By Mike Siroky
The Southeastern Conference elite teams established themselves in this runup to the commando action in league play.
Neither South Carolina nor Mississippi State are afraid to take on all comers.
The league is 42-4 overall so far.
No. 4 South Carolina
There is no doubt Dawn Staley has developed into one of those coaches who can prepare a team.
Ohio State is a projected Final Four team, double deep as quality transfers recover eligibility.
So the Gamecocks’ 92-80 win over the No. 7 Buckettes is a legitimate NCAA Elite 8-caliber game.
They used two high-power transfers, junior guard Kaela Davis (Georgia Tech) with 37 points and 10 rebounds in her Gamecock debut, and fellow junior transfer Allisha Gray (North Carolina), with 24 points seven rebounds and three assists.
Davis is the first Gamecock to reach 30 or more since 2010.
Their 10-0 run in the fourth left OSU in their rear-view mirror until the post-season.
Each are likely to win a power conference and be in the Elite 8 seeds.
“Sitting out a year was tough but we were excited to come in and play such a good team as Ohio State,” Davis said. “To be able to get a win is a great start for us and me.”
“'The wait was worth it,” Gray said. “It’s a great feeling to be back.”
So much for past performance not assuring future results.
State finished with a 39-26 rebounding advantage.
Senior center Alaina Coates had 10 points and 13 rebounds. SC had a 48-36 rebound advantage and 44 points down low.
They hit 68.4 percent from the floor, 8-of-12 field goals in the fourth quarter 8-of-11 free throw s in the final 10 minutes.
The shudder was felt not only in the SEC, but nationwide.
“When you score well, the first thing is to get back defensively,” said Staley.
As for the transfers, “I’m still feeling them out,” Staley said. “Last year, they practiced with us but obviously could not get into the game rotation.
“As the season ended we worked them in more in practice as we prepared to pass the torch (to this team). We’re not going to be the team we were before. We’re still learning.”
The Gamecocks opened the Basketball Hall of Fame Women’s Challenge, erasing Hampton, 92-38.
In a sense, this starts the friends and family traditional games, against those non-competitive regional teams with some history between them.
Coates and A’ja Wilson combined for 48 points in the Gamecocks’ home opener, attended by the best in America 11,975, as part of the Basketball Hall of Fame Women’s Challenge.
Coates dominated with 28 points and 16 rebounds. Wilson set the program record at the line, 14-of-14.
second quarter, 61.1 percent from the field and 8-of-10 from the line showed who would win. SC forced eight turnovers in the decisive period and held the Lady Pirates to 25 from the floor. The Gamecocks finished with a 50-36 rebounds advantage, turning 20 offensive boards into 23 second-chance points.
The defense overwhelmed Hampton in the second half, allowing 12 points and 4-of-31 from the field.
Coates’ double/double – 28 points, 16 rebounds – is her fifth straight, including two in the NCAA Tournament.
Staley, a world-class point guard as a player, has grown to appreciate Gray after three games. She had 16 points, 6-of-7 from the line with four assists in this one.
“She’s always the one that falls under the radar. She’s going to be probably our most consistent perimeter player as far as scoring the ball, rebounding the ball, getting out and defending,” Staley said.
“Sometimes when you have a personality like Allisha, people tend to forget about you. She’s somewhat of our silent assassin. She’s always going to give the same effort every time she steps onto the floor; she’s very, very competitive.
“Some players in the whole fold of what we have, have to play that role because if everyone wants that spotlight then there is not enough room.”
No. 10 Mississippi State
The StarkVegas tour continued with a rout of regional friend Tulane, at the Gulf Coast Coliseum, which allowed more exposure to the Louisiana high school players.
As far as business as usual, it ended 66-49.
“I'm really proud of how we played in the first half, it was one of our better halves," Schaefer said. "In the second half, we didn't have the same intensity. A lot of credit for that goes to Tulane. They were a little shell-shocked in the first half, but they settled down and played much better in the second half."
Junior shooting superstar Victoria Vivians had 17 points. The Bulldogs had 15 steals, forced 27 turnovers and scored 27 off those turnovers. The Bulldogs forced 65 turnovers in the 3-0 start.
“Defensive pressure is something that we do,” Vivians said. “We take a lot of pride in that. When we force 27 turnovers, that means we are getting more chances to score. When we struggled on the offensive end, it was good that we were playing great defense like that so we could keep the lead.”
MSU held Tulane scoreless over the final 4:37 of the half and led by 20.
“The strong start was important to us,” said senior leader Dominque Dillingham. “When we start off strong offensively and defensively, its puts a lot of pressure on the other team.” State finished with a 39-26 rebounding advantage.
Schaefer rewarded the crowd by inserting
Gulfport native and freshman Ameshya Williams before her home base of family and friends.
They finished the rankings week against No. 8 Texas.
A superlative second quarter, 26-9, set up the eventual 75-65 win, 16 more than Texas had allowed before.
Vivians had 14 at the break and the bench had 16. The Texas bench had four. More importantly, State had three turnovers while causing 16.
The crowd was fueled by StarkVegas Admission Night: $5 adults and free to college and high school students, with advance ticket pickup. The result: 7,764
The second quarter started 16-all.
Dillingham scored on a layup and State never trailed again.
Hitting a rhythm, Vivians scored on successive possessions as the lead grew to five. It grew to 10 as the Longhorns did not score for four minutes, then 15 as Texas hit a three-minute dropoff.
"We were just pressuring the ball," Vivians said. "We had 15 turnovers at the half. Everybody can score on this team, so we just have to keep doing things well on defense. Even when we didn’t get turnovers, we altered some shots.”
The rest of the game saw State willing to trade baskets and keep Texas out of it.
Vivians finished with 19, Morgan Williams with 23, 13-of-14 from the line as Texas fruitlessly fouled to stop the clock. State lost rebounds by 10 and it just didn’t matter.
“It was a heck of a basketball game,” Schaefer said. “We appreciate Texas playing this series home-and-home. This was a great opportunity and a great test for us. I know they feel the same way. It was a great opportunity for us to showcase Mississippi State women’s basketball and what that entails.
“That felt like an NCAA Tournament game. It was a knock-down, drag-out out there. The kids really competed today. I am proud that we could do this today in front of the country. Everybody who played, played a really big part in this game.
“We got some really good play off the bench," Schaefer said. "Jazzmun (Holmes) comes in and gets two or three steals. Blair (Schaefer) gave us some good minutes. Roshunda (Johnson) was just fabulous off the bench."
State is 4-0, more wins than anyone else that matters, and gets the reward of a holiday tournament trip to Hawaii, with the first of three there on Friday. They hadn’t beaten a ranked team at home in this century.
No. 13 Tennessee
In the long ago and far away, there used to be a competitive program at Penn State. The toothless Lions are no longer in the national conversation. They were 12-19 last season. A coaching change is due soon.
So, Naturally, Tennessee being benevolent as always, wandered into Happy Valley and left discombobulated, 70-56.
Maybe it was triskaidekaphobia. The 3,754 in attendance appreciated it.
The game was lost in the close of each half, the second quarter by 12 and the fourth by 10.
Diamond DeShields is as underperforming as she was early last season, as many personal fouls as baskets, 4-of-15 from the field.
Mercedes Russell scored 18 and Jamie Nared 18. But nine 3s by the home team settled the issue, another throwback to last season when Tennessee’s 3 defense was terrible.
“In women’s basketball, those 3s will break your back,” coach Holly Warlick said.
“If I watched that game, I would’ve thought that we haven’t seen a zone in five years. You can’t take an uninspired basketball team and expect to win. You just can’t. We were extremely uninspired, we didn’t listen a lot, we had the tendency to do our own thing, and we didn’t compete.
“How do you not compete? You bust your butt every day in practice and you don’t compete in the game. That’s just difficult for me to understand.
“So, Jaime Nared and Mercedes, they got after it. I’m really proud of their effort but when you have a game plan that says don’t give them transition points and they get 16, limit their 3-point shots, they get nine . . . it doesn’t take a smart person to figure out that we just didn’t want to be up here today.
“We take more 3s than Penn State. There’s a problem and that is not our game plan. They did nothing that we weren’t prepared for or have seen but they ran it to perfection and we did nothing about it.”
Tennessee had some good news on game day when 6-2 Rennia Davis of Florida gave Warlick the top recruiting class at this point. Among other accomplishments like the state high school title, she was MVP of the national summer tournament for high schoolers in New York City.
We said all last season that Warlick had been the closer for the Pat Head Summitt signees and that Warlick lacked such a person.
So she updated staff with true recruiter Sharrona Reaves and now has immediate results.
The other incomers are Evina Westbrook of Oregon, Anastasia Hayes of in-staye Murfreesboro and a sportswriter’s dream name, Kasivahna Kushkituah of Georgia.
For now, though, UT will slip back to the pack and have some tough turkey to digest with a week off to once again ponder what is going wrong now with a week between games.
nNo. 15 Kentucky
Senior center Evelyn Akhator started the season as the league’s first Player of the Week.
Her Kats played New Hampshire then flew off to Colorado.
At home against New Hampshire, Akhator had another double/double in the 92-43 win. But it was Makenzie Cann, with six 3s among her 20 points that paced the Kats. Not familiar with that name? With a refurbished team, get used to it.
She is a transfer from Cincinnati.
Akhator had 17 points and 11 rebounds before 4,793 joyous fans.
Get used to that as well. She is the literal centerpiece of the UK game. Her fourth straight double/double is the first for a Kat since 2009. The program record is nine. Kentucky had unanswered runs of 14, 12 and 10.
As for game, Cann cited assistant Kyra Elzy specifically.
“She works with me every morning to get my confidence up.
“I definitely think it shows a big progression, because coming out of high school I was known as ‘stand up over there and shoot.’ So, it’s always been a big progression – and that’s what I’ve always wanted.
That’s one of the reasons that I chose to come to UK, because I knew that Coach Mitchell believed that I could be more than a shooter and not put me in that box. So, it was definitely a big adjustment because I have never played the four, but I told them I would do whatever the team wanted, and if that’s what I have to do, then that’s what I have to do, so I just try my best to do it.”
Akhator said: “I told (the coaches) before the season that this is what I really want. As much as they keep talking to me about my offense, I want to keep worrying about my defense, especially the fouls. He (Mitchell) actually made me have much more confident and also coach (Lin) Dunn, coach Elzy. They believed in me, that I could do much better.
“I have to have the attitude of playing relaxed and not being in a hurry. That really helps me. Also my team – especially Makayla (Epps). She always gets on me if I make one mistake. She’ll always say it’s OK, because she doesn’t want me to go negative. The team and the coaching staff have really helped me.”
At Colorado, a nine-point third quarter difference was the pothole that derailed the Kats, 79-69.
The upset drew 1,500 spectators.
Akhator had only eight points but 10 rebounds by the start of the fourth, so a fifth double/double was assured. But she had little help from her teammates.
She scored four more points and four more rebounds. Three other Kats hit double figures.
For the home team at the quarter break, Smith had 18, Alexis Robinson 14 and Leonard a dozen, with15 turnovers caused. They each added only a couple of more points, but it was in answering whatever Kentucky tried.
It was a comfortable coast to the close.
Mitchell sees it as a learning experience.
“We wanted to come out and play what we thought would be a real tough Colorado team, to see where our team is at this point of the season,” he said.
“It was a great game for us to learn and I just want to compliment Colorado’s players. They really, really played hard, gave great effort and out-hustled us tonight. So it was a good lesson for us, if we don’t hustle more than our opponents we get in this kind of positions.
“Colorado really gave us a great gift tonight about playing hard, playing a really aggressive trapping zone. So we’ll do nothing but go back to the film and improve from this. But again, you have to compliment how hard they played. They just did a great job. We will have an opportunity to improve from this game because of how hard they played.”
No. 19 Florida.
While its new home arena is being built, the Gators have a dozen on the road.
It hasn’t mattered through the first three games.
The Gators opened the rankings week by besting Chattanooga, 72-61, a definite mid-major which has been hanging around the rankings for two seasons, having won 64 of 66 at home.
Sophomore Eleanna Christinaki scored a career high 29 to lead three in double-figures.
It is the best individual output since 2013.
Haley Lorenzen with 16 points and five rebounds in her 50th career start. UF won the rebounds, 46-26.
“I thought our rebounding effort was superb,” said coach Amanda Butler.
“ We just weren’t going to be denied on the boards. It was a tone that we set very early.
“Eleanna was obviously feeling it tonight. She looked great from mid-range. That balance of her being in double figures, with two others scoring in double-figures and everyone playing double-figure minutes so we could keep fresh people on the court is really when we’re at our best. It is a good indication that our tea is growing every single practice. Our freshman really had some chances to play during some significant moments. Our second-half leadership from our upperclassmen was tremendous.”
They kept it rolling vs. Temple, though the game was in Ocala, on the Central Florida campus. Only 540 attended.
Last season’s matchup ended with a Temple OT win.
Christinaki made sure that didn’t happen again, when she scored 13 of 21 points in the fourth.
Lorenzen was 10-of-19 then, ourtscoring the Owls by themselves as the team rallied with a 34-20 quarter in the 83-76 win Ronni Williams had 18 and freshman Delicia Washington 10 with nine rebounds. Florida won rebounds by one.
“I think our upperclassmen composure is something that's really important,” Butler said.
“ We had different people at different times step up and give us a spark so we had that true balance. We really are a mentally tougher team right now than we were this time a month ago and I think we were mentally tougher in the fourth quarter today than we were in the first and second quarter.
“That was important for us – that we continue to grow and push forward. We have to give Tyler Stuart (strength and conditioning coordinator) credit because we have enough gas in the tank in the fourth quarter to do whatever we need to do – run, press, trap, whatever the situation calls for.”
She said Washington made a difference.
“When the game momentum shifted, it was the type of game that really is a good fit for her. In the first quarter in particular, I thought she got out of the gate slow defensively. All of our team, when we play great defense, seem to follow.
“I’m really proud of her bouncing back and coming out in the second half and giving her team what it needed.”