tribute to the character in that locker room.

"Our crowd (2,366 this night) is doing a phenomenal job of being a great basketball crowd and making this the toughest home court advantage in the SEC,” added Curry. “For that, our team just wants to thank them. We always look forward to being home. 

"We’ve got games coming up here against Ole Miss and Auburn in the same week. We hope everyone will come back out and support us.”

Coach Gary Blair of A&M was happy he had a full complement of players.

“We’ve been in a number of these games,” he said. “We have seniors who know how to make plays. Walker knows how to shoot free throws.

“Give us a little credit. They know how to make plays. Give Alabama credit; they have a great team.
“It was an ugly win, but an ugly win becomes a beautiful win. We need to get a whole lot better.”

*Vanderbilt at No. 12 Kentucky: The Kats continued an unproductive spat of home games. Three times in a row, they have followed a win with a loss and are sure to be out of the top 10, stuck on 14 wins, with two league losses at home. 

Half of their eight remaining are against ranked teams, which means they must win two of those to hit 20.

Rebekah Dahlman scored 13 and  Rachel Bell 10 as the Commodores hung tough in a 31-all start. For UK, Janee Thompson had nine, Makayala Epps and Evelyn Akhator eight each, Akhator with five rebounds. The visitors had a 23-14 quarter, but Janee Thompson was left open when Vandy collapsed four players on Epps and Thompson hit a 3 for a 34-all tie.

Vandy did not let up, starting the third on a 13-7 spree. Vandy the won the fourth quarter by three and the game by two.

With 23 seconds left, Christa Reed hit a 3 to give the visitors a five-point edge and herself 19 points. She was 5-of-9 on 3s. Her team would never trail again.

But back came UK. Epps hit two free throws. She finished 10-of-15.

With 15 seconds left, Epps scored on a feed from Jennings. UK had a one-point deficit. Spears missed a free throw but got anther chance and hit it with 11 seconds left.

UK’S last real shot missed with two seconds left. The Commodores missed two free throws in dead ball time.

Time expired and Vandy had its statement win. With 15 wins it might be speaking only to the NIT with half of its last eight against ranked teams, including a home rematch with these Kats and a rematch at Tennessee to which it lost at home by nine.

Epps hit a season high 25 points on 10-of-15 from the field. Akhator scored 12.

Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said, “Our defense needs a lot of work and we are trying to find an identity on defense and I think the players are working very hard on that. 

“We just have to stay on course, I told the team. They’re very disappointed, but we have to stay the course right now and stay optimistic. We are just not where we hope we will be defensively. 

"And you know, Vanderbilt was able to find two more points than us today so give them credit. I thought they really played tough down the stretch. I thought (Marqu’es) Webb was tough, I thought (Christa) Reed made a really tough 3 there to go up five with under 20. 

"We can’t hang our head right now we just have to understand that it’s going to take real hard practice and diligence and we have to be a resilient bunch now and we will be. There will be brighter days ahead.” 

Epps said she’ll have a better assessment once she sees games tapes.

“That’s a good question,” she said, “ I’m going to have to go back and watch the game. Just down the stretch we let Reed have some really open looks. Some of them dropped some of them did not, we gave up some really open looks. We missed a couple free throws and layups at the end offensively that we really could’ve controlled that we didn’t and that’s what got us.” 

So she also ponders the close of the regular season.

“It’s very complicated to say the least. It’s just the little things that have gotten us four times now,” Epps said.

“The same thing with Ole Miss, they hit 10 3s. We didn’t expect them to hit 10 3s. We knew Vandy was a 3-point shooting team with (Rachel) Bell, Reed, (Rebekah) Dahlman and everyone else. We knew they could shoot the ball very well. It’s hard to beat a team when they are hitting 10 3s and one player hits five by herself. 

"Clutch rebounds at the end, we let Webb get some big boards. Our poise on offense in the first half wasn’t the best and the second quarter really hurt us. That’s happened before. We have let teams get us one good time in a certain quarter and it’s just hard to rally back from that. 

"Vanderbilt scored 23 in the second quarter and scored under 20 in all the other quarters. The second quarter really hurt us.” 

Veteran Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb was not surprised by Reed’s 3s.

“That’s where we want her shooting the ball,” Balcomb said. “She’s really good at shooting 3s. She got popped in the lip and moved her tooth around or something. She was wearing a mouth guard and we didn’t even know if we would be able to play her again. 

“So I thought her toughness to go back in there and shoot and be unfazed, she had six rebounds to go with her 3-point shooting, I just think she’s really advanced her game. She took it to the rack and got in the battle. If she starts doing that consistently that will make a big difference because she’s filled a role as our stretch four that we’ve needed for years now, that a lot of people haven’t been willing to do and aren’t here anymore.

“I think we’ve always been trying to get the ball into Marqu’es and we needed to get her the ball more as you can see. We didn’t get it into her enough. We wanted to at least get her touches and get the ball inside even if we needed to go inside out because as you guys can see she’s very good. 

"She has the best field goal percentage on the team and we wanted to take really good shots. We knew every possession was going to matter down the stretch.”

This team is significantly better than last year with no freshman players.

“There’s been a huge improvement in our season and program because we worked really hard in the offseason,” Balcomb said. “I think a lot of players bought into a growth mindset and have really worked hard and grown. 

"They’ve grown in their games and grown as people. They’ve matured, especially Rachel (Bell) and Christa. That maturity from freshman to sophomore is fun to watch and it has been fun to watch. 

"It’s good to see. But as well, we picked up Minta Spears and you saw that she’s a really tough performer and a leader and has a really calm presence with the ball in her hand. That really helps.

"I always say, ‘In the Super Bowl, who do you have?’ and I say this all year. It comes out to the two best quarterbacks. They have the ball in their hands 90 percent of the game. So now we have a quarterback as well as Morgan Batey as the glue. She’s playing point to post. She’s playing five positions wherever we need her. 

“You have to have that glue kid. So it’s really everyone needing to accept roles and do their best at those roles. Christa being willing to play that stretch four is huge. She said, ‘Coach, wherever you need me.’

As for Reed’s injury: “The good ones always get their lips busted. I’m really happy, not that she got hurt, but that she’s in the battle and battling for rebounds. I think that’s really important when you’re on a team our size. 

“We’re not real big and our guards have to rebound. That’s a huge adjustment. It was tough for Rachel Bell and Christa Reed getting in the fight and the battle. Now Rebekah (Dahlman) is fighting and has so much grit so I like a team with a lot of guards that can spread the floor. 

"That helps Marqu’es have more space to do work, play inside-out. We’re able to do that if our guards rebound. If they don’t rebound you’re not able to do that. You have to go and bunch the floor a little more and then that’s going to affect what Marqu’es can do.”

Balcomb is the most veteran of all conference coaches. 

“This is my 14th year,” she said. “ I'm still very young and have a lot of energy. This is crazy, and I don't think you guys have long enough to hear my theory on the new rules and this stuff. 

"Offense is what used to separate people, and you're seeing all of these close games and games are in the 40s and 50s and that's because of the physicality that's allowed and it's turned into an ugly game with not a lot of made shots and we want to be different than that.
“I think freedom of movement without the ball is still a big problem so we can score more points and have players that do. So hopefully we're going to get better at offense and look prettier and all of those things but right now, we've become a defensive team and everybody in this league seems to be a defensive team. It's so competitive top to bottom. 

“It used to be Tennessee and everybody else at times, then LSU and everybody else at times. I've been here for that. Now, it's South Carolina and everybody else.”

Reed was undeniably the talk of the game.

On her last 3: “Well I think the shot clock was going down so I just knew that I had to get a shot up. She backed up and gave me space so I shot it.

“Last year I wasn’t playing at this point because I was injured. Sitting out gave me the opportunity to watch and see things that I could learn from while I wasn’t playing as a freshman. So whenever I came back and we had coach putting us through learning the details and going over the details before we get to the big things, all of that came together with helping me grow as a player so I could help everyone else on the team.”

Then there’s the now-famous busted lip and playing on.

“It was a deflection. We were just going for the ball and she got me in my mouth. Pushed my tooth back a little bit.”

*Ole Miss at No 2 South Carolina: The soon to be officially conference two-time regular season champs are the first to 20, undefeated, half at home. 

They went 10 scorers deep and rolled, 81-62. 

The Gamecocks had a 13-point opening quarter advantage. A’ja Wilson and Tiffany Mitchell each had eight, Wilson with five rebounds. It was only a little better, 40-26 at half, as SC scored three of the final four baskets in the closing minutes.

Shadricka Sessom scored 13 for the visitors. Junior forward Shequila Joseph, who is from London, England, had been chosen league Player-of-the-Week for keying the upset of Kentucky. She had five points and two fouls. She finished with nine points, 4-of-11 from the field, 1-of-7 on 3s.

At the end, Wilson scored 17 with nine rebounds, five defensive, Mitchell 15 and Alaina Coates doubled again, scoring 13, with 14 rebounds, nine defensive. "Coates, when does she graduate?" Ole Miss coach Matt Insell asked with a laugh.

The Gamecocks average better than 23 foul shots a game and hit that again 24. That’s best aerage tries of any ranked team. They hit half of them.

They average the most fans of anyone as well and drew 14,313 this night. "For us, it's a focus on one game," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said.

“We got a lot of energy from our defense and being able to cause turnovers. We converted in transition, and that was a big part of our game that we’ve been working on. We got out and scored some easy buckets.”

*LSU at No. 22 Missouri: The feel-good team of the season followed the fun of a wonderful home win with another, 52-46. they survived a four-point  third quarter. These Tigers are 16-4. Oh so close to that magical 20 wins, 11-1 at home.

This is what ranked teams are supposed to do to also-rans. They started with a 22-10  first quarter and then a 5-0 run to start the second. 

Juniors Lindsey Cunningham, with nine, and Jordan Frericks, with seven, led them One set of Tigers were indeed Tigers and the other was just Tiger bait.

Cunningham finished with 16 and reserve senior guard Morgan Stock scored 12. Cunningham’s little sister had led the team early in the season and still starts, but has not quite adjusted to the conference. 

Sophie Cunningham scored three. Fericks led all rebounders with nine. The 3,397 in attendance appreciate their team.

“It sure was an ugly happening and an uglier third quarter,” Mizzou coach Robin Pingeton said.
“I was really pleased with the way we started, good ball movement good shots

“Then it was like we didn’t come back out.

“So we decided to go with four guards, then at times five. We somehow got the win. There are no easy games in the SEC.”

*No. 19 Tennessee at No. 13 Mississippi State: As usual, Tennessee started well, 8-4. Then the home team came back and led 17-16 at the first stop. 

UT coach Holly Warlick experimented again in trying to find a group that will work together and so benched leading scorer Diamond DeShields.

It didn’t work. She didn’t score. UT took the second, 17-16.

On some teams, having a gun like ready ready to fire would be a wonderful thing. 

In Tennessee’s fragmented season, ready to lose the fifth of the past seven, not so much.

It was 33-all at the half. Warlick said her team merely needs to settle down.

DeShields, she said was actually trying to do too much and needed to let the game come to her and to play with her teammates.

On the fun sideline, State had lost two straight and three poll spots. They were determined to not lose another at home.  They were not going great guns either. Their sharpshooter, Victoria Vivians had but eight points and had cut down on all the wild shot selections, a respectable 2-of-6.

They  had worked hard for another home crowd, $5 adult admission, free entry for those aged less than 17, pom-poms for the students, an inflatable jump zone for the collegians and free pizza while it lasted. They drew 5,716.

In the third quarter, UT took a 13-4 sprint without DeShields scoring. She eventually played 30 minutes.

And then an unimaginable fourth. Tennessee was held to an all-time low three points. State needed every one of its 15 just to tie the game at 58.

A closely contested 7-5 overtime gave State the win, 65-63. Vivians scored on a jumper and a free throw. DeShields hit her only basket of the game. Te’a Cooper hit two free throws and UT had its last lead, by one.

UT missed on two possessions and State scored on two, Chinwe Okorie and Morgan William. Inside of a minute, DeShields hit her only free throw of the game but missed the next and the deficit was set. 

Each side missed a shot at the end.

So State moves to the edge of 20 wins and are 12-1 at home. Tennessee is stuck on 12 wins with nine games to go and may have said farewell to the Top 20 after more than five seasons, with two road losses to teams ranked higher than themselves. 

They are eighth in conference, another all-time low. They have lost five of the past seven.  They must win eight of their final nine to just hit 20 wins in the regular season and two of those are the top-ranked teams in conference.

For her effort against Kentucky, Cooper was chosen conference freshman of the week. 

She scored 11 off the bench. Jamie Nared, starting in pace of DeShields, scored zero. Jordan Reynolds scored 15 with 11 rebounds.

State had never beaten Tennessee. Four Bulldogs hit double figures, led by 14 each from Vivians and Dominique Dillingham. Vivians is already 25th in program history with 890 career points. She leads the SEC with 17.7 ppg , 17.3 against ranked opponents

“I love a challenge. I am fired up and excited,” Bulldog coach Vic Schaefer said. “I want to make sure that I’m on my toes. 

"I woke up today and thought, ‘I get to coach women’s basketball today. That’s a pretty good day.’ Every game is important. This game is important after losing to South Carolina and it doesn’t matter who we are playing. It happens to be Tennessee.”

State is 17-1 in its most recent games.

They have held 15 teams to less than 60, including 9 of the last 10, for an average 52.8 ppg this season.

“Well what an ending,” said Schaefer. “Glory to God.”

“How about my kids. How tough are my kids. My kids practice hard every day. “We know how tough we are.

“Then we played so lousy in the third quarter. So look at the fourth. We just shut down the dribble penetration That’s the longest I have played zone all season. I call it my bus driver zone because our bus driver likes it.”

Dillingham took three charges in the deciding fourth quarter.

“She’s tough,” agreed Schaefer. “She’s the favorite player in the arena tonight. She’s a great basketball player. Plus we get 14 points out of her tonight. I need that from her.

“When our execution was better in the fourth quarter, you have gotta have someone who creates excitement in the gym and I think Dominique did that.”

His athletic director had mentioned UT had never lost to State.

“I told my kids for however long this is let’s get it off our back,” he said smiling. “At some point, it’s gotta be a little personal. So to see our kids compete tonight against, I told you, that team’s loaded and Holly is a tremendous coach.

“I am just so proud of our kids.”

The players were still dancing in the aisles with friends and family as their coach ended his interview. There was plenty of happiness to go around.

“Praise the Lord and Go ’Dogs!” Schaefer said as he joined the party.

They may be dancing still.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Total Recall: The Blizzard of '96 Strands the Huskies And Rest of Us After a Win in Knoxville

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

This is a new Guru feature to offer guided tours down memory lane to recall events or persons he has encountered through the various decades.

The trigger for this post was clicked off the weekend snowstorm here in the Northeast and the comparison the weather people made by reaching back to 1996.

As the Guru worked his magic to dodge the elements along with keeping the Guru mobile also out of storm’s way a memory came flashing back of the white stuff of that winter and its relation to women’s basketball.

Basically, what dovetailed off the national schedule on the docket for that particular weekend when the end of the world was being predicted was Connecticut and Tennessee were to meet in Knoxville on a Saturday afternoon in the first clash between the two teams after the Huskies had completed a two-game 1995 sweep by winning the NCAA title on the heels of beating the Lady Vols in Storrs in a 1-2 game two months earlier to give UConn its first-ever No. 1 ranking.

In planning the trip and mindful of the weather folks, the Guru had calculated he could go and come out of Baltimore where Southwest Airways, long before gaining its Philly foothold, offered a $70 round-trip.

Off the original forecast, he could get back and race back north ahead of the storm which was coming from the South. But to play it safe, the Guru chose to park his car right near the terminals so in case it would snow earlier, the car wouldn’t be unreachable for several days.

Also, in Knoxville, when rentals were really cheap the Guru started low but the price was so low that he could basically upgrade all the way to drive a pseudo Sherman tank for $19 a day.

Most of the then large national group of writers on the beat and the then-quite large horde contingent on the UConn beat headed into Tennessee and we all stayed back then for a decent rate at the Holiday Inn near the old World’s Fair Grounds while the team was at the Hyatt a mile away on a big hill. 

That building is now a Marriott located next door to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

This game had extra drama because Tennessee had recently taken over the NCAA home-court win streak record for women and because after meeting the Lady Vols at home in Gampel in Storrs and then Minneapolis, it was off to the house that Pat Summitt built.

Well, the game was close but near the end off the play of Jen Rizzotti, who had replaced the graduated Rebecca Lobo as the marque player, and Kara Wolters, the Huskies took control and won.

Back in those early days of the forthcoming UConn powerhouse, the extra benefit for the media was after official business, hanging around Geno Auriemma and hear tales and tales and tales.

In fact, postgame used to be really long because there was the formal immediate after give and take with the print folk, then showtime with the then-vast local TV corp that traveled, and then, when time allowed and deadlines were not on the horizon, the shoot-the-breeze portion.

Eventually we went off, filed our stories and then the traveling corp usually dined together.

Meanwhile, up North the area was beginning to get socked in while down South it just rained most of the night until the white stuff arrived.

Now, there wasn’t a lot of accumulation happening in Knoxville, except that handling that condition that was paltry to the Yankee contingent was not something Vols folks could cope with.

In fact when daylight arrived the next morning, the Guru packed for the flight home only to be told when he got to the lobby, nobody was going anywhere, all flights were cancelled.

 Just then as we were all finishing rebooking a shot for the next day, Meghan Culmo, a member of the 1991 first UConn Final Four team, arrived to tell us, Geno wants us all over where the team was.

Well at first there was some reticence because of the hills but Guru had the heavy-duty vehicle so we all packed in as the Guru showed the local Orange group weren’t the only driving force in Knoxville.

 The hotel has since been remodeled but on that particular wintery Sunday morning, we  arrived to see a nice buffet set up, the players participating in rounds of pool, and a television beaming an NFL playoff game in which Auriemma’s beloved Philadelphia Eagles were about to be bird-handled by the arch-rival Dallas Cowboys.

As the hours went on, the Guru suddenly realized that his prediction had come true in which a Geno Saturday postgame press conference had extended and transformed into a Sunday brunch.

Anyhow, later that night, the media contingent went out for one more meal – Knoxville had many fine restaurants – and the UConn wing was to go on to Miami as the Huskies resumed their Big East schedule and the rest of us prepared to make way to attempt to get back up North.

Monday morning, the snow had totally melted and the Guru headed to the airport, turned in the rental, whose rates were about to zoom above the weekend specials, and walked to counter to look up and see a wall of blinking lights highlighting the word Cancelled.
Now came a dilemma. Reclaiming a car would cost much more, and getting back to town was no prize since the hotel rates were also going to be higher. However, the Guru shot down the walkway and managed to get the last room in the adjoining Hilton.

Meanwhile, the Guru’s main job at that time at The Inquirer – the move to sports staff  came a few years later – was to be the paper’s liason for the chain’s Knight-Ridder News Wire.

Back then, the Guru would electronically fetch through a phone line into a computer  all relative news going into the next day’s paper, run it through a computer program to clean up type commands, then send it through a phone line to Washington, where the wire people took care of the rest.

Each paper in the now defunct Knight-Ridder chain had a person with the same responsibilities.

The key is your Guru figured out how to do the job without being in the office, though while a Watts line transmission could be used with The Inquirer, the transmission back to Washington was a toll call.

But the paper paid the expenses but the Guru showed the benefits that they wouldn’t have to pay someone else overtime to fill in while he was off chasing women’s hoops coverage.

So the Guru settled in, and then looped all the paper’s weather coverage, among other news of the day, on its way.

The next morning upon returning to the gate – remember there is a car to reclaim that was dry but in Baltimore – the Guru was told the best bet was he would be connected to Pittsburgh and on to Philadelphia – BWI was still going to be closed.

At the connect, he would be placed standby to possibly get an earlier flight.

Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, a whole bunch of people who looked important arrived from Dallas, where they, too, were snowbound after the Eagles game. So we were all lumped together.

As the first available cameup, the Guru heard over the intercom at the gate, Mr. Greenberg, you got this flight, Mr. (Ron) Jaworski, we’ll get you on the next one.

But now upon getting home, the next day, the Guru had to take Amtrak to BWI to get the car so in the end the car in the garage cost more than the hotels and the weather problems negated the whole fly out of Baltimore deal.

However, there is an epilogue in that several weeks later there was a declaration that anyone who didn’t show up for work and was scheduled – never mind that the city had said everyone stay home – would be docked unless they wanted to use the day as one of their holidays.

However, when it came to the Guru, because he did the job he was scheduled to do, though it was a few pennies to do it elsewhere (the trip was paid for out of sports), he was considered to have worked his normal day.

And the moral of that story as it ended was the Guru saying, if you are going to cover the Huskies, of course you have to expect to have to deal with snow in the process.

Tomorrow: Remembering Kay Yow in Total Recall along with the normal coverage in other posts.

 -- Mel 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Individual Talents Build Dominant Teams

By Mike Siroky

The national player of the year is usually considered to be the Wooden Award winner.

Of all the national polls, the Wooden is the most traditional and legitimate.

The Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball has five nominees, 25 percent of the field, through to the semifinals.

There is no reason to think Breanna Stewart of UConn will not win it again.

But the SEC can live for now with its nominees: Diamond DeShields, sophomore guard, Tennessee; Tiffany Mitchell, senior guard, South Carolina; Victoria Vivians, sophomore forward, Mississippi State; A’ja Wilson, sophomore forward, South Carolina. 

The main snub has gotta be Courtney Walker of Texas A&M. Then again she was benched as a starter for one game last week so maybe that cost her. You have got to start all available games if you truly are among the best in America.

There were no unexpected results in the Sunday/Monday set of games.

 The Thursday games had ranked teams -- with one exception, playing unranked teams and there were two upsets.
This was also the week the conference home teams had a “We Back Pat” game in which all join in solidarity in support of the Pat Head Summitt Foundation’s Alzheimer’s fight. 

The week’s conference confrontations with the Associated Press rankings at game time: 

*No. 15 Texas A&M at No. 2 South Carolina: A&M bravely entered with a swagger, terming it a battle for No. 1. Then they proved it.

The only question, as usual, how much does it cost No. 15 to lose close at No. 2.

South Carolina is 5-0 in league play, and Texas A&M remains in second place at 3-2, underlining what we said last week, with only Mississippi State having a chance to catch the Gamecocks. That will be settled this coming Sunday at Starkville.
SC coach Dawn Staley honored center Alaina Cotes, the seventh player in program history with 1,000 points and 700 rebounds, she had 10 defensive rebounds in this one, a 58-57 edging assisted by dysfunctional free throw chances.

A&M and SC are the last two SEC programs to make the Women’s Final Four, with the Aggies winning the National Title in 2011 and the Gamecocks reaching the National Semifinals last season. 

The all-time series is now 3-2, A&M. 

The Aggies were the last team to beat the Gamecocks in Colonial Life Arena, winning 50-48 on Feb. 10, 2013.

 Since then, South Carolina has now streamed off 44 straight home wins, the nation’s longest home winning streak. They drew 15,406, the best in America this Sunday.

Texas A&M head coach Gary Blair had won three of his last five games against the nation’s No. 2 team entering this game, including a 2-2 mark against second-ranked teams while at Texas A&M.

A&M was unafraid. It led 17-16 at the end of the first. Each side went on 10-0 runs & 6-of-7 from the field during theirs. Senior SC guard Khadijah Sessions went down with a left leg injury and sat out the rest of the quarter.

A&M had a one-point edge at half.

A&M’s Courtney Williams used acupuncture to get her lower back into playing shape. After missing the previous game, she was reinserted in the second quarter. 

But she started 0-for-9 and so is obviously not right now the second scoring option. That 13 points per game is a key piece missing for the visitors.

Still, they persevered.

Jordan Jones hit back-to-back 3s with six minutes left and A&M was hanging tough, ahead 47-46. SC did not score for most of the final 1:13
It was 57-56. 

Then Sessions made a free throw but Chelsea Jennings spun in for a layup and the tie, but Sessions was awarded another free throw for the finisher.

The only statistical difference was the unfortunate trend for home teams to be awarded more free throws. 

Two evenly matched teams and SC was 11-of-19 from the line while the visitors were 5-of-8.

And, oh, that final free throw. Sessions was awarded it with less than a second on the home clock. “I was shocked,” Sessions said. “I thought they were going to let the shot clock run out and go into overtime.”

Blair took the loss on himself. 

As magnificent had been the design of the previous play, a court-length pass to Jennings which fell through with one second left, so was the grab of Sessions on the inbound by a late substitute, her only play of the game.

“That was not knowing the game,” he said. “We weren’t trying to steal the ball. As an athlete and as a coach I’ll take the blame.”

Gamecocks coach Staley acknowledged how hard it can be to keep fully aware of late-game status with players flying by everywhere and time dwindling down. She was more bothered by her team’s struggles to put the game away.

“As coaches you can review and go over late game situations,” Staley said. “As much as you do it, things can turn out looking like that. It's so unpredictable.”

SC is already at 17 wins and well clear of its chasers. A&M is in that muddle of 13-game winners but likely to earn 20.

Courtney Walker was one of three in double figures, led by Jones’ season’s-best 17.

*No. 24 Missouri at Arkansas: Mizzou is hanging in the national ratings. But this was a bad road loss, 64-52. They were down 18 at the half, so the hole was just too big.

What the Tigers must do soon is develop non-reliance on freshman shooter Sophie Cunningham. She was fine and feisty in the pre-conference season against unranked teams. This opponent only had seven wins. 

The SEC is a tough game every time. 

Missouri had single-figure output in half the quarters.

Cunningham has lost significant points off her average but still takes the most shots on the team. She has five times scored more than 20, but averages six less. She even hit 42 against Wake Forest.

The SEC only recognizes superlative rookies, like A’ja Wilson and Victoria Vivians last season. They have had carryover.

Cunningham may develop incrementally, maybe even by conference playoff time.

So, while the passion of coach Robin Pingeton may be worth validating, they need to stay on the rankings radar.

 With 15 wins, they may earn the one of the 7-8-9 expected NCAA bids, with road assignments all the way.

 They can, for instance win their final five before the conference tournament and impress the NCAA Selection Committee.

Cunningham had six points in this one. Sierra Michaelis scored 18 and Cierra Porter 14. 

In the disturbing league trend, the home team had 40 free throws awarded and the visitors 15. All five Razorbacks hit double figures. The crowd was 4,035.

Missouri coach Pingeton said: “We’ve got to do a better job taking care of the ball and having poise. I thought we did a good job on the boards.”

*LSU at No. 20 Florida: Oh my is LSU bad. Move along folks, not much to see here. The seven-win team on the road forged a 25-all halftime. Then they won the third quarter throwing up a single-digit defensive effort.

Finally, the home team showed up and won by eight, without a basket in the final 90 seconds. 

Of course, LSU scored one basket in that time span and missed everything else then kept on fouling to stop the clock. Freshman guard Eleanna Christinaki  had 15 points.

The Gators have 15 wins and could win the next several before running into Kentucky, Texas A&M and South Carolina starting at the end of the month. 

Two of those three are at home.

Florida coach Amanda Butler said of the win: “It wasn’t pretty or scripted the way we planned it but, whenever you’re able to win an SEC game, you’ve got to understand how big of a deal that is.

 "You’ve also got to understand that you won’t always play well. And to not play well and to still win is something to be celebrated.

”We did not win the third quarter. We didn’t keep them off the offensive glass. They tried to control possession and manage the clock and then, on top of that, we gave them second chances and multiple opportunities on their trips to the basket.

”In the fourth quarter we started playing tough defense and we got the rebounds. Ronni (Williams) was a huge catalyst in that and, as we continued to get those rebounds, we answered back.
“Great defense. There a so many good players and coaches in this league and as high-powered as a lot of our offenses are, it’s a league that’s rooted in great defenses and great rebounding units. 

"We want to be able to win in more than one way, and that’s satisfying knowing that we weren’t able to score a lot of points tonight yet we were able to get it done on defense.”

*Ole Miss at No. 10 Mississippi State: What State has learned to do in its recent ascendancy to the big time is win the games it should win. 

The home faithful are responding, sending the second-best crowd ever at Starkville, 7,128 to see the 79-51 walkover. It is the 16th straight home win.

State won its 17th and stood second in conference with one league loss and 11 contests to go. 

The 20-win marker is all but assured and now the fight is on to gain a home set in the Sweet 16 qualifiers.

The Bulldogs are the only challenger really standing in opposition to the South Carolina juggernaut. SC is on the way and will set the attendance record Sunday.

“Really proud of my kids,” MSU coach Vic Schaefer said. “I thought they played extremely hard. We came out and punched first. 

"We kept punching in the first half. Ole Miss is quick and athletic. They can cause you some problems. They play hard. I am not sure how the score got to what it was.

“We knew going in we would have to match their intensity. We didn’t do that in our last game. I was anxious to see how we would respond. The second and fourth quarters were big quarters for us. I was really pleased with our defense. We challenged some shots and altered some shots.”

Morgan William led the Bulldogs with 16 points. Chinwe Okorie added her SEC personal high with 14, while Teaira McCowan added 10. Playing in foul trouble most of the night, Victoria Vivians had her streak of 17 straight games scoring in double figures end, but she did have the game-high nine rebounds.

State built a 13-4 lead n less than six minutes. Ar the other end of the half, it went on a 10-3 run for a 39-23 lead at the break.

The Bulldogs then turned up the defensive pressure in the fourth quarter, an 11-0 run covering a three-minute stretch that ran the advantage to 72-42 with 5:34 left in the contest. State kept a 46-29 rebounding advantage

“Seventy-one hundred is unique in women’s basketball,” Schaefer said of the attendance. “We got the students out and that is hard to do in women’s basketball. The atmosphere was electric. It is a credit to the girls. 

"Fans come out to see a team that plays this hard. We need those people back Sunday. We need 10,000 against South Carolina.”

*Auburn at No. 9 Kentucky: This was the first league rematch of the season. 

Kentucky is fighting for No. 2 in conference with Mississippi State and Texas A&M, but the Tigers had beaten them at Auburn.

The Kats were very protected at home, as amazingly, Auburn did not get a free throw attempt awarded until less than two minutes were left, a league record for home cooking. 

Kentucky had hit 10-of-14 by the end of three, or more than the difference in the game. It also protected the nine-player roster and the 17-of 47 from the field. 

Mark Zentz, Felicia Grinter and Meadow Overstreet, obviously recruited from the stands, are certainly in line for some kind of Bluegrass honor.

UK center Evelyn Akhator was 4-of-4 from the line and 4-of-8 from the field for 12 points with 10 rebounds, four defensive. 

Usual UK high scorer Makayla Epps took a while to get in rhythm, two points in the first half, 13 for the game. She scored five in a two-minute span which kept the lead at 10.

Still without being awarded a free-throw attempt, Auburn sliced it to four with three minutes to go. 

What the heck was that? Oh yeah, Auburn at the free throw line for two. Kentucky ran out the clock on a 54-47 win. 

UK was 17-of-25 from the line. Reserve freshman guard Taylor Murray led them with 14 points, her best so far. It drew 6,171.

UK coach Matthew Mitchell was better off not commenting on the free throw disparity in the free throws.

He did not. 

“Coaching error in the first half; we did not have them lined up right,” he said.

“They really confuse you on defense and they had us confused in the first half. He noted Taylor’s mom was present and he said, “Her mom has to move down here. It was great to have her in the gym today because Taylor really did a good job.”

Auburn Head Coach Terri Williams-Flournoy took the high road and did not comment on the free throw disparity.

She concentrated on her own team.

“It’s our defense,” she said. “That is just who we are. When you talk about our culture and what we stand for, it’s just what we do. 

"That has definitely been the case and that is what we live by.

“I think just the way that we play. We box in the guards a little bit. We try to take away the angles a little bit more. They attacked it a few times but I can’t really say what specifically right now what it is we’re trying to take away. I thought we could have done a better job of trapping them a little bit more.”

She also praised Murray

“They’re live ball turnovers. She had six steals. Again, they’re live ball turnovers where she runs down and lays it up. She’s quick enough to do that. 

"Once again, it goes back to those 21 turnovers in order for us to win a tough game right in at Kentucky. You can’t turn the ball over 21 times.”

Auburn, also with 13 wins, needs to win games like this if it is to get to 20 and into the NCAAs. If they end up with 19, this is the one that sinks them. They faced South Carolina next.

*No. 10 Mississippi State at Georgia: Truly a trap game for the dog fight -- Bulldogs vs. Bulldogs – in which State lost its second straight Thursday road game, 47-43. 

Yikes! Next up is South Carolina at home on Sunday and if this didn’t eliminate them from SEC title contention, that game likely will.

It was a feel good win for Georgia, which finally has a statement win, the second in conference for a 14-5 season. 

They should be competitive for the next three games. They are 10-2 at home.

State had almost fallen out of the Top 10 by losing to Missouri. This one plus Sunday will do it for sure.

The first quarter was all even at nine, which foreshadowed bad news for State, a slow start. 

Sophomore Victoria Vivians had a 17-game double-figure scoring streak halted in the first game of the week but she already had five points at the end of one quarter. 

Vivians entered this one still leading the SEC with 17.5 ppg. She had her 20 by the start of the fourth, keeping her “a shooter must shoot” persona by going 2-of-10 on 3s.

State had scored but five in the second quarter and Georgia eight. It was never out of reach but State seemed incapable of slipping back into it and could not catch up. 

State sophomore Morgan William averages 10.4 ppg in SEC play. She had half that when crunch time arrived and finished with seven.

Georgia senior Tiaria Griffin is from Mississippi and leads her team at 14.6 per game. She only had four, but fellow-senior Shacobia Barbee scored 17 with 11 rebounds to keep the 1,920 in attendance satisfied.

Georgia had just enough to win. The Bulldogs of Athens are 12-1 this season when owning the rebounding edge. This one was even at 36. But State had more turnovers (19) than field goals (17) while Georgia got 15 points off those takeaways.

Georgia coach Joni Taylor, who may have locked up the WBCA's Maggie Dixon Award given to the top rookie coach in Division I, was understandably exultant.

“It feels good,” she said. “I am really proud and excited for our girls. They’ve weathered the storm. It's been a tough start and I was proud to see them bounce back and respond the way they did. 

“Something I can say is that they are always ready. We have a game plan every game and they come out and try to execute it to the best of their ability. They could have easily folded and quit, but they didn’t, especially tonight. 

“We didn’t have Mackenzie (Engram) and then Pachis (Roberts) goes down early, but they worked together and stuck it out. 

"Everyone was ‘All Hands on Deck’ and we know that if we get that from everybody, every night, we can beat any team in the country. That’s what good teams do, and we are trying to be a good team.”

She said they are learning to not panic.

“We just had to take a deep breath. Since we have struggled to shoot the ball the last couple of games, we have put so much pressure on every shot. 

"We have layups that are going in and out; we just need to take the time and focus on making the shot. We have plays that are clearly working, but we just need to make sure we execute them. No matter what happens, you have to continue to go down and play the same great defense because like I’ve said all year long, our defense is going to carry the year for us.”

Barbee said, “Recently we have been slipping on defense so we keyed in on that in practice, and I think it showed tonight. We need to get back to what we do, disrupt teams, make them guess on us and take bad shots.” 

As for that defense her coach loves, Barbee said, “We were in zone and that was a key focus. We boxed out well and our guards were crashing the boards, which helped make it easier to box out.” 

Mississippi State Coach Vic Schaefer was generous in his praise of Georgia.

“Hats off. You have to give those kids a lot of credit tonight because they played their hearts out. They really did a great job defending us. 

“We probably set the game back 30 years the first half offensively. I was proud of our kids for hanging in there and continuing to compete. We had some things happen in the second half that were obviously hard to overcome, and I was proud of them for continuing to fight. If you force the other team’s point guard into 11 turnovers, usually you’re going to win the game. I’ll give that kid (Marjorie Butler) some credit. She didn’t flinch, she kept competing and kept fighting.”

*No. 2 South Carolina at Auburn. Great teams get great wins on the road in the toughest conference in the land.

South Carolina went 8:29 without a field goal in the first half, missing nine straight in that stretch and still won going away, 74-58, the first league team to 18 wins. 

South Carolina’s four, four-year seniors – Asia Dozier, Tiffany Mitchell, Tina Roy and Khadijah Sessions – average a combined 35.2 points per SEC game. The missed it this game, but it was Roy who snapped the drought with a 3 three minutes into the second quarter.

A’ja Wilson, the four-time SEC player of the week already this season, is on her way to being league MVP as the best player on the best team. 

She scored 11 and Mitchell 13. Alaina Coates scored 17 and had 10 rebounds, her ninth double-double in this undefeated season. Roy, off the bench, scored a dozen.

“This team has seen everybody’s best and we’ve prepared ourselves to seeing people's best, especially in the first quarter,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “We just have to do a better job of completing 40 minutes of pretty good play.

“We came out in the second quarter looking to push the tempo a little bit, looking to generate some offense from our defense, and I think we did that. We got good looks on the inside. We knocked down a couple of 3s. We just got in the groove and it felt good just kind of widening our lead.”

The Gamecocks closed the first half on an 18-0 run to build a 33-20 edge. Despite that frigid interval, South Carolina still shot 27 of 52 (51.9 percent). They threw a five-spot on the home team in defense in the second quarter,

Auburn's two leading scorers, Montgomery and Tra'Cee Tanner, were held in check. Montgomery scored seven points on 2-of-11 shooting and Tanner had nine after picking up three first-half fouls.

*No 23 Missouri at No. 13 Texas A&M: This was everything a matchup of ranked teams should be, even overtime and the home team finally won, 81-77 

The 3,844 enjoyed quite a show. The Aggies are still missing Courtney Williams, their second-leading scorer out with a bad back. 

Chelsea Jennings scored 22 -- one of three Texas A&M players to score 20-plus. With under a minute left in overtime, A&M worked the clock down but Courtney Walker missed a jumper. 

Jennings grabbed the offensive rebound, was fouled and made both free throws with 28.8 seconds left for a 78-75 lead. 

Jordan Frericks made a backdoor cut on an inbound pass and hit the layup to cut it to 78-77 with 27 seconds left. 

A&M broke the press, and Walker was fouled with 12.1 seconds left and made both free throws for a three-point lead.

Texas A&M opted to foul with five seconds left. Lindsey Cunningham missed both free throws and the Aggies secured the rebound.

Walker and Jordan Jones each scored 20 for A&M. Walker made three free throws with eight seconds left in regulation to force overtime. She also made the final basket of regulation, with 43 seconds left. 

Frericks led Missouri with 23 points and 12 rebounds. Cierra Porter added 20 and 10. Both were well above their scoring averages.

The Aggies moved up two spots by nearly upsetting South Carolina, so good for the voters. Now, if a loss to a team ranked 10 teams ahead of you wins at home and that knocks you out, bad on the voters. The Tigers can compete successfully in the next four.

Sophie Cunningham, the freshman of the week in the league, had been averaging 14. She had nine, but missed a layup and had a turnover in the final minute.

A&M coach Gary Blair said, “What a comeback. We were down four at the end. We made some plays down the stretch and they made a poor turnover near the end of the half. I was proud of the start, 13-4. 

Then we got into foul trouble with Ariel (Howard) and (Taylor) Cooper did a serviceable job for us. She didn’t need to score. She just needed to be out there guarding Cunningham. We saw about 38 minutes of zone and we attacked it some. It was a great win.”

Yes, he said, a freshman is worth the focus.

“I thought we did a pretty good job on Cunningham the whole night. Their two bigs hurt us the whole night because we couldn’t keep them off the boards. Missouri could easily be a Sweet 16 team. I think they are that good. We are fortunate to get a win. 

"They are a good ball club and life on the road is tough. Their point guard Frericks killed us in the first half. It was just a great basketball game.”

He stuck with his senior leader, despite her stumbling start.

“Walker had two points at the half but we had to stick with her,” he said.

“Sometimes your shot just isn’t falling. She was shooting against a lot of size all night and it was hard for her to get space. But in the end she hit those free throws down the stretch. That’s tough.”

So now his team can regroup with a week off between games

“This loss would have been devastating. We led the game by 14 points. We have a bye this weekend coaches will be out recruiting. 

“We could not afford to lose at home knowing the schedule we have coming up. We have to take care of business against Alabama, that place is going to be crowded and loud. Then we can start looking toward South Carolina.”

Walker, said, of the free throws that were needed to tie it, “I wasn’t really trying to think about the free throws during the timeout. 

"I was just listening to Coach Blair and Coach Starkey talk about what I needed to do on the defensive end. Then I could just step up to the line and knock them down.

“In the first half, I was thinking about the shots too much. Not giving enough legs on the shots, I was shooting with all arm. Then, I hit a shot on the wing in the second half and that’s when i felt comfortable again.”

A&M guard Jones said, “We try to not to worry about the score and just worry about doing our job each possession. Coming so close against South Carolina showed us that we can play that well against anybody else in the country. 

It was a little bit emotional for me knowing that this is the team we faced when I got our hurt and  our team really faltered last year.

" But once the game tipped-off we put that game behind us and went out and got the win.”

A&M guard Chelsea Jennings said they took the blame on themselves.

“We let Morgan Stock get loose on the 3,” she said, “and our defense wasn’t doing well which lead to open buckets, but I think we picked up our defense in overtime.

"Courtney Walker, she didn't score much in regulation, but she scored a lot in the overtime, and that's what big players do.

“I think it's (the break) a big deal. We can get our legs back under us, get some rest, and get ready for Alabama.”

Missouri coach Robin Pingeton is in love with her team.

“I think A&M is just a really good team, a veteran team,” she said. “We have some young kids there’s a learning curve there and they are in the SEC, night in and night out it’s a good, tough ball game.

“We just felt early on in the game, they were getting some second shot opportunities off transition, getting some good looks going downhill at the rim. 

"They were getting the rebounds in transition and so we needed to do a better job of eliminating the second shot opportunities. Then we just needed to contest harder, we were moving on the catch versus on the flight of the ball. We just needed to work harder on being quicker on the pass.”

She almost expected Walker’s 10 overtime points.

“Not surprised, she is such a good player. We kept talking about her in our timeouts, even though she didn’t have one of her typical games that she usually does, you can’t forget about her because she is a veteran player, used to taking big time shots, and as the game got a little closer down the stretch, you saw her trying to make something happen for her team.”

This is just the second women's ranked matchup at A&M this season. The  Aggies won three road games against  ranked teams The Aggies have won seven of the past eight. Last season, Missouri beat A&M 70-69 on a 3 by Maddie Stock with 0.1 remaining.
Missouri started the season by winning all 13 of their non-conference games, and have gone 2-3 in SEC play, including a win against No. 6 Mississippi State on Jan. 14. 

*No. 9 Kentucky 14-2 at Ole Miss: Another league team likely fell out of the Top 10 by losing to an unranked team, 73-65. 

Such is life on the road in the toughest conference in America. Rebels coach Matt Insell was an assistant to Kats coach Matthew Mitchell for five seasons before coming to Oxford. He has a 2-2 record against his former employer.

Shequila Joseph scored 21, Shandricka Sessom and A'Queen Hayes 14 each. It is the second conference win for Ole Miss. It stopped a four-game losing streak.

Joseph came into the game averaging just 5.7 points per game, but was hot from the opening tip. She was 8-of-12 from the field and 5-of-7 from 3 range.

Kentucky trailed 59-47 early in the fourth quarter, but cut the advantage to 61-57 with 3:46 remaining.

 Ole Miss' Sessom responded by hitting a layup while being fouled and then made the free throw to give the Rebels a 64-57 advantage that proved too much for the Wildcats to overcome.

Kentucky has lost two of its last three. Makayla Epps led the Wildcats with 22 points.

Ole Miss controlled the game from the outset, taking the lead for good early in the first quarter when Bretta Hart hit a layup to make it 8-7.

Kentucky kept it close throughout the first half, but could never quite overtake the Rebels, who hit several timely 3s to keep the Wildcats behind. Ole Miss led 35-31 at halftime.

It was an unexpected victory for Ole Miss, which had lost four straight and was getting crushed in the process. They were coming off a 79-51 loss to No. 10 Mississippi State and had lost all four games by at least 19 points.

But the Rebels gained confidence from the Joseph's hot shooting and managed to hold off Kentucky in the final minutes.

It was the first win for Ole Miss in its new basketball home called The Pavilion. 

“What a great win for our program, to get a win over a Top 10 team,” Insell said.

“It speaks volumes of where we are going with the process and what we are doing with this program. 

We got off to a rough start in conference, starting 1-4, but I told the team yesterday we have to get back to playing Ole Miss Basketball.

“We were taking blows like in a boxing match, and eventually you’re going to fall down. We had to start delivering blows with our defensive intensity. Yesterday in practice I challenged them to do that, and I think we had our best practice of the year.

“We hit some adversity starting 1 -4 and we had to find a way to get out of it. Are we out of it yet? No, by no means. 

“But we’re in a 12-game season right now and we started that with State and lost. I told them if they have a .500 or a winning record in those 12 games we’ll have seven, eight, nine wins in the league. I felt good about the match up.” 

Junior UK post player Evelyn Akhator had been averaging a double-double with 12.1 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. She had two points and one rebound at half. She finished with 13 points, 6-of-9 from the field, but only five rebounds. As a JC transfer, it is her first season in the league and we’d vote her rookie of the year.

*Alabama at No. 22 Florida: No one has to believe a lot in the Gators, but they are winning as a ranked team against unranked visitors and are 9-2 at home, with 16 overall wins after this 80-72 win.

A 46-31 halftime edge was offset by a 15-30 third quarter, but that was all Alabama had. Florida went 12 deep in scorers, topped by superlative freshman guard Eleanna Chistinaka’s 16 points in a 31-point week and the strongest bid for rookie of the week. 

She was 5-of-9 from the field, 6-of-7 from the line. Junior Ronni Williams scored 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting. Classmate Simone Westbrook scored 11 points, with six rebounds, four assists and four steals.

A season-high 36 turnovers (the most since 1988) was offset by a season-best 54.2 percent from the field, including 6-of-16 on 3s. 

The Gators also outrebounded Alabama, 40-25, with a 16-3 edge in second-chance points. Florida outscored the Crimson Tide, 33-29, in points off turnovers, as its defense created 29 takeaways. 

Florida won rebounds by 15.

The Gators built a 15-4 lead with baskets from six different players over the first 7:13.

Alabama cut it to five at 8:28 until halftime, but a 14-2 run that included 12 points from Carla Batchekor, Christinaki and Haley Lorenzen pushed the lead to 17. 

Then Peoples and Christinaki made consecutive layups Brooke Copeland launched a 3 and the home team was up by 21.

Alabama would not go quietly, all the way back to take a 57-56 lead with 2:31 remaining in the third. 

Two Christinaki free throws gave Florida the lead for the final time, as it closed on a 15-3 run over the final 6:17.

Florida coach Amanda Butler said, “It was a very interesting game. I can only imagine what (viewers) are thinking. 

"I was really proud of our first-half effort. I thought that at moments that was some of our best basketball. There is no one in this league that you can feel comfortable leading.
“You have to give Alabama credit for their play down the stretch in the second quarter, and they dominated the third quarter. It is a really well-coached team. I think it is a talented team. I am kind of like a broken record. It is another SEC team and that makes it a great win. 

"To find a way to win is pretty incredible. I think it really speaks to the character of this team.

“I think Simone (Westbrook’s) defense and diving on the floor again was an amazing defensive effort play. She gets knocked out of bounds and fouled at the same time. I think those are the things that our team really feeds off of and it's great. No question. 

"She just plays all out and has the mentality that ‘I am going to sacrifice my body for the team.’ I think those are the things that really get us fired up.”

Then there was that 15-0 run to retake the lead in the fourth quarter.

“It felt great,” she said.
“It felt really good. I think we have so much confidence in our fourth quarter and continuing to believe in each other. We continue to do what we call the ‘right’ things over and over again. It is a different combination of players it seems like each and every time. The mission is still the same. 

"The priorities are still the same. I thought Carla's minutes for us today were critical, and having her on the floor at the end of the game and having that smaller lineup were all positives.
“It is turning out to be that is Florida basketball this year. Do what you have to do in the fourth quarter no matter how ugly it looks. Fourth quarters have been really good for us.”

Senior guard Batchelor said, “We are just doing the little things, boxing out, rebounding, looking for my 
teammates and doing what we do in practice.”

Junior Guard/Forward Ronni Williams said, “Fight, hustle. You get that every day from Carla.

“The thing that we need to work on and improve on is our turnovers. We have to control the ball and handle the ball. Our fight and how aggressive we play and our toughness is there. We are down and we don't let it get to us and we pick it right back up. Teams are going to go on runs and we are going to go on our runs, but we have to stay composed and keep playing together.”

*Vanderbilt at No. 18 Tennessee: It took awhile for UT to get its 12th win, 58-49. Maybe the  Lady Vols will make 20 after all.

UT has lost three at home. 

Tennessee was already almost out of the Top 20 before the Notre Dame laugher Monday night in South Bend, Ind., in which they debuted their funeral gray uniforms.

Besides being a home game against an unranked state foe, this is a game Tennessee had to have before the groans from Rocky Top started turning into rumbles for a regime change. 

"There are enough haters out there who wondered once again about interrupting an SEC season for Monday’s predictable loss at Notre Dame. They may have already played their way out of hosting the Sweet 16 qualifiers, which would be another step back.

Vandy had two more overall wins.

All nice tributes on national cable to the former coach aside, this team and this coach needs wins in a hurry.

Traditionally tough on defense, Vandy was allowing only 51.1 points per contest in 17 games, so their defense was on track. Offensively, VU was averaging 66.3 points per game, scoring fewer than 60 points eight times, including five of its last six. It is worse for Tennessee, putting up only 66.6 points per game, the lowest in program history.

Vanderbilt pushed back into this one by winning the fourth quarter, twice having possession and the deficit at three only to turn it over under pressure. 

Tennessee’s free throw parade was six straight.

Tennessee is led in scoring by redshirt sophomore guard Diamond DeShields, who is averaging 15.4 points per game. She had zero second-half points until being awarded two o the final free throws.

Senior forward Bashaara Graves and redshirt sophomore center Mercedes Russell also hit for 10 or more points per game at 10.9 and 10.8, respectively. Neither hit double figures. UT was outrebounded at home by a shorter team.

UT started a pressing defense with its bigs, Graves and Russell, dominating, though Russell had two fouls. 

They scored off their press and led, 17-10, Jamie Nared with five and DeShields with four. 

They needed them all. They shot 80 percent from the floor into the second quarter with 15 points off turnovers, when it was 26-20. 

Russell stayed on the bench and UT settled for a three-point halftime edge. 

DeShields had nine, but was 4-of-10 from the floor. With Russell in the lineup everything settled down for the home team’s 16-7 third quarter.

 Obviously, her impact was grounding the defense. 

Freshman guard T’ea Cooper had held down the devastation when starting while injured players got better. 

She came off the bench with 11 points by the end of the third, 13 for the game and wrestling the ball away from a much taller Commodore for a final possession.

These two rematch Feb. 11 at Vanderbilt and there is no reason to expect a home loss.

Still, Tennessee never trailed.

Warlick said, “It was a great win for us. We didn't establish a new record by losing three in a row, so I'm pleased with that. We had two great practices and it carried over to the game. I thought our defense was solid, obviously until the fourth quarter. 

“We got a little lax, and Vanderbilt did what they needed to do, penetrate and get us to foul them and stop the clock. So, we have to be a little bit more mindful of the fourth quarter. But, really, really pleased with the overall team effort.

“Te’a’s defense was outstanding. I mean, outstanding. I think we kind of simplified our package for her. I think she took makeable shots. She only took one 3. She’s really good at getting inside the defense. I don’t think she went too far into the lane. 

"I just thought she played heady and smart. I think she took good shots. She didn't rush a shot, probably until the end.
“She’s got to get better with watching the clock and getting a better shot off when the clock's running down. But, I just think she was solid and probably the most focused she’s been in a long time.”

The offense has been in a rut. Warlick said Cooper is as introspective as anyone."

“I think probably all of them have felt that, about losing confidence in their shot,” Warlick said. “We’ve been shooting a lot. We’ve been talking about it. I can’t recall tonight too many bad shots. It helps we kept our turnovers down. That gave us more opportunities to get shots at the basket. We had 15 assists, so I think we distributed the ball well. I don’t recall us really quick-shooting the basketball.”

At the end, UT coaches expected Vanderbilt to get the ball to guard Rebekah Dahlman.

”I thought Dahlman had a great game,” Warlick said. “She’s a competitor. She’s solid. Stats were outstanding. They were going to go to her. We just wanted to make sure that we stayed on her. We didn't want to give up a 3. We didn’t want to foul when they were penetrating, but we did. 

"That's the part we have to get a little bit more disciplined. But I thought the last three minutes, we were solid. I thought Dahlman was going to get it and she did.”

She is upset with her team’s endgame.

“We just fouled,” she said. “We fouled. To be disciplined for three quarters, and then towards the end, just be undisciplined and foul. To Tennessee and all of us, it may not look like a foul, but officials call it. 

“You’ve got to live with it. You don’t even give the officials the opportunity to get near somebody to call a foul. That’s what I’m saying. We weren’t very disciplined. You’ve got to be mindful of how they're calling the game down the stretch. Either we’re bumping them or hitting them and hey, it’s called. Our kids can give us an expression or say ‘I didn't foul,’ but it’s called. So yes, you did foul.”

She likes the idea defensive pressure is part of her game. 

“We have pressed every team except Notre Dame, they had such strong outside long-range 3 point shots,” she said.

“It’s been our thing, and we decided to go with that. Once they adjusted to that, we went to a 3/4 press and a 1-2-2 press. That gives us the energy and gets us going, I thought it was very effective. 

"We saw how they handled it and then that’s how we want to play, we want to turn you over and play fast.”

So, in the end, a win is a win is a win. 

“Any win is a great win,” Warlick said. “Especially when we stick to the game plan, and our kids played hard. I didn’t have to coach effort, energy or heart. We aren’t going to play a perfect game, we will make mistakes. 

“I will say, tonight the mistakes we made did not affect how we played the game. We played as hard as we could on the defensive end. I am excited about that, and this game correlates our last two practices. 

"We have been focused, attentive, and focused on the game plan. We watched a lot of tape and got a lot of shots up, and the opportunity to get shots up has helped us a lot as well.”

Now it is back to being road warriors after the support of 11,159, the largest crowd for women’s hoops this night.

“We’ve lost two games at home, that’s unusual for us,” Warlick said. “ To get a game here, and to get success is key. Vanderbilt is a hard team to play, and hard to beat, so it is a great win. 

"Now that gives us a little bit of momentum to go to Kentucky and to go to Mississippi State, and it’s always a dogfight there. 

"We are going to have to be solid, and make sure our defense isn’t the fourth-quarter defense from tonight. It has to be the first three quarters defense. I like how we feel right now, and this is a tough stretch for us. We have to stay solid.”

Tennessee guard Cooper said she worked hard to get out of her slump.

“It was frustrating,” Cooper said, “and I think being mentally strong was very important. I had great support around me and I just knew I was capable of getting out of there. I didn’t think that was the kind of player I was so I was just determined to do better.”

Tennessee’s DeShields talked defense.

“In general we have pretty good perimeter defense around the 3-point line defending shooters, she said. “It’s just when teams begin to penetrate on us, that’s where we’ve been struggling this season.

 I think we’ve been pretty consistent from the 3 line with our defense all year but like I said before we just had to work on our one-on-one drill penetration defense and knowing our personnel and who to help off of. I know two of my blocks were from the help side so really just knowing who you were on, and who you could help off of.”

She said Cooper’s contributions cannot be overlooked.

“They (the Cooper shots) were huge for us obviously. We were struggling at that particular moment in time and for her to be able to step up and hit that many shots back-to-back it was just huge. I’m just happy for her because being in the slump that she was in; I was really proud that she was able to step up. It showed that she still is that player and she’s still capable.”

She also praised Vanderbilt.

“I think it’s just an eye opener for us. We matched their intensity throughout the entire game. When they went on their runs, we went on ours and in the past it hasn’t been that way. 

"The other teams that we’ve lost to or even beaten; when they go on their runs we kind of deflate. Tonight I really believed that we had that fight in us to keep going and we were determined to win the game.”

Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said her team was ready for the UT defenders.

"Yeah, we've worked a lot on press break obviously,” she said. “We had the same issue at Ole Miss. They pressed us and pressured us, but we have been getting better. 

"We have to go against it everyday in practice and I was pretty confident that we could handle it. But, I think they came out so aggressively, they had just lost three straight and were mad. 

“They were going to fight hard, and I thought they were very, very aggressive, very active, and turned us over quite a bit right away. That was really the difference in the game; points off turnovers. Everything else was pretty equal."

Then came success in the fourth quarter.

“Well, we went small,” Balcomb said.
“ We've been working a lot of different lineups. We have a lot of depth right now. Our players said, ‘Give us different things.’

“So, we have a lot of options and answers to go to in different games and different match-ups. One of the things that we decided to do when we weren’t getting in the paint, was just to go small and try to get points off of defense, which has been our go-to all season. 

"We are highly ranked defensively and we’ve created a lot of energy and been able to make runs from our defense. It loosens up our offense a little bit.

"I'm really proud of our team tonight. To come back against a team that is fighting the way they did, I can't ask anymore from them. Yes, we had two possessions we did not execute to win the game, but it was right there. That's all you want on the road.”

She said no one can predict the SEC.

“I’ll tell you, I’ve been in this league for 14 years and there is no way I could predict what was going to happen. I’m really focused on our program and our team and getting better, and taking it one day at a time. 

“I haven't been looking around a lot. The more I can keep my team’s eyes on their own progress and not worry about what everybody else is going to do. I do think it is a wide-open race; that’s when you have to really focus in on yourself. You can do special things. I think anybody can do that in our league this year.”

We told you in advance the Lady Vols would get blown out at Notre Dame, interrupting the SEC season for no reason.  UT had won the first 20 in the series with the original coach. ND has won five straight with its best coach. 

But it did continue the season 50/50 trend of losing after a win. It’s happened five times. Middling teams do such things.

UT now goes to higher-ranked Kentucky and Mississippi State.  Not too long ago, these were gettable games. Each would be an upset win now. State starts that 10-game final stretch which is an NCAA metric for getting into its tournament.