By Mike Siroky
The Sweet 16 is where all those haters of major conferences getting into the NCAA tournament shut up. The SEC, the Big 12 and the ACC each have a No 1 seed left. The SEC also has a No. 3, a No. 5 and a No. 7. They are in three of the four Regionals, doubled up in the one with the top seed. The ACC also has a No. 3 and a No. 5 The Big 12 also has a No. 2 and a No. 5, as all of its nationally ranked teams play on. The Pac 12 has a No. 3, a No. 4 and a No.7. The Big Ten has a No. 3 and a No. 4 Of course, the American only needs its No. 1 to erase everyone else. The best league in the land added one more homey to the Sweet 16, giving the Southeastern Conference its four, or 25 percent of the remaining field. Two more conference members were eliminated. By the way South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson and Tiffany Mitchell, join Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson of Connecticut as finalists for the national Player-of-the-Year Naismith Trophy. Stewart will win it. Numbers associated with teams reflect the NCAA seed. *No. 3 Kentucky 79, No. 6 Oklahoma 58 The Lexington feed-in to the across town Regional at Rupp Arena does not violate the NCAA rule of no longer allowing teams to play at home in the Sweet 16 because it was earned, not awarded, and the Kats do not play home games in Rupp. That said, it sure must be fun to stay in your comfort zone for the most important game of the season.
The energetic Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale is to be inducted into the women’s basketball hall of fame this summer. She deserves it.
They lost to mighty Baylor in the Big 12 conference tournament and eliminated Purdue in their NCAA opener, advancing to this round for the 10th time in 11 seasons. They won nine before this.
They had one senior, redshirt guard Gioya Carter, who started half the games. That she led them with a dozen points was not a good sign for them. This was their 17th straight NCAA adventure with Coale. They were 11-7 in conference. Like UK, they finished fourth in conference.
The Sooners were averaging a .447 shooting percentage in its victories this season.
UK held them to 27 percent from the field, the first time all year UK has held successive opponents below 30 percent from the field, The big number was the single-digit offense allowed, eight, in the second quarter. In games involving SEC teams all season, only once has a winning team had a single-digit quarter, It was Oklahoma’s low of the year. The Sooners finished 5-8 when trailing at the intermission. OU was 17-2 when outrebounding its opponent; it lost rebounds by one. They finished the season ranked No. 24, one of three Big 12 ranked teams.
Freshman Maci Morris scored nine in the 20-19 UK first, her season game average. She hit her first four 3 attempts. Combined with 3-of-3 in the NCAA opener that is a program record.
An appreciative 3,056 let her know it. She finished as one of five in double figures, with a dozen points. Makayla Epps hit 10-of-14 from the line and scored 13. Senior Janee Thompson scored 16, 7-of-8 from the line. She passed 1,000 career points. Alexis Jennings scored eight, 5-of-5 from the line and set an NCAA program record with six blocks. Every time Oklahoma would make a move, UK had just enough to hold them off. It was 35-27 at halftime. Oklahoma cut it to two at 44-42 in the third, but UK ended the quarter on a run and had a 10-point lead to protect in the final quarter. Thompson went to the line three straight times and the lead was a dangerous dozen. UK simply played on, nothing spectacular except the destination after the win. “I thought when we were the aggressor, we were winning” said coach Matthew Mitchell. “You can make things happen. We got complacent they cut it to two and we called time out. We had to attack.” As for Thompson taking control at a crucial point, “We never have had a better single leader here than her,” said Mitchell. “No disrespect to any other player, but she will put us on her back.” UK’s visions of the Elite Eight got quietly better when Washington went coast to coast to win at the Big Ten’s best, Maryland. It means UK draws a seven seed, the fifth-place team in its league, instead of a No. 2 seed in the opposite side of the bracket from Notre Dame. *No. 5 Florida State 74, No. 4 Texas A&M 56 As we said Sunday, these are the closest possible seeds in a Sweet 16 qualifier. The SEC was involved in both at home. One won and one didn’t.
There is this thought process that, given you will not win the National Championship, is it better to lose at home with friends and family to comfort you.
Or lose on the road and just fade away. This ends a program benchmark badly and sadly and eliminates five seniors. One of them, a stalwart player until this season, was suspended for violating team rules. At least we know Gary Bair is a coach who sticks by his principles.
State was fourth in the ACC. They had two seniors. They have won 13 straight opening NCAA playoff games.
It is their 15th NCAA tournament.
They made the Elite Eight last season and in 2011. Sue Semrau is their coach. They finished the season ranked one spot ahead of A&M, No. 17. They can move up some more.
Florida State is fifth nationally and first in the ACC with an average rebound margin of +12.3. FSU is surrendering just 28.8 rebounds per game, the third-lowest in the country behind opponents of Albany (26.7) and Vanderbilt (28.3).
Florida State’s 56.9 points allowed per game is the same scoring average that last year’s team had entering the NCAA Tournament.
FSU’s 56.9 points allowed is on pace to be the program’s best scoring defense since joining the ACC in 1992.
Off the bench, Shakayla Thomas 5-11 sophomore is the leading scorer, 16.9. Adut Bulgak is the best rebounder, 7.7 and second-best scorer, 11. The 6-4 senior center from Edmonton, Canada.
Led Canada to second (behind the US) in World University Games which means A&M’s Courtney played against her there.
A&M was simply non-competitive.
They lost the opening quarter by 11 and the second by 10. Junior guard Brittany Brown cored 10 in State’s first quarter against an eight-point average. Ulgak had 14 at intermission, with nine rebounds, six defensive. Walker had two fouls, three turnovers and seven points on 3-of-11 from the field. Tate had that 12-rebound edge. Playing the third quarter even still left the Aggies 11 behind. With more than five minutes left in the quarter State had 57 points, or already one more that A&M could muster all game. Bulgak had a double/double as the best player in College Station, 16 points and 10 rebounds, six defensive. Four Seminoles were in double figures and none of them were Thomas. Walker had 15 and Chelsea Jennings, another one of those seniors, 11. The rebound difference was down to five as freshman Anriel Howard began assaulting the boards with 10.
But A&M could not solve anything and was out in the first round for a second straight year. The deficit was 17 with four minutes left in the season.
Walker finished with 18 points, 1,989 for her career, the program leader. Her senior class had 97 wins, Howard had 13 rebounds, a program record 40 for her rookie two-game tournament. Jennings scored 15. They drew 4,015 for their final game.
“My team did not give up at half,” said Blair. “We took a pretty good butt-chewing and we came back and responded like Aggies do and like these seniors do. I thought we really fought hard, we got it down to 15, and I think if we could have kept it 15 to 13 to 12 going into the fourth quarter we had a great chance, but they got it right back to 21 if I’m not mistaken.
”The last quarter we held them for 2-for-15 and we were scoring a few baskets, but you’ve got to score on every possession on the way back.
“Last night I took my wife to see the movie ‘Miracle in Heaven,’ and I kept thinking of the men’s game,
what they were able to do in such a -- we cut it down to 10 and we still had two minutes to go and I was trying to tell our kids that it can be done.
"But the difference is their veteran guards at the end of the game knew how to take care of the ball, and we couldn’t get the steal or the trap. They made a couple of layups. But this is going to be a team that has a chance to go a long way in Florida State.
”(President) Obama was right for once (he picked Florida Stae fo the Final Four in hus brcket), and give Florida State a lot of credit.
"That’s a good basketball team, a well-coached team, but give this little kid (Jordan Jones) here credit; she took five charges, two more questionable ones, but she laid it out there on the line.
"You just don’t realize how important it is to have the head of your team be able to throw her body around like that after she’d come off concussions and say, ‘I’m going to do whatever this team needs.’ ” Jones said, “We were really trying to switch defenses up on them a little bit, but I felt like they scouted very well. They came out and they attacked us inside, and they really had great spacing, so it really opened up the floor for them, and they really just made good passes and good cuts and they got everything they wanted to do. “I felt like we weren’t disrupting their offense and they were able to flow into every set that they ran. Ultimately, if you let a team throw into an offensive set, they’re a Division I basketball team as well, and like Coach said, they are very well- coached so they came, out-executed us on offense and our defense wasn’t executing, either, so they just really got the baskets that they wanted.” Walker saw missed opportunities in her last game. “I mean, we just got to win the loose balls, finish the lay-ups. That’s the thing that would have kept us in the game. Those are shots we normally knock down at home. We’d be down by 10 going into the second half as opposed to 20 or whatever it was. And then that run we made would have brought it down to the wire. “Just being able to finish, and it was everybody, I think. You mention C-Will (Courtney Williams, one of the suspended players). Missing C-Will, we need those shots even more. That’s just on us to finish.” Alir said turnovers hurt a lot.
“There were a couple of crucial (turnovers), ones right before half that cost us a possession, Jordan (Jones) trying to go behind her back on another transition, and they were crucial. We had to be letter perfect to be able to beat this team, and we were not. We had to keep our turnovers down under 10.
“We had to rebound as a committee instead of a one-person team of Anriel. Walker gave me her normal seven, but other kids, they don’t follow their shot. They’ve got to rebound. I don’t care if you’re a guard, a post, whatever. We had to go small. We were overmatched inside, but that's where your team has to do whatever it takes.
“I had to go small to try to go for the steals and it killed us on the boards, gave them a couple extra.
"But turnovers, the crucial ones hurt, and the bunnies. When we missed the bunnies underneath, that hurts, and we didn’t respond.
“Every time Jordan would take a charge, we didn’t make a run, and I thought that was crucial. We'd take the charge and then get up, Jennings took one or somebody else did, but we never could get two baskets in a row to get into the flow of the game.”
Being behind from the start was also bad. “ I think it hurt big-time, because we've been doing a pretty good job lately of getting out to an early lead, 10-1 against Kentucky or something, 6-0 against Tennessee,” Blair said.
“We were into the flow. I think Walker only hitting 3 out of 11, they were paying a lot of attention to her.
In the second half that's the only looks we could get her, and I think she was 5 out of 6 or 5 out of 5 in the second half. But you’'ve got to have balance scoring. When you look at Jennings and Walker, 7 out of 13, 8 out of 16 or something, they did their part, but their part has got to be increased. “That’s with rebounding, that's with good defense, that's with causing turnovers. We cannot just be a jump shot team. When we did get it inside, we got a little scared. We saw size coming, and we bricked a few lay-ups.” Jones still had hope when they were down by 10 with 2:30 to go. “My only thought was belief, and it’s possible. Probably everybody on our team watched our men come back from 12 down yesterday against UNI with about 38 seconds left in the game. “There probably wasn’t a time that we thought that it was over. We just always had hope and we always believed, every time we came to the huddle Coach did a great job of just telling us just fight, fight, you're not going to get it back in one possession. “We couldn’t get our shots to fall down, couldn’t make our layups, and that was probably our Achilles Heel all year, finishing the easy shots instead of taking the tougher shots.
“So I felt like if we would’ve had converted on that a little bit better then we would have put ourselves in
a position later on, late in the game possibly be down five or three or four or something like that.
"I felt like the team played hard, we didn't quit. That's what Aggies are all about. You don’t quit. I was proud of the team and the effort that they gave us, that they gave the seniors.
Only one team gets to end on a win. And even that team is dissolved forever as soon as the game ends. For a senior, this is it after a long commitment and a lifetime wish fulfillment. “Each year there's a different class that walks the stage twice, their last game here and then when they walk the stage to get that diploma,” Bair said. “It’s pretty special, this class. We have four of them that are going to graduate already in May. Jordan is already through. Chelsea is going to have to come back for a fifth year in architecture. That's a five-year program. And Walker might need the summer. But she’s going to be playing pro ball because they’re not fools. They’re going to go after Walker and she’ll be a first-round draft choice, mark my words on that. “The senior class, the expectations, when you have to come in and live up to a National Championship team, it’s hard to live up to that, OK, and they also had to play sometimes a little bit short-handed. “We’ve been real spoiled having All-Americans like Adams (Danielle Adams) and Bone (Kelsey Bone) and even Karla (Gilbert) inside. “We’re still in the developmental stage with our post players, and then that put added pressure on all these guards up here. We’ve got to have more balance. “We’re going to work on that all summer and spring and get ready for Europe to try to get better because of it. “But each year, baby, it hurts when they graduate and they leave, particularly at the point guard position, because the point guard position, that’s everything to me.
“This kid laid it on the line out here today, and give her a lot of credit, she’s a great leader. Walker is the
best mid-range shooter in America, and she cares “She wants it so bad. Chelsea averaged two points a game as a freshman, played six minutes only in 16 or 17 games, not much more as a sophomore, a little bit more as a junior, and look at her senior year. That's special. Even Rachel got a whole lot better. “So give those kids kudos. They’re all special. We're going to miss them. “I’d like to thank all of y'all for the whole year. The press has been very good to us. I’d like to thank my administration for putting on another great show. We hold championships very well. “I’d like to give, again, a lot of kudos to the men's team for giving us a blueprint. We weren't able to finish that blueprint tonight, but we're going to work hard. The coaches aren't graduating; we'll be back. Thank y’all.” “It’s meant a lot,” said Jones. “It's meant a lot on the court and off the court. A&M is a special place, just the people here, the staff, the fans, the friends, the family, the teammates, the coaches. “Everybody has just been great for the four years that I’ve been here. In life you're going to go through things, but at the end of the day, I’m glad that I didn’t quit on this program no matter what was thrown my way.
“I’m glad that Coach Blair just stayed with me through my good days and my bad days, and that’s one thing that I can say about Texas A&M and this basketball staff; they don’t give up on you. No matter how much you want to give up on yourself at any point in life, and that’s meant the most to me, just them pushing me and encouraging me, but the thing that I’m going to miss the most is probably playing with Chelsea (Jennings) and C-Walk (Courtney Walker), Rachel (Mitchell), Carly (Truesdale),
Anriel (Howard), Jas (Jasmine Lumpkin), Danni (Williams), Taylor (Cooper), Shlonte (Allen) and Tyce (Curtyce Knox). It's been more than just basketball. It's a family. It's a friendship.
“I don’t know about many other teams, but this team, we’re going to be lifelong friends and lifelong family. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for the seniors in this class.
”I just thank everybody at A&M for the opportunity to be able to wear this jersey and wear No. 24 for this program. It's been an honor.” *No. 2 Texas 73, No. 10 Missouri 55 A team on the rise cannot be expected to compete evenly on the court of a traditional powerhouse Texas is one of three programs in America with 30 wins. They are back in successive seasons after winning at home and advancing to UConn’s Regional. Ariel Atkins scored 22 as the Longhorns showed superior speed and athleticism that overmatched the taller Tigers. So Missouri regroups, having lost four of their final five in what still was a good season. Freshman Sophie Cunningham pit the exclamation mark on her All-Rookie SEC season with 23 points. She led them into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006. Cunningham looked to have Missouri rolling early when she hit two 3s. The game plan was to try and rain on the Texas parade with 28 3 attempts They made eight. The Longhorns missed their first seven shots but then hit a 17-3 run that pushed the ball in transition and kept the bigger Tigers backpedaling. They liked the long range challenge too. Three consecutive 3s pushed the Texas lead to 14 in the second. Cunningham picked off an errant pass and sprinted to the basket, but missed the layup when hassled by a defensive double team. An outlet pass to halfcourt, then another for a layin and it was a 15-point halftime deficit. Texas had several chances to open it up after intermission, but Cunningham scored nine in the quarter. Still the deficit was always at least nine. Texas had only to play down the clock. It was the final game for senior in-state twins Morgan and Maddie Stock and classmates Michelle Huydon of Ontario, Canada and Juanita Robinson of Chicago. All were honored with playing time at the end. “The last game is always a real tough game, especially when you have such a close-knit group of young ladies, and it's truly been an honor and a blessing to coach them,” said coach Robin Pingeton. “I felt like we got ourselves in a little bit of a hole in that first half and had a hard time recovering. Got to within 11 in that fourth quarter with about eight minutes to go and had a couple costly turnovers. “But I thought in the second half, we played -- we did a much better job. “Obviously had a hard time on the boards. Part of that was we went with that diamond and one to start. We knew we were going to give up some offensive boards, but gave up more than what we anticipated, and then had to fight our way back from there. “I am really proud of our kids. I thought they competed. I thought they left their hearts out there and at the end of the day, that’s all you can ask for as a coach. “We talked about trying to draw their bigs out with some ball screen action, and they did just such a great job and they are so long; that even though we tried to draw the bigs out, they were able to kind of play in the gaps and made it really hard. “So when we tried to even isolate Sophie in the first half, on the block, you can’t force their defense to come out and play our bigs on the perimeter. “And so we tried to get some action going off some ball screen action, and they just played in the gaps on that, as well. “I thought out of the gate, we had some really good looks. We hit the first couple shots and we had good looks and they just didn't fall for us. I think from that point, it really affected our defense, and you know, it took us -- it took us too long to kind of get back that edge. “I like the shots that we got early in the game in that first quarter and I feel like if you knock them down, you're looking at a different ballgame for us, but we made it really hard on ourselves and, out of the gate in the second half, we got to the free throw line a little bit more in the third and fourth quarter. “I thought the aggressiveness was good, but we had build ourselves such a big hole, that it was hard to dig out of. “I think you've got to give them -- you've got to give them a lot of credit. I thought they really competed and worked hard on the boards. I mean, they were relentless to the glass. We had some possessions where I felt like our first step was a little bit slow, getting a body, became a little bit of a running race, and they are awfully athletic and strong and they have got size inside. “Could our effort have been a little bit better? Certainly on some possessions. But you have to give them a lot of credit. Like I said, they are long, they are athletic, they are quick to the ball. “In that first quarter, we were in that diamond and one, that was my biggest fear. I felt like maybe we could make them sputter a little bit offensively. They weren't going to play so much downhill off their ball screening action, and I thought that part of it was very effective for us. But what we gave up was a lot of offensive rebounds.” She had considered reinserting star Jordan Frericks, sitting eaTLy with two fouls. “I had had at the scorer’s table and we hit a big 3 and cut it to 11 and I thought, ‘Man, if we could keep it 11 to 15 ’til the half, I was going to keep her out.
“We had an out-of-bounds play and thought I could throw her in there real quick at the end. Very tempting. You can't take your fouls home with you. You don't want to big too big of a hole that you can't dig yourself out of. And so it's a conversation we talked a lot about on the bench towards the end of that first half.
Cunningham said, coming in. they knew there was an inside mismatch and going out it proved fatal “Yeah, they just -- they are just big inside, long-armed,” Cunningham said. “We just weren’t in our motion in the first half. Their big guards, as well, I don’t really know why we weren’t getting inside. But I know they are huge, and even if they would -- they would collapse, and since they were so long-armed, it would be hard to get back out.” Jordan Frericks said that was indeed the difference.
“I mean, again, their size, pretty lengthy. And I think their guards did a great job of going to the boards. It's definitely something that hurt us a little bit. We just didn't have that right mentality to get them off the boards.”
Cunningham said the slow start doomed them.
“Coach said we were 34 and 37 in the second half with them, so I think it's honestly just the first half. We went out there, we threw the first punch but we have to keep punching.
”I mean, they are long-bodied. I think that them crashing the boards, it’s on us, our guards. I mean, we’re finding a body. Our posts are doing well, trying to keep the big girls off the boards, but it’s not easy -- to get those guards and not have them get those little tip-ins for them. It's the first half for us, that's where we dug ourselves a hole and we needed 40 minutes.”
Frericks had been called for an early second foul and was on the bench for the bad start. “It was hard but I still have to be there for my teammates and cheer them on. Our other post players did a great job stepping up,” she said. I mean, there’s going to be times, there's been times like that early in the season that I’ve done the same thing. “They weren't a whole lot different from (watching) film to playing. They were very physical, but we knew that going in. But I think that that’s the only difference; the physicality of the game was a little more than I expected.” Hed adjustment was not easy.
“Yeah, it's hard (with Frericks benched),” Cunningham said. “She's our best post player, but just because she goes out doesn’t mean we're all going to get into our own selves. Like she said, she's going to cheer us on from the bench, and our bench stepped up tonight. I mean, that’s a big girl down there and I think our posts did pretty good on them tonight.”
Cunningham agreed her coaches had the right scouting report. “I mean, they are ranked sixth in the nation and they are a very good team, very good team, very good guards, very good posts,” she said. “I think our guards are just as physical. It’s just it didn’t go our way tonight, and partly it was their fault, or like because of them. “Their guards are good and they are quick. But we just have to be stronger with the ball, too. But they are a very good team. So she ends her rookie season with sadness for the seniors ad hope for the uptick to continue.
“Yeah, I mean, obviously they are a good group of girls, the most winning class out of Mizzou,” Cunningam said. “They have taken this team where it's never been before this year and we have to remember that.
”Yeah, we wanted that win but there's a lot of firsts this year for Mizzou. Texas is a very good team. Of course we wanted it for our seniors. They have done a lot for this program and it's just hard because you want it for them so bad. “But it's not just me. It's my teammates, as well. I think us being here, I’ve never been here before, and us being here is going to make us work a little harder because we don't want to end the season like this next year. Frericks had ended her first two seasons in the NIT, acknowledging you are not considered in the top 64 teams in the country. So this year’s leap was great. “It’s been an amazing opportunity,” Frericks said, “ and you know, I think even the first two years, like this is still our goal. “Like every year it’s going to be our goal to get here. It was just an awesome opportunity to be able to get here and really showed our hard work that went into this season. We’re looking forward to another year that’s going to get us right back to where we are now.
“Without a doubt. Every year we’ve just continued to build and our program has continued to make great strides. Really proud of our team. I think we’re losing some really special young ladies in our senior class, very good basketball players, but even better people.
”You know, every year is so unique and different with different personalities and the kids you lose and the kids that join your team, but I do think it’s a springboard and I think for us, they needed the experience.
”It was at that point in our building process that we talked a lot about this, and so they need to experience this opportunity in the NCAA and to understand what it takes to not only get here but to be successful here.
“And I think we've got an incredible group coming back. We’ve got to put a little bit more muscle on with our interior kids, and we've got some nice additions coming in to join our team next year.
”So yeah, absolutely, it was a great year for us, a lot of success, and we're looking forward to building off it.
”I Really appreciate support in women's basketball and you guys being out there to cover us, so thank you very much.”