Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Top Two Still Unbeaten
The reason you play the runup to the brawl to win it all -- the Southeastern Conference regular season – is to get 10 wins.
The magic number is 20; no SEC women’s team with 20 wins has ever missed the NCAA draw and a legitimate legendary team like Tennessee can do it with 19.
Most mortal teams want the 20 wins.
The teams in the AP Top 20 know this.
Joining the two unbeatens left in the group are three more in the unranked scrum and five with one loss each.
No. 3 South Carolina
The Gamecocks, up one spot, are where they are likely to end up.
Coach Dawn Staley is unafraid, having beaten two legitimate Elite Eight teams already.
They started the ranking week by completing the last two of the trifecta in the Hall of Fame games at home.
Hampton fell, 92-38, as the All-American forwards, Alaina Coates and A'ja Wilson combined for 48. Coates had 28 points and 16 rebounds for a fifth straight double/double streak started last season.
Wilson set a program record, 14-of-14 from the line. She had 20 points in 22 minutes; Coates got hers in 24.
The team won the backboards by 60-36 as 20 offensive boards became 23 second-chance points.
The defense hung two single-digit quarters on the Pirates; eight in the third and four in the fourth. Almost 11,800 paid to see it.
Staley, a Hall of Fame point guard, likes her current one, a transfer in Allisha Gray in the three-guard lineup.
“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 observes of the former UNC player.
“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."
The next victim was St. Peters, 93-38.
Five Gamecocks finished in double-figures, led by Coates (16 points in 19 minutes) and Wilson (14 in 21). Gray had 13 points, eight rebounds and five assists in 19 minutes.
The defense held the Peacocks to two single-digit quarters, nine in the second and four in the fourth on 27.8 from the field.
They drew 11,450.
Staley liked the experience of back-to-back-to-back games.
“It was a good learning experience, mentally and physically, for our players to get up to play three games in a row,” she said.
“I know it was lopsided, but we’re still working on us, so it gave us great opportunities to work on us. (We got) to work on starts of games, passing the ball a little bit more, and work on shots in the flow of our offense. That’s an area we need to get better in, and get better quickly.”
So here came No. 4 Louisville to cap off the Hall of Fame thing in Springfield, Mass.
When last noticed, the Cardinals were failing in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, at home.
It is quite likely Staley allowed her team to see her memorial in the Hall of Fame.
But the game was the thing and Louisville was ranked No. 4, already with five wins.
They went back home with an 83-59 loss.
Coates, Wilson and Gray each scored 17. Coates also had 14 rebounds as SC took a 15-rebound edge. Gray scored 15 after intermission. Wilson was 5-of-6 from the line.
The Gamecocks scored 18 off 17 Louisville turnovers and had 14 fast-break points. They also used a 23-5 run that covered the end of the half and the start of the third quarter to create separation.
“I think our players really enjoy when the competition is better and they came out and played.”
As for her two forwards, “That’s another year of playing together and knowing what the other is doing.
“We’re still trying to find out who we are.”
No. 7 Mississippi State
The Bulldogs are up three spots and a likely Top 10 consideration from here on out.
They celebrated the best ranking in program history with holiday beach time in Hawaii then swept into the Wahine Classic for three straight.
Oregon was the only other competitive team in the six pack of participants.
Vctoria Vivians had trouble finding her rhythm but was bailed out when Teaira McCowan, the tallest State player at 6-7, brought eight first half points off the bench.
Vivians, as she always does, righted herself and finished with 17 and scooted past 1,200 career points.
Morgan William scored 14 and Chinwe Okorie 11.
“I knew this would be a knock-down drag-out,” said coach Vic Schaefer. “I was disappointed in some of our mental mistakes. Sometimes, we didn’t follow the scouting report and didn’t switch out.
“This game was not a letdown for us. You have to give credit to the opponents.
“We are now the hunted. We are learning about the role. In the third quarter, we took their best shot and responded. I am really proud of that.”
A downgrade in opponents, San Jose State, was next, with an 88-51 pasting on a 30-rebound advantage, forcing 23 turnovers.
For once, Vivians never found her stroke and finished with eight, including a 2-for-10 first half, the first time in a long time in single digits, averaging almost twice that. She was 3-of-14 from the field.
But all 13 Bulldogs played and all scored.
Freshman Iggy Allen, for instance, scored 14. McCowan had 16 rebounds.
“We finished the first half off well, said Schaefer of the 38-21 advantage.
“In the second half, backup point guard Jazzmun Holmes was awesome. She really came in and set the tone. I really liked my bench tonight. I thought we played really well. Our athleticism and quickness dominated the game defensively.”
Holmes had eight assists and two steals in 21 minutes.
“We forced 24 turnovers,” Schaefer said. “That is who we are and that is what we do. We try to disrupt you.
“In the second half, we played a whole lot better. In the first half, they took our inside game away. In the second half, we really stepped up and everybody on the team contributed.”
So they finished with an aloha for the host team, and a gaudy 7-0 record.
It started with a 30-17 half. Okorie was 5-of-6 from the field and had a dozen. A single-digit defensive effort, eight allowed in the second quarter, set the momentum for a 66-41 no-doubt win.
She finished with a career-best 18 points, in 23 minutes, 8-of-10 from the field. Vivians scored 10 in 18 minutes. Every Bulldog got in and all but one scored. They threw in another single-digit defensive quarter, eight allowed in the fourth.
“We worked on the depth at this tournament,” Schaefer said. “Trying to build a team, build our depth and build some confidence for some kids.
“It was important how we played out here. It was a great event and great experience for our kids. It has been a great educational experience to see one of the most beautiful parts of the world.”
Vivians was tournament MVP and Okorie joined her on the all-tournament team.
“I was proud of how our first group started out defensively,” Schaefer said. “We had 11 first-half turnovers against the zone, but I am really proud of how we responded defensively. We got some easy baskets off the press. We bother a lot of people with our press and how we get it going in transition.”
“We prepared really hard for this event,” Okorie said. “Being in this championship is great. Winning this championship is great but we are not satisfied. We still have a lot of work to do. We need to continue to grow.”
No. 16 Florida.
The Gators were also up three spots but a suspect Top 20 on a wait-and-see watch until the real games start in conference.
Arkansas State is one of those conference champions that illustrate the difference between a Sun Belt and a down list SEC team.
Florida won, 71-60, scoring on the first possession and never trailing.
Sophomore Eleanna Christinaki scored 23 (her third straight outing of more than 20) and led four Gators in double figures. No sophomore slump apparent.
They closed the game on a 17-9 run.
Coach Amanda Butler said, “In key moments we made plays. It wasn't one of our better performances, but Arkansas State is a team that hadn't lost on their home court in 25 games.
The best thing is we learned more things about ourselves and we made plays when we had to.
“I thought Dyandria Anderson was a highlight with nine assists. She kept her composure, played 36 tough minutes and getting eight rebounds. I think that's just a stellar performance all the way around for her.
“Overall, we have to do better. We did not come out with the defensive intensity that we need to. We didn't defend the 3.”
So the road trip continued north, the holiday in Chicago and the game at Northwestern.
Blammo, a 73-68 loss to a Big Ten also-ran.
Only 857 showed up to witness the execution.
The Gators allowed Nia Coffey to hit 10-of-18 from the floor among her 26 points, with 14 rebounds.
Gator senior Ronni Williams tried to rally her team with 19 and Christinaki scored 15.
But 4-of-22 from the field in a fourth quarter seldom leads to anything good.
The home team won the quarter, 17-8, Florida’s first single-digit quarter of the season.
“We got ourselves in foul trouble and that was really tough to overcome,” Butler said. “Haley (Lorenzen) was playing a really good game – 6-of-9 from the floor is great, but only having her on the floor for 22 minutes I think hurt us. We weren’t very productive.
“We got a ton of offensive rebounds but we weren’t very productive with them.
“Defensively, I thought we could have done a much better job.
“We know what our challenges are on the road and we’ve got to do a good job of managing the team’s off days and making sure that we’re resting but still finding ways to improve. That’s what we probably need a little of right now – recovery and get ready to battle again.”
No. 17 Tennessee.
Based on last season, they were gifted with a top 20 spot to start the season and continued with a replay of that hot mess by losing to non-essential Penn State, dropping four spots in the poll.
Then they strangely took a week off instead of playing a competitive team -- they will interrupt their conference season for an inconsequential game against Notre Dame – but that is part of some master plan no one else understands.
So here came Virginia Tech and the result of a week to get ready was another skanky road loss, 67-63.
Tennessee may already be done with the Top 20 for the season. Yikes. They lead the league in losses.
The Tech game is one of those where the winners will brag about finally beating a Lady Vol team.
That brag is still active, if fading quickly.
For instance, Tech also won last season but then failed to finish in the top 64 while UT went to a fourth Elite 8.
UT lost this one in a 27-13 third quarter. They had closed halftime on a 19-7 run.
They botched their last possession when the difference was but a basket.
Overall, there were four in double figures, two double/doubles, a win in rebounds by 23. And yet, back-to-back losses.
The only glaring negative were the 10 turnovers by Diamond DeShields, yet she was one rebound short of a double/double.
“It’s quite embarrassing,” said DeShields. “I am just out there over-thinking. I am still in shock about it.”
Steady center Mercedes Russell also said it was on UT that they did not make Tech work for their shots.
Coach Holly Warlick said UT did not make the game plan work. They got the ball inside, “But then you gotta finish and we missed a ton of layups.
“You turn the ball over 21 times and they get 21 points off turnovers; that’s 21 times we denied ourselves the opportunity. I mean if you throw the basketball off it may go in.”
The Lady Vols have three games against Top 15 teams left before conference play begins.
No. 20 Kentucky.
The Kats Kollege of Koaches (two former head coaches joining a beleaguered staff) has fooled no one so far.
They dropped five spots after a loss at Colorado, then returned home for holiday cupcakes.
First up was Morehead State, a school about an hour away from Lexington but miles away in level of competition.
UK reversed the score on them, 74-47.
They scored the first 11 points of the game and the end was already obvious.
Sophomore guard Taylor Murray matched her career high of 14 points in the first half alone.
The statement came in the second quarter in which UK allowed only one basket. The 13-2 run made the 4,706 in attendance happy.
Senior guard Makayla Epps had 18 points to lead all scorers.
“What I loved about Taylor tonight, more than her offense, was her defense,” said coach Matthew Mitchell. “We’ve been really talking to her and really encouraging her to try to get her going defensively.
“We need her to be a leader for us and a star on defense, and that is what I’m most proud of her for tonight.
“I thought she really tried. She wasn’t looking for comfort tonight. It is on her now and it’s a new role for her and I’m really pleased with her development.”
Next up, Samford and a similar result, 80-57, with four starters in double figures, Epps leading with 20.
It was 41-17 at the break, after a single-digit defensive effort, five in the second quarter. They drew 4,569.
“Mainly we need to focus on finishing,” Epps said.
“Say, for example, halftime the score was 41-17, we will sometimes put the car in cruise and give them a little hope for coming back and that is something we can’t do.
“We have to top teams off, period. If we beat people by 70, then I guess they’ll put us in the news for beating people by 70. Nobody ever said there was anything wrong with that.
“Like coach said, it’s all about intensity. We have to want to get stops in order to get easy transition buckets. I feel like the energy and communication dropped with us being up by so much.
“It also gets a little confusing when we aren’t communicating and Coach has us running different defenses from zone to man.
“We just need to focus in and find the balance on what defense is working well for us at what time.
“In all honesty, this is probably the most cordial, loving and caring team that I’ve been on since I’ve been here.
“There’s no egos, teammate issues, outside scuffling it’s all one love. We’re all on the same team and have the same mission. I told the team after the game that it’s really crazy we genuinely like each other and have a hard time communicating on the court.
“It blows my mind. We’d probably rather be in the group chat texting or something.
“It’s really the little things. We have a lot of people who have never been in this predicament, playing for a big D-I school against some of the best teams in the country.
“It’s just something different. Now it’s about pushing into December and progressing. Definitely no complainers.”
UK next plays two higher-ranked teams, Oklahoma at home and then at Louisville. The Kats have won 61 straight regular season non-conference home games. The only loss in six games this season was the one road game.