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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.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Oh What Fun

 By Mike Siroky

The sun is still Orange in the SEC sky
The Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball is almost in a shambles.

Two favored teams went kerplunk in the Sweet 16 leaving only the traditional power to hold the conference banner as it has most every season.

All four underdogs won nationwide Friday. 

In the SEC, the longest of long shots has not much of a chance, Mississippi State at UConn Saturday morning.

Representatives of major conferences collided – The Atlantic Coast, and the Pac12 won. UT eliminated the Big Ten. 

So it is a tussle to be the biggest Orange, in Sioux City.

Numbers associated with team reflect NCAA seeds.
*Sioux City Regional
*No. 7 Tennessee 78, No. 3 Ohio State 62

The past met the future and the past won.l

Tennessee continued the program’s legacy despite the most losses ever, the lowest finish in the Southeastern Conference ever and its lowest NCAA seed ever.

Mercedes Russell continued a great personal run that began after a season off, with the Gold in the World University Games and now a career-best 25 points and 15 rebounds as the difference in yet another upset. 

It is her 11th double/double this season tying the program sophomore record with the late great Mary Ostrowski.

Injury-plagued OSU will be a natural national favorite next season.

 For now, it’s good-bye Columbus.

Tennessee meets a team on its own level, Syracuse, with one of them going to the Final Four. 

They are in a Regional final for the fifth time in six seasons. Holly Warlick has proven she can coach at this level with this team.

 After a 23-10 run for the first quarter, they never wilted.

“We are following the game plan,” she said at he first stop. The fire was in her eyes and she was bursting with positive enthusiasm.

Whether the haters in Vol Nation believe or not is irrelevant this weekend.

 Her team has come to her terms. 

All the teams that defeated them in the regular season are at home watching. They have advance farther than any of them.

We have said every year the conference coach of the year needs to be decided after all the games end. It is too easy to reward a smug team with the most talent.

UT has a two-point win over Syracuse this year. It is not a predictor, but proof they can compete.

We talk a lot about this as a new season,” Warlick said. “These kids come to Tennessee because of our tradition, but they have to make their own legacy. So we talk a lot about not focusing on the past or what’s ahead of us in the future.

“Just stay in this moment, and I think that’s what they’ve done.

“It’s up to us to carry that on. These young ladies have always understood it, but they’re doing something about it.”

Russell and fellow post player Bashaara Graves combined to make their first 13 shots from the field before Russell missed a tough one in the middle of the third quarter. 

The two combined for 22 of the Lady Vols’ first 28 points as they got out to a 43-35 halftime lead.

“They got off to such a great start around the basket, it shook us,” Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said.

Russell finished 12-of-16 from the field. Graves  was 6-of-9, for 14 points and nine rebounds. 

Te’a Cooper brought 16 points off the bench – she cannot be considered a freshman anymore -- and Jaime Nared had 11 rebounds, a career best.

Tennessee outrebounded the Buckeyes 53-26 and outscored them 50-22 in the paint in the follow-up to its upset of No. 2 seed Arizona State.

 The Buckeyes committed only seven turnovers while forcing Tennessee into 18 and it just didn’t matter. They drew 4,610 for this stop, the nation’s low so far.

“Honestly, it wasn’t that easy,” Russell said. “Us being aggressive helped us a lot, especially in the first quarter when they pressed us. Passing and attacking off the dribble was great for us.”

Ameryst Alston led the Buckeyes with 21 points and Kelsey Mitchell had 20 while playing all 40 minutes. They met their own standards.

Tennessee led by as many as 22 against a short-handed Ohio State team that stuck with a six-player rotation despite having two players with four fouls. 

The Buckeyes came in without starting guard Cait Craft, who broke her left hand in practice Tuesday. 

Alston is still not 100 percent because of a sprained right wrist.

“It’s no excuse,” McGuff said of the injuries. “Tennessee was great tonight. That was the story. We were a little bit off and didn’t play our best game. That had a lot to do with Tennessee. We’ve had tough injuries, but that’s part of the game.”

Mitchell, who set an Ohio State NCAA tournament record with 45 points in Sunday’s win over West Virginia and had gone over 40 in three of her previous five games, never found her rhythm.

 She made 5-of-15 from the field, including 2-of-9 3s.

Tennessee had to come back from a 17-point deficit in the last seven minutes to beat Gonzaga in the regional semifinals last year. 

They actually have improved. 

Warlick has been to the Elite 8 as a coach all four seasons.

“It took us a long time to gel. We went through injuries, we had new leaders and it just took us along to develop,” Warlick said.

 “The last three games we’re really playing well together and as a team. At the beginning of the year, you didn’t see that fire we have and that togetherness. 

"We had it in us, it was just about trying to learn more about each other, how to play with each other. I’m excited we’re peaking right now at this moment.”

She said of all Friday games being upsets: “It shows where women’s basketball is headed,” Warlick said. “Kids are getting better, they’re starting at a younger age. 

"I understand the pressures of Notre Dame and South Carolina. We’ve been there. You’re supposed to win. You weren’t supposed to have any challenges. So I get it.

I just wanted to take this moment to say that Dawn Staley is a class act. When Tennessee was struggling, the first person I heard from was Dawn Staley.

" So I have a tremendous amount of respect for Dawn. She does things right. They had an unbelievable season. They led the SEC in everything. They were awesome.

“I want to say I really feel bad for South Carolina, sad to see them go. But we’re advancing.”

She said their defense of Mitchell is an example of adjustments.

“Absolutely. We stretched our defense. We were around her wherever she was. Look, I know we weren’t going to limit her points, but we just wanted to contain her. Normally you’d say 20 points, you’re not real happy. 

“But for just allowing Mitchell 20 points, I’m thrilled with it. We extended on her. We wanted to make sure where she was. I thought we gave a lot of open threes that we normally wouldn’t because we were very concerned with Kelsey Mitchell.

" So, yeah, we did tweak it quite a bit because we have that much respect for Mitchell and what she does for Ohio State.”

“My teams, they are resilient. We had great effort, team effort. Jamie Nared stepped up, then Diamond then Mercedes. They held on against a very good Ohio State team.

“Mercedes is very focused and she’s gone to work as she should. When she does that, she is awesome.”

UT had two more in-game injuries but said everyone will come back.

We have been a team that has obviously started off on a rollercoaster. But I thought tonight we were focused. We stuck to our game plan. They played hard. I just can’t say enough about the whole team. 

"These three were exceptional tonight. So really, really proud of our team and obviously the result.”

Russell said, “ I honestly think it starts with ball movement and player movement. Before previously in games I think we were standing around a lot and not moving the ball. Tonight we really moved the ball well, and just went inside-outside and got really good looks in the paint.”

As for Syracuse and the second game of the season . . .

“Well, it does seem like it was forever ago,” said Russell. “I remember a lot about Syracuse. They’re a very solid team that likes to play up-tempo. They have shooters and size inside. The matchup against us was great, because it was a home game for us. Now we’re on a neutral court. I think it’s going to be an even better matchup this time.”

Graves injured her hand but played on.

“Yeah, I’m good,” she said. “We’re going to continue to look at it, but I think I’ll be definitely fine for next game.

“I’m just so proud of this team. I mean, the regular season didn’t go as well as we wanted it to go. This post-season, we’ve been doing awesome. I mean, we’re playing together. We’re playing up-tempo.

" We’re just doing all the right things at the right time. I mean, it’s just amazing to watch and to be a part of. It’s definitely helped us in these last couple of games.”

Russell said amping up the game is just natural.

 “We’ve seen different defensive sets from teams in the past couple games. I think that’s really opened up a lot in the paint, not just for Bashaara and I, but also our guards attacking off the drive and the dribble. I think it’s just because of the defensive sets we’ve been seeing.”

Cooper likes the full-speed tempo, too.

“I like those kind of games,” Cooper said.

“We just practiced a lot with what they was going to throw at us. They really slowed it down some with the zone. We were just really prepared for everything they had to throw at us.”

Russell spread the praise: “Mercedes was amazing today. She was just getting after it. She was just Mercedes Russell, you know.”

Back atcha.

“Bashaara played great today,” Russell said. “She was crashing the boards on both ends of the floor, being aggressive on the offensive end. So, yeah.”

Warlick has taken her team from 8-8 in conference to the Elite 8 nationally. She said she believed in them and the in her all along. Other SEC caches also said they felt grateful if they beat UT because the saw the talent without the rhythm.

“I’ve said all along this team is special and they’re a great practice team,” Warlick said. “It just took us a long time to gel. I said earlier, we went through injuries, had new leaders. 

"It just took us so long to develop. I think, especially if you’ve seen us in the tournament the last, gosh, three games, we’re really playing together as a team. 

"I think at the beginning of the year, you didn’t see that. You didn’t see that fire that we have and that togetherness. So I think we had it in us.

" It was just trying to learn more about each other, how to play with each other. So I’m excited that we’re peaking right now at this moment.
“I know we got up ahead of Syracuse. They don’t quit. They don’t give up. They’re a matchup team. That’s what they do.

" I thought they stuck to their game plan today. That’s what they’re going to do for us. They’re very well-coached. They can score from outside. So I’m not surprised. If you’re not used to a matchup, and that style, it can be difficult. 

"We try to make our schedule to see different styles and different types of teams. Syracuse was one of those we wanted to play because of the respect we have for Q (Quentin Hillsman) and what he does with his program. I think we’ll go back and study them. 

“We’re different. They’re different. But you still have the same foundation and what you do. This may be the first time in a long time we didn’t play one bit of man-to-man.

" That’s weird for me. I’m a man-to-man defensive coach, but I also want to win the basketball game.

" So we were not going to be able to stop Kelsey Mitchell man-to-man. They’re primarily a zone team. We’re primarily a man-to-man team. I am sure things are different for him and things are different for us. I think it’s going to be a great matchup.”

The stellar Diamond DeShields started this run by earning her starting status back. 

Warlick said all along it is not a punishment but that DeShields had to see she could not do everything and had to learn to let the game come to her.

She had seven assists in this one.

“That’s a career high for Diamond, seven assists,” said Warlick.

“She’s been shooting the ball a whole lot better. I thought what she did on the defensive end for us and rebounding was huge. She’s a great passer.

" I thought she had some really, really solid shots. She kind of gave up shots for a pass inside. I love seeing that. I love her distributing the basketball. She’s a heck of a player. She’s an intelligent player. 

"I’m sure from those seven assists, she thought somebody was a little bit more open than she was and gave them the opportunity to score. 

“I think you look at Mercedes’ freshman year, she had bad feet. They were bad. I don’t think we knew how bad they were until she got there. 

"She had surgery on both those feet and sat out last year. I think she’s coming into her own self. I think she’s gotten stronger through being in weights and playing. She’s taking the physical contact so much better. 

“She wants the basketball. I don’t think as a freshman she really wanted the basketball because she didn’t want contact. Mercedes Russell wants the basketball. We’re an inside-out team. That’s what we do. 

"We want to get the ball inside, without obviously forcing it and turning it over. Tonight we wanted to get the ball in the paint, and we scored 50 points in the paint. That’s passing it inside, penetrating, getting shots inside. I hope we’re known for being a strong rebounding team. 
”I thought Mercedes did that, as well. So did Bashaara. We had 53 rebounds. When you do that, you get second-chance points. We’re going to try to pound it inside against Syracuse. I think Syracuse, for the most part, did a great job of limiting South Carolina getting the ball inside. 

“So we’re going to have to be really creative and make sure we don’t turn over the basketball trying to force it. Don’t want to force it, but we love to get it inside.” 
* No. 4 Syracuse 80, No. 1 South Carolina 72 

For their third straight Sweet 16 appearance, the national No. 2/3 Gamecocks met another nationally ranked team from another Power 5 conference, the No. 14 Orangemen from the ACC.

 Last season, SC eliminated Syracuse in their first Sweet 16 qualifying round.

Syracuse hosted their own qualifiers this season, following the NCAA route of being seeded high enough to follow the NCAA’s natural route to this round and they were just as far away from their home fans.

That dustup – travel – is done now. 

As is the swagger of all those award-winning SC players being too much to handle.

 They choked on the Orange juice. SC blew a 14-point lead after intermission. They had not allowed 80 points since the first game.

A compelling statistic: SC’s guards hit 7-of-16 3 in the first half; they hit it 1-of-16 in the second. And Syracuse did not change the defense to challenge them.

With all the experience evidence by the recent past successes, this was a supposed to be a comfort zone for SC, even if they were thrown unnecessarily far away from their fans too.

Sloppy play, maybe as a top seed with an over inflated sense of self and the others playing down to what had become season-long levels.

South Carolina junior center Alaina Coates has had each season go at least this far.

 She was contributing 18 points and 10 rebounds per game so far in the tournament. She matched that.

A’ja Wilson, the conference Player-of-the-Year, scored 15, had 10 defensive rebounds to also doubled.

 But she was four points below her scoring average as the negatives began to show themselves. 

Senior guard Khadijah Sessions scored zero, 10 points MIA, for her final effort. Guard Bianca Cuevas scored six, two below.

And where was senior leader Tiffany Mitchell? 

A two-time conference Player-of- the-year, she was 3-of-11 in her final game. Eight points, no rebounds, four fouls. Ten below her latest scoring average.

Much was made of another senior, Tina Roy off the bench with 17 points. She did not score after intermission, five misses and a turnover. At least they set the program record with games played, 139.
The 30-16 final quarter doomed the plucked chickens. 

Syracuse senior Brianna Butler scored 10 of 18 then, including the go-ahead 3 with 3:01 left. SC had held 22 foes to below 60 in 22 games. Ten straight after UConn.

“I am just speechless,” Butler said. “Everyone stepped up. In game prep, coach said ‘Just keep it close.’ We did just what he wanted us to do and we had confidence.”

Junior Syracuse guard Alexis Peterson scored 26, 11 points above her season average and junior guard Britttany Sykes 17. If you guards bring 61 points, the dominating inside game of the opponent doesn’t really matter.

Soaring above your own average is the recipe for success. The Orange have a first Elite 8 showing and the most wins in program history, 28.

Coach Quentin Hillsman is proud of his every day image. He buys off the rack. He had told his team to “bring two shirts” as he planned an extended visit.

“What I told them was to take care of the ball, protect it,” he said. “That’s what we had to do.” 

“When we were going through our scout, (he) said to limit their touches on the inside,” Sykes said. 

“They’re going to find a way to get the ball inside and we had to limit that and guard the perimeter to the best of our ability.”

Hillsman had told Butler: “You’ve got to hit some shots or we’re going home.”

“I have to give the credit to my teammates and coaches,” Butler said. “They gave me the confidence to come out in the second half and fire. Lex told me they’re going to fall. Even Coach gave me the confidence. Even if I was missing, he wanted me to keep shooting.” 

She hit 4-of-10 3s after making three of her most-recent 36. The Orange got a huge contribution from Cornelia Fondren, who hit a mid-range jumper for the lead after Butler tied it, and her three-point play with 1:56 left made it 71-66."

Hillsman embraces the journey, recalling his first game as coach, eight seasons ago.

“My first game coaching at Syracuse, it was an exhibition game and we lost in double-overtime,” he said. “I remember going home thinking, ‘This is my last year. I’m quitting. This is too much.’

" From that point forward, we had to get players and build our program piece by piece. I take no credit. I’m not confused. You have to get good players and they have to play for you.

“Brianna Butler stepped up. This win means everything.”

The Orange’s zone defense sagged on star post players Wilson and Coates, giving Roy, Mitchell and open looks from the perimeter. The Gamecocks attempted a season-high 32 3-pointers, but made only eight.

Coates said immediately they all knew what went wrong, what they could have done and what they should have done but didn’t do.”

“Whether we like it or not, we didn’t want it to end.” She said.

Dawn Staley the SC coach, did not see this coming. 

“Even though we did get the lead, we were just off,” Staley said. “We were just not in sync. They did a good job at winning the game.

 “We took the bait,” she said. “Our post players are 17 for 22 from the floor, 41 points. Shooting at that percentage, we should have been trying to go inside.”

While tears do not wash away the season, Staley sad, “I told our players, `If you’re hurting, if you’re crying because you’re saying goodbye to our seniors, great’,” Staley said.

She said the returning players better dedicate themselves to doing the work so they won’t be crying at this time next season, “to ensure that this doesn’t take place prematurely anymore. I do want our returners to dwell on it. We’re gonna be OK. 

“You have to enjoy the journey. I have enjoyed our seniors. This is the life of college athletics, a continuous cycle.”

South Carolina beat every team the played this season but two: UConn and Syracuse. Rare air for the Orange.
*Lexington Regional
*No. 7 Washington 85, No. 3 Kentucky 72

For the second straight season, UK finished at home. A loss to a team seeded at least three spots lower than them is an official NCAA upset, even if it is more a matter of bad seeding.

Neither side scored until UK’s Evelyn Akhator claimed a rebound in the scrum  with 8:23 left in the opening quarter. She shot it off to Makayla Epps who hit a 3. 

Was it nerves or the stage? Neither side looked smooth shooting, but each did fine on rebounds and passing. More misses on both sides from wide open players. 

The Washington scored five, two by their star, junior playmaker Kelsey Plum and a 3 by Alexus Atchley.

At 5:19, Epps snaked open for a closer effort and it was 5-5. But they were 2-of-15 from the floor.
For Washington, Taylor Walton hit a 3 off a Plum rebound and assist.

Then UK stifled them for three minutes while making a 6-0 run, countered by another 3 by Taylor Walton. 

It was Washington by two, killing the clock for the quarter.

Kelli Kingma averages one point per game, but she hit a 3 with a second left.

She was in only because Washington has six players who can play and one was on the bench with two fouls. It was 16-11 at the first break.

UK was only hitting 21 percent from the floor and had allowed 10 defensive rebounds, five by Osahor.

Washington coach Mike Neighbors was happy his star had been forced to pass  when confronted by the collapsing defense. She ended the half with five assists

“I don’t care who is getting the baskets as long as we’re getting the baskets” he said.

Washington continued its 8-0 run to start the second. Then Akhator and Epps went back-to-back.

Washington was unruffled. UK was 5-of-21 with the exception of Epps. Washington had seven 3s and led by seven. They didn’t want to contest inside with the lack of depth. The lead stretched to double-digits.

Epps rushed downcourt uncontested, scored again and the deficit was 11.

Junior forward Chantel Osahor had 10 points and nine rebounds. Washington had 10 as well. Osahor was sitting with two fouls.

Neither side had a free throw with three minutes to go in the half. That was more a condition of fast shots than contested ones and UK needed stops. They slowed down and came into an 8-0 run, down 33-28.

Inside of a minute, Akhator claimed an offensive rebound. Atchley got her third foul, very bad news for a thin lineup. They maintained the five-point edge.

Epps had 13 and her team had risen to 31 percent from the floor. The home crowd of 8,509 –the best of the evening anywhere -- was booing the officials, but the visitors had not been to the line for the first time all season.

In the third, UW matched UK and then surpassed them. Taking the lead to seven then 14 at the end of the quarter.

Panic began to set in on the Kat sidelines. They seemed unclear on how to stop this.

Nine was as close as they got, but then they stalled and had only two more baskets.

In the end, Walton, Osahor and Plum combined for 72 points. Osahor doubled with 19 rebounds.

“It puts a lot of pressure on them to understand they have to perform every night, night in and night out, for them to continue to do it and pick each other up,” Washington coach Mike Neighbors said.

 “This is the first time all three of them have played that well on the same night. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you get to this point.”

In a league log dominated by Stanford, Washington wants to make its first Final Four with this first Elite Eight. They finished fifth in conference this season. And guess who they get: Stanford, which eliminated over-rated Notre Dame. The Pac 12 has a team in the Final Four. Washington beat Stanford in the conference tournament.

Walton said the difference was, “Aggressiveness. I wanted to be sure to do what I could. I wanted to use my length.

“It shows what we are made of and what we can do.”

Epps finished with 30. Janee Thompson’s career ended with 11. Akhator scored 10 and doubled with 14 rebounds. The 3-of-9 free throws are both UK season lows.

“I just have to tell you, this was one of the greatest experiences of my coaching career,” UK coach Matthew Mitchell said, “working with this group of young women who really became a team.

“High-character people, came to practice every day and improved, and where we started on October first to what we’ve finished up tonight, the disappointment of this one game just cannot diminish how proud I am of our team. February 3rd we could have gone a lot of different directions and we chose a path to be standing in the Sweet 16. 

We would love to have advanced further, but it doesn’t take away of how proud I am of our players. Really proud of Janee Thompson and the person she’s developed into and the leader she’s developed into for our team.

" Really proud of the progress Makayla Epps made as a person, so I’m proud to be up on the podium with both of them tonight. And we are disappointed, but we are proud of ourseason.”

 Like Coach said, you’ve got to give a lot of credit to Washington,” Epps said.
“They came out and played really hard tonight. A very well-coached team. Got a lot of respect for them and all their players. It’s just like Coach said yesterday in the press conference: 'The tougher team would win.'

" And Washington had moments where they out-toughed us. I just hope we can look ourselves in the mirror and just learn from it. 

We’ve got a lot of people coming back -- very young team. Got a lot of people coming back. Sad to lose my partner here, Janee Thompson, but we’ve got a lot of people coming back and we can watch this and learn from it.”

Thompson is done, of course.

“It’s meant a lot to me seeing these girls grow and get better every day. It’s been very fun. I’ve become really close with this team and they’re like my family. They’re like my sisters. I’m really proud of how far we’ve come and how much better we’ve gotten. I wouldn’t rather be out here with anybody else. It’s been a fun ride.

“That’s the type of environment this tournament brings. You’ve got to be tough. People are playing their hardest, because they know if they lose, they’re going home. 

"My knee’s OK. It’s a little sore right now. It just bent back kind of funny when she hit me on the screen because I didn’t see her. But I had a lot of adrenaline going at the time. I realized that it could be my last game, so I wasn’t going to sit out no matter what.”


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