By Mike Siroky
It was a relatively quiet week for the top three teams in the Southeastern Conference, the best conference in America.
Even though a team ahead of the league leader lost, their tumble was not enough to elevate anyone.
Mississippi State is the first to 10 wins; amazingly six in a row were road tests as the Bulldogs show America how to build resiliency.
A major defection hit Florida when leading scorer Elleana Christinaki walked away after a tiff with coach Amanda Butler who publicly dissed her former player in a sadly cutting comment.
Christinaki is undoubtedly an all-conference level talent. She will add two and a half heavyweight seasons wherever she lands, just the latest young league starter to walk away from a faltering program with a middling coach.
Her bio and statistical trail was removed from the team site by Butler immediately.
No. 5 Mississippi State
The Bulldogs are not only the highest-ranked team in the SEC for a program best two straight weeks, but were the first to 10 wins among the real teams.
Still missing starter Dominique Dillingham, recovering from minor surgery after making 46 straight starts, the Bulldogs won three for 12 straight, six straight on the road.
First they went to Arkansas-Little Rock.
The Trojans had won four straight after losing four straight. They were the 38th of 39 non-conference losers to State.
But it started stale.
Neither side shot well. Only Victoria Vivians, as usual, was unafraid to launch. Still, she had but four points as halftime neared.
Unfairly or not, she gets the focus when the casual observer looks to find one reason State is in the upper half of the upper half of all teams in America. She also gets the defensive focus.
Each side scored 11 in the opening quarter and threatened to not even match that in the second.
Morgan William stepped up inside of three minutes to go before the break.
She hit two free throws and a jumper, four points for the team lead. Seriously.
With 41 seconds to go, Chimwe Okorie gave State a lead for 20 seconds.
Breanna Richardson needed five points to break into the Top 25 all-time scoring Bulldogs. She also had four in the half and finished there.
She made it without fanfare in the next game.
Little Rock is the home of State freshman Roshunda Johnson. She got the start as the third guard in Dillingham’s absence and responding with zeroes across the stat line, against nearly a 10-point average. She finished there, too.
Still, State took a defensive rebound and Okorie laid it in in the other end for a one-point halftime lead.
Yes she also had – woo hoo! – four points.
Coach Vic Schaefer had plenty to talk about in the locker room.
He obviously said wait until the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs won then.
Defense allowed less than 51 for the sixth time. They caused 10 turnovers in the fourth quarter.
Vivians scored 10 in the final quarter to finish with 17.
The key sequence came from 6-7 center Teaira McCowan off the bench.
The lead had been extended by one in the third. With 7:44 left in the game, McCowan’s layup made it six.
She grabbed a rebound and hit a free throw. She had five rebounds in her 14 minutes. State had seized the game momentum never to lose it.
It ended 58-44, looking better than it was.
Schaefer had his 100th win at the school, the fastest ever there.
“Give credit to Arkansas-Little Rock,” he said. “They did some things that we weren’t accustomed to doing. I didn’t think our defensive intensity was great in the first half, but we also only scored 25 points.
“That wasn’t good either.
“In the second half, we played much better defensively. We had more intensity and more focus and that helped us get some things going offensively.”
In support of Vivians, freshman Blair Schaefer – the coach’s daughter – had her best offensive effort with 12.
She is no fluke.
She hit all three 3s she attempted and was 3-of-4 from the line.
They drew 1,534.
They were off to the Southern Cal tournament. They opened with Southern Methodist, in a near-midnight start as part of a double-header.
This is a game in which coach Schaefer re-established why his team loves to play.
“This game is meant to be fun,” he said after the Bulldogs had plenty of that in the 91-42 runaway.
“These kids work really hard," he said. “College is supposed to be the four best years of your life. We work so hard in practice. When you see it come together on the court like that, it is very rewarding as a coach.”
By halftime, Vivians had a dozen and Blair Schaefer 10, each with two 3s.
More significantly, the defense posted a single-digit second quarter and held SMU to 22 percent from the field.
Schaefer finished with 18 points in 19 minutes. The defense stayed locked in, allowing 29 percent from the field.
At the end it was the largest margin of victory so far.
SMU had given Texas A&M one of its two losses
“I was pleased with how we came out,” coach Schaefer said. “We were lethargic to start the game (the win over Arkansas-Little Rock).
“It’s a rough time of year because you have kids coming off finals. We worked out here early in the day. That was good as we have played all year.
“We shot the ball very well from the perimeter. When we shoot it like that, we are hard to guard. Our point guard play was really good. I am also proud of how well our bench played.
“We had 18 points off the bench in the first half. Defensively, we were very good.”
They won the tournament title, 76-72
But not without a fight as one-loss
Southern Cal took a one-point lead at the first quarter break.
From 20-20, Southern Cal went on an 8-2 run. Vivians had eight on her way to another double-figure game.
The home team won its second quarter and led at halftime.
But the Bulldogs won the second half by eight, the final quarter by three.
Vivians had 19, including three 3s and 4-of-6 from the line. Richardson was 6-of-9 from the field, 5-of-6 from the for 18 with nine rebounds. William had 18, 5-of-6 from the line.
All-tournament selection Vivians joined tournament MVP William.
The Bulldogs had 24 defensive rebounds and 23-of-29 from the line.
They had 25 free throw attempts in the second half.
“I would like to give credit to USC,” coach Schaefer said. “I am not sure how we won the game. It was one heck of a basketball game between two teams competing their hearts out.
“We talked about being more aggressive in the second half," he said. "We had 17 offensive rebounds and that led to 12 second-half points.
“I am really proud of Jazzmun (Holmes). She was spectacular today. She started it and Morgan finished it off.
"I am really proud to be 12-0. It will be great to be playing at home again. We haven't been there in a month."
They celebrate the start with two home cupcakes before the SEC starts. They should be 16-0 then.
No. 6 South Carolina
It was another runaway, 83-61, against in-state traditional rival Clemson of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the seventh straight in the series.
The two forwards, senior Alaina Coates and junior A’ja Wilson each hit a double/double. Coates had 19 points and 10 rebounds. Wilson had 20 and
10. Junior guard Kaela Davis scored 17.
Coates is the second all-time rebounder in program history at 1,027.
Carolina had a 49-30 rebound advantage, 30 defensive. The offensive rebounds led to 21 second-chance points underneath. They also had 11 blocks from five players.
Coach Dawn Staley said, despite a three-guard regular rotation, the down low is a priority
“That’s our game plan,” she said.
“That’s what has been our bread and butter for the past few seasons.
“It’s not the only way, and we do have to take some outside shots to open up that zone.
“I haven’t handcuffed any of our perimeter players. I think our post players do a great job at looking at their partner down there. That’s something that we’ve drilled over and over again. That’s what we’ll continue to do.”
They drew the nation's best 11,916.
Then, as Staley dodges no opportunity, they welcomed in Pac 12 leader No. 9 UCLA. It was the Bruins’ only pre-conference game against a ranked team.
South Carolina had its first single digit quarter in the Dawn Staley era, six points in the first quarter.
Fortunately, they only allowed 11 and had scrambled back to a 26-all halftime, another record low.
UCLA shot but 25 percent for the half, SC 28 percent. Three SC players had five points each.
The second half started just as badly.
SC hit one of its first three shots.
But the defense solidified. From a 28-27 deficit they went on a 14-1 run and settled for an 11-point lead heading into the third quarter.
Kaela Davis was 0-7 from the field so she turned to rebounds, steals and assists in the run.
When there is a lead to be protected they do it. The home team took over rebounds with the three-guard lineup.
Coates had exploded with 14 points in the quarter, was 5-of-9 from the field and 7-of-8 from the line, already in a double/double with 13 rebounds, eight defensive. She finished with 20 and 14.
SC looked like that team we project into the Final Four, keeping a one-loss, Top 9 team at bay, eventually 66-57 It was the Bruins’ lowest score by 15.
The Gamecocks have beaten a third of the remaining Top 10 teams.
Obviously, they still have Mississippi State to go. All comers welcome to Staleyland.
Wilson joined Coates with a double/double, 13 points and rebounds on 33 percent shooting from the field.
Alisha Grey hit for 11. Bianca Cuevas-Moore, still auditioning for the last starter spot, scored 10.
“I saw how the first half went,” said Staley. “I thought the second half would be when we could impose our will a little bit more. We were where we wanted to be.
Of Coates, Staley said, “She’s a beast. She is playing inspired basketball and wants to win. She’s our aggressor, the one we look to.
“We look for our players to compete the way she competes every time she is on the floor.”
As for Cuevas-Moore, Staley said, “She needs to do more. She is just looking to score and looking for her shots but people are playing her for those shots, not for her kicking it out. They are good shots, but she can do more.
“When she gets more people involved, more balanced, she’ll be better.”
As for playing the challenging schedule, she said it’s already about the post-season.
“The SEC, now that’s a little bit different, more rugged,” she said. “So playing those different schools and getting adjusted to those styles gets us ready for the NCAAs.”
They continued with the world’s best home college attendance 13,367 this time.
Carolina will win its 10th at Savannah in the last road game of the year.
No. 19 Kentucky.
Kentucky almost fell out after being upset at home in overtime by unranked Arizona State. Three losses is the most for any ranked team.
But then came the gift of Radford.
The Highlanders do not play ranked teams if they can avoid them. They have one senior and two juniors on an obviously young team which won 18 last season in the Big South.
They scored single digits in each of the first three quarters – a school defensive record -- and UK, not quite cruising, had an 18-point lead, settling for a 59-36 win.
Evelyn Akhator hit five of her first six shots and led scoring with 13 points. Epps had 13 as well. The 4,547 in attendance approved.
“So this week we worked on rebounding,”Akhator said. “I knew last week that I could have done better with my rebounding, so we worked on that.
“One thing is that we really love each other, so we have to be there for our team. When somebody is down we just have to pick them back up. That really helps us to come together as a team.
“We see someone falling on the floor we gather together to pick that person up. When we see someone diving on the floor we all get hyped and want to do better.”
Sophomore center Alyssa Rice said, “The guards did a great job this game with getting the ball inside. That was something that we have been working on.
“Just using it to our advantage because it’s a high- percentage shot inside and it opens up our guards outside. The guards did a great job today.
“Just having the support of my teammates and coaches of pushing me and telling me just to keep at it. I have been building that confidence each and every game, because last year I didn’t have the non-conference season to build that confidence.
“Having this season and being able to work through each game has helped me with coming along as well as the support from my coaches and teammates.
“I think Paige (Poffenberger) did a great job. We rely on our bench a lot even when it comes to their energy. We feed off that.
“When things can be down, like our shots not falling, that energy just coming from the bench really helps our team and it keeps us going.
“We definitely need that to continue on through the season.”
Freshman guard Jaida Roper had her first start. Taylor Murray is rehabbing an injured hand and did not play. She had started all the previous games and is third-best scorer.
“It was a good time for me to set up, get some more minutes and play hard,” she said.
“Just trying to do what Taylor does. She really helped me with motivational talks. She is a really big help.
“I had multiple talks with the coaches,” Roper said “You know, they told me to go out there and work hard and if I got tired just to let them know. They said they would get me out then get me back in.
“In my head, it was just to do my job: Go out there and play hard, play hard defense and try not to turn the ball over. I had a lot of help from talk and the other guards.”
Former Kat Linnae Harper made her debut at No. 12 Ohio State, a transfer there now eligible after the close of the Buckeyes’ fall academic semester. She scored 15 with two 3s and five rebounds in 17 minutes.
Among the rest of the legitimate NCAA contenders:
Auburn won once on the road and once at home before losing to a ranked team at home and are 8-3. Texas A&M won a road game and are 8-2.
Tennessee won once on the road and then finally beat a Top 10 team at home.
They are 6-4.
Ever reminded of the burden of legacy, they set yet another NCAA record with 1,301 program wins. But – yikes ! – attendance is falling, down to a season-low 7,321, 1,500 less than last season’s low.
Notables: Alabama is 9-1 after rallying from a 20-7 first quarter against an ACC team . . . rebuilt Vanderbilt, with real coaches, also are 10-1.