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.