Mike Siroky's SEC Notebook: Trends Forming Despite Being Still Early
The Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball has all but set its agenda for the season just begun.
Barring injuries (defections are over), the teams without a possibility to win the regular-season marathon and not the post-season official money title are . . . wait a minute; there are only two teams with the conditional chance: South Carolina and Mississippi State, the top duo of seven (for the first time) ranked teams in the most honored conference in America.
The mantra of history is clear: Defend home court and you win the SEC season.
Everyone else has lost at home already.
The hash will be settled on the 24th of this month when SC visits lovely Starkville.
The SEC coaches will tell us it is not that simple.
Yes all the games have to be played.
But that play date is the start of the final 10 games of the regular season; an NCAA Selection Committee magic bean for inclusion in its moneyball tournament.
SC is approaching the UConn level. Hence the No.2 national ranking and the ability to choose its own Regional assignment, earning it by domination, which this season means an appearance in an SEC town on the way to Indy and the Final Four, Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.
Sure, the hometown Kats may be there as well, but they’d have to be a No. 2 or No. 3 seed. By the way, Lexington will host three straight years. Wonder why Knoxville or South Bend did not bid . . .
The NCAA pretends it does not like conference rematches. But it does not pretend it wants to sell tickets and that lineup would do so for a conference final.
Ohio State ought to earn a good seed elsewhere.
So, given that UConn is in a conference all by itself, a microcosm of being in a universe all by itself, it will stay home in Bridgeport, Conn. Dallas is another regional this year and look out for Baylor and/or Texas. That leaves the badlands of Sioux Falls, South Dakota suddenly an attractive spring break destination for the first time in that city’s history.
The No. 2 and No. 3 seeds there immediately become goals for the majority of the playing world, even if Notre Dame or the Big Ten’s best is the No. 1.
By the way, the 2017 sites also include Bridgeport with Lexington.
While it may seem depressing to be able to map all of this out in January, remember this: It has ever been thus in women’s college basketball.
There is one super elite team, a dropoff to even No. 2-3-4 and then all the rest are just magic lotto beans in a bag.
As the SEC strives to place 10 league teams – 20-game winners – in the payoff of the national playoff, the set of league games saw no boffo changes but did see an interesting record for slow starts and traced the continuing slow demise of a once-dominating team among three Thursday upset losses by ranked teams.
The rankings at the start of each game report reflect the ratings at game time.
*No. 20 Missouri at No 2 South Carolina. The SEC early game of the week matching two (at the time) Top 20 teams did not bode well for the young Tigers, newly on the national stage, visiting the best team in conference with enough talent and coaching to make the Final Four by writing their own destination tickets earned through conference play.
The only real questions were how much did SC want the point spread to be at the end and how much do you fall if you are bashed at a team 18 places ahead of you in the national assessment.
The immediate answer to the first question: SC 83, Mizzou 58. The Gamecocks hit their 42nd straight home win.
In the ascension of the past five seasons, what will be known as the Dawn Staley Era has now amassed more than half of the program’s all-time conference wins.
It started slowly, which was good for the visitors, but still 7-0 down. By the time it was 14-3, still in the first, Mizzou’s best scorer was on the bench with two fouls and they don’t have enough depth to cover that.
The rout was on.
SC won every quarter, of course.
Missouri threw every player they had at them and still only managed 20 percent from the floor in the half. South Carolina was not playing like the No. 2 team in the nation, so maybe give the visitors some credit.
But the unchallenged Gamecocks didn’t have to play so well. A’ja Wilson and Tiffany Mitchell each had nine at the intermission. They could score as much as they needed to
Coach Dawn Staley interrupted her own rhythm by going 10 deep. They had 10 steals and six blocks and caused a dozen turnovers.
Missouri did not fold after a 12-point first-quarter deficit. At one point in the third, they had played them all but even after that. Maybe they jut need to convince themselves they deserve to be on the national stage.
They lost the second quarter by six and the third and fourth by four.
Mitchell had 19, one of four Gamecocks in double figures. Wilson had 11 points and 11 rebounds and Alaina Coates also hit a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds, making the eighth times this season at least two Gamecocks doubled in the same game.
They have reached 15 wins with plenty left to hit that first goal of 20.
There were almost 16,000 in attendance, the nation’s top for the day (Tennessee was the national No. 2).
Missouri used 10 scorers. “Give South Carolina all the credit,” Tiger coach Robin Pingeton said. “They are a really good team. 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.”
“Missouri has a lot of great pieces” Staley observed. “ They're able to just flow and work their offense. They are probably one of the hardest teams in the country to guard. We just couldn't relax on anybody. We didn't want anyone to get open looks. We wanted to make them work for every shot that they made and every shot that they took."
Before this game, another backup guard, the second in two weeks, left the SC program. This time, it is sophomore Kaydra Duckett, a player in eight games this season and 20 in her rookie year. It leaves them with a manageable 11 players.
*Arkansas at No. 7 Mississippi State.
The paper lion that is Arkansas always starts well and State does not. Still, super scorer Victoria Vivians got off early for the home team in the 80-55 win, with all of her 11 first half points in the 19-17 start, with three 3s.
Her first two hits were 3s. Arkansas scored the final six of the first quarter.
State took a 10-point lead to the break room. Seven players had scored.
That’s the definition of State’s offense; Vivians will do enough to lead them and everyone else will cover all her misses.
It was 15 at the end of the third. Ketara Chapel was 5-of-6 from the field for 13 points and Chimwe Okkorie was 4-of-5 for 11. She was 3-of-4 from the line; Chapel was 3-of-3.
"It shows we have a lot of depth," Chapel said. "Different people step on different nights, so we don't have to always count on Victoria even though she's a great player."
Of Chapel, State coach Vic Schaefer said, “That’s a good night for anybody. When you’ve got her getting 19 and Dominique (Dillingham) getting 16, it really takes some pressure off Victoria and others.”
They drew 5,792 for their 11th straight win and conference best 15th.
Arkansas coach Jimmy Dykes said he isn’t surprised Mississippi State’s offense kept rolling even with Vivians struggling.
“That's more than just a one-man team,” Dykes said.
*No. 10 Kentucky at Georgia. Poor young Bullpups. They still have a chance to make the NCAA tournament with 20 wins as the ninth or 10th league team.
The program has only missed twice and should have been in last year.
But these first three league games against ranked teams have been a brutal challenge, even if they almost upset Texas A&M in the second one. Instead they are 0-3 after losing another home match, 64-53.
Kentucky might have been a good trap game for an inconsistent UK. But the Kats came out firing, spreading the ball and hitting 60 percent from the field. But Them’ Dawgs adjusted and that went quickly away.
UK took a 10-point lead at the break, with no one in double figures. They then threw a nine-spot defense at them in the third and won easily.
Makayla Epps led four in double figures with 13. Evelyn Akhafor doubled again, 10 each points and rebounds. Alexis Jennings kept the symmetry, 12 points and rebounds. Georgia spread its scoring among nine players.
UK coach Matthew Mitchell said, “Great, great win for our team and we had to fight for it. We said before the game that this was going to be the toughest game so far.
“We just have so much respect for Georgia and their defensive intensity. I knew it was going to be a tough, tough game, and it was, so we are extremely proud of our team. They fought with a lot of grit and determination.
“Really, really proud that we can get out of here with a win tonight. Proud of our players, and I want to compliment Georgia. They were really, really tough today, and we are glad to be leaving here with a victory.”
Joni Taylor of Georgia knew the SEC would be this tough.
“We knew that it would be a lot more difficult when SEC play started,” she said.
“At the same time, we’re not doing some things that we’ve always done. We’re not executing. In SEC play that will kill you.
“That’s things we’ve talked about, and it’s now coming to fruition. It’s a catch-22 because you need to play Caliya [Robinson], you need to play Shanea [Armbrister] because they bring you things offensively, and you’re going to need them to be better when they’re out there.
“Lack of execution cannot happen in this league because there are great players and coaches, so you’re going to be scouted every single night.
"But I think I said the very first loss, after Michigan State, is that we can’t rely on our halfcourt offense to carry us and that is what you have seen in SEC play. We haven’t been able to get out and run in transition.
“We are not a team that can score one-on-one in the half court, and that is what is happening.
“It’s a process. We’ve talked about January since the beginning of the season. It’s a process, it’s not a sprint, and we’ve got to have some resiliency about us.
“That’s why some people didn’t play as much in the second half because I didn’t like their body language, I didn’t like their effort, and we have got to be consistent everyday from their body language to what they bring to the table.
"Taking scoring out of the equation, there’s going to be nights that you struggle to score but there are other things you can do, and when you don’t do those things, you’re going to come sit. So for me it’s about coaching up young players, but it’s the process.
"That’s the way we’ve got to look at it, and our players have got to be resilient.”
Georgia senior guard Marjorie Butler agrees.
“I think it’s a matter of execution,” Butler said. “As you can tell from stats we are not shooting the ball very well, but that is because we aren’t executing the offense and getting higher percentage shots.
“This is the SEC, and we knew coming in to conference play that teams scout more and they play much tougher against us. It’s not an excuse because we just need to get back to practice and execute the game plan.”
*No. 13 Texas A&M at LSU. The BenGals were part of the Aggies’ death knell last season. So what do they do? An all-time worst 1-of-12 start from the field.
But LSU is so bad, it only led by four at the first break. And they charged admission to see this.
It was fun to watch on the league’s network. You will never again see a team start so badly and win so easily, basically forfeiting the first quarter, 53-35.
Courtney Williams was unavailable, her first non-play of the season and 13.8 points average off the books. She has a lower back injury and is being evaluated daily.
Each side scored 11 in the second quarter so the LSU lead remained at four. It was time to coach.
Gary Blair got inside their heads. They had 11 rebounds and one turnover as they took the lead at 28-21.
Courtney Walker, averaging a league-leading 21.7, was the catalyst, hitting 21.
Walker said coach Gary Blair’s halftime message was concise.
“The main two points were we had 13 turnovers,” she said. “LSU wasn’t necessarily turning them into fast break points, but they were getting more possessions than we were.
"Our focus was not to turn the ball over and take care of the ball. It didn’t matter what we were running. The other thing was bringing our energy up.
"We weren’t really playing with a lot of energy. Partially that had to do with us not making shots.
“To get our momentum going, we came out in our press. I think that really helped us a lot with our turnovers and pushing on the break.”
Forward Anriel Howard said, “We weren’t focusing as a team or making our shots (in the first half). We started out very slowly, but in the second half we came back and started making more shots.”
A&M used a 19-1 run to erase a 10-point deficit that started down 19-9 with 2:37 left in the second quarter and ended with the Aggies up 28-20 with 4:22 left in the third quarter.
The also threw single-digit defenses at the home team in the first, third and fourth quarters.
It is Texas A&M’s fourth comeback of nine points or more to win; the third in A&M’s past six. A&M is 5-1 in those six games.
Walker cleared 20 points for the third consecutive game, seventh time this season, and 26th time in her career. She scored in double figures for the eighth straight game, 15th time this season, and 88th time in her career. She is the SEC’s leading scorer in conference play
Howard had a career-high 14 rebounds, the program’s best of the season.
Jasmine Lumpkin scored in double figures for the first time in her career, with a season-high 11. She had two double-figure scoring games at Michigan State in 2014-15.
Rachel Mitchell broke a tie with Adaora Elonu (2008-12, 88 blocks) for sole possession of ninth on A&M’s career blocks list. Mitchell has 89 career blocks.
This is the first time in 106 games that only one of the trio of Jordan Jones, Courtney Walker and Courtney Walker has started a game.
At least two of the three seniors have started every game since Dec. 28, 2012, which includes every SEC regular season and SEC Tournament game in school history.
Jones did play as a reserve.
Blair, of course had his own style of capturing the game’s identity.
“I thought they were going to give a prize out to which team could score first. That was some bad basketball.
“That’s the only way to put it. Both teams were trying as hard as they could. We had some good shots and they did too. They just weren’t meant to be.
“ I told the commentator we set the game of basketball back 20 years by how both teams played in the first half. Being down only 19-15 and shooting how we did, it just wasn’t pretty. How would you like at the end of the game to realize (Chelsea) Jennings had two points, and has been lighting it up.
"Courtney Williams was on the bench the whole ball game. Both of my two five players had zero points. Jordan Jones, who didn’t start, came in and had four points. Somehow we still win the game. Sometimes that’s what depth is all about.
“Give LSU credit. They just won a ball game (vs Ole Miss). Their hustle was good. They were beating us to loose balls. Like Nikki (Fargas) said in the paper, that’s what they had to do to make up for them not having many offensive threats. A lot of their offensive threats were sitting on the bench and former players sitting in the stands.”
*Auburn at No. 12 Tennessee. In its schizophrenic season, Tennessee has followed a loss with a win.
Auburn has already beaten Kentucky, but that was on the plains of Alabama.
Did not happen in Knoxville, where UT ran away, 79-52
Tennessee started strongly, its big three handling the offense, Diamond DeShields, Mercedes Russell and Bashaara Graves leading early.
A 23-10 second quarter made it a 31-26 halftime.
DeShields had 13 and Russell 10, with 11 rebounds, each 5-of-10 from the field. Russell had three blocks and DeShields two. Coach Holly Warlick had reached into her bench for 10 points.
At last, everyone seemed on one script.
Tennessee won every quarter, no drama. DeShields finished with 25 points, seven assists and five defensive rebounds. She can do this every game if she does not have to worry about her teammates.
Graves – where have her points been? -- was 8-of-9 from the field for a season-high 18. Russell got her double-double, 10 points and 13 rebound, nine defensive.
UT hit 60 percent from the field for the game. The 11th win came in its best game so far and the 11,539 appreciated it.
It was a Lady Vol alumni game, with many introduced in various ceremonies.
But they had already contributed to this game.
Warlick was so much more relaxed than the previous game which ended in a post-game rant that the players were not paying attention.
"It was fun,” she said. “It was a fun game. It was fun to watch. I loved sitting there watching it."
The players did Pay attention to the game plan.
"Absolutely,” Warlick said. “ Half of the time, I held up a shooting chart.
"Every shot was in the paint in the first quarter except maybe one or two. The same went for the second quarter. There is a strong correlation between taking good shots and having a higher percentage chance to make them.
"I thought we didn't quickly shoot the basketball for the most part. We took good shots. We moved and cut and got inside the zone. We did a lot of things that we have been talking about. We have been working on our half court zone offense the last couple of days, and I think it carried over to the game.
“I am sure the Florida loss hit home to them. They scouted themselves during the Florida game, what they did good and what they didn’t do good. They had to critique themselves. Instead of hearing what you did and didn’t do, they had the opportunity to critique themselves and decide what they did and what they needed to do. Sometimes, that is hard. I think they were serious about it and took it to heart.
“We put them in three groups, and they were assigned things they had to watch and had to do a scouting report on them personally. They gave it back to me.
"The individuals did it on themselves and on certain areas of the game. If they play bad, then they say it. This team doesn’t make a lot of excuses.
"They were really happy in the locker room because they stayed focused and on task. We had 20 assists and got great looks.
“One good thing, Brandy Montgomery is a heck of a player, and Jaime Nared started on her and did a great job. If we can hold her under her average, we have done something because she can play and score. Tra'Cee Tanner as well. She is a beast inside. I thought we kept those two in check for the most part.”
Of course there were moments when Auburn made its plays. But the moments did not last.
“I had a little twinge. I hope I didn’t show it,” Warlick said “I felt so much togetherness today that it didn’t concern me. They were so focused. I didn’t really need to give them too much direction at halftime. They were doing a great job talking to each other.”
Now came the magic sauce for this game; all those former Lady Vols in attendance. With The Coach.
“It was special; I’ll be honest with you. It was special,” Warlick said. “When you struggle, you’re around people who are positive. They’re incredible. They’re why we do what we do. They’re why I’m here. They’re why I’ve had this opportunity. Coach Summitt was there. I’m sorry, I’m emotional.
"I understand it’s a privilege and an honor for me to coach this team. I think our kids understand it’s a privilege to wear that uniform. There was an extreme amount of love and positivity with them.
"There wasn’t, ‘What are you all doing?,’’ ‘What aren’t you all doing?'’ ‘Why aren’t ‘you doing this?’ They were like, ‘Just keep plugging along and plowing away.’
"So, for them to do that and give us the energy and strength we need as a staff, me personally, and as a team, you can’t put a price on it. It spoke volumes to me."
Tennessee forward Graves has gotten all the messages.
“I feel a lot better. I hit shots today. I was not stressed out during the game. That helped a lot during the flow of the game. I think I was just taking good, open shots. I had easy looks, so I just took them.”
Then there was the impact of their Lady Vol sisters, the graduated players.
“I think everybody spoke to us,” she said. “During practice yesterday, Candace Parker, Glory Johnson and Isabelle Harrison practiced with us.
"While we were doing some things, they would say some things that we need to work on, how we can help when we are doing stuff in practice.
“That is always great for the alumni to come back and practice and get their input. It was encouraging. They are always going to be Lady Vols, so they want us to do well and encourage us to do better.”
Tennessee Center Russell also accelerated her game.
“We knew Auburn was going to throw a bunch of different defenses at us, and we were really prepared for that,” Russell said “I think, offensively, we moved the ball really well, were looking for each other and getting great shots. I think that is where the paint points came from."
She took a special joy in working on court with Candace Parker.
“I definitely enjoyed it. She is obviously one of my favorite players of all time. I think yesterday was really fun for me."
Tennessee guard DeShields is just growing her own legend in her first year in the lineup, carrying the weight of All-American expectations that so many have carried before her.
She said implanting change was necessary.
”It was very conscious,” she said “I have been lax the past few games. I know it. The team knows it. Everybody knows it. I'm tired of hearing it. I want to give my best every night.
“Tonight, when they jumped out on us, I knew all we had to do was put our foot forward first. That is what we did. I knew we were in better shape. I knew we would wear them out. In my mind, I said, ‘You aren’t tired. Give your best.
"When I needed a break, I signaled over to the bench.”
Of course she admires the traditions the former players embody. She chose to transfer in for that reason.
“It's just comforting to know that we have that support. They continue giving us strength that we need. Even when we don’t see it, knowing that the former Lady Vols still have hope in us is a huge confidence booster for us.”
And she thinks her coach is on point.
“We know how much she wants to win. We understand the value she places on us and the belief she has in us to play our best.
“We get extremely beat up about it when we know we don’t give her our best. We know day in and day out that she gives us her best.
“Tonight, I feel like she was able to exhale a little bit and see what we were really capable of. That was the first time we won all four quarters all year.
"That is the first time we held a team to zero transition points. It was a lot of firsts for us. I’m hoping we can keep that momentum going and transition it over to Arkansas, then I’ll think we will be in business.”
Senior Nia Moore entered the game with 4:22 left for her first appearance since Nov. 23.
The reserve center had missed 10 games with a rib injury.
This brings Tennessee to full strength. The point guard out with a concussion for the second straight season is not mentioned anymore, but Jasmine Jones is still listed on the roster.
"We played Nia because she was healthy and ready to play,” said Warlick.
“So, I thought she did great. She did a great job in practice. Look, we’re going to need Nia. I’m glad she's back. I’m glad she’s had that opportunity. If we needed to redshirt her, we were going to redshirt her.
“But our goal was to just get her back and get her healthy. I’m glad she is back. It was all about her health. She had played in too many games, so that redshirt was not a guaranteed redshirt. We weren’t focusing on that. We want her to get healthy and she couldn't get healthy.
"She’s back and running. You count on Nia because she's going to play hard. She’s going to run the floor. We’re going to need Nia down the road and she’s going to give us some big minutes."
*No. 2 South Carolina at No. 9 Kentucky. The fourth round of games started with two Top 10 teams. On the last day of the past season, UK upset SC in Lexington and devolved the regular-season into a tie with the Gamecocks and the Lady Vols.
This one eliminated UK from the regular-season title, by 1) losing at home for the second time this season and 2) losing to the undeniable best team in conference.
UK last season still finished well enough to host the Sweet 16 qualifying round, but lost the second one at home.
Yes, they are better this season but not SC-better. No one is SC better.
Carolina does not dwell On the idea they also are playing ranked teams in conference.
But that’s because they are the favored ranked team everywhere every time.
This was the first of a five-game Kat series with four at home. South Carolina brought out the night’s league-best 5,527 crowd, about half what they draw at home.
It was 11-3 and two-time SEC Player-of-the-Year Tiffany Mitchell had two fouls for SC, matched by UK center Evelyn Akhator, who sat with two PFs and 8:49 left in the in the half.
The home team missed her. She was not the impact player she has been against lesser teams.
SC closed the half in a hurry and the edge was only four. In the final 63 seconds, A’ja Wilson is that impact player aganst all teams.
She had a rebound, a block on the other end, a layup, a defensive rebound and another block to close the half.
Like a punched-out fighter, UK was saved by the halftime bell. They scored but once in the final 3:18. Wilson had 13 and the Kats had no one in double figures.
South Carolina was relentless. They took the lead by one at the end of the third and not coincidentally, by one in rebounds as well.
Wilson had 17 points and 11 rebounds, reminding everyone just who is the dominant player in the league this season.
UK has lost two in conference, but more importantly could not defend the home court, which one must do to win conference
The Gamecocks built the lead to 11 inside of four minutes and stayed unbeaten through 16. UK visits South Carolina to start next month. But this 73-62 win means UK is now on the struggle bus.
Wilson finished with 26 points and 13 rebounds. SC won the final three quarters on the road and outscored the home team by 21 since 8:37 was left in the second quarter.
Kentucky coach Matt Mitchell said, “You have to credit South Carolina. They really played a good game and played real tough in the second half. We just had a real hard time with A’ja Wilson tonight. She was really, really tough.
“We’re just not at a state right now where we can execute well enough and sharp enough on defense where we can stop that team.
"Tonight we just made too many mental mistakes as the game wore on. We will try to get better from it. I wish the outcome had been better. But this is a game we need to learn from and I believe we can.
“I thought foul trouble really bothered us. I thought they were able to play their starting frontcourt and we weren’t. I thought that really affected our ability to guard them.
"Then we were trying to make it tough on Wilson to put it on the floor and get to the basket. You saw her do just that time and time again. That was not just the player guarding her but the other players as well. We have to play really great team defense against them to have success.
“They’ve just been so big the last two or three years. We have found a way to play some good team defense and get some victories over them during this time and tonight wasn’t one of those nights.
“(A’ja Wilson) is a very good player. Very special talent and plays very hard. Has a great attitude, doesn’t do a lot of showboating or anything.
"She just goes out there and gets it done. She’s really good player and I thought that was the difference of the night.
“They had A’ja Wilson and we didn’t.
“She was just tough to stop in there and we came out and really battled. I was proud of that, this is clearly the biggest and most physical team we have faced all season and we have to figure defensively how to get that done as a team and be able to neutralize them but they’re a very good team and A’ja Wilson is an outstanding player.”
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said they made adjustments that worked in the second half, especially inside.
“We knew just from playing in the first half we didn’t do a great job of getting our post players touches in the paint. They had to do a better job at posting up and giving us a bigger target to get them the ball. So we just made an adjustment and made it easier to make some post passes and then it balanced everything out. We were able to see open looks on the outside once we started going into our post players.”
He knows she has a star in Wilson.
“She was pretty special. A lot of times you see triple-doubles or close to triple-doubles in blowouts.
"And when you’re able to get to close to it in a game of this magnitude, it really shows how special a player A’ja Wilson is. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
"She’s getting better every time she steps on the floor. I thought she did a great job making the adjustments from the first half to the second half and imposing her will.”
Wilson said she knew the plays would be directed to her.
“I think that was just kind of the game plan,” she said. “I guess my teammates just saw what the defense was kind of giving me, and I saw what the defense was giving me. It was just the flow. It’s the system of the game and how you go to them and you just keeping going. It’s the system of South Carolina basketball.”
Then comes the defense.
“It’s just a mindset, really. I’m just trying to protect the basket the best way I can. If they come in the paint, I just have to swat here and there and hopefully not draw a foul. I think that’s a mindset of all of our post players, really, is just protecting the paint.”
She was blissfully unaware she almost made a triple-double, two blocks short.
“I actually didn’t even know I was close to a triple-double until I saw it on the stat sheet when I was doing media outside. That was my first time, and I didn’t really feel anything differently.
"Over a course of 40 minutes, it’s hard to maintain the same game plan, and I think with us, that’s what we do. We kind of have enough to go deep into our bench and keep playing our game and keep pushing it to them.”
Teammate Khadijah Sessions is well-aware changing plans on the fly is sometimes a necessity.
“'Coach' wrote us some plays in the huddle and we kept running the same thing,” she said. “We had to be aggressive to the paint. They were going to foul us. If we got the ball inside, they were going to foul us. I saw the openings and took advantage of it.”
The Gamecocks hold a 5-3 edge in the past three seasons, during which four of the seven games were decided by single-digit points. As designated league rivalry games they play home-and-home.
*No. 7 Mississippi State at No 24 Missouri. The second-best team in conference also had a date with a ranked team and it is probably unfair.
Missouri slid four spots after losing at the No. 2 team in America, but the dwindling number of AP voters are fickle folks.
The Tigers were holding onto their ranked life by winning the opening quarter by a dozen. They competed well and still led by 10 into the start of the fourth.
Freshman phenom Sophie Cunningham had 11 points, 5-of-8 from the field.
State still accomplishes its best when shooter Victoria Vivians is on. She was not, 2-of-12 from the field. She did finish with an unspectacular 19 points, most of that after the damage was done. She has hit double figures in 17 straight outings.
Cunningham had 20. Her crowd was 3,461.
Missouri hit 15 wins and is in that glut of teams at 2-2 in the SEC.
They scored on 11 of 14 first-quarter possessions, made 10-of-15 from the field. They rebounded three of the five misses.
“Our mentality at the very beginning of the game was supreme confidence, and that’s how we took the court," said Jordan Frericks.
She doubled with 10 each in points and rebounds. They were unafraid of a Top 10 team on an 11-game win streak, for a statement win against the highest-ranked opponent Missouri has beaten since 2006, coincidentally the last time a Tiger team was invited to the NCAAs.
“That was pretty much a good old-fashioned getting taken to the woods for a woodshed whipping,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said.
“That's sometimes life on the road,” Schaefer said. “We obviously didn’t shoot it well, didn’t play very well, and you got to give them all the credit for causing that.”
Missouri coach Robin Pingeton is carefully assembling this season’s resume.
“We all agree one win against a Top 10 team isn’t going to define our season,” she said. “But, certainly, when you look at the big picture of Selection Monday and what people are looking for and how they match you up against other teams, you got to have that win. You got to have that win against a ranked opponent.”
*Ole Miss at No. 15 Texas A&M. The fourth-best team in conference won again at home. They did slide two spots after a win.
Gary Blair, ever the mad scientist of coaching, change his lineup again, perhaps anticipating the 81-58 anticipated runaway. Courtney Williams is still out with a bad lower back.
Fellow senior Courtney Walker, did not start but still played 32 minutes. She scored 17 in double figures for the 16th time in 17 games this season and the 89th time in her career. She also had nine rebounds, eight defensive.
Chelsea Jennings had a career-high 29 points, her first 20-plus game. She is the third Aggie to score at least 29 points in a game this season
She scored in double figures for the seventh time this season and 12th time in her career. She has scored in double digits in five of her last eight games.
A&M has won six of the past seven, five of those wins coming by at least 18 points. A&M shot a season-high 61.5 percent from the field.
Jordan Jones had a season-high nine assists.
Blair observed the 61 percent from the field in the first half, followed by 68 percent in the second, made the game easy.
“It was our transition offense,” he said. “We were getting good looks and making the extra passes, we talked about that because at LSU, we didn’t do that, that’s why we only had seven or eight assists in the ball game. We had 20 (in this game).
“I could have left Jordan Jones in the game to get 10, but she got hit in the chest early. The game plan was to play her five minutes into the second half and let the other two go. We were just trading baskets, I wasn’t really happy about how we were playing in the second half so I left her in there a little bit longer.
“Jennings, was just Jennings . . . that corner shot on the left side that’s a layup for her, but give the kid credit, she works hard, and she's a senior.
“Walker we knew they were going to pay so much attention to her and she was going to have to get her shots, that extra pass right before half, where she got that corner jumper that showed a smart basketball team by moving the ball around."
As for Jennings’ superlative play, he said, “We just let it come to her. We put her in spots were against their halfcourt trap, she's in the middle making good decisions and when we break it we know where she is in the corner.
Other than that they played us in a lot more zone than second half. She’s just got a good mid-range game, almost as good as Walker.
“This team is not about individual stats, we’ve got to get ready, and we’ve got to get our bench ready because that bench is going to be playing for me next year.
“When (Jennings) makes shots, but I want her off the bench. Like I’ve always said she is our Alex Caruso. She comes off the bench, she makes things happen. I need Williams in there against zones to be able to play. I need Anriel Howard to rebound against South Carolina and whatever I can get from the 2-5s . . . Jordan Jones played very well today, she took a lot of shots. You will see her in the starting lineup against South Carolina.”
Jennings was sharing the credit.
“I just want to thank my teammates because they found me when I was open and I knew a lot of the attention would be on Courtney Walker. With that being said, that left me with open looks and I was lucky enough to knock them down."
Ole Miss coach Matt Insell is building his program with an appreciation of what the established league teams can do.
“I think Chelsea is a very good player,” he said.
“ Chelsea's got hung in a situation here at A&M where you’ve got Jones, Walker and Williams. I think Walker is the best wing player in our league. I think she has been for a long time. I think she is smart. When I talk about Walker to our team, I tell them if you try to play the play, she'll teach you a new play.
“That’s what I think about her, I think she is really smart; she’s really good at reading screens. Williams is very good, too but Walker is the one in my mind, as an opposing coach, she is just deadly. "
Blair moves into a tie for 13th all-time in coaching wins with 708, 300 at A&M.
Dad gum it, but Blair has tried to do everything to attract a crowd while the students were away, from two matinees to sponsored games to even $4 admissions. This was the last of the non-student games and they drew 4,033.
They head to South Carolina in Sunday’s best game.
*No. 13 Tennessee at Arkansas. The Lady Vols must win these games against unranked teams if they want to win 20 and qualify for the Sweet 16.
They are an example of a team good enough to be with everyone else in the marble bag after the elite eight or so nationally are assigned.
But they cannot afford an upset to a non-contender in conference. They already fell a spot in the poll after a convincing win. They are likely near the end of the ranked teams’ list, No. 7 of seven in conference, after blowing this chance in a 64-59 fifth loss of the season against 11 wins.
That’s pretty average, especially for a talented team yet to play Kentucky, Mississippi State, Texas A&M or South Carolina.
Any other team with this season’s credentials would not be ranked nor considered a threat.
“We just got outworked in the second half,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “We just didn't have it tonight."
From the start, this one, unfortunately, did not look at all like a ranked legend team against whatever Arkansas is.
Still in the first quarter it was just 12-9.
Warlick took the mandated league’s televised microphone break and observed things when were going well her team took their time, that they missed too many chances otherwise and then she was back to the game.
Diamond DeShields had half the visitor’s points.
Tennessee upped the margin to 11 at the half, DeShields in double figures with 11 and the D causing a single-digit second quarter and 29 percent from the field.
So, naturally, Arkansas blew it up with a 9-0 start to the second half and they counter-punched every time UT tried to start something.
The home team won the third quarter (and it’s when it won the game) 22-8.
Winning coach Jimmy Dykes said he knew Tennessee was soft on defense and just planned to attack in that final quarter.
He was actually happy, he told his team, that the rebound deficit was only 10 after three quarters (14 for the game) because he felt his team had hung tough enough to win.
He reminded them they were still in this game, as he said, against a team of star players who thought only one Arkansas player was even worth recruiting.
The Razorbacks merely had to hit seven free throws in the final two minutes to survive. They won the quarter by two but so what, and SEC win is an SEC win.
UT’s next loss is Monday at Notre Dame in that silly, meaningless to conference game.
They are likely to be on a two-game losing streak when they play at Vandy on Thursday. They have followed a win with a loss five times already. The Irish have won 10 straight.
*Georgia at No. 20 Florida. The Gator win at Tennessee moved them into the Top 25 and cemented the conference as the best in the land with seven ranked teams for at least a week.
The matchup itself was intriguing as it represented the only rookie coach in the league against one of the more-established coaches..
In her ninth season, Amanda Butler is still waiting for a breakthrough season.
Believe it or not, nine gets you third place among active coaches behind the leaders at Vanderbilt and Texas A&M. But they missed the NCAA tournament last year, the first miss with Butler. Three other state schools got in, including something call Florida Gulf Coast.
But this is their first national ranking since 2008-2009.
The win over the Vols gave the Gators the SEC Player of the Week, Carlie Needles, and the Freshman Player of the Week, Eleanna Christinaki.
Coach Joni Taylor had her team in its fourth straight against ranked opponents. Such is the challenge of the SEC.
Of course Georgia did not bemoan the challenge of five straight ranked teams to start the conference season. They know what league they’re in.
They looked at this as a opportunity They started well to make a statement.
They won the first two quarters and had a 33-22 intermission edge. Two players, Tiaria Griffin and reserve Halle Washington had nine points each. The Bulldogs were 10 rebounds better.
The second half was just as rock ’em, sock ’em and Georgia did not back down taking an 18-point edge into the final quarter. The 26 defensive rebounds were anchoring the visitors.
When Florida finally managed a run at the 71-61 final, it was not that close and Georgia eased out with eight free throws in the final minute.
Griffin scored 23 and Washington a career-best 17. Georgia has a statement win, on the road against a ranked team.
Reserve guard Cassie Peeples hit three 3s on her way to a season-best 15 points for the Gators. Georgia has 13 wins and must earn seven more to make the NCAAs, but coach Joni Taylor has virtually locked up the WBCA's Maggie Dixon Award that goes to the top Division I rookie coach.
The first road victory over a ranked opponent in three years came wth a defense that allowed 33 percent from the floor and caused 22 turnovers.
“We took advantage of opportunities,” Taylor said.
“Florida tried to get up and press us. Our players were really good at bringing the ball up the floor and attacking them and getting by their front line. We were able to use that and get easy buckets at the rim."
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