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.

Whew.

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.