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.
By Mike Siroky
The coronation of South Carolina was never in doubt.
All the Gamecocks competed well once again versus Mississippi State, playing defense feeding the offense in the title game of the mightiest league in women’s college basketball, the Southeastern Conference.
It was 66-52 at the end, the No. 2/3 Gamecocks over the No. 16 Bulldogs.
Former football coach Steve Spurrier was behind the bench cheering the women on Sunday afternoon in Jacksonville, Fla.
Now they join what likely will be seven sorority sisters waiting for placement in the elimination draw of 64.
What is known is SC is a No. 1 seed, second only to eventual champ UConn.
They earned get the Regional closest to its home, at Lexington, Ky., and are only a little les feared than is UConn. They earned two Sweet 16 qualifying games forf a program first
“We should be winning the game, but it’s a layup fest because we are letting them pick our pockets,” said State coach Vic Schaefer when there were four minutes left.
His Bulldogs had 14 turnovers and trailed by four at that point. SC extended its lead to 12 at the half on a 10-0 run. It began already to look inevitable.
Senior guards Tiffany Mitchell and Khadijah Sessins each had 10, A’ja Wilson had nine, already on the verge of a double-double with 10 rebounds.
For State, it was usual suspect Victoria Vivians with 13, or more than half their points.
Tate had a six spot in the second quarter foreshadowing that thing wherein a team with a single-digit output out in any quarter loses. The game was won right there.
Anyone who truly believed this would be competitive was whistling past the graveyard.
“We’re attacking the basket,” said coach Dawn Staley. “We’re playing against a tough defense and the only way to do that is to attack.”
The 18-17 third quarter until the final minute proved nothing. State had no solution, gaining just one point while SC cruised.
Vivians was up to 24 points but no one expected her to not score.
Wilson scored six in the quarter to lead SC. “We just have to keep the ball inside,” said Staley as 30 of the 50 came from there.
“I like our chances with 10 minutes to go due to the strength and conditioning work we do. We have to play defense on Vivians and make her work.”
State cut the lead to 10 twice with possession but made back to back turnovers that cost them.
Then Vivians picked up her fourth foul.
SC scored six straight for their largest lead with 4:48 left. The champs were sill stealin’ and dealin’ and State was just hoping for any spark to ignite.
Dominique Dillingham was trying to will State to a win. But SC would not wilt.
Mitchell hit a 3 to make it 16 again with 90 seconds left. The sideline dancing had begun. Staley allowed her starters to get the deserved applause by pulling them early.
Wilson had 19 points and 13 rebounds, 10 defensive.
She was 7-of-8 from the line, with three blocks.
The conference Player-of-the-Year was the best player in this tournament as well.
Mitchell had 19. She was 3-of-4 from the line with five assists.
Vivians scored 26 with seven rebounds a day after scoring 30 and was also all-tournament.
She had little help. They oughta win their way into the Sweet 16 as well. Their only misfortune is being in the conference with the second-best team in America.
Schaefer said the expected, that he is proud of his team, but disaapointed this day.
As for the season, “We’ve taken a bunch of big steps. It’s been really fast. It’s been a lot of fun.”
In this game, “I don’t think we probably executed defensively like we like to. I think we feel like the game got away from us about four minutes left in the first half. It kind of stayed there the rest of the way.
“I got a locker room full of disappointed young ladies. We’re certainly disappointed. We weren’t satisfied in being in the game. We had aspirations of winning a championship today and we didn’t get it done.
"They’re a tough out. Somebody is fixing to find that out in the next three weeks. There are probably three first-rounders on that team.
“We played awfully hard today with whatever we had left. I’m proud of my kids. Again, I think we lost to the No. 2 team in the country.
"We feel like turnovers were probably the biggest key today. We turned it over too much. The turnovers we had led to leak-outs and layups.
“You can’t defend turnovers at the top of the key. We had a bunch of those in the first half. Again, I think that was the biggest thing today. That’s a sign probably a little bit of fatigue, when you’re not tight with your handle.
“Also it’s a sign you’re going up against a really good defensive team. South Carolina and Dawn, I’m pretty sure our workouts are pretty similar defensively.
"A lot of accountability. They’re really good defensively. They’ve been that way all year. It’s hard to score on them.
“So that’s why you go into that ballgame, if you’re going to beat them, it’s going to have to be a 52-50 ballgame like we had at our place, 57-51.
"You’re going to have to guard them and make it hard on them. A’ja goes 6-for-13, Tiffany went 7-for-13. That’s two we didn’t quite let do that at our place.
“I mean, we talk about it all the time. Somebody thinks they can come up and pressure you, you got to attack pressure with pressure.
"Our attack today wasn’t quite what it’s been. I think these young ladies (his team) would tell you they were involved in some of those.
"Again, it’s just a matter of having a little more focus when you’re dribbling, protecting the ball, knowing that Tori is going against the former defensive Player of the Year in our league.
“ So she’s good. Obviously Sessions is a monster out there.
“ You’ve got to be paying attention and not taking anything for granted. When you do, that’s when they’re going to come up and bite you.
“Number one, I think we’re built for this.
"I told my kids that in the pregame. I think we’re built for three in a row. I just know how hard our team works, how hard these kids work.
"They’d rather play three games than three practices, I can promise you.
“I just think we’re built for this. I know they played a lot of minutes throughout the course of the season.
"Again, I think they can handle that. We have had some physical games, emotional games.
“You know, they’re young. They’re kids. I think the physical as well as the emotional sometimes can wear on you.
“Again, today we played a really good basketball team. We’re not going to use that as an excuse up here, I can promise you. We just played a really good team and got beat by the No. 2 team in the country.
"I think we’re built for it, to be honest with you.
"So moving forward in the NCAAs, I mean, I like our chances. This team will be a tough out. Whether we’re a No.4 or a No.5, they’re a tough out."
Morgan William, who emerged as the second or third-best Bulldog this season, saw positives, too.
“We’ll just keep fighting, play hard, good chemistry,” she said. “Know when we have these games back-to-back, we know we can actually go out there and play.
"Today we did get a little fatigued, but we kept fighting with the No. 2 team in the country, so . . . We competed. “
Victoria Vivians seconded the motion.
“I think our team learned a lot today,” she said. “We know that we have heart and that we keep playing the game. Through all the ups and downs, we kept fighting. I think we learned a lot from that, to be prepared for the next game.
“We know, if you still keep fighting, you can possibly still win the game
“We started pretty well, knocking down shots, defending. Then we started making turnovers that led to them boosting the score up.”
“ Again, they’re awfully talented,” Schaefer said.
“They can just hit you with so many different weapons. You can even go down the list. You take your eye off of Tina Roy, she’s 3-for-3 out there. That’s probably what you’re not concerned about when you start talking about Wilson and Coates and Sessions and Mitchell. You can go down the list.
“Tina has had some big games for them. Obviously Sarah has a role for them rebounding-wise and can spell people. They’re well-balanced. You can’t focus on one or two things.
“We did a good job of taking their bigs away at our place. We still couldn’t beat them.
“Today, Coates doesn’t necessarily get us that bad, but Wilson. The one that hurt us the most was Sessions. Offensively she was 4-for-6. Just a well-balanced team. They got all the pieces.
“I said it when they left our place a month ago, that may be the No. 1 team in the country. I’ll say it again, I’d love to see them have that opportunity because I think they’re really, really talented.
"They’re hard to deal with, no question about it, and well-coached, for sure.
“I think on any night, that team right there can beat anybody in the country. I just think they pay attention to detail.
"I know Dawn coaches that way and has those kids coached up in that manner. When you have kids that do that, and we talked about that with ours, when you pay attention to detail, you do the little things, you got a chance. That team does that.”
“I feel like they played defense a little bit harder,” said William.
“At our place, our posts really maintained, did a better job, guarding, too, attacking. They was playing to win it right when they stepped on court. They had something to play for. They didn’t take us lightly.
"At our place, OK, Mississippi State. But they really came after us for the full 40 minutes.”
State only has seven losses and two of those to this team
At age 45, Staley is young enough to pull off wearing the same championship baseball-style hat that the players wore to the post-game festivities.
Can’t see many other coaches pulling that off. It goes to her family-like closeness with her team, more of the alpha player than the mom coach.
“It is different but then the same,” said Staley, “because our seniors last year got us to this point and got us the first one. Our seniors this year knew that, saw that and gave the same leadership. We know we can win now.”
“It means a great deal. It means that we put our names in the history book in this traditionally rich conference. It means that our players have put in the work to be amongst one of the top teams in this conference.
“Hopefully we can continue. It also means they’re upholding what the players that have come before them did. Both when we were 10-18 to us winning the regular season and the tournament championship last year. They represent all of those players from our program in the highest form.”
Sessions said the game plan is simple.
“I just do what coach asks me to do. My energy on both ends of the ball is very important. I have to lead this team. I knew it was very important. I was going to be key for both of these games. That’s pretty much it. I’m just going to do whatever it takes to get my team a win.”
“I think a lot of times the things that Khadijah does for our team are a lot of times intangibles,” Staley said.
“She had some big, huge buckets for us, intangibles you could pull out of the stat sheet for this game and the last game. I think sometimes, you know, because our team has so many great players, the ones that really make an incredible impact aren’t the ones that are highlighted, which is OK.
“You want that selflessness, that sacrifice. That’s what all good teams have, the players who don’t get the highlighted credit.
“On defense, Tiffany draws the top perimeter player, scorer. Khadijah usually gets the point guard to start our pressure. The plan was to pressure Morgan William, play her close You want to chop off the head and the rest will follow. The passes to Victoria, the distribution.
“What we want to do is make her work for everything. Sometimes she (Sessions) makes that look very, very easy. But what we wanted to do is kind of, over the course of 40 minutes, continue to make (Vivians) work, continue to have her running off screens, continue to have her playing on both sides of the ball.
“Then, you know, maybe when the fourth quarter hits, her legs won’t be as fresh as they were in the first 30 minutes of the game. I thought we did a really good job with that. Tiffany started off on her.
"Then Khadijah finished her off in the fourth quarter.
“Our players haven’t played their best basketball over the past few weeks. So I think it was a combination of us finally, you know, feeling like we felt maybe in the beginning of the season or the middle of the season on both sides of the ball.
“I think when they’re able to execute that, they enjoy that moment. I don’t think it’s an unsportsmanlike thing. It’s a thing where they’re enjoying playing out there, executing the game plan, and winning.
“In order for you to get back to winning the big trophy, the National Championship trophy, you have to be in familiar territory.
"We’ve afforded ourselves of that opportunity last year when we won a regional final, when we went to the Final Four, and we played in a game.
"We also afforded an opportunity to play UConn during the regular season.
“So the more opportunity you put yourself into playing some of the top teams in the country, the more familiar they are to you, and you can have some success.”
“I mean, I wouldn’t necessarily say we were holding back,” said Wilson.
“I think we’re being professional. I felt like we really deserved this win. I think that makes it 10 times better. That’s the reason for us to celebrate. Throughout the season, wins are great. When you get a huge win like this, especially it being back-to-back, especially for our seniors as well, I feel like you don’t have a choice but to enjoy the moment and live in the moment.”
“ I think we did our part. I think we did more than our part considering how the committee chose how we went to Greensboro last year,” Staley said of the coming NCAA bid.
“We don’t have a defeat on our schedule in the past 10 games. We’re playing a lot better, just better looking out there.
"They’ve named the Top 10 teams in the country over the past few weeks. They had us in the No. 2 slot overall. Hopefully that means we’ll get to play closer to home.
“ What we’ve done in the past, we’ll take some time off. It’s our spring break this week. We’ll give the players a day or two off (laughter). We’ll give them a few days off, then we’ll get back to doing things at the end of the week.
“I think we got to play a lot more. We got to scrimmage a lot more.
"Sometimes we just drill, drill, drill, drill, drill. We kind of lose what it feels like to play in games.
“ It’s our offense. Offense is confidence. When you see the ball go in the hole, that rim gets bigger. It’s much like defense: when you get stops, it fuels you.
"For us, we know we have great players. We just got to continue to not have those huge droughts when we play great teams. They make you pay time and time again.
“We do have the experience of our SEC tournament and the way we play from an offensive standpoint to draw on to help us get through this upcoming post-season.”