By Mike Siroky
With seven games left, the Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball is coming into focus. The top eight of the league are likely to make the NCAA, the most qualifiers of any conference.
We called South Carolina as the winners of the league weeks ago. They now have a three-game lead, insurmountable. Everyone else is positioning for placement in the league tournament in March in Florida.
That is the money tournament, where NCAA bids are solidified.
And, of course, you are earn some of those 16 golden tickets entering the NCAAs, the best route to the Sweet 16 by hosting the opening games.
*No. 12 Kentucky at Florida. Here was a strange matchup: The team with more wins unranked and in fourth place hosting a ranked team then seventh in conference. UK started a stretch of four of five on the road.
It took Kentucky awhile to gain the flow of the game and that may be where they lost it. On the first possession Florida did one of those ricochet pass plays where not a dribble was needed to gain the opening basket.
From the seven-minute mark of the quarter, Florida went on a nice little 11-4 run and established a 22-14 first.
In the second, the Kats found their legs and scored 25 on 11-of-15 from the floor. They took a five-point lead.
Their best player, Makayla Epps, was not quite with it yet.
She only had two baskets in the half. Guards Janee Thompson, with 11, and freshman Maci Moris, 10, led them.
They were shooting 56 percent from the field and winning rebounds by six. They forced 16 turnovers which led to 15 points.
In the final three minutes, the Gators rallied again, outscoring the visitors by nine to lead at the break.
Haley Lorenzen scored 11, 6-of-10 from the field. Diminutive senior guard January Miller brought eight off the bench, 4-of-4 from the line and a lack of fear to battle the bigs for rebounds, with a team-best four.
Florida, backed by a crowd of 3,232, maintained to start the second half, extending the lead to 11 on back-to-back baskets off turnovers by guard Carla Batchelor, suddenly 4-of-5 for 10 points.
Florida scored one basket in the final three minutes. Two breakaways led to four points and the lead was six.
But Simone Westbrook hit a 3 at the buzzer, her third 3 in five tries, for her 16th point. Florida had a nine-point lead to protect, having won the third. Worse for UK, Morris had four fouls. Epps was at 14 points, or 10 in the quarter.
Florida scored the opening basket of the final quarter, completing a set. UK made a 27th turnover; Florida scored 21 off them. Lorenzen and Simone Westbrook each had 16 points.
The Kats cut it to eight with seven minutes left. Morris fouled out. League freshman-of-the-week Elleanna Christinaki had won the battles between rookies, was now free of her defense and scored two straight.
She fed a teammate for another layup and home team was 11 ahead again.
Nothing showed any sign of UK momentum as the clock ticked below 5. Then it came, all in a rush.
UK center Evelyn Akhator awoke. A free throw, two layups and a putback carved the lead to two. With 6.4 seconds left, Epps dribbled into a trap and kept possession on a held ball.
UK could not inbound. Christinaki stole it, drove for a layup, scored and was fouled. She had a double-double 12 points and 11 assists and it ended 85-79. Florida had stifled its third ranked opponent and seemed pointed towards the national list again.
UK’s lack of depth showed, as coach Matthew Mitchell could only use eight players, and two starters fouled out. Epps scored 27, Akhator 14 with 10 rebounds.
For the ’Gators, Westbrook led four in double figures with 20, 7-of-10 from the field, 3-of-4 on 3s. UK won rebounds by 11 but the 30 turnovers more than offset that advantage.
“It was just a tremendous win,” Florida coach Amanda Butler said. “There’s a thousand different reasons why it was a tremendous win. I’d have to say causing 30 turnovers against a team like Kentucky is the biggest one. It is a great example of what we’re capable of. Haley had the best game of her career.
“But whenever we’re feeling good after a game it is always due to tremendous teamwork.
“In a game like this where you know it is going to be mentally, physically and emotionally draining, everyone contributes whether is on the floor playing the game or bringing energy.”
Westbrook addressed the defense.
“We protected the paint as the first option,” she said. “They had big bodies inside and we really wanted to make them put it on the floor. We knew who the shooters were and we played them as such.”
“It all started with defense,” she said. “When you’re playing with the defense and the flow, the offense comes easily. In the SEC every game is a dogfight. We don’t think of that as a challenge. No one is going to back down, My teammates keep telling me and encouraging me. They have my back and they pick me up.”
*Alabama at No. 19 Tennessee. Like the previous matchup, a strange one, given the Tide more wins than Tennessee yet the Lady Vols were the ranked team, ninth in conference opposing the 13th team.
Reputation in the realm counts for a lot.
Once again focus seemed missing for the Lady Vols. But so was center Bashaara Graves, out with a tweaked ankle. Diamond DeShields did not start for the second straight game. She is so not an All-American candidate any more as those usually start their games, especially at home.
Rookie Te’a Cooper was back in the UT starting set, having been the only consistent on offense with two straight reserve games in double figures. But she took two first-half fouls back to the bench.
Mercedes Russell, after sitting out a year with foot problems, is the only player to start every Lady Vol game. She had seven points and three rebounds in the 15-10 first quarter.
Jamie Nared, the starter instead of DeShields, had scored 10 with six rebounds (fve offensive) and it was 22-14 with 6:23 until halftime.
She had a cumulative 12 points in the previous three games. Tennessee was only shooting 39 percent but it didn’t matter against a lesser opponent.
This was becoming a needed feel good game for UT. They even had Pat Hed Summitt assisted to her preserved sideline seat.
At half, UT led, 32-24 off an 8-2 run and led rebounds, 23-13. Kortney Dunbar had been inserted to hit 3s and she hit two of them.
Nared led everyone with a dozen points and eight rebounds, six offensive. Russell had her third foul but five rebounds and several defections.
In the pregame Warlick had said she understood the angst of the fans She said she knew they had fans who wanted her to go away.
“I’m not Pat Summitt,” she said. This is the best talent I’ve had at Tennessee. I’ll take talent, yes we want talent. But talent does not win games, gel and move in the right direction and it has taken me longer than I had anticipated. The kids don’t set out to lose. This is just what I expected it to be.
“I knew what I was getting into. You gotta have a strong faith and the passion.”
The second half has been UT’s disgrace, especially coming off a three-point fourth quarter in the previous game.
So all the brave talk, the legacy of Elite 8 two of the past three seasons for this group, came into focus.
The home crowd of 12,613 was ready. It was a 16-point lead at the end of the 17-13 third.
Eerily, it took until six minutes were left before UT scored more than three in the fourth.
Mercedes Russell was steady in the middle, 12 points, 11 rebounds (nine defensive) and three long assists.
The lead was 23 as they fed off each other. A steal by Andraya Carter was fed to Cooper then right back to Carter for a silky layup and suddenly Warlick was a much better coach.
Cooper, freed from the foul bench, had scored 11 straight points of her 17, including a 3. The Lady Vols finally had a smile ready after three straight losses, two in conference.
It was a 30-point lead, the largest of the conference season, with two minutes left and Warlick actually could pull some players so they could get applause in the 70-48 win.
So relaxed was Warlick that she didn’t take her jacket off, a usual antic as she yells from the sidelines. It is also sort of a tribute to the Summitt style.
“It’s a good sign that I didn’t have to take off my jacket,” she said.
“ Let me first say this: We had 12,000 people here in the crowd, and they were unbelievable. So, if you have any doubt that people are not supporting the Lady Vols, just come to a game. It was incredible.
"They were into it. My only message to my kids today was to play hard and give great effort. I thought we did just that.
“It was that simple of a talk. Don’t promise what you won’t commit to. They committed to what their goals were, and I think you see the result in the score.
“I think Diamond is pressing. She just has to get her mind right, focus on this team and not what she is struggling with or how she is playing.
“They are kids, so I don’t necessarily see her negatively affecting us. I just see that she really has to look within and understand that she is not going to play great every game.
“She had three assists. Sometimes, Diamond thinks she has to do it right now. Let the game come to her. She is just pressing. I think the way to do it is to get her in practice, put up shots and keep putting her in situations where she can be successful.
“Jaime told me today, ‘Stay on me because I want to play like Jaime Nared.’ I didn’t have to get on her. She talked to herself or her dad talked to her. At one point, Jaime had six offensive rebounds, and nobody else had any offensive rebounds. I thought Jaime was aggressive and did exactly what we wanted and needed Jaime Nared to do.”
The defense has seemed very present, even in the two preceding very close losses.
“I think they bought into what we wanted to do,” Warlick said.
“We kept the scouting simple. We switched on guard-to-guard things because they ran a lot of plays and packages.
"We just focused on defending concepts. I thought our kids were really tuned in, and we attacked the basketball. The only thing we probably need to work on is when our defense had to rotate, we didn’t rotate down, which gave them some offensive put backs.
"For the most part, I thought our pressure was good. We didn’t really press as much as I thought we would, but it just wasn’t successful. Our half-court defense was a lot better.”
She said the Grave’s sit out was merely taking a conservative approach.
“In the last play of our practice yesterday, she sprained her ankle. She could have possibly gone today, but I didn’t want to chance it so she could have time to rest.
“ I am just her coach that wants her on the floor.”
The idea of Cooper starting is based on the injury and her own progress.
“I think a combination of both,” said Warlick. “We have three guards right now playing well, and they are Te’a, Jordan and Andraya. They are all three putting up great numbers. It wasn’t too difficult that when Bashaara was out, I would play those three.”
She said Te’a is putting in extra work.
“I think Te’a likes to attack and be aggressive,” Warlick said. “What gets Te’a in trouble is she goes too deep in the lane. I think as the game goes on and she understands the college game a little bit better she will understand that she can’t go in there like she did in high school. Te’a is learning this game and getting better at this level.
“That’s all that I can ask her to do. She’s one of our best defenders. I trust Te’a defending on the ball. I think she fouled a jump shooter twice tonight. That’s the golden rule, to not foul jump shooters, but if she’s aggressive and attacking the ball, then I’m OK with that.
“If you are a great defender and you’re aggressive it is hard for you not to get at least one foul. Growing up my father would not ask me how many points I got, he would ask me how many fouls I had. So if I didn’t have any fouls I wasn’t playing hard enough. I believe that. I was taught that.
“She’s going to get fouls because of how hard she plays, but you don’t foul a jump shooter, I was taught that too.”
With the guards playing well, they had 22 assists for 27 field goals.
“That’s awesome. When you do that it erases your 21 turnovers,” Warlick said.
“ Here’s the deal with turnovers: If we’re attacking the basket, we can be OK with the turnovers because you’re being aggressive. I mean, I almost caught a pass today; those are not good turnovers.
“We really have got to continue to get that under control. The games that we have lost, that has haunted us. We shot such a great percentage today, and distributed the basketball, that they didn’t become a factor. If you’re going to have 21 turnovers you better do some other things great, and we did other things great.
“Rebounding is effort. It’s just flat out effort. That goes with defense, now you have to skill, I think to put the ball in the basket. I strongly believe that you can always play hard whether you can score the basketball or not. You can rebound the basketball. That’s just flat out having heart and effort.”
“We wanted to win,” Nared said. “We have been in a little slump. We lost the past two games and we just needed to get back to the fundamentals and doing what we all know how to do. That is what we wanted to do tonight and I think Mercedes rebounded the heck out of the ball. I think everyone did that and we played well today.”
She has not forgotten the close losses.
“I felt as if we should have won that game so I was just ready to get to the next one personally.”
None of them watch the national ratings.
“It’s a long season,” Nared said. “We are in the middle of our season. Obviously we haven’t done as well as we have wanted to but we have a whole half of our season left so to get angry with how we played in the past, there is nothing we can do about it. What we can control is how we play the rest of our season and we want to get better.
“We weren’t standing as much on offense. I think we did that a little bit towards the end of the Mississippi State game so what we are good at is penetrating and kicking and finding open players.
"We have a lot of smart players on our team and we did that a lot this game and we needed to do that in order to win games.”
Russell is happy about classmate Nared’s rising to the challenge.
“I think she brought a lot,” Russell said. “In the first quarter we had five offensive rebounds and she had all of them. So she did a good job on crushing the boards on both ends of the floor.
“Bashaara is a lot to step up for so I think we all had to step up. We miss her presence, but we knew what we all had to do because she was out of the game.
“Now, we just have to take all of the energy we had today and carry it to Thursday. They are going to give us their best shot and we have to give them the same intensity they give us.”
Cooper did not like the foul-induced break.
“I felt as if those were punishment. And once you get back in you have all of this energy, and you have been sitting out and you finally get back in the game so I was ready for it.”
As for DeShields, “I went through the same thing earlier in the season. She is going to be fine. Its just a matter of her snapping back into it.”
Alabama coach Kristy Curry said, “I have to credit Tennessee, they were that good today. We will take nothing away from them. If Tennessee keeps playing like they did today, they will get a good result.
“I don’t feel like we played well, we were not aggressive. Tennessee’s kids really stepped up today. Every day is a new day in this league, it’s how you bounce back and get better. You have to have short term memory in this league.
“There was a moment in the fourth quarter when we went six straight possessions without scoring. It was just empty possessions for us that killed us.
“I was concerned about their lack of offensive rebounds against Mississippi State and I figured they had a chat about that the past couple days. This league is tough on the road and I don’t make excuses. I have one kid on my team that has played in an SEC road game. We are learning, and we will continue to grow at it.”
She knew Nared was a rebounding force coming in.
“I was telling my husband the other day that I love watching her on film. She has a nose for the ball, she had five rebounds in the first half.”
’Bama’s Karyla Middlebrook said it was physical out there
“During the game you just have to adjust to the game and the way it is being called,” she said/ “I am going to feel it tomorrow.”
Teammate Meoshonti Knight said, “We have to match their physicality and we have to play harder. They (Tennessee) played harder than us.
“On any given night, any team can win. Who has the most heart will decide the game.”
They are still below standard with 13 wins, ninth and even in conference at 4-4, good for sixth place.
Next came another winnable game, Arkansas, another must-win before visiting Texas A& M and then having South Carolina in two of the next three after that.
Whatever the UT motivation problems, it must be noted this is the first group without any player who signed under the previous coach. It is truly a new generation of Vols.
*No. 12 Mississippi State at Arkansas. The Razorbacks will not hit 20 wins and may not qualify for the NCAAs, but if their quality wins mean anything, victories at home over Texas A&M, Tennessee and Missouri are eventful.
They had already lost by 25 in Starkville. State won No. 19 by 10.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am to get out of here with a win,” MSU coach Vic Schaefer said. “Three Top 25 teams had come in here and lost and another had to go to overtime. We feel fortunate to win by 10. I don’t think either team would say they played great.
“We had 21 turnovers. However, we were 21 of 24 at the line. We have done that well all year. We beat a good basketball team. We beat a team that has played well since they left our place. I thought we defended well. We held them to 55 again. That has been the magic number. Proud at how we competed today. After two big games (South Carolina and Tennessee), we were worried about a letdown.”
MSU completed a two-game season-sweep of Arkansas for the first time since 2007 and won for the fifth time ever on the Arkansas campus. The Bulldogs held the Razorbacks to 55 points in each victory, the second- and third-lowest point totals for the Razorbacks in a league game this season.
The Bulldogs placed four in double figures. Victoria Vivians led with 17 points. That puts her seven past 900 career points in her second season. Dominique Dillingham and Morgan William each added 11 points, while Breanna Richardson added 10 points.
MSU set the tone early with another dominating performance on the defensive end.
Vivians and Richardson scored back-to-back baskets to cap a 10-0 run as the Bulldogs built a 14-4 lead. Arkansas scored twice in the final 1:16 of the first quarter to trail 16-8 at the end of the quarter.
Jazzmun Holmes and Vivians scored consecutive buckets to start the second quarter and a 20-8 lead.
The Bulldogs kept the lead at double-digits for the remainder of the half and led 27-18 at the break.
In the third quarter, Ketara Chapel scored a basket, two of six points in the quarter. Vivians followed with a 3, and the lead grew to 14 at 32-18. A layup by Chapel ran the lead to a game-high 16.
The Razorbacks closed to10 before the Bulldogs scored six straight for a 44-28 lead with 1:35 left in the third quarter.
Arkansas was back within nine at 54-45, but Dillingham took care of that rally with a 3 and a steal on the defensive end.
“We started the game and started the third quarter punching first,” Schaefer said. “We have talked about that all year. Practice had not been great. We had every right to have a letdown after two emotional games, but we told the kids before the game we didn’t want to see any signs of a letdown.”
State will win its 20th next, at LSU. The tiebreaker with A&M is still two games later, in College Station.
*No. 22 Missouri at Ole Miss. Win No. 18 was delightful for Missouri in its fun season. On the road they battled and more than survived, 70-46, two games over .500 and a solid sixth in the conference.
Superlative freshman Sophie Cunningam was 3-of-4 in the 16-all start. Neither side would give and neither side could buy points, until four minutes remained n the half, still all 16.
Missouri had one more basket and the home team scored three points in either a sensational defensive stand an atrocious offensive exhibition, a 4-3 quarter and a 19-18 home team lead.
Obviously, this is a record low for Mizzou. No one keeping score had to resharpen a pencil.
The Gatorade must have worked in the locker room, if not the lecture by Tiger coach Robin Pingeton.
“I went in there and I said, ‘This isn’t us, this not who we are. We’re better than this,” Pingeton said.
“I didn’t like our body language. I just thought we were playing panicky. We were playing too fast. We weren’t playing with poise. We weren’t playing with discipline. I didn’t like one thing about that first half.”
Junior guard Sierra Michealis opened the third with a 3 and Mizzou was ahead again. Terri Lewis and Michaelis exchanged 3s. Later, another Michaelis 3, a three-point play by classmate Jordan Frericks and two Michaelis free throws gave the visitors four points of breathing room at 7:37. They continued to match each other. In the final 1:43, Cunningham made a layup followed by yet another Michaelis 3. Frericks made a layup and Ole Miss only managed a free throw in the close. It was 43-34 at the end fo the third and the visitors breathed easier still.
If you are going to win 20, if you are going to stay nationally ranked and erase the doubters, if you are going to win a game or two in the conference tournament, you must win games like this.
Michaelis averages eight points a game and had 11 3s in the previous 18 games.
Ole Miss stopped at 43 points. Cierra Porter added some steady Tiger points ad the lead grew to 15 with a minute to go. They simply played out the string and had the 60-46 win, winning the final three quarters on the road.
Michaelis had 20, Frericks 17. Cunnigham had 10 with 11 rebounds, eight defensive. They won rebounds by 18.
Pingeton had gotten on Michaelis at halfietime after a late foul was deemed severe enough to be a technical.
“We played a really solid second half,” Pingeton said. “We did a much better job of taking care of the ball. I felt like we moved the ball well. We shot good shots. We were more assignment-correct. That felt like it should feel for 40 minutes.”
Michaelis led the second-half surge by making four 3s and scoring 14 of her game-high 20 points in the third. She had eight rebounds and five assists.
“I got on her pretty good after that technical to just challenge her about being a junior, the way we represent our program,” Pingeton said. “We want to play with grittiness and toughness, but we want to be first class in everything we do, and I got on her pretty good. To see the way she responded in the second half, I think, speaks volumes about her maturity.”
There were only 1,600 witnesses, as Ole Miss finished a six-game set against ranked opponents 1-5.
Ole Miss coach Matt Insell said, “We had a stretch of six games that’s unheard of, but that’s part of playing in this league. We started this stretch getting beat by 20 or 25 not showing a lot of life, but we’ve ended it a different basketball team with a of life and excitement.
“I hurt for our players. They played extremely hard and just had one of those days offensively. I would have bet my paycheck that Torri Lewisand Shandricka Sessom wouldn’t have gone 2-of-16 from 3.
They played really well defensively; we held one of the best scoring teams in the league and a Top 25 team in the country to 60 points. We just have to make shots, and that’s where I hurt for them because those are two kids that really work.”
As for the immediate future, “Alabama, Auburn, Georgia are all good. They’re still in the SEC. They’re records are down with us, but they’re good basketball teams. “We have two on the road so we’ll have to get ready. The stretch there in terms of helping us helped us grow up. We’ve grown up a lot and matured, but they’re in their upset because they work so hard. I hurt for them because they know if they hit a few more shots it would’ve made a difference in the game. We have to just keep working and keep pushing and we can beat any team in this league.”
Ole Miss had to be somewhat staggered when the NCAA announced suspicions of violations for three programs, including women’s hoops from before the current leaders of the program. It’s a process.
Ole Miss has 90 days to respond. If found guilty, the impact becomes now with the usual penalties including scholarship reductions. And that impacts those considering signing. At 10-11, Ole Miss is going nowhere right now but is building.
*No. 2 South Carolina at No. 10 Texas A&M. Having already escaped A&M at home and won its 20th win in the interim, the Gamecocks could have been relaxed. They weren’t, taking a 70-63 win, edging the lead with a final flurry. A&M is stuck on 15 wins with seven to go, but all are winnable. A&M has won 8 of its latest 11.
The Aggies stayed competitive into the fourth quarter, leading 54-50 with 8:41 to play. But SC showed its championship style with an unstoppable 13-2 run to its national best 21st win.
Senior Tiffany Mitchell scored or assisted on nine of those 13. A&M cut the lead to four when Courtney Williams hit a 3.
She was back as a starter after several games either missed of with relief play.
Coach Gary Blair chose to go with four guards and speed. He put the other senior Courtney , Walker, on he bench and probably ended talk of her becoming an All-America as such honorees generally start every game for which they are available.
A&M had a 17-0 run in the first half to take a 27-17 lead with 5:04 before the half, with Williams either scoring or assisting on all but five of the points in the run. A&M led 31-25.
All three of A&M's senior trio scored in double figures, marking the 17th time that’s happened. Walker came off the bench with 23 points, her sixth 20-plus point game in the past 10. Williams had 13, and Jordan Jones had 11, with a season-high nine assists.
Courtney Williams scored in double figures for the 10th time this season and 66th time in her career, but the first time since Dec. 29.
A&M had 17 turnovers, which Jones said was because, “We were trying to do a little bit too much. We ran the ball screens a couple of times, we wanted to get our post players a little bit more involved in what South Carolina was giving us.
“So it was on the guards. We did have to read their post players better and give our post players what they can handle. It was all on us.
“But credit to South Carolina, they had a good game plan. They wanted to hard hedge us to take away our mid-range jump shot so it forced us to make tough passes that were necessary to making or our post players weren’t use to catching. Just credit to Dawn [Staley] and her defensive game plan because it was a good one. ”
A&M did all it could to draw a crowd for the most important game of the season, the sixth game ever featuring two Top 10 teams.
The first 3,000 fans received BTHO 12 Man towels, made especially for the South Carolina game.
They had a Russian acrobatic act at halftime. They had Human Bowling competition.
They also sold 2016 BTHO Breast Cancer T-shirt, with 100 percent of the proceeds to the Kay Yow Foundation and the Pink Alliance.
Anyone with a ticket stub from Saturday’s men’s game got in for free. Students have free admission via their athletic pass.
All A&M faculty and staff had a free pass and could buy four more at $3 each.
And there was free parking.
They drew 8,512, the most A&M hs had since joining the league, which means the most for these players.
Walker appreciated the crowd.
“I think the crowd (effect) was huge,” she said. “We were really excited about it, I mean we were really fired up. Every time we went on a run, I think we just fed off of that and we were able to make our runs longer, instead of scoring we were able to get defensive stops and come right back and keep the energy going. We really fed off them today.”
Blair said, “We missed two shots, two turnovers and something else to get it to 31 at the half. I thought that was huge, that they were able to hang in there at the end.
“Turnovers were huge. A couple of transition layups we butchered, we made a couple of great ones, but then we butchered a couple. Every ball game, you’ve got to get your team better.
“I’m not disappointed in our team at all. I thought we did some good things in this game. Now, can we get ourselves off of the mat again, like we did at South Carolina two weeks ago, and go back to start playing good basketball again. You’ve got to keep believing, you’ve got to keep believing.”
Staley said she was able to use her depth and defense keyed by Alaina Coates, the conference player-of-thr-week.
“We just put players in positions where they could get easier looks,” she said
“ I thought our defense created some easy offense for us. Tiffany Mitchell got a couple of steals and got some clean looks at the basket. She just needed to see the ball go in; feel the ball go in. I think it just jump started what we were able to do in the half court.
“What A&M was doing was capitalizing on our inability to make completed passes. We turned the ball over a lot in that stretch and A&M made us pay for it. I thought we settled down towards the end of that quarter; got into a little groove and took A&M’s lead a little bit.
“In the second half it was just the carryover from what took place in the second quarter.
“I just think you come on the road in our league and it’s always a tough game. You feel a little comfort when you’re at home, if it’s close and you are playing a ranked team.
“But when you are on the road playing a team like Texas A&M, the crowd got energized but it was a familiar place. A place in which we’ve been at Kentucky, Vandy, and Mississippi State. We were at a familiar place and we didn’t get rattled by it."
Mitchell, with 18 of 20 in the second half said the pave of the early game affected her. “t started slow and I started slow,” she said.
“But we know how to execute down the stretch.”
A&M is next at Florida, also 5-3 in conference.
“Florida is playing tremendous right now,” Blair said, “they’re the hottest team in the league. It always seems like we’re rolling into whoever is hot, and they beat Kentucky today. Our attention will totally be on Florida.”
*No. 11 Mississippi State at LSU. The loss at home to higher-ranked South Carolina still knocked State out of the Top 10.
So they focused on win No. 20. They want to hold on to a Top 16 NCAA bid and one of those hosting assignments.
For murky reasons, they missed last season. The university’s official policy is they did not feel jobbed, even if they were. Wonderful home crowds could help tip that this season.
A 20-6 second quarter decided it early. State used nine scorers. Center Chimwe Okorie had three fouls and so State went with a smaller, effective, lneup.
“It’s what we do best, getting up and down,” MSU coach Vic Schaefer said. “We just have to keep doing that.”
LSU had resorted to – seriously -- lighting a voodoo candle in the locker room. It blew out.
In the third quarter, LSU closed to 32-21 before MSU responded with an 8-0 run. The lead kept climbing and stood at 49-26 after three.
“We are obviously coming off a great week in the history of our program. I’m proud of my team and my staff,” Schaefer said. “I’m proud to be the head coach at Mississippi State and have the opportunity to represent this great University and coach these ladies. The grind doesn’t stop.”
The 20th win is the first time State has won at least 20 in three straight seasons
“Awfully proud of our kids,” Schaefer said. “I have seen so much film on LSU and I thought we might have the 52. They are great in the zone. For us to score 71 points, I give our kids credit for execution and making shots; 71 points sounds awfully impressive to me.
“Defensively, I was pleased for three quarters. We did a great job in the second and third quarters, holding them to six and 10 points. It was really a complete-game effort.
“This is the second straight game we have had great first halves, defensively. Now I want to carry it over to the rest of the game.”
Victoria Vivians led MSU in scoring with 14. Morgan William added 11 points, her third straight in double figures. Dominique Dillingham added 10 points. Vivians also had a team-high nine rebounds.
Freshman center Teaira McCowan scored seven of the final nine points.
“Dom was great. We need her to score if we are to win,” Schaefer said. “Dom is important.”
Vivians stresses the team concept over her personal accomplishments.
“They have my back and the get me the ball,” she said. “It is all because of my teammates. I was just trying to move and find the open shot in transition. I think we’re pre good. But we have a long way to go. We have potential and just have to show it.”
*Arkansas at No. 23 Tennessee. This was a good game for UT as it keeps them in the Top 25 for another week before playing two of three against the top teams in conference.
They fell four spots after losing last week to Mississippi State, but they did interrupt the losing after a win scheme. The program will not have 20 wins for the first time since Pat Head Summitt’s first two seasons. The schedule is set up for four straight wins to close, five of six.
Te’a Cooper continued hot for UT with nine points in a 23-14 opening quarter. Arkansas cut it to 23-26. Then Diamond DeShields scored five unanswered and assisted on another and it was back to a nine-point lead.
Starting at the 3:58 mark the Vols went cold and took the Gators with them. With 16 seconds left, Jamie Nared made a layin and it was 41-27 at the break, an 18-8 second quarter.
Cooper had 10, as did reserve DeShields, with five defensive rebounds. Mercedes Russell had six rebounds.
UT scored six of the first eight points to start the second half and was holding itself together. Jessica Jackson hit four free throws and a 3 in a one-minute explosion and cut the deficit to nine.
Then teammate Devins Cosper hit a 3 against the worst 3 defense of the top eight teams in the league.
Steady in the middle, Russell free throws and then a block kept the advantage at eight.
The Vols finally had a balanced attack, four in double figures: DeShields and Russell with 15, Cooper with 13 and Carter with 10.
Tennessee won rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. UT held out its team leaders and center Bashaara Graves for a second game with an ankle tweak and it did not matter.
Arkansas committed 21 fouls trying to keep up. The 9,414 in attendance appreciated the effort.
Coach Holly Warlick has 100 wins as a coach, faster to that than Pat Head Summitt made it and not counting Summitt’s final season when Warlick was the only game coach.
“I am just excited for our kids,” Warlick said. “I want to first thank (athletic director) Dave Hart for taking a chance on me. He hired an assistant coach in a big time women’s basketball program and he has done nothing but support me. I want to really say thank you to him.
"I understand how you get your wins, it is from your coaches down to everybody and the players. They were excited and some of those kids have been here for the four years that I have been here. It is a great honor and I appreciate it, but it boils down to surrounding yourself with great people. If I learned anything from Coach Summit I did learn that. I’m excited we got the win tonight.”
She said Arkansas indeed gave them a good tussle.
“Well I just think they got back in it. We weren’t playing solid defense, we gave up a 3 and I think we needed to slow down and get a little bit more disciplined on our defensive end. We got a bit 3-shot happy. We got a couple where we hit some in the beginning and I thought in that stretch where Arkansas started coming back that we shot four or five 3s.
"I am fine with us shooting 3s beause we have kids that can make them, but it’s time and possession and when you shoot three, four or five 3s in a row and you don’t hit them then you have to have the basketball sense to not shoot threes anymore.
“Let’s shot fake and get the ball closer to the basket or in the paint. Our kids held strong. I thought Alexa Middleton in that series hit a big 3. I thought Mercedes was just solid tonight, and I kept wanting her to move the basketball and she continued to demand the basketball.”
She said Graves could have played.
“I wanted to hold her out because I think that we are going to need her in whatever games we have down the road,” Warlick said. “I had her on injured reserve and I was going to play her if we needed her. She wanted to play, but I didn’t want to take any chances. She could tweak something and get hurt. She could have played tonight I just chose not to play her.”
Those games include the toughest close in the league.
“Our schedule has been unbelievable, really,” she said. “We played Kentucky on the road, and then we had to play Mississippi State on the road. In this stretch we go to Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and South Carolina, so it is just a tough stretch for us. Every time I look up it is a tough stretch.
“Obviously we didn’t make the SEC schedule because it wouldn’t be this way. We have to go with what we got. We just have to be ready, we may not like it, but its what we have and what we have to deal with. We have to take it one game at a time.”
She said any offensive improvement starts with ball control.
“It started in our practice,” Warlick said. “We’ve really practiced getting more looks and more movement in our offense. It’s so great to see that we had more assists than we had turnovers.
"We had 20 assists and 12 turnovers. That’s huge for us. I thought we took care of the basketball. A walk and couple things, I can live with that. I can live with those. It’s the ones that we just throw it out-of-bounds that I have a hard time with. I think the 12 turnovers, most of them we were attacking and trying to advance the ball and attack the basket.”
She continues intense work with DeShields.
“I spend a lot of time with Diamond in my office, Dean (Lockwood) and I do. I think the games you’ve see Diamond is a result of Diamond putting a lot of pressure on Diamond DeShields. I just told her, ‘Look, this team is here to help you. You’re part of this team, and you don’t have to carry this team, and you don’t have to do everything.’
“All I ask her to do was to go out and play hard; just play to the best of your ability. Bring the passion and the energy that I know you have. I’m not surprised the way she played because she set the tone totally in practice. When you practice hard it carries over to the games. I think you saw the result of Diamond committing to practicing hard, and that’s the Diamond DeShields that we need to see all the time.”
DeShields said she got some more personal advice, from her dad.
“He basically gave me a piece of reality. He said that right now I have to kind of play an old man’s game. He said, ‘I know your body is not feeling great, but you’ve got to understand that you can’t go very fast right now, as fast as you’d like.’
“That’s a lot of the reason I felt like I was turning the ball over, and having problems over the last couple of games. I was trying to go too fast. Tonight I really took my time and found my spots. I was really able to slow myself down and in-turn make good plays for everyone around me.
“I actually thought I had a couple (of turnovers). I know a couple of passes got deflected, or whatever. I felt more comfortable out there. I appreciate my Dad for coming out here. I know he’s about to leave for spring training. So, we try to spend as much time as we can together.”
"It's a very important game for us. I know their guards are very talented and they have some size inside. We're really going to have to control the paint, and just keep the high energy that we have been having the past few games and hopefully we can get a win.”
Warlick said Russell remains the anchor.
“Mercedes had a great game,” Warlick said. “ She was being strong with the ball when she got doubled. She was kicking it back out. We were kicking it back in, I think we played well with Mercedes and Mercedes played well with us.”
Russell said the coaches prepared her well.
“We went in to practice knowing they would play the whole game in 2-3 because that is what they did the first time we played them. So, we did a lot of cutting and moving the ball and then we also worked on me and Bashaara getting triple- teamed and double-teamed. I think practice really helped us because we worked on that 2-3 a lot."
Freshman guard Cooper is proud of the start.
"We warmed up hard. We were feeling it outside the arc,” Cooper said. “ We just felt good in the beginning. We new we had to start the game off strong.”
The celebration of Warlick’s 100th win was not in the game plan.
“It wasn’t planned,” said Cooper. I found out that this could be her 100th win before the game. I think everyone found out after the game. We all just ran over to her and celebrated. She deserves it.”
Warlick thought the celebration a little goofy. She was carried off the court and the men’s coach joined in the fun.
“That was Andraya (Carter) and Jordan (Reynolds). Two that do not have a lot of sense. They brought me a cake. Rick Barnes was very gracious and he came in and said some kind words and then rolled me in a cake. Andraya proceeded to put the cake on my face and neck so if I have icing it isn’t because I ate the cake. I promise you.
“They brought in a cake that had 100 wins on it and it was very special.”
She did get revenge on the players who threw cake at her.
“I hugged a couple of them. I got Andraya back when I hugged her and then I got Mercedes and a couple of others. I got Bashaara; she didn’t like it though because I got to close to her hair."
*No. 12 Texas A&M at No. 22 Florida. The Gators have played well enough to merit national attention and welcomed a Top 25 upset at home.
A&M wants to hold on to one of the Sweet 16 magic tickets, hosting the opening round at home, after missing that last season and exiting right away.
So what do you do with a tough Florida team? They relied on Courtney Walker, leading conference scorer coming off 20-plus games in five of the eight SEC games.
She had 15 at the break, relief added by the mere presence of the other senior Courtney, Williams, back in the starting lineup after missing time with back pain. They led by five at the break. Ronni Williams had 10 for the Gators, on her way to 20.
Florida took the game by winning the third quarter by 10 and holding on to win by two. Junior College newbie Simone Westbrook scored 15 for Florida. There was no real imbalance anywhere.
Walker scored 31 but had little help.
In the end, A&M’s last lead was 76-75 with three minutes left. Florida freshman Elana Christinaka made a basket and two free throws and the home team was ahead to stay. Walker made her final jumper with 46 seconds left but time ran out on A&M’s first loss ever to Florida.
A&M had the last possession because Florida threw away an inbounds pass. But the attempt missed at the buzzer.
“One of the gifts with this team is our ability to play through mistakes and that’s a credit to our leadership and our nature of being able to pick each other up,” Florida coach Amanda Butler said, still tied for second place in the Southeastern Conference. “I think they have this unshakeable belief in each other that we’re going to make the next play.”
A&M needs five wins in the final seven to reach 20. They have Tennesse next, then Mississippi State visits and then a tough foe in LSU. It was a stretch of six
ranked opponents in seven games for the Aggies.
Florida does have South Carolina next, there, but will be favored in the other five games so should end the season with a favored SEC draw, a national ranking and a good seed outside of the NCAA Top 16.
They only drew 1,414 for this and the NCAA notices such things.
*No 18 Kentucky at No. 2 South Carolina. UK needed to stop a losing culture but this wasn’t it.
Kentucky is stuck on 15 wins with six to go, two against ranked teams. It is possible the idea of four folks leaving the program has left the others played out. Kentucky has lost four five including, 1-3 to start the final 10.
South Carolina was just more active from the start, slapping at and deflecting anything UK tried and setting a quick pace that the Kats could not slow. It was 11-4. UK was shut out for three minutes. They did recover.
Despite the annoying commentary by ESPN’s Caroline Peck who has never met a bandwagon she would not join, it was fun to watch with the sound down.
Tiffany Mitchell, a senior SC leader and the two-time Player-of-the-Year, got leg-whipped by a teammate and retired to the locker room for the rest of the quarter. Makayla Epps also too a surprising break for UK. The Kats went on a 7-0 run and it was 11-9, with four home turnovers.
That stalled the Gamecock offense for four minutes but the quarter ended with SC ahead by four. UK had weathered all the distractions and was in the game shooting 30 percent from the field.
Alaina Coates had established the SC interior with three defensive rebounds. Finally heard from was Sarah Imovbio, with a putback. She had finished her degree at Virginia but transferred in with a year of eligibility adding the depth of an All-ACC player.
“I needed the guards to stop dribbling so much,” observed SC coach Dawn Staley. “They were dribbling 20 or 25 seconds,” which let UK back in the game.
Mitchell was back with only a leg bruise to start the second. Epps, UK’s best player, was surprisingly benched with her team-leading 17.6 scoring average and no points. Evelyn Akhator, their only inside presence, had two fouls early in the quarter.
So Epps came back. Akhator sat.
UK forced SC way out with defense. UK took the lead. Mitchell had a hard charge leaving her on the floor crying after bumping hips with Maci Morris in a slide under defense. It looked to be a devious undercut on replays. UK celebrated madly. Mitchell was out, having played just 10 minutes. SC’s depth was to be tested.
Before the game, it was announced South Carolina’s Asia Dozier, two-time captain and a starter in all previous SEC games, is listed as day-to-day following an injury to her right hand in the win at A&M.
She will be back practicing as her pain allows. She averaged more than 16 minutes per game. The injury was seen time and again on replay and looked to be of her own doing by reaching in at a flashing drive-by. So two starters were gone.
As the half wound down, the Kats were surviving without Epps scoring. SC had 10 turnovers but had hit 11-of-15 from the line and was ahead by five and maintaining at the two-minute mark.
UK continued to force turnovers with wonderful flops. SC had 11 turnovers.
“I need y’all to stop dribbling so much,” Staley told her team at the last time out. “If you are not gong to the basket, do not dribble. Look inside. If they look inside it is going to create opportunities. Feed the beast.”
The third quarter was evenly matched. Epps finally unloaded 13 points but Coates was already at a double-double – The Beast indeed – with15 points and 10 rebounds, six defensive. A’ja Wilson, headed for All-American status as the SEC presumptive Player of the Year, had 18 with seven rebounds UK had no inside counter.
A nice flurry ended it.
Khadijah Sessions hit a 70-foot bank shot at the buzzer – this is why you throw up such shots -- and it was a 57-53 lead with a quarter to go. Epps’ first four points had elevated her to 1,000 for the career.
And she only scored four more.
There was another missed block call, this time against Coates. But, in balance SC had 35 free throw attempts off all the fouls on Coates to 14 for the visitors. The guards were definitely not dribbling and Coates had forced 11 fouls on the frontliners trying to stop her.
With four defections this season and only eight comprtitive players, UK was at a strong disadvantage other than Epps. She had 17 of the team’s previous 19 at the seven-minute mark without Mitchell to guard her.
Yet her team trailed by five. “Look at where our points are coming from,” Staley addressed her team.
“Inside. Pound it inside. Pound it.”
With two minutes to go, UK trailed by six. Coates had a marvelous block and Epps caught it, but out of bounds.
Her team would have maintained possession if she let it go. Coates threw a floor-length pass and Doniyah Cliney received it for a layin. Sessions drove uncontested for a layup inside of a minute. The lead was 12.
SC won by 11 in January at Kentucky. SC scored the final 10 points and won by that many. The 21-15 quarter was a nice setup for the national Game of The Year when UConn rumbles in.
Epps scored 17, her average ending a program record four straight with 20 or more.
Staley praised the 45 points of her inside player, 18 from Wilson, 27 with 13 rebounds from Coates.
“We win it by getting the ball to our big girls, she said. “We wanted the guard effort. If you look at the stat sheet, they delivered. We’re resilient. We’re gonna fight to the end.”
“I just looked at it like we lost one of our own,” Coates said of the team injuries, “I am just one of the pieces of the puzzle. But it puts the fire in your belly.”
*Georgia at No. 21 Missouri. Depending on which side you preferred, either a great game or a terrible one.
Georgia got its 17th win and a magnificent one for the season by closing out 17-2 in a 65-60 runaway before 4,186 fans.
The ’Dawgs lead the SEC scoring defense (52.1). Missouri lost at home and maybe lost a tenuous hold on a national ranking. Still they have 18 wins and are next at Mississippi State but have four of the other five games to hit 20.
Georgia had won two straight but had not won in Columbia since before any of these players were born, 1984, and lost home to them by six in January.
Marjorie Butler led a balanced attack with 16 points. Tiara Griffin scored 15, Shacobia Barbee 14 and reserve Caliya Robinson 12 with 10 rebounds.
Cunningham finished with 17 but no one else stepped up.
A 17-2 fourth-quarter run sealed the deal.
After trailing by four in the early running of the fourth quarter, the Lady Dogs held Mizzou without a field goal from the 7:46 mark in the fourth until only 1:01 remained. Georgia outscored Missouri, 28-13 in the fourth.
“What a great win for us tonight,” said Georgia coach Joni Taylor. “Four people in double figures, Caliya with a double-double. I'm so proud of our kids, Marjorie Butler in particular because she's in the gym all the time. Every day when I come in there, she's in the gym. Sometimes she struggles to shoot the basketball but tonight they played off of her and she was smart about taking her shots and she had really big shots for us.
“That’s just what we talked about coming into this game. This is a great chance to win, get another win on the road against a really good Missouri team.”
Points were at a premium for Georgia through most of the third quarter, as a 2-of-10 start from the field allowed Missouri to cut the deficit to 30-29. Cunningham’s 3 at the buzzer tied it at 37.
Missouri scored the first four of the fourth, but back-to-back 3s from Griffin gave Georgia a two-point lead with six minutes to go. The Lady Bulldogs began to pull away, extending the lead to nine points with less than three minutes remaining, and they closed it out.
"Obviously we are really disappointed with the outcome of this game,” said Missouri coach Robin Pingeton.
“ We definitely want to give credit to Georgia. They are a senior-dominated team and a very, very good defensive team, which we talked about before the game. It was going to be really hard on the offensive end and we have really got to have great movement and got to work real hard to get each other good looks.”
“Defensively for the most part we did a decent job. We lost their shooters on some screen action a couple times. I didn't like our effort on the boards. We have done such a great job all year long from a rebounding standpoint and I always correlate that with effort and that is something that we have not had to talk to our team a lot about this year. They've been so great with that.
“Our turnovers tonight, although we brought the number down to a reasonable number at 15, they were not good turnovers. They were turnovers that led to uncontested layups so that definitely hurt us as well. It is always tough to lose on our home court but we lost to a very good team and we certainly don't have much time to dwell on this because we are going to have a tough, tough game on the road on Sunday.
“Gorgia is a really good defensive team; I think one of the better defensive teams in our league, to be honest with you. They don’t apply as much full-court pressure but their half-court pressure is really solid. They read each other well.
“It was just a tough offensive night for us.
“We don’t have the athletes that everybody does but the one thing that we can always hang our hat on is that for the most part we are assignment correct and knowing that you are not going to play a perfect game.
We didn’t have the sense of urgency that we needed to. We didn’t come out with the energy, which makes absolutely no sense for this team. I know playing on our home court is so important and again another great turnout from a fan standpoint.
We didn't give them a lot to get excited about and I thought we looked fatigued. For the first four minutes of the game we looked tired. We've got to evaluate that and figure out what is going on from that standpoint. In this league every night is a dogfight and we got beat by a very good team tonight.”
She aid Cunnningham’s production remains important
“I thought Sophie came out of her offensive struggles a little bit which was great to see because we need her being a threat for us offensively,” Pingeton said.
“She had been struggling the last couple games. She was getting better against Ole Miss with a double-double so she had a good game but it seems like she’s getting more back in rhythm and getting that bounce back. We didn't really have anyone that shot the ball outstanding other than Sophie and Jordan (Frericks) and Jordan wasn’t on the court long enough after getting in foul trouble again. That’s such an important position for us but other than that we didn't really shoot the ball that well today.”
She said a balanced attack is needed.
"It's important for Jordan to be on the court. I think her presence, her rebounding, her defense, and her ability to score. I didn't think she came out with the aggressiveness in the first half that she did in the second half.
“I didn’t really like where our team was at to be honest with you. We have been fortunate and never questioned their effort, their energy or their passion. Tonight we just came off flat and couldn’t seem to get it going. Throughout the course of a long season, you are probably going to have a game like that sooner or later and that was our game tonight. It’s just unfortunate that it was on our home court.
“We got up four and then missed a layup underneath. I think it was Morgan Stock that had an open layup underneath that would have pulled it to six that gives our crowd a chance to get even more into it.
"This isn’t on one player by any stretch of the imagination. We had layups to start the game that we missed. I think after missing that layup we might have gotten a little deflated. They came down and hit a big shot and they were right back in it. They played with great poise down the stretch, which since they are senior-dominant, you'd expect them to play that way. We didn't weather that comeback very well."
Cunningham said “We are just trying to put a whole game together, a full 40 minutes, first half and second half. We are going to be getting it done because we need to focus in. This is the time that we need to lock arms and get a little tighter and get going.”
She is disappointed Georgia could rally on her home court.
“I think it is just a lack of discipline on our part. We have to know who the shooters are. We need to know personnel, but if they make a basket, we can’t get deflated. We have to go right back at them and throw the next punch, so that is something that we really need to work on.”