Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Getting Halfway to 20 Wins
The runup to the holidays is interesting for the Southeastern Conference women’s basketball teams in the Associated Press Top 20 – our barometer of success.
Two of the three ranked league teams – they will help raise the RPI level of the other 12 – each won a game and the third took an unranked team to overtime before losing.
A third believer in past success predicting future results issued its All-American predictions and, of course, the SEC is represented well.
The Wooden Top 30 allows more leeway with bigger numbers of course, but give it credit for allowing others to be added after actual games – at mid-season and at the end.
For now, here is the dreamers’ list, which gives sports information directors something to do.
Seniors Alaina Coates (South Carolina) and Makayla Epps (Kentucky) join juniors Victoria Vivians (Mississippi State), A’ja Wilson (SC) and Diamond DeShields (Tennessee).
Given the league’s over-indulgence in numbers for its all-conference team and the recurring mentions here of the weekly accomplishments, that’s pretty much the all-conference team.
No. 5 Mississippi State
The Bulldogs are still without a loss through nine. A bump up one spot in the national rankings is again a program best. It’s the first time they have been the highest-ranked team in the SEC as well.
Southern Miss is one of those friends and families games, old foes within the calling area and a traditional in state game from before you were famous.
Still, the Golden Eagles were 7-1 and 6-0 at home.
Musta been too cold to fly, as State locked down on defense in a single digit defensive first quarter that led to a 15-point advantage.
One way to analyze the start is to note they lost the other three quarters by a cumulative three in the 72-50 walkover.
There were 2,890 witnesses. It was back to business after a week off to end the semester with exams.
Every available player on the roster scored in the ninth straight win.
Breanna Richardson earned her degree the night before. She scored 19 in her first post-graduate work, 7-of-9 from the field, 5-of-7 from the line, with 10 rebounds for a double/double.
The other frontline starter, Chinwe Okorie, scored 18 with nine rebounds, 8-of-10 from the field, 2-of-4 from the line. Victoria Vivians had a messy 11.
“I really like playing here,” Richardson said. “This my graduation gift to the team. With (Dominque Dillingham) down for a few games, somebody had to step up. I kind of even shocked myself.”
"Breanna is special," coach Vic Schaefer said. “We got in here around 12:30 this morning, after she went through graduation. Then she put up that kind of game. We need more players to step up like that.”
“We did a really job of getting the ball inside and that was exciting,” Okorie said. “It’s something we work on every day in practice. However, we sometimes leave our best plays on the practice floor. We just have to work on being more consistent.”
Dillingham missed her second game. She had started 46 straight.
The university has yet to acknowledge her missing in action is due to minor surgery and recovery now instead of during the league season.
They host their own two-game “Classic” next weekend after a side trip to Arkansas-Little Rock. They have won 37 of 38 non-conference games.
No. 6 South Carolina
The loss to then-unranked Duke dropped them for now.
Minnesota and the Big 10 paid the price, 98-58.
The Gophers won 20 but did not make the NCAA draw last season, another example of a top-heavy lesser league.
It was their third road game of the week and they already had been pounded by Georgia.
“They responded well,” said coach Dawn Staley of her team. “It was a good time to come out and impose our will on both sides of the ball and we learned how to box out.
“That was one of things exposed in the Duke game and our defense was exposed in the Duke game.
“With our team we have a certain look and feel and sound of success and when those things aren’t in order. Right before the basketball game those things weren’t in order and I made some changes.”
Transfer in Kaela Davis and fellow guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore sat for Doniyah Cliney and Tyasha Harris.
Davis had six 3s among her 22 points as the Gamecocks responded with the most 3s – 16 – of the Staley regime.
Four SC players hit double figures. Senior Alaina Coates was 7-of-8 from the field and 2-of-3 from the lines with 11 rebounds.
They kept the nation’s best average attendance with 12,461 and have three unranked teams left to get the 10 wins before conference play.
No. 15 Kentucky
Losing at higher-ranked Louisville moved them up two spots in the poll.
Go figure. The lost at a lower-ranked team so maybe they’ll move up again.
They had two home games, a traditional matchup with Middle Tennessee State, then a visit from No. 17 Arizona State, already the clear conquerors of then-No. 20 visiting Florida.
The Blue Raiders came in 2-3 and also were awaiting unranked Arizona State next as the Sun Devils’ Midwestern swing continues.
Makayla Epps was the league player of the week, but only had one basket in the first half, slowed by foul trouble.
The Kats won the second quarter by seven as sophomore Taylor Murray went 5-of-7 from the field and hit both free throws for 12 points.
Freshman Roper had a season-high seven off the bench.
Akhator was on her way to an eventual double/double with eight points and six rebounds, five defensive. She finished with 13 points and 12 rebounds nine defensive. The 4,625 in attendance approved.
UK remained unbeaten at home, 61-48. Epps came back to score 13. Murray finished with 16. UK won the final three quarters.
“It all started with me talking to my team and my coaches,” said Akhator.
Against Louisville, “ I kind of struggled and got into foul trouble early and it really got me down. After the game, I told the coaches about it and they told me that I cannot control it so I just need to control what I can control, which is me being positive.”
In this one: “I felt good. I felt that I should have given more. Middle Tennessee played tough tonight and I felt that I should have given more.”
Then there was the absence of Epps.
“We normally go through every position just in case something happens and we need other teammates to help. It’s all about getting confidence and just doing the ‘what-if’ game.”
Taylor Murray agrees they were ready for the eventuality of foul trouble.
“Yeah, that is just one thing that we practice each and every day. Coach (Lin) Dunn always says patience on offense and just be poised.
“So if we have another player struggling it is just my job to step up and make sure the team is relaxed and not rushing on offense and that we are going at a good pace and doing what we are supposed to do.
“Yeah, we practice and we all have different positions so if Makayla is out we all know how each person plays. So it is very strenuous but working hard at the same time.”
For Arizona State, the Kats had their annual Pack the House adventure in which they deeply discount 21,000 tickets for the bigger city arena, Rupp.
The tickets are sold online in advance. They will not again play at Rupp in the regular season.
Against the Sun Devils, they drew 13,225 but lost in overtime, 73-71.
If Epps is going to be sold to anyone as a national player of merit, she had better wake up soon.
She was scoreless in the opening half but ended with 14. Akhtor had another incomprehensible offensive night with six points.
Macie Morris scored a career best 29, with 16 in the first half. She and Taylor Murray combined for 26 of the Kats’ 33 first-half points.
But Arizona State won the rebounds, 41-32, including 27 defensive boards.
Kentucky was 11-of-12 from the line but the visitors kept pace with 12-of-15. All the other major statistical categories were also balanced.
The visitors needed a four-point edge in the final quarter to force overtime after winning the third quarter by three. UK launched a 3 at the buzzer.
In the final 39 seconds, two rebounds and a jump shot with six seconds left won the game.
Epps missed the final try.
Morris said the 29 points helped her confidence level, but she’d trade them for a win.
It was not necessarily the plan for she and Murray to carry the first half.
“I just recognized that they weren’t guarding the drive, so Taylor and I just tried to exploit that. We just tried to drive every time and score or get fouled.”
They also have three games against unranked teams to try and get to 10 before the league starts, but the last one is at Duke.
Arizona State becomes the only non-conference team with two wins this season against the league.
And the rest.
Florida’s loss at unranked Arizona State dropped then out of the Top 20.
Florida won the fourth quarter, 23-2 (after an eight points allowed first), and won its seventh big.
Pretenders Tennessee and Texas A&M both lost once in the previous ranking week and again this week so are further back in the pack of unrankeds.
So much for the belief that past production can predict future earnings.
All are contenders for the NCAA tournament, but are more Sweet 16 ghosts than hosts.
Auburn won one and also has seven wins. A&M lost another, but already had seven wins.
Confused Tennessee fell behind by 10 at the first quarter on the road and then lost by five to a ranked team and is 4-4.
Three of their four remaining to end the year are what used to be considered easy wins.