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, February 12, 2016

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Still the Top Conference

By Mike Siroky

Sure they like to treat each other like the weekly WWE show, bonking each other in the head and throwing some out of the ring, but the Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball is still the best women’s conference in America, with five ranked teams and three more destined for the NCAA eliminations.

 At least three ought to get Sweet 16 hosting awards for the first two rounds, which usually guarantees a Regional spot.

Usually because Kentucky stumbled out of that last season.

The silliness of UConn vs. South Carolina aside – it would not help SC either way – the SEC still has one elite team capable of a top seed at a Regional. They are  likely to run the table and the season and grab the money bid in the tournament. 

They have a three-game lead in the conference. Having two starters out makes them gettable by another elite team but they have beaten their closest chasers and No. 25 Tennessee is the only ranked team in the remaining bunch of SEC foes.

Playing UConn with two starters out surely does not reflect the national caliber of the team. 

Notre Dame is afraid to play them. The Irish are satisfied to get whomped by UConn annually and lose to no one else. 

Staley (and Stanford, and Tennessee and Kentucky and Ohio State and Maryland) will play anyone.

This weekly report gets easier with only five contests with ranked teams for the week. The SEC still has six ranked teams; more than any other conference, and one on deck The rankings are from the Associated press at tipoff.

*No 25 Tennessee at No. 12 Texas A&M. The Aggies needed a win for No. 16 and who better than this season’s schizophrenic program headed out of the Top 25 for the season with 13 wins. A&M is tied for third in the league and fighting for that two-game bye in the league tournament.
Center – they play two at the same time -- Khaalia Hillsman took a high pass, landed funny and her ankle buckled. She walked off to the locker room with four minutes to go in the quarter.

Diamond DeShields was off the bench early and was active. Bashaara Graves, a team leader in so many ways, also came in after sitting out two with an ankle tweak.

DeShields’ main problem has been trying to do too much. Her 81st turnover led to a fast break the other way, and the mopery had it 7-3 with four minutes to go in the first quarter, another demonstration by both teams of dealing badly with zone defenses.

Kortney Dunbar is known for hitting 3s. In a case of energizing the offense, Vol coach Holly Warlick put her in. She hit 3s from the professional range over the zone. But they also seven turnovers and A&M had four steals. It was 14-all  at the break.

Leads were gained leads were squandered. Both energetic coaches had jackets off and yelling on. 

A&M gained a five-point advantage but blew it back to one with 90 seconds left, then scored off the inbounds. Still no Hillsman. A&M was either afraid or forgot to box out and Graves had an uncontested putback. It was 30-29 at the break.

ESPN immediately switched to reports on other games rather than talk about this one. Former UConn center Becky Lobo, in her cocktail dress, only wanted to analyze (!) coming games featuring UConn. 

The dress was smarter than the analysis. For instance she went deep into her book of knowledge to tell us whoever scored more would win. No one was scoring here.

Hillsman had been retaped and was back. UT went ahead on free throws then started working the ball more and dribbling less. They fashioned a nine-point advantage. The man-to-man defense seemed to incite them as well.

Andraya Carter hit two layups and fed Mercedes Russell for another. Jordan Reynolds was 5-of-7 from the field and 2-of-2 from the line for 12 points. 

They led by 11 entering their personal quarter of doom.

They remained active. It was 11 and they had possession with seven minutes left.

Tennessee gained a free time out when the referees stopped the clock to check out an over-and-back (it was not) and then gained eight seconds when the clock did not restart. Jordan Jones drove the length off the miss and earned two fee throws. She missed both. But Hillsman claimed the power rebound, her fifth offensive, and laid it in.

The deficit was nine with five minutes left. A&M was only hitting 32 percent. UT allows 37. The Aggies cut it to six with 2:21 left. It was a 13-8 quarter. Tennessee had two turnovers plus four misses in three minutes.

Courtney Williams, A&M’s second-best scorer, fouled out with two in four seconds.

Fifty seconds left and Jordan Jones hit two free throws to make the deficit three. Mercedes Russell bonked a free throw, then hit one. UT was finally out of single digits for the quarter. 

A partial block on the other end was seen as a Russell foul and Courtney Walker was at the line. She hit them both. Two points down, 28 seconds to go.

A collision on the inbounds. Called on Nared. Jordan Jones appeared to undercut her, but if the defender is set you do not have to allow the offense space to land. 

The WNBA rules make the landing area clear. The ESPN homer announcers agreed. She had bonked her head on the floor. She was stretchered out, headed for concussion protocol, taken immediately to the hospital.

She was released that night but the concussion protocol had her miss at least the other game this week.

Meanwhile, the officials could not agree and so ruled for the home team. Tennessee’s 14th turnover. It was a defining moment. 

The Lady Vols had possession taken away and would soon give the game away.

“She was the one that helped us get our energy going,” Walker said. “We felt like we could not tell her later tonight that we lost. We had to tell her that we won.”

Coach Gary Blair had quite awhile to draw up the winning play with no shot clock. Courtney Walker muffed it but Howard threw up the tie with five seconds to go. 

“Just turned around and shot it. I thought about (Jordan Jones) and said, ‘I have to make it’,” Howard said.

UT had once more squandered a 13-point lead in crunch time, 11 in the final three minutes. They have 
no closers and the coaches have no plan. An air ball by Nared led to overtime.

 "We all had to come together and motivate each other . “We wanted the win,” Anriel Howard said. “We did not want to lose again. We picked up our energy and got the win.”

“Role-playing in this game goes unnoticed,” A&M coach Gary Blair said. “The key times when Danni (Williams) went in the first half because Walker could not hit a thing, that gave Walker a chance to reflect on how they were guarding her.  Sometimes those things go unnoticed.”

Still, his point guard was gone. He used one who had not played until then. And Williams had fouled out. 

All the crucial calls had gone their way, however. Tennessee had five more personal fouls. 

Russell missed another free throw, made one, two crucial misses down the stretch. A&M scored then gained a turnover. 

Calls underneath went suddenly uncalled. 

Nared was fouled out on another iffy call.

Walker hit the free throws for the lead. She had 23 points. Another DeShields miss, her 10th. UT fouled on the other end. Jennings hit two free throws and the lead was five.

DeShields hit a jumper. Andraya Carter was manhandled and hit two free throws. One-point lead A&M. 

Walker hit a jumper but new arrival Te’a Cooper answered. Walker appeared to travel, was awarded free throws instead. Hit them both.

UT seemed reluctant to shoot. A minute left in OT. Air ball. They were suddenly down by five. 

They fumbled it out of bounds. They fouled. They threw up a bad shot. They lost by five or an 18-point swing in crunch time. 

Dunbar was never reinserted despite no one else hitting. They had 24 fouls and 16 turnovers.

“To do so well and have a lead," Tennessee's Andraya Carter said. “To fight that hard and long to come up short . It is obviously something we have to fix. We have to be able to close games.”

Game over. A&M was jumping. UT was heads down. So what if they were competitive. Again. They lost. Again. They have lost three road games by a combined eight points. Yet their reputation in the realm allows them to remain the lowest-ranked team.

"It was a great game. A&M finished it out. We could not hold on,” Warlick said. “They did some great things down the stretch there and we did not.”

The home wolves are howling, Warlick has slipped from the coronation of an heir-apparent (they did not interview anyone else in deference to the ailing Pat Head Summitt) to a sudden question of why hire an assistant with no head coaching experience.

This one loss pushed them from tied for fourth to seventh in conference, 5-5, yet to play South Carolina. 

Eighth is as bad as ever they have been. The matcup after this one would be Vanderbilt. They will fall one more spot. And that is dangerous because that team gets No. 4 (A&M right now) so it could be one and done. Their finish promises a little elevation but not much.

A&M is set up to close with four wins, once they compete at home next with Mississippi State.

Tennessee can’t possibly finish worse than Pat Summitt’s first two 16-win seasons. However those are the only non 20-win seasons ever at Vol headquarters. The lows after 16 are 22 wins, last in 2008-2009 when some of these players were in high school.
They have never had a losing conference record, the worst being 4-4. And they made the Sweet 16 that season. A string that lasted until 2008-2009.

A&M had done all they could to drum up popcorn business. They had a children’s “tailgate” before the game, an interactive event, which included free pizza for the first 200 participants under age 12 as well as events like poster- making and face-painting.

Noisemakers were given to the first 500 arrivals. The halftime show was a dog act which had won an America’s Got Talent competition. Pepsi sponsored a halftime shot contest for $5,000, selected from the crowd.

Blair randomly handed out T-shirts and candy

There was free parking, $5 admissions and students free with their university sports passes.

They also continued their sale of T-shirts backing breast cancer research. They drew 4,791. The NCAA notices such things.

*No 21 Missouri at No. 11 Mississippi State. Another Top 25 matchup with the higher-ranked team winning at home. 

The Bulldogs are firmly in the Top 16, Mizzou was sure to fall out of the Top 25. Still, the Tigers will earn 20 wins this season and an NCAA berth, just not by winning in Starkville. 

State has 21 wins and is going for a school record.

Missouri cannot allow a team better than they are to start strongly and they did here. The Bulldogs used five players and had a 17-6 lead at the first stop. 

But Mizzou came back with a 12-4 run and it was competitive again, 23-18 at the half based on that big start. 

A shooter must shoot, but MSU’s Victoria Vivians was an abysmal 1-of-8 from the floor

Jordan Frericks had half her average with six. Rookie center Teaira McCowan was already given them fits off the bench with eight. 

Missouri’s other problem was hitting one-fourth of the shots from the field. Perhaps credit the defensive work which MSU coach Vic Schaefer had featured in practices.

State hung another damaging single-digit on Mizzou in the 12-9 third and the five point lead seemed to be enough, if not energizing to the crowd of 4,521.

Mizzou’s Sophie Cunningham, the sensational freshman, hit back-to-back layins, nine total points against her team-leading 13 average, and it was 41-38 with four minutes left.

The two single-digit quarters doomed them. Morgan William and Vivians each scored four in an 8-0 closeout.

Cunningham hit her average. Frericks did too. No one else stepped up. They actually won the rebounds but State had eight steals. William scored 17, Vivians 13 and McCowan 10.

Mizzou lost by 10. They already had a statement win against State at their place. Halfway through these crucial final 10, the Tigers are 3-2 and should be favored in four of the remaining five and competitive if they wear down Kentucky.

They had been in national polls an all-time high seven straight weeks.

“Credit to the girls for playing some really great defense,” Schaefer said. “On a day where we didn’t play well, we were good on the defensive side. Missouri is such a tough, physical team and we really guarded them and made it tough. Forcing 27 turnovers is amazing.”

Morgan William led the Bulldogs with 17 points, while Vivians added 13 points and Teaira McCowan added 10 points. Vivians also had a team-high seven rebounds and a career-best five steals.

“When your shots aren’t falling, you have to do other things to help the team win,” said Vivians, a sophomore guard, of two late steals that led to late lay-ins. “I always know my shots are going to come so I am going to keep taking them. You also have to play defense though and do the other things to win games like this.”

“I like how we are sharing the basketball,” Schaefer said. “ My four players, Ketara (Chapel), Breanna (Richardson), Victoria and Dominique (Dillingham). I’m proud of my bench. I thought LaKaris Salter, Blair Schaefer and Sherise Williams all come in and make an immediate impact on the game. I was pleased with them and how well they played, Kayla Nevitt plays well coming off the bench as well. Big T (McCowan) too.” 

Junior guard Dillingham  said success comes from hard work.

“We’ve been in the gym more and we are shooting good shots and hitting shots now,” she said. “We are just getting more and more confident in shooting.

“It is definitely nice to know we are breaking records and everything, but at the end of the day we still have to keep winning if we are going to get to postseason. We have to keep winning to have a chance to host (NCAA Tournament).

“We knew it was important to come out and punch them first. Earlier this year, they really punched us in the mouth and kept attacking. We weren’t ready. This game we were able to win because we had the good start.”

Junior center Chinwe Okorie agrees: “I think Dom is right. We are getting better shots. We are leaving out the good shots and getting great shots, and leaving out the bad shots to get good shots. It really makes a difference and improvement. The guards are getting in the gym more. They are putting so much time into it and it has been working really great.”

*LSU vs. No18 UK. Not a nicer way to end a four-game win streak than to invite in a dead team that still counts for a conference win.

Even playing like a worn out team, UK led at end of third, 58-36. Janee Thompson had 13. Makayla Epps was off to a second slow start with five. Basically the Kats just got through it with a winnable road game next.

They had as much as the Ben Gals would total. The sleepwalk was evidenced by the 12-22 fourth against a bad team. Epps didn’t score any more. Thompson scored three.

The 6,100 in attendance could not have been impressed by anything other than the chance to get to the Super Bowl parties in plenty of time. UK hit its bye week.

Neither Thompson nor her coach had any explanation.

“I’m not exactly sure,” Thompson said. “I don’t want to blame it on the focus or energy because, you know, as a player and teammate out there, I don’t think that’s what we felt it was. 

"We were trying and we were talking to each other and we were trying to have energy. So I’m not sure exactly what it was. 

"We had some breakdowns on the defensive end, and they got some points off of our turnovers.”

Matthew Mitchell said it is not end of season burnout as they have been working to shorten practices. 

“Well you can make any excuse you want to,” Mitchell said. 

“Poor effort and I think that shots stopped falling for us and we started turning over. And, as this team has done often this year, if our offense is not working then we don’t play as hard on defense, and that is disappointing. 

“We also cannot seem to stand success when we get a big lead. It just seems that we don’t value defense possessions the way we need to. But, they just started doing whatever they wanted to, they were in the fourth quarter, and luckily we scored enough to win. It was not our finest moment and we will try to get better from it.

“We have given an extra day off here and there, so we are in the same boat as anyone else is. LSU actually has fewer players available than we do and they played their tails off in the fourth quarter. So I am just going to look at film and deal with facts and see. I know the fourth quarter was not good so I will figure out why it wasn’t and what was going on and try to correct it.”

*No. 22 Florida 19-4 at No. 2 South Carolina. Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley in a matchup of ranked teams, used the opportunity to play mad scientist some more, starting a  rookie point guard for her first time.

It gave redshirt Doniyah Cliney 19 minutes and a career-best 10 points. It served notice, as if the conference foes needed it, that there is very serious depth.

The Gamecocks took a steady 19-16 lead after one quarter. Three of South Carolina’s five field goals in the first 10 minutes came from behind the arc.  Mitchell had eight points.

The South Carolina guards continued hot shooting in the second quarter, a 16-0 run to start the period 

The Gators were stifled, missing 11-of -14 from the field to start their period. The Gamecocks had a 43-31 halftime lead.

Mitchell scored 14 of 22 in the second half and skittered past 1,700 career points. She also this week was told she is a District Academic All-America, presented by the national sports information directors organization. 

And, she and Wilson and Coates made the midseason cut for the national Naismith Player-of-the-Year award. UConn is the only other team with three still in the mix.

Alaina Coates was 7-of-8 from the floor with 11 rebounds to register her career-high 13th double-double of the season. She is the 10th player in program history with 1,000 points and eight rebounds. Sophomore forward A’ja Wilson had 13 points and nine rebounds.

Led by Coates, the Gamecocks preserved a comfortable lead over Florida over the final 10 minutes. 

Florida was unable to come within single digits of the lead the rest of the way, the Gators missing four of their final five shots.

Guard Cassie Peoples and forward Haley Lorenzen both finished in double figures for the Gators. But they were outrebounded, 44-30. 

Each team hit eight 3-pointers in the contest. South Carolina earned a 19-13 advantage in fast-break points. SC had 14 more rebounds and shot 10 percent better from the field.

“Law of averages says we’re going to have a great stretch at some point,” said Staley. “I thought our players settled down and took what Florida gave us.”

For the third time in the past four games, the Gamecocks made at least 20 free throws. South Carolina finished the contest 22-of-31 from the line.

SC completed three-game homestand with 13,392 fans.

Florida has not beaten SC since 2011. They are 3-2 the final 10 and only have unranked teams left for a fine finish. 
Probably not a top 16 seed, but a fine No. 5 and back in the playoffs after skipping last year

Reserve Florida guard Carla Batchelor scored 19. That will give Staley something on which to focus in practice.

*No. 25 Tennesse at Vanderbilt. This late in the season, it is unusual for a team that is ranked to play one with more wins that is not ranked. UT won by 11 at home in January and by 16 this time. They have won two road games in conference.

Tennessee, with 15 wins, will lose at home Sunday against South Carolina and could close out with four wins. They are not likely to earn any NCAA home games but are among the eight league teams that will make the NCAAs, likely as a No. 7 seed.

Vandy started a string of games against ranked foes. Interestingly, if this had been the first round of the SEC conference tournament, this would have been a matchup. 

The Commodores are in danger of missing two straight NCAAs for the first time since 1984-85, when the aged Carolyn Peck played there. They also will not reach 20 wins, always an admission ticket for SEC teams in the NCAA draw.

UT started well, 20-7 at the first stop. Jamie Nared had eight 3-of-5 from the field and 2-of-2 from the line. Diamond DeShields is still not starting, but she hit 3-of-3 from the line in the opening quarter.

Tennessee maintained in the second quarter, 17 points in the paint and three players with eight points each. Damage with 9:46 to go in the third: Freshman guard Te’a Copper has ankle rolled under a defender. 

She is the sparkplug for Tennessee, starting because DeShields is not worthy and started earlier when the original point guard got a concussion elimination for the second straight season. She limped off was retaped and came back in three minutes.

Alexa Middleton is out with an ankle injury dressed but wearing a protective boot on her right ankle, making her an emergency-only option.

Tennessee had it at 17 and it was so smooth UT coach Holly Warlick had not yet removed her jacket, the barometer of sideline frustration.

Oops with 10 seconds left in the quarter Vandy cut it to 10. And here came the Orange Quarter of Doom.

“The snake is around our neck,” Warlick said of several late-game failures. 

She wants to rid her team of it. Sure enough, the jacket came off and UT looked a little shaky. They have lost four second-half leads this season, including one of 17 in the previous game.

But  a 17-5 run ended the drama. The single-digit defense in the opening quarter had been enough. 

The Vandy coach had suggested 70 points was needed. She got 69. 

Jamie Nared scored a season-high 18, one of four in double-figures including a dozen from DeShields. 

She had an effortless fast break at the end, including a behind-the-back moved on a steal and fast break.

“That was great win for us because we finished the game,” said Warlick. “This was a must-win for us, and we told our kids that.”

“We needed to get a win somehow, some way,” Nared said. “Someone told us that we were on a five-game road losing streak, so we just needed to get it together.”

*No. 11 Mississippi State at No. 12 Texas A&M. This was a wonderful battle headed by two great friends. 

Each team has four in the league loss column, State has one more win, putting her in second. 

A&M and Florida are tied, one game back. State and A&M are in contention for the double-bye in the SEC tournament and a chance to host in the Sweet 16 qualifiers. Neither did last season.

This one hardly looked like two of the top four teams in the SEC. Neither coach claimed his defense as the reason for the terrible offensive start. The Aggies started 3-of-12 and the Bulldogs 3-of-9.

Eventually, Courtney Walker, the best player in this game, settled down the home team and scored 10 on 5-of-10 from the floor with six rebounds. Her teammates were 6-of-25 for the half.

The other All-SEC senior Courtney, Williams, is playing with a slight fracture in the back which has cost her games and likely a chance to repeat as all-conference. She returned to the starting lineup by default. She floats rather than drives nowadays. She had 10 at the break.

Still, they trailed by six. Both the lack of offensive direction and coordination is from the player missing in action, point guard Jordan Jones. 

Only Jones knows what her mentality was in undercutting a Tennessee player in the previous game. It  won the moment, led to a winning comeback, but she was stretchered out to a hospital. 

She as released the same night, but the concussion protocol made her miss at least this game. She was listed as a probable starter right up to game time. Instead, gone was the fourth-best team scorer and her 125 assists.

It forced A&M to insert seldom-used Curtyce Knox at guard for the last big game of the regular season.

A&M showed an early inability to take advantage of the situation. The have lived and thrived with the shooter-must-shoot mindset of star Victoria Vivians. She is second in league scoring, 17.2, to Walker’s 18.6.

State had led by 11 and took a quick shot that allowed it to be cut to nine. The working for the last shot was the plan for everyone but Vivians. She launched another quickie, Reserve forward Taylor Cooper was thus allowed a 3 for her only points of the half and the lead was six. Vivians started 4-of-15 from the field.

State coach Vic Schaefer was disappointed.

“Poor, real poor, not blocking out, missing free throws,” he said. “We were playing for  the last shot and took a real poor shot and they get a 3. I am disappointed in the little things.”
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair reinforced the game plan on timeouts.

“Their defense is a little bit ahead of our defense,” he said.

“I want you to grab the rebound with two hands. That’s all I ask.”

And so it went. State blew the whole 11-point lead to a one-point deficit. Williams had hit for 18 early in the fourth. Nothing new for the home team.

 The Aggies had played six straight games that came down to the final minute of play, including getting to overtime for the win over No. 23 Tennessee the previous game.

Schaefer said the Courtneys were killing his team. Walker had 20 and Williams 18. He said defense was failing and, if you want to win “in this atmosphere on the road” it starts with defense.

State started 0-for-the-quarter and trailed by 8 – a 19-point swing. State cut it to five at the four-minute mark. By virtue of a 38-26 second half, A&M won by six.

It was a traditional all-Courtney game; Williams with 28 and Walker with 22. State had more rebounds, was 15-of-19 from the line and lost.

 State 5-5 guard Morgan William hit her sixth straight with at least 10, 18 this time. Vivians scored 13 but it took 5-of-20 from the field to do it. She was told this week she made the midseason cut for the national Naismith Player-of-the-Year award.

A&M can win out. They will get 20 wins. They will be favored in all. They are 3-2 in the final 10. State will also likely win out. They are 5-1 in the final 10 and will be favored the rest of the way.

“We are disappointed but it was a heck of a basketball game,” Schaefer said. “Real proud of my kids, love how competitive they are. We don’t always make the right decisions. We are still a young immature team at times. 

"At the end of the first half is a great example of our youth and inexperience. We were up nine and we needed to get the last shot off and we hurried something and next thing you know they come down and get a three to get the score down to six. 

“I am really proud of how hard we competed today.

“We were going against two of the best guards in the country,” he said. “Courtney Walker and Courtney Williams are just really, really good. I felt like we did an adequate job at halftime holding them to 8-of-18 but in the second half they came out and went 10-of-17.

" We did a fairly good job on everybody else. It’s hard to deal with Courtney Williams when she is rising over you and hitting those shots. I figured she was going to go off today and I wasn’t wrong.”

He also said the loss of the opponent’s point guard was not an advantage.

“It hardly ever works out when you’re facing a wounded team,” he said. “They always rally around the wounded warrior and just find a way to win. You really have to tip your hat off to Curtyce Knox, she had five assists and only one turnover and led her team on a day when they needed her.  

"You have to commend her for a great job. Shlonte (Allen) hadn’t played a lot and she played well for them. Made two big shots and three steals in only 10 minutes. Both those kids come in a give Jordan (Jones) a blow and they never missed a beat in my mind.”

The coaches were a great sideshow in their special friendship. Blair, an offensive genius, had rescued Schaefer, a defensive specialist, when, as Schaefer said, he “didn’t have two nickels to rub together.” 

He took over for Blair’s defense. Together, they won the 2011 National Championship. A&M joined the SEC and Schaefer began the build in Starkville.

Schaefer said going back to A&M is not easy

“Coach Blair is a six-time hall of fame coach,” he said. “Those seniors were the No. 2 recruiting class in the country. They’re a very talented and special group. They have had a lot of success in their careers. We have tremendous kids with a competitive spirit

“I think you are kidding yourself if you say this is just another game. You have to go in there and get in your foxhole with your team and realize that you have to compete and try to win a basketball game. 

"You have to try to shut out all of the other distractions. I have a lot of respect for Coach Blair and a lot of appreciation for the 15 years I had with him. At the end of the day I had to take my team in there and go play a Top-15 team on the road in the SEC.”

Blair could not be prouder.

“Folks, seven straight; I don’t think it’s going to change. Seven straight games, we are 4-3 in these last-second situations. I’m so proud of how our kids responded. Give so much credit to Curtyce Knox and Shlonte Allen for rising up and being that 12th Man, if you will. 

“Shlonte was going so fast that we just had to slow her down. She gave us three steals, she penetrated and gave out an assist.

“In the second half when they switched to a zone, she hit the very first shot on the screen by Rachel (Mitchell) and that helped us right there. 

"We weren’t ready for that zone but that’s what they did against Tennessee in the last quarter and it worked for a while. Cooper’s halftime shot was as big as any shot in the game.

 "Our kids felt good coming off the court because one we stopped [Victoria] Vivian’s down on the other end. She pretty much had a point blank look and then we were able to get the rebound, Walker being unselfish found Cooper. That’s what she is there for, she is a big-time player that makes plays.”

“The key basket in the second half was Curtyce Knox’s; the little layup underneath where there was nothing there. We had nobody open and we had nobody behind her. How she got that thing up in a forest of trees there just give a little credit.

 "If you sat and watched a Jordan Jones for so many years and got to play against her every day in practice all of a sudden from what that kid has gone through this year give that kid a whole lot of credit.”

As usual in his guard-oriented scheme, he needed the current ones to step up.

“Curtyce Knox, five assists, only one turnover, hit the key basket . . . if we can hold their best player (Vivians) under 30 percent, I guarantee the majority of the time we were going to win. I thought we could exploit them inside a little bit better.”

Walker felt comfortable.

“I just really had to get my rhythm back, knowing where I succeed on the court and where I get most of my points” Walker said. “So I had to get to the hole in transition because that really opens things up for my teammates. When I make them better that makes me better. I took my time and I let the game come to me.”

The alternative Courtney knows what it is like to miss a key player.

“I think we all did a good job picking up some of the things that Jordan does so well,” said Williams. “The seniors did a good job of talking today, because that’s one thing that Jordan does really well, keeping everybody on the same page. We really had to communicate switching back and forth from zone to man. Also had to talk to know who we were matching up with in the zone.

“I think it’s a huge win to show that we learned from all the close games that we lost. Everyone knows that we have a long stretch of really close games. We are really coming together down the stretch. And even this game we didn’t have our star point guard but everyone stepped up. We were just able to pull it out together.”

Schaefer said, “I have tremendous respect for that program and everything about that program. They’re a really good basketball team. They are hard to handle. They are very similar to us. They have girls that are 6-7 and 6-5 and they are athletic at the Four-spot. We are going against a veteran, savvy basketball team on the road. They are very good at home.

“It is very weird, awkward, and cool all at the same time. I know a lot of their players. I grew up playing against a lot of the players that play for Texas A&M right now. We are really good friends when we are off the court. When we step on the court, it is weird being enemies. As far as going back to College Station and me growing up there, a lot of fans that are Texas A&M fans are our family’s personal fans. It is very weird for them. They cheer for us every game except when we play Texas A&M. 

“I have to look at it as a business trip, not as a trip going back to see anybody special. I am going to have a lot of people that I know there: Family, high school coaches, friends, Texas A&M fans that I grew up with. When I step on the court it has to be for my team. This is business.”

Junior guard Dominique Dillingham said “We are still trying to build that resume for this year. We are still fighting for a host spot. It will be another building block in trying to get there.” She has bought into Schafer’s defense, having taken a league-best 38 charges.

Of her play, her coach said: “If she isn’t defensive player of the year in our league, I don’t know who is. 

"She guards everybody’s best player every game. She plays her guts out and plays 37 to 40 minutes a game. Her competitiveness and will separates her. She’s a tremendous kid and is successful in the classroom and on the basketball court. Her mother and father have done a great job raising her. I recruited her for her competitiveness. She brings a competitive nature and spirit every day in practice.”

A&M had done all it can to promote attendance, which the NCAA notices when awarding first-round home games. This one included the Corps of Cadets Night,  2,500 strong. The group’s singing unit did the pregame and halftime shows. They drew 5,645.


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