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 second set of SEC teams in the NCAA started with the home teams winning.
There were only two teams left without 20 wins in this NCAA women’s tournaments when play started Saturday. Neither are from eight still that were playing from the dominant conference in the land, the Southeastern Conference.
With the Round of 32 upon us, the four teams with home sites are naturally winning. The seven teams left are 22 percent of the field. It is part of the NCAA formula for ticket sales at important campus sites.
One road warrior lost and one won, both unranked nationally as the season ended. The numbers attached to each team reflect NCAA seeds. All are at-large bids.
*No. 10 Missouri 78, No. 7 BYU 69
BYU had beaten Texas A&M in a holiday tournament this season but lost their West Coast Conference tournament, so they came in after a loss.
In the season, they lost to Georgia and Oklahoma but didn’t play anyone else of note. It was their third straight NCAA tournament.
This was a great redemption game in the Austin qualifiers, after having lost three straight, a nice introduction of a rising team to the national cable TV audience and – did we not say it Saturday - an offficial NCAA upset when a team defeats one seeded three spots higher.
Missouri proudly carries the sluggers’ mentality of having won more than 20 when competing in the nation’s best conference.
Now they get Texas, who they used to meet regularly before leaving the Big 12 two seasons ago, at Texas.
That the seventh-best team in the SEC bested the regular season champ of the West Coast Conference underlines SEC domination.
It is Mizzou’s first NCAA win since 2001.
The best freshman in the land, Sophie Cunningham, scored 20, 16 in a dominant third quarter when she as 6-for-6 from the field.
The Tigers took an 11-point lead down to two midway through the fourth. But they had been tempered in conference play and did not panic.
Nor were they ever topped.
Missouri’s Jordan Frericks scored 19. Missouri won the rebounding battle, 30-20, and outscored BYU 36-26 in the paint.
BYU's Lexi Rydalch, the West Coast Conference career scoring leader– men and women, she surpassed the legendary Hank Gathers, and this year’s conference Player-of-the-Year -- scored 22, two below her average but just seven after halftime against coach Robin Pingeton’s defense.
BYU was down by five when she fouled out with less than two minutes to play. They were done without her.
Missouri hit 23-of-28 free throws, 13 made in the final three minutes as BYU desperately fouled while trying to stop the clock and stay in the game.
“I didn’t get it done defensively,” Cunningham said. “But I had to get it done for my team. They gave me the ball and I needed it.
“They had just collapsed on me. But that left other players wide open and they were knocking down shots.”
Pingeton said, “Well we knew we had to really continue to guard them hard. On their ball screen we needed help-side defense, we had to move our feet and get help.
“We didn’t really have to talk (to Cunningham) much. We had told her before the game it is going to be a battle and are you going to handle adversity. She didn’t start well, but she reacted to it in the last 20 minutes and she reacted well.
“Jordan Frericks is just our rock.”
*No. 4 Texas A&M 74, No. 13 Missouri State 65
These Lady Bears are no pikers, winning their 14th NCAA bid with the Missouri Valley Conference tournament title.
They have their own star senior guard in leading scorer Tyonna Snow.
A&M senior guard Courtney Walker also earned AP All-SEC first team notice,
The Aggies are among eight teams to earn their way in to the latest 11 tournaments and are at home in these Sweet 16 qualifiers.
A&M stood by its principles and did not lose.
Senior guard Courtney Williams and backup junior guard Schlonte Allen are suspended indefinitely for violation of team rules.
These suspensions usually have something to do with team curfews.
Coach Gary Blair said he missed the players not available, “But I love me the ones that are here. I will go with the 10 that got me here.”
So he did. After a two-point lead at half, with 17 turnovers, Blair said, “That’s just too many. My guards have got to do a better job.”
They heard him, with only seven in the second half.
Walker responded with 29 points, 21 after intermission, 15 in the decisive 29-14 third quarter when she outscored the other team. They drew 4,040 fans.
She is the Aggies’ second all-time leading scorer with a chance to end as their best, at home, with eight in the next game, against No. 5 Florida State.
She already has the most field goals in program history, 684.
She has 14 games this season with more than 20 points, 34 in her career. It was her 23rd straight in double-digits, the 30th this season and 104th in her career.
She has double-digits in six straight NCAA games. This was her NCAA career best.
But it was Ariel Howard who really rescued her team. The 5-11 freshman set the NCAA tournament record with 27 rebounds, 19 defensive, the first freshman to ever clear 21.
She said it was as simple as listening to her coach’s directions
The NCAA record had stood for 12 seasons. It is the school record for any games, men and women and a dozen better than the women’s record.
The team mark of 55 this game is a season high. It was 20 better than the opponent.
Senior guard Chelsea Jennings hit her first career NCAA tournament double figures, 15 on the 15th time this season and 20th of her career.
"I've been in this position when Courtney Williams was out with a back injury," said Jennings, also a senior. “So I’m used to being in this position. It brought no extra nervousness or anything like that. And A&M is known for the 12th man.
“We have a senior leader that’s down right now, we all stepped in, we did our part and we’re going to keep going.”
Walker said of the famous “other Courtney”: “It affected us because she is a great scorer.
She is a great long rebounder and that affects my game. But she’s been with us, and mentally helping prepare us for the game and that helps.
“I just got hot or at least that’s what it felt like to me. I think it was a couple of layups I had gotten in transition.
"And after being able to get to the hole, I stopped hesitating on my shot and that helped me a lot with the follow-through.
“Like Coach Blair said, he just kept calling my play, and he just goes with who's hot because that’s what’s going to make the team best, and when somebody gets hot he goes to them, and that's just what happened.”
Williams had missed three games this year with a slight back fracture and has played her final home game.
Allen played in 19 games and contributed two points per, 10 less than Williams. Blair said they will continue to practice but are definitely out Monday.
A&M had lost two straight.
Blair revealed the suspensions were at the first of the week after the break.
“ We had Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday to get ready, OK? And we worked on our transition game instead of our half-court offensive sets.
"We tried to get out on the floor and attack because you saw us -- instead of handing the ball to Jordan (Jones), we had to work on that, because we had to make up for not having Williams, and we had to score in different ways.
”We wanted a fast tempo. That's why I was able to go to the bench so much during the ballgame, because of the pace that we were going to play.
”Yes, it hurt. It hurt big-time, because she has meant so much to this program, USA Basketball this summer, All-SEC three years in a row. It hurts.
"There's not a kid in the country that's that size that can create off the bounce as well as she can. There's great players out there, but she's meant a lot to this program. So we pick up the pieces.
"Ten is enough. That's what we had. We had 10 kids ready to go. We were only on a nine-player rotation anyway. But I've got 10 ready to go.
People get injured. You've had suspensions in every sport all over the country, whether it's pros, Little League, high school or college.
"It’s something, as coaches, we just have to pick up the pieces and be able to get our players to adjust and believe in each other. And I think our kids did a good job of that. But remember, we were 5-0 without Williams and Jones when they were injured.
"So now we're 6-0 without another starter. But to get to 7-0, we're going to have to be a whole lot better.”
Of more importance are the 10 ready to play Sunday at home.
“The whole ballgame, our offense was pretty efficient,” he said. “Our passing was not efficient. But we cleaned it up in the second half. Jordan with six turnovers in the first half, zero in the second half.
The third quarter was the difference, 13 out of 18 from the field, three out of three 3s, and that has been -- our Achilles heel the whole year was our third quarter.
“I thought when we were able to rest our kids. I kept calling Walker’s play and (other players’ plays) earlier, because I think they’re the best mid-range shooters in the country because they work at it.
"They work at it, and they're quality seniors, and they know what we have to have. And when Walker got tired, she started going to the lane and drawing fouls.
“It was a team effort.
Missouri State gave us everything that we wanted. Every one of those coaches -- and I recruited two of them (as players), lost both of them -- every one of those coaches is bringing experience and Final Four experience and Kodak All-American experience to that team.
And that’s why they've been to more Final Fours than A&M has. They’ve been to two. We’d love to see what two looks like.”
Howard credits her success on the boards to wanting to play hard for her mother on a special date in family history.
“About 10 years ago my mom, she was in the hospital, and her line was flat,” Howard said. “So March 19th has always been a day for sacrifice and accomplishment with her and I, and a lot of other things have happened on March 19th. That one, of course, is the one that sticks out the most, and I just really did it for her. I didn’t know I had it in me, but I played really hard for her, and I’m glad I could get the accomplishment for her.
“With about four minutes left, I was on the bench, and the coaches were like, ‘Come on, you've got to get some rebounds.’ And Coach Blair pulled me aside, and said, ‘I need two rebounds out of you.’ I said OK.
"Then I got some rebounds, and everybody was cheering when I got the first one, so I was like, what's going on?
“This week we have been working on boxing out a lot. Our coaches have been on our butts for that all week.”
“So next, more boxing out and whatever assignments the coaches have for us.”
*No. 3 Kentucky 85, No. 14 NC-Asheville 13
The Kats are a main campus team, not an extension campus. This game looked like that.
Kentucky has advanced as far as did last’s year’s team before four defections. These kids want to play for this coach. It leaves a short bench, which could come into play next against sixth-seeded Oklahoma.
Makayla Epps, an all-SEC tournament bloomer, was also selected all-conference by the Assciated Press. Evelyn Akhator, in her first year in Kentucky after being one of the top junior college players in America, is second team AP.
Epps scored 24 and Kentucky posted a five-point defensive second quarter in the biggest NCAA rout in school history.
The Wildcats owned the paint 50-16, their bench outscored the Bulldogs 24-6 and they scored 18 points off 15 turnovers.
The Kats shot 50 percent from the field to take their ninth straight opening-round game. The most-recent seven have come with coach Matthew Mitchell. They allowed their fewest points in a tournament game and lowest shooting percentage (20.6).
Epps led the shooting percentage with 10-of-20 from the field four of her first five. Akhator and Taylor Murray each hit 5-of-7 to combine for 21. Senior Janee Thompson, in her next-to-last game in Memorial Coliseum, scored 13 on 4-of-11 shooting. They drew 2701.
Former foe Dawn Marsh, who won a National Championship as a Tennessee guard, was one of the game referees.
“Our good play was fueled by a healthy respect for Asheville,” said Mitchell. “We don’t have to be perfect, we just have to have to hustle and have good attitudes and we had good attitude today.”
“Coach Mitchell always tells us no lead is too big and no deficit too small,” said Epps. “Coach reminded us when were not playing good defense.”
Thompson said they would take a “couple of minutes” to enjoy this and then begin to get ready for a tough Oklahoma team.
*No. 9 Indiana 62, No. 8 Georgia 58
It was a nice scrap for two teams introducing themselves to a national audience at the Nore Dame qualifier.
Still, never-ranked Georgia closes with four straight losses after team leader and leading scorer Schacobia Barbee broke her left leg and the team’s offense.
She was on the bench, the leg in a bright green cast.
Barbee broke the same bone, the distal fibula, in her right leg last season. Georgia went with seven players.
Tyra Buss scored 17 of 23 in the second half and that was the difference as Georgia allowed nine points more than its SEC best defensive average.
Georgia was back in the NCAAs after missing last season and breaking a string of 20 straight appearances.
Indiana remains alive for two more days in its first appearance in the tournament since 2002.
The Hoosiers' 21 wins match a program-best for a season.
Tiaria Griffin led Georgia with 18 points – four 3s -- and Caliya Robinson scored 14. Buss played all 40 minutes for Indiana and added seven rebounds and five assists.
Amanda Cahill’s lefty layup with 45 seconds to go gave Indiana a 59-56 lead.
The Hoosiers got the ball back on the other end after an offensive foul by Georgia's Haley Clark.
Jenn Anderson hit one of two free throws to make it a two-possession game with 35 seconds to go.
Griffin stroked a jumper from just inside the 3-point line with 23 seconds left, but Buss added a free throw on the other end and the Hoosiers denied Griffin a look to tie the game as time wound down.
Instead, Marjorie Butler missed a 3 and Alexis Gassion added a free throw to seal the deal.
Buss scored 12 straight points for Indiana in the second half, and her 3-pointer followed by Karlee McBride’s layup pushed IU's lead to 50-44 with 8:33 to play.
But Merritt Hempe's three-point play and a low-post bucket by Robinson tied the score two minutes later.
The Hoosiers led by four with 5:11 to play after a Buss layup, then didn't score for nearly four minutes until Cahill’s free throw with 1:21 left.
However, the Bulldogs only managed to trim IU’s lead by one point in that stretch.
Indiana turned it over four straight possessions early in the second half, leading to 3-pointers by Caliya Robinson and Griffin and a 10-1 Bulldogs run that gave them their first lead since very early in the game.
After a rough 2 of 9 start from the field, Buss got hot, scoring seven straight IU points to close out the third quarter and get the lead back for the Hoosiers, 43-42 heading into the final quarter.
“They’ve been in a lot of big games,” Indiana coach Teri Moren said. “They’ve played this game their entire lives and I wanted them to be relaxed and go out and just be their best for 40 minutes.
"There were times when we were not our best. It was not a pretty game, but nonetheless it was a gutsy win for the Hoosiers.”
"She's so good offensively," Georgia coach Joni Taylor said of Buss. "She's just crafty. She gets everybody involved. She's their engine."
Indiana shot just 34.6 percent from the field in the first half, but Cahill (seven points) and Buss (six points, three assists) kept the Hoosiers not just afloat, but ahead.
Near the end of the third quarter, Georgia’s band and cheerleaders commenced a “U-G-A” chant, hoping to shift momentum while Indiana clung to a narrow 43-42 lead.
On the other side, Indiana’s faithful quickly accepted the challenge, drowning out the Bulldogs with an “I-U” chant of its own.
It was that kind of night for Georgia: spirited, but not enough.
“We did come into this game thinking that it’s a good opportunity for us,” Buss said. “It hasn’t been done in a long time in our program. Just to come out with energy and get those stops late in the game, we just really stuck together.”