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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.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Mike Siroky's SEC Tourney Report: Stage Set for Title Showdown

By Mike Siroky

NCAA: No. 1 vs. No. 2
The title game is set for the most-prestigious automatic bid for the NCAA playdowns,  the Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball.
It will be the top seed vs. the number three.

South Carolina has already secured its second consecutive NCAA No. 1 seed – a program first – and home qualifying games for the Sweet 16, also a program first in consecutive seasons.

Before last season, the Gamecocks could not host NCAA playoff games because NCAA restrictions stop such bids in states where the Confederate flag is acceptably displayed.

That’s why, for instance, no bowl games in South Carolina, among other NCAA events. The state has disavowed the flag and removed its display from official sites and campuses.

Mississippi has gone the opposite direction, just recently renewing the flag as an official marker there.

 So Mississippi State is in jeopardy for the second straight season though South Carolina, the state, had not yet disavoweled the flag last season but earned all the perks through the NCAA's return to the old top 16 seeds automatically get home site formats, which is different than awarding a host site directly through a bid process.
Sunday’s championship

*South Carolina vs. Mississippi State.
The semifinals 

No. 1 seed South Carolina 93, No. 5 seed Kentucky 63
No. 3 seed Mississippi State 58, No. 7 seed Tennessee 48
*South Carolina vs. Kentucky

It started slowly.

The Gamecocks opened with a layin from A’Ja Wilson with nine minutes left in the quarter. Maci Morris answered for UK with a 3, assisted by a layup and SC was ahead to stay.

The Bulldogs edged up a couple of times but had the seven-point advantage at the end of the quarter.

The big two, Wilson (4-of-6 from the field) and Tiffany Mitchell, had eight each. Epps led UK with seven.

South Carolina methodically pushed the lead to 11 early in the second quarter. 

It looked as if UK needed a wow! moment to disrupt things. It didn’t happen. The lead was eight as the half wound down and stayed there.
The two SC wins in the regular season were by 10 and 11, so this fit the pattern. 

Alaina Coates, the third All-SEC player to score for SC, had six second-quarter points with six rebounds. 

Mitchell was up to 13. Epps had scored just one more point. UK center Evelyn Akhator was overwhelmed, with one basket, one free throw and one rebound.

To start the third, SC did nothing spectacular but neither did Kentucky. The lead was unchanged. Then the best team accelerated to a 20-point lead with five minutes left in the quarter. It was over after an 11-2 run.

Coates had her league-best 17th double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Mitchell had 15 points, Wilson and Sessions had 10. The balance of power was evident. UK’s eight-game win streak was shattered.

Kentucky rallied a little but still lost its third straight quarter and trailed by 20 entering the fourth. 

Nothing could be done about it. SC is the first in America to 30 wins by a few hours over top-ranked and undefeated Connecticut, the three time defending NCAA champion which is competing in the third annual American Athletic Conference at the Mohegan Sun Arena in its home state.

Back in Jacksonville, Fla., the rout continued. With two minutes left, SC had added eight points to its lead. They won by 30.

Mitchell scored 20, 4-of-8 3s, with three steals. Wilson scored 18. That oughta start the All-Tournament team.

Epps had 18. No one else was in double figures.

Wilson was ecstatic.

“I do think that was the best game we played this season,” she said. 

“I mean, it’s a rivalry game. You take a lot of heart in those games. We go out and play all the time. 

"Something about the rivalry gets underneath our skin and we really want to play our best. I think that rivalry helped, knowing it was Kentucky, it really helped us out.”

Mitchell agrees.

“I think we did play our best on this game. I think everyone’s on the same page. We were all synced up. It was good basketball.”

Coach Dawn Staley saw good peaks as well.

“I felt pretty good to have the balance that we had on both sides of the ball. The energy on the bench. 

When everyone’s number was called, people came in and impacted the game. 

“That’s kind of what you wanted to see. I want to bottle it up and take it into tomorrow night’s championship game.”

With about seven minutes to go, Mitchell nailed a 3 from the wing, then paused and gave a backside shimmy. That move is not in her repertoire, but may be indicative of the feelings vs. Kentucky.

She will never play them again.

“It just felt good. It felt right at the moment. I was feeling good,” she said. “Our team was up. We were all just hyped. The whole entire game was very emotional. It’s not really uncharacteristic of me, I just don’t do it a lot. But this game we were just feeling great so I just let it go.

“When you’re playing well, things are going right for us. That’s what happened this game. Things were falling into place for us. We could have tried to shoot with our eyes closed and it probably would have went in. 

“I know she wouldn’t have let us shoot with our eyes closed. But if we tried it, we probably would have 
made it this game. 

“I mean, we got to bottle up this feeling. We know we came here to win a championship, not just to win two games. We came here to win three games. 

“Although this was a great win for us and we’re feeling good at the moment, we can’t be overconfident going into tomorrow. We’re going to play one of two really talented teams. We got to bring the same intensity out.”

“We came here to win a championship,” Wilson said. “That’s what we have to take care of.”

Staley said it’s was “. . . about being competitive. Khadijah quarterbacked our offense and our defense.  She just played with a certain level of energy and determination that she didn’t want our SEC season to end today. 

“They followed her lead. We got the type of lopsided victory that do not come that often. We certainly won’t get too high with the highs. We didn’t get too low with the lows yesterday, having played our worst offensive game statistically yesterday. We came here to win an SEC tournament championship. 

We’ll turn the page and we’ll focus in on that.”

Kentucky said all the right things, joining Staley in praising the host city of Jacksonville, Fla., and accepting the blowout as a learning moment.

“They really played aggressively today,” Coach Matt Mitchell said of the winners, “with a lot of fire and enthusiasm. We were just not able to match ’em today. 

“Fortunately for us it’s not our last day to play. We have time to learn from this one. We have time to go back and improve as a team.

“Well, you can guard a little bit better. Could have gotten up and played a little bit better defense. I’m sure we’ll look at the tape and there will be plenty of moments where we didn’t play as well as we needed to. We needed to play really well to win a game like that. 

“It’s the semifinals of the SEC tournament. You have to play well. So there were some times that we could live with their 3-pointers because we were trying to really limit them to 35 points or less in the paint. 

“That was 38 they got. We were around there. Now, maybe they didn’t have to score in the paint, they made 12 3s. It was an unusual day shooting the ball for them from the standpoint of how many they made. It definitely hurt us today. But we’ll find out where we could have played better defense and we’ll go about trying to correct that part of it.”

 The leading UK scorer, Epps, said, “Just like coach said, fortunately for us our season is not over. We still get a shot in the NCAA tournament, which I’m grateful for. I’m sure we’ll make a good push in that one. It’s something you have to learn and bounce back from. 

“It’s not the day we wanted at all. I feel like we were very well-prepared. We got out on the court and didn’t do what we were prepared to do.”
*Tennessee vs. Mississippi State

Tennessee needed a close game and No. 16 Mississippi State has been obliging lately.

It was 10-10 with 90 seconds to go in the half, balanced on both sides. Victoria Vivians was in early rhythm, which the Bulldogs desperately needed, 2-of-5 with a 3.

Then UT scored five unanswered. They were keyed by defense, a Nia Moore offensive rebound, an Andraya Carter steal, a Mercedes Russell defensive rebound, a Diamond DeShields block.

But no Orange celebration as here came a single-digit second quarter. Only once has a team survived that in this tournament and that was a ranked tam playing a sub-average foe. This was not that. It killed any chance the Lady Vols would have had.

State had claimed the stick shift and had a three-point edge at the break.

State continued in the third. Vivians started 5-of-5 and her team seized a 36-28 edge. But UT did not die. They were distributing well, led by DeShields and Nared with eight each. Vivians was following the State script with 22, 4-of-9 3s.

Tennessee had been exemplary at the line in the quarterfinals, the difference in that upset, but were 5-of-12 from the line this night.

State’s Dominique Dillingham, their defensive stopper, twisted an ankle and was out. Her offense won the quarterfinal. 

Down the stretch, a steal and layup by DeShields made the difference five. Russell had two straight defensive swats.

Vivians hit a 3 on an inbounds. Nared took too quick a shot on the answering 3. That allowed Morgan William to earn a free throw and a six-point lead.

DeShields had 12 and Nared 11. Vivians had 25 and needed one more helper. She had 14 of the State 18 in the quarter.

In the regular-season meeting, UT had folded in the fourth and lost by two. That was State’s only win ever against Tennessee.

“We have gotta be resilient,” said coach Vic Schaefer at the start of the fourth. “We have to find someone to battle.”

Dillingham was back in. UT was in the rebound/run mode. They cut the lead to two but were 7-of-16 from the line, leaving points there. 

It was anyone’s game, but who wanted it more.

Apparently, Mississippi State. The lead was twice one basket away but never taken away. They pushed it to 13 in the final minute. UT’s fun run was over. They will not play at home again this season. They could be a dangerous No. 6 or 7

Even South Carolina, at courtside, left, having seen enough.

DeShields did not give up. She faked out a defender, got her off her feet and threw it up to earn two free throws. Tennessee stepped into the lane on a made free throw to blunt her effort.

Tennessee let 18 seconds run before a brutal foul sent Dillingham to the line. She drained both and the lead stayed at a dozen with 40 seconds left. Morgan William took a hit on defense and reclaimed possession.

State is in the first SEC final this century.

Vivians scored 30, with nine rebounds, eight defensive, and two blocks.

“I just play hard every night,” she said. “I just want to help my teammates and whatever happens happens. We now need defense, defense and more defense.”

UT was led by DeShields with 22 and Nared with 12. But Bashaara Graves was missing in action a day after her best playoff game ever, 15 rebounds but only five points. State won the rebounds, 45-42. 

Russell will use the two weeks between games to get better. She is ineffective off the bench.

State could be a No. 4 not at home. Or the Selection Committee could avoid all controversy and kick them back to the five-spot they got last season. They have 26 wins and are unlikely to get 30.

They’d have to make the Final Four to do that. They drew 5,632 for this game 

“I just felt we had a lot to play for today,” said Schaefer. “And we had enough. We got a bunch of tough kids and we’re young. We have a competitive group.

“We obviously do some things to get Victoria open in transition and she’s comfortable with that.”
They hit 54 percent from the 3 range and 32 percent overall.

“We had the lightest shootaround in the history of Vic Schaefer,” he said. “It was time to go play.”

He had South Carolina down to a two-point difference with 20 seconds to go in the regular season, “and then we fouled them because we had to and lost by six.”

But the finale is the No. 1 team in conference vs. No. 2.

“Vivians was outstanding,” UT coach Holly Warlick said after her team most likely lost its chance to slide back into the AP Poll in the next-to-the-last vote of the season. Thus with no more wins to pursue until the NCAA tournament the Lady Vols, recently separated from a 565 appearance streak dating back to Feb. 1985, will miss appearing in the final vote when the AP's 40th anniversary voting season concludes after next season.

“We didn’t have an answer for her," Warlick said of Vivians. "They were just solid. Vic has done a heck of a job with his team. I can’t say enough about what he’s done there.
“I think our effort was there. We played hard. We missed a lot of shots around the basket. We missed some free throws we needed to make. You know, it wasn’t our night tonight. But I think Mississippi State had a lot to do with that.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s physical. We just missed shots. I thought we got good looks. You know, I would be real frustrated if we didn’t get good looks, but I thought we got good looks. The ball just wouldn’t fall. 

“Well, we face-guarded (Vivians). I thought Jaime, when she was on her, did a great job on her. She’s in a zone. The clock’s running down, two seconds, she shoots a 3, it goes in. 

“I mean, we did everything we could to keep her in check, and we couldn’t. We gave her five 3s. You just can’t do that. Maybe we could have trapped her a little earlier, but we were switching off on her and trying to keep her out of rhythm. She was pretty zoned in today.

“I think, except the beginning of the game -- I’ll have to go back and watch the tape -- but I think she had to work hard for her looks. She was outstanding today. She was outstanding. 

“We played a heck of a game, in my opinion,” said DeShields.

“The story of this team so far has been a lack of effort, which we had tonight. Really proud of the way we played. Like coach said, Mississippi State is a great team. They’ve got great players. They’ve got Victoria Vivians, who is capable of putting out a crazy amount of points any given night. 

"So, no, I wouldn’t say that’s the story of this team because tonight we gave it all we had. 

“We know that. We’re just going to stay together and keep moving forward.”

 Warlick expects nine teams in the NCAAs, with Auburn in and Georgia out.

 “I would think so. I think Auburn ended with a bang. I think we ended with a bang. It’s been a difficult league. I mean, you just see Florida, who I thought had a great season, Georgia had a great season, they didn’t advance. 

“It’s a difficult league. I think sometimes it wears you down. I think maybe the three games for us in a row, it kind of wore us out a little bit. But, yeah, I wouldn’t expect anything less really ‘cause I think teams have played a harder schedule. 

“I mean, ours, the RPI was No. 1. That has a lot to do with our conference. So, yeah, I would hope. I would think the committee would put in nine.”

“You could see the change in our team,” Nared said, “from the way we approach games from 1-12, it’s a whole different dynamic. I think everyone’s coming into games knowing their role and doing it to the best of their abilities. 

“I think our all-around effort, like Diamond said.”

“God is good. Man, what a day,” said Schaefer.

“Blessed us with a great, great team in Mississippi State. Great group of kids. Tough. Just tough, hard-nosed. Competitive fire, competitive spirit. 

"They’re just a pleasure to coach. I couldn’t be prouder today to be the head coach of Mississippi State and prouder of these kids. These kids deserve all the credit. 

“We beat a heck of a basketball team today. Holly has done a great job with that group.

“I’m extremely proud of my girls. They wouldn’t be denied, played their hearts out, competed every possession. Gave up 20 offensive rebounds, and it seemed like 50. 

“First half we did a really good job. I knew that would be a big key. But Dom competed with DeShields all night and really did a good job. She was 8-20, four turnovers. 

“I felt like she was really competitive. When Victoria got hot, you start pulling out your play card, you start trying to find everything you can run to get her a shot or a look. 

“They were guarding her extremely hard on the halfcourt. But we were getting her some stuff in transition. Our kids were really setting some good stuff for her. But it all starts on the defensive end. 

“We can’t get that going in transition without defending. I thought we were outstanding defensively. 

They shot 28 percent, 20 percent in the fourth quarter when the game’s on the line. Again, just could not be prouder of our kids and our basketball team.

“Probably the toughest game that we came out on top with a victory. Tennessee is really talented. I mean, they’re really talented. 

“They figured it out. They’re playing hard. They’re guarding. Chinwe for us did a tremendous job. Really got after them on the boards. Had 11 rebounds. Tori had nine. That’s the thing that Tori brings to the table. She may not score every night and get 30, but tonight she gets 30 and 9, 9 rebounds. One she got was a stick-back. Certainly obviously was a very hard-fought basketball game.”

“ Everything just happened that way,” said Viviams.

“ Like coach said, we got to come out and throw the first punch and keep fighting. The team came out. We played hard. I started knocking down shots. I guess it kept going from there.

“ It was definitely a different shot. Whatever plays we’re going to run, I’m going to take the shot that’s supposed to be taken at the time.

“ I was just trying to play basketball. If the shots fall, they fall. If they don’t, they don’t. Trying to help my team any way I can.” 

“When her shots aren’t falling, she rebounds,”  Schaefer said.

“ She took a charge tonight. I’m awfully proud of her for that.”

“I think we’re both kind of equally matched in the bruise department,” said Dillingham.

“But me and Mo, I think we’re the catalyst of the team. Sometimes Tori, obviously. Every day it starts on the ball. If your point guard is playing good defense on the ball, everybody behind you is going to play good defense. I think it starts with Morgan and then it ignites through the team, so . . .

“I think we really focused tonight, kept them in front of us. I think we really did good. They obviously had a lot of fans tonight. I think our fans were even louder tonight when we did good things. Our fans were incredible tonight and they were behind us the whole game.”

Vivians did not join the dancing line with fans, which has become a celebration tradition.

“Because I know we won, but we have another game to be excited for tomorrow. If we win -- well, when we win, either way (she’ll dance).”