Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Tennessee DNA Reaches NCAA Finals
By Mike Siroky
INDIANAPOLIS -- The teams of the greatest women’s basketball league – The Southeastern Conference -- did not stop when the games of conference competition did.
A record nine teams made the post-season NCAA eliminations.
To the surprise and delight of almost everyone associated with the conference, Tennessee survived the longest, to the Elite Eight round.
Coach Holly Warlick took some deserve criticisms as the Lady Vols finished the season with a program-worst 13 losses, unranked for the first time as the playoffs started.
But they won more than anyone else in the tournament.
Warlick has the national record of four Elite Eights in her first four seasons.
And all the important contributors return, so they are by no means a dead team. But most of the conference heavyweights this season will have a decided group of talent back.
And unlike the coaches' poll, there is no post-championship AP poll, so Tennessee broke another tradition and finished unranked for the first time in the 40-year history. It will be interesting next season to see where the media voters place them before the marathon of the season.
*Tennessee was not forgotten at the Final Four this season.
In fact, here’s another first, for the NCAA and the Lady Vols.
A starting forward on the Division II Champs of Lubbock Christian was 6-5 hometown girl Kellen Schneider.
Her coach, Steve Gomez, said of her championship play: “Today Kellyn Schneider was huge for us. She's been hurt. The conference tournament she didn't play two games. She gutted it out one game in the Elite Eight against Bentley and played some good minutes.
"We just knew this rest was going to be good for her. So without her recovery -- I don't even know what her stats are -- I just know her presence is just so good for us.
"And so I just learned that it's definitely a team that functioned together and nobody ever felt selfish. And so I just feel like they toughed it out. We didn't play a lot of players. I didn't know how good a shape we would be in. I was really concerned physically how we'd do. But I just feel like they were tough and unselfish."
She played 37 minutes of her final game, the second-most of anyone.
The Lady Vol connection?
Her mom is Jill Rankin, a UT All-American.
They become the first mother/daughter to each earn their way into an NCAA Final Four.
At 6-2, she is a couple of inches taller than Jill, who said, “All my children are.”
Jill also said the title experience and going undefeated in their first year of eligibility in Division II was surreal.
It was so amazing to see mom and daughter embrace afterwards and share the moment of bliss.
Jill said all of her children were worried for the title game, but not Kellen.
They were all lined up in Indy second row behind the bench and press row, cheering madly as Lubbock Christian led by 14 with four minutes to go then withstood a final rally and executing better at the end, to win by five.
Kellen tearfully hugged mom and dad at courtside as she clutched her miniature version of the title trophy. Then it was back to whooping it up with her teammates and pictures all around.
By the way, all the Division 1 Final Four coaches were men and Division II and III were won by undefeated teams coached by men. Combined it’s an NCAA first.
*Georgia had the biggest win in the immediate off-season.
The SEC coaches went with the easy choice for coach of the year, going with the one who had the most talent.
But the national Women’s Basketball Coaches Association took a recommendation we first put forth, that a rookie who does more with less is the true coach of the year.
Hall of Famer and former Georgia coach – for more than 30 seasons – Andy Landers said he agrees with the concept. He broadcasts for the SEC Network nowadays.
So not honored in conference, but chosen the WBCA’s National Rookie Coach of the Year is Bulldog coach Joni Taylor. The honor was celebrated with national recognition at the Final Four in Indianapolis.
She led a team that won 20 and resurrected itself despite never being ranked but making the NCAAs anyway.
“It is such a great honor to be named the Spalding Maggie Dixon Rookie Coach of the Year,” Taylor said.
“Maggie was one of the great young coaches in women’s basketball, and her legacy will leave a lasting impact on this profession.
“This award is not possible without the hard work and dedication of my family, our coaches and our student-athletes here at Georgia. Everyone bought into what we wanted to accomplish this season, and this award is a testament to our great university and all those involved with this program.
“I just want to thank the selection committee for this tremendous honor, and I am thrilled to accept this year’s Spalding Maggie Dixon Rookie Coach of the Year award.”
Taylor began the year by leading the Lady Bulldogs to a 12-1 non-conference record, which was the third-best start by any coach in SEC women’s basketball history in his or her first season with their respective programs.
She led her team to seven wins in the last nine regular season games to reach the 20-win mark and a 9-7 record in the rigorous SEC.
Georgia’s 21-10 record marked only the 12th time in league history that a first-year head coach won 20 or more games in his or her inaugural season at an SEC school.
”Success in your first season as a head coach is a remarkable feat. The WBCA is pleased to announce Joni as the winner of the 2016 Spalding Maggie Dixon Division I Rookie Coach of the Year award,” said WBCA Executive Director Danielle Donehew.
“Joni has captured our attention with her team’s accomplishments this season. Joni has demonstrated immediate success in commanding all aspects of managing a program and will continue to shine in the coaching ranks for years to come. We celebrate her effort on the basketball court as a teacher and equally applaud the extensive role she plays in impacting the lives of her student-athletes.”
The Spalding Maggie Dixon NCAA Division I Rookie Coach of the Year award is named in honor of the late Maggie Dixon, former Army head coach, whose success during her inaugural year at the Black Knights’ helm was remarkable.
Dixon was named 2006 Patriot League Coach of the Year after leading Army to the conference title and its first-ever NCAA Division I tournament appearance. Dixon passed away on April 6, 2006, just a few weeks following the Black Knights’ appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
*South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley will immediately transition to being an assistant on the Olympic team, helping coach Geno Auriemma.
SC sophomore A’ja Wilson earned First Team Associated Press All-American and First Team Women’s Basketball Coaches’ Association honors. Senior guard Tiffany Mitchell was named to the AP second team; junior center Alaina Coates is AP honorable mention.
*Washington coach Mike Neighbors mentioned two SEC coaches he grew up with in coaching terms when preparing for the Final Four, Gary Blair of Texas A&M and Vic Schaefer of Mississippi State.
“So the gave me some great stuff and some really bullet point stuff that's really helped us this week,” Neighbors said.
“ Anybody that would return a phone call that's been here, I’ve certainly wanted their input.”
*Tennessee senior center Bashaara Graves was named honorable mention Associated Press All-American.
*Kentucky had the fifth player leave the program when senior Ivana Jakubcova decided to use her final season of eligibility elsewhere. She had come to UK from Murray State Junior College in Oklahoma. UK gave her a full release.
She will graduate this spring with a degree in psychology and will be a graduate transfer elsewhere. The native of Bratislava, Slovakia, played in 24 games this year.
*South Carolina senior guard Tiffany Mitchell is the league representative on the five-player Senior CLASS (Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School) Award team. The overall winner Is, of course, Breanna Stewart.
The honor is chosen by a nationwide vote of Division I women’s basketball coaches, national basketball media and fans for senior student/athletes in NCAA Division I women’s basketball who have notable achievements in classroom, community, character and competition.
Mitchell was judged to have shown excellence in all four areas. She had a pair of 4.0 grade point average semesters. She incorporated community service into her schedule, speaking to elementary schools and taking part in Special Olympics and Relay for Life events.
She is the first Gamecocks to merit All-American notice since 1989.
Mitchell finished first in program history in scoring with 1,885 points, second in career 3s percentage (.399) and career free throw percentage (.773) and ranks among the program’s all-time top in seven other categories, including school records for games started (135) and games played (139).
*Texas A&M senior guard Courtney Walker was named honorable mention Associated Press All-American.
*Kentucky junior Makayla Epps was named honorable mention Women’s Basketball Coaches Association All-American.
posted by Mel Greenberg | 9:48 AM