Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Big Game of the Year on Deck
The big dogs of the Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball have separated from the others.
Mississippi State, No. 4 in America, visits South Carolina, No. 5 in America, next Monday.
The leadup saw each win. They are the only undefeateds at home in league play, a prerequisite for winning conference.
Each can go undefeated at home, beatable only by their own selves against all comers. It is now an upset of they lose to anyone else in conference.
If SC wins and hip hops above State, that will change again when UConn whomps SC next month.
This is the “We Back Pat” week in which each team honors the legacy of the late Pat Head Summitt and her foundation’s ongoing work.
No. 4 Mississippi State
The Bulldogs ride along with their highest ever ranking, and program best start, 18-0. They disposed of fast-falling Florida. They have gallant Ole Miss at home and then competitive Alabama before the Collision in Columbia.
Which means they can reasonably expect to be 20-0.
The third straight win over Gators started with a focus on high-scoring Ronni Williams.
“Well I am not sure we can slow her down, limit her touches.
“I really love my point guard right now; Morgan William is special. We find a way to win on tough nights and usually defend pretty well.
“So even on nights when we do not score, we can defend.”
His words were prophetic as they allowed one basket in the final eight minutes of a 24-9 opening quarter. Williams had four points. State ruled the rebounds, 15-5.
Florida scored one basket in the final 2:20 of a 48-22 half. Backup State center Teaira McCowan scored 12 on 6-of-6 from the floor. Victoria Vivians was 6-of-6 from the line and also had 12. William had four assists. It was 69-33 after three.
It ended 82-49.
McCowan missed once from the floor and scored a personal best 25. Viviana had 21. William had six assists. The team had 10 steals.
Freshman Blair Schaefer, refusing to wear a mask to protect her broken nose, took four charges. They had 32 baskets off 27 turnovers. They held Williams to 11 points. They drew 5,575, third-best nationally.
“We give God the glory for 18-0,” Vic Schaefer said. “It is the second time in three seasons to start 18-0. The kids continue to surprise me. I didn’t see that one coming. Our spacing of the floor, our execution and our defense in the first half was outstanding.
“To do it against the schedule they have done it against makes this really special. The kids have continued to go about their business and continued to work hard.”
It was Vivians’ 12th straight game in double figures.
“I’m really proud of how we played,” Schaefer said.
“I liked our focus. You move onto the next one. I think our kids have done a great job just going one at a time. Our kids have done a great job of being the next one up, willing to go to practice and work. Let’s try to improve.”
Of Vivians, he said, “She is learning to enjoy the assist. She has made some really good choices with the ball. When you add the rebounding, the defense and the assist piece to what we knew was a very prolific scoring piece, that’s when you start molding and putting together an all-American basketball player.
“ That’s what I notice right now about her. She’s starting to add the other pieces that make it hard to defend her and add to our team.”
Running mate William said, “Our post players are getting down in the lane and posting up; we've got to get them the ball. It makes it easier on us because we don't have to always create and just throw up something; we can drive, dish to them for an easy bucket and get assists.
“If they get double-teamed, they do a good job of throwing it out to our shooters, like Blair and Victoria to get easy buckets.”
With all the focus on his guards, Schaefer reminds us of the work ethic of his post players.
“You have to remember that there aren’t many high school teams that have 6-5, 6-7 players on their teams. Some of them don’t even have post players than can finish.
“Teaching a guard to add that to their game can take a while. There is an art to feeding the post. Our post players are doing a great job catching some ‘through the needle’ passes.
“ Teaira and Chinwe [Okorie] have earned the trust of our team. The team knows that if they get the ball down low they are going to finish.
“Chinwe is shooting 58 percent right now. Teaira is up to 55 percent. That’s overall; it may be better in conference. There is a playing together and feel factor for one another, knowing where somebody is going to be on the court and knowing where you are upposed to be when we are driving.
“ Again, Teaira is only a sophomore so she is midway through her second year. Chinwe is just in her third year. All that plays into it.
“We typically work on what we call ‘triangle passing.’ We are just teaching those kids both numbers. If our guards can see both numbers, we have a chance to get you the ball. Unlike a lot of teams, we have two that we want to pin as deep as they can get. We get them as deep as we can on ball reversal and have them put it up.”
Vivians again made the 25-player midseason cut for the John R. Wooden National Player of the Year award.
No. 5 South Carolina
The 13-1 Gamecocks did their part, taking Georgia and winning at LSU with Ole Miss this week as the tuneup for the state sister school.
Georgia this year is not Georgia last year, which is to say they really need some upsets to earn another NCAA invitation. They have 10 wins with a dozen regular-season games to go.
They fall in that NCAA wild card category of being evaluated fairly against even champs of weaker conferences.
They are no longer playing with Andy Landers’ players, graduating 65 percent of their scoring.
Recruiting has not lit up. They have eight scholarship players.
LSU has 13 wins, but is still a shadow of an NCAA contender, even a step down from Georgia.
They have to earn an invitation in all likelihood.
In the 66-63 escape win over Georgia, SC was not SC. One starter was missing and the other frontliner was shackled by fouls.
Alaina Coates continued to amass a wonderful final stat sheet.
She has double-doubles in 10 of Carolina’s first 15 games. The center leads the SEC and ranks third nationally in field goal percentage, and her team-leading 10.6 rebounds per contest are good for second among conference players. Coates has naturally led the Gamecocks on the boards 10 times.
Junior A’ja Wilson is right there with her, 16.9 points and 7.6 rebounds with 31 blocked shots.
But Wilson was out for the Georgia game with a sprained ankle. Coates had foul trouble throughout.
Freshman Mikiah Herbert Harrigan got her first start instead.
She averages 18 minutes a game, mostly in the blowouts when the starters get limited playing time so depth can develop.
Gail Goestenkors, broadcasting for the conference network, correctly predicted a defensive struggle as these teams seldom hit 70 against each other. She was correct as Coates was in foul trouble so the Gamecocks were without both leading scorers.
SC closed the first quarter on a 15-0 run while allowing one of those single-digit efforts on defense. Coates had eight points and eight rebounds, well on her way to that double/double.
She rested to start the next quarter with two fouls.
SC never was never overtaken. The network broadcasters were already pimping the next game.
Early in their third quarter, Coates got whistled for her third as part of a double technical and sat down again.
Bianca Cuevas-Moore led the scoring with a career-high 25 off the bench, 17 after halftime, to the delight of the nation’s best crowd, 12,043. She was the new fifth starter in the half.
Georgia won the final quarter by four but not the endgame.
They missed a chance to tie at the line with a miss. There were five seconds left.
Alisha Gray got the rebound, was fouled and drained both. She scored 14, 5-of-6 from the line, on her 20th birthday.
Games like this is exactly why she transferred in from North Carolina.
“We’re a different basketball team without Wilson in the game,” said coach Dawn Staley.
“We got some key experience. Sometimes, freshmen are gonna be freshmen, but they have to get playing time to learn.
“It’s good for us to go through this, good for us to learn from this.
“The bench gave us the offensive boost we needed. A game like this, we can learn and be a better team because of what Georgia did to us.”
Georgia next went and flatlined at Kentucky, proving the concept that the top teams get the best shots of opponents.
South Carolina went to LSU, with Wilson still sidelined.
Coates started by hitting both shots from the field 7and 4-of-5 from the line as they eased into a 27-18 quarter lead on 67 percent shooting. Cuevas-Moore, back as a starter in a four-guard lineup, had nine.
LSU’s Raigyne Moncrief, in her return year after missing a season with a blown knee, also had eight points. She is averaging 15 in the league season.
It was decide by halftime, of course, 49-36.
Coates had 18, 5-of-6 from the field, 8-of-11 from the line, six rebounds.
Cuevas-Moore had 12 and Alisha Gray 10, 3-of-4 from the line (2-of-2 3s), with two assists and two steals. She and fellow-transfers Kaela Davis and Alexis Jennings are the difference in SC maintaining their level of national prominence.
Moncrief was stifled, with no second quarter points. The Ben-Gals were shooting 63 percent from the field and still losing.
By the end of the third, Coates had extended her double/double spree, 18 points and 10 rebounds. Gray had 17 points. Moncrief had one more basket. It was 64-49.
As the game wound down, Coates was 8-of-11 from the line, Gray 5-of-5, Davis 4-of-4 and Cuevas-Moore 3-of-4. Go ahead and hack ’em. They can beat you so many ways.
It ended 84-61. Coates scored 24, with 11 rebounds, Gray 21, Cuevas-Moore 17. Moncrief wilted and only had the one basket in the third and one basket and one free throw in the fourth.
Coates was just comfortable.
“I think the matchups just worked in our favor. They stayed in a zone and we were able to see where the weak spots were, getting into the weak side really helped us out and we practiced that so we pretty much knew to find the person on the weak side and take them out and we should be successful.”
“We were really concerned about the amount of times they turn people over,” Staley said.
“Obviously we have practice players that do a great job simulating their presses, trap us, and press us a little bit more than what they did, but since they did not I think it alleviated the aches we could have had coming into the game.
“For us we knew that we needed to take care of the basketball and make good decisions out there whether they were going to trap us, play man on their matchup, zone I just thought we were well prepared. We just had to make sure that we executed and did not turn the ball over.”
“They are much better (than last year). Anytime you have the services of a Moncrief, you get better on both sides of the ball. She has been in our league for a few years now and she has a pretty good reputation.
“They are much better on both sides of the ball. They know exactly where they want to get their shots. They wreak havoc on the defensive side of the ball, they just play with a lot more cohesion and that comes with just having your team healthy being able to practice and not have to patch together when you have injuries.”
t was a separation game. Instead of both being 4-1 in conference, one is 5-0 and the other 3-2.
The losers attracted only 2,840 fans, or about 8,000 less than SC attracts at home.
Coates and Wilson also made the Wooden cut. Coates leads the voting, though Wilson is a three-time finalist and the defending league Player of the Year.
Other SEC winners
Texas A&M had the walkover week, Arkansas at home and at Florida. With 14 wins, the Aggies are 4-1 in conference, a solid third, but among the final nine in the regular season, they still have two with Mississippi State and South Carolina visits in the next-to-last game of the season.
When they re-establish a national position, the larger audience will come to know the SEC’s leading scorer, Danni Williams (17.8), rebounder Arriel Howard (11.5) and assister Curtyce Knox (9.9).
Kentucky won twice and is in the soft part of the league schedule leading up to opening February against South Carolina.
Mississippi got its program statement win, No. 13, with a 40-30 second half over faltering Tennessee, the first Rebel win after 28 losses in the series. There were only 1,503 witnesses.
Makayla Epps of Kentucky is also on the Wooden midseason list