Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Siroky's SEC Extra: Collision in Columbia Goes to the Home Team

By Mike Siroky

The Game of the Conference Season and National Game of the new ratings week, No. 4 Mississippi State at No. 5 South Carolina, just barely went to the home team, 64-61.

It opened with State getting a layup from Chimwe Okorie on four tries and then Victoria Vivians hitting a 3 and a layup. Another jumper and it was 9-2.

The Bulldogs had nine of the first 11 rebounds.

A’ja Wilson had played 15 minutes in the previous game after missing two games with a high ankle sprain. She had seven of the first nine and four rebounds in the quarter.

She rallied the Gamecocks to a two-point deficit but Okorie answered again. Suddenly, Mississippi State missed some shots and SC concentrated on rebounds.

But State had speed working. Dominique Dillingham hit a 3 while Vivians rested and it was 14-7 with 3:37 left.

No one was backing down. Okorie had two fouls. Inside of 1:15, 6-7 Teaira McCowan claimed a mishandled rebound and laid it in to maintain a one-point lead. She was already off the bench to help balance the front line.

State worked for the last shot, missed it and it was 16-15 for State at the first break.

Early in the quarter, Wilson gave SC the lead for a moment but State scored again.

State dribbled well, but couldn’t get it to go. SC turned it over right back.

State had the passing lanes figured out. Brianna Richardson deflected and stole it down deep, drove the length of the floor, scored and was fouled.

 But Wilson snaked between defenders, used her height and tied it at 20. Wilson and Coates had 17 of the home team points.

State worked two plays for four points, But Wilson cut the lead to two. State never had an inside defensive answer.

Dominique Dillingham hit a 3 and the lead was five with five minutes until halftime. SC had eight turnovers and trailed by eight with three and a half minutes left.

But State was limited to one and done on offense. McCowan also had two fouls. Wilson cut it to five.

McCowan was not afraid. laid it in and it was again a seven-point advantage.

With two minutes to go, State worked the weave and Vivians drew a foul. Coates saved a wild pass. Wilson made it three turnovers in a row, running over a guard for her second foul.

 But with 1:26 left, State traveled. SC missed again. McCowan drew Coates into a second foul.

The two bigs were out for SC with less than a minute left. SC charged again and guaranteed they would be behind at the half for the first time this season. McCowan made the mental error of the game with her third foul with a second left.

It was 35-28 at the break, the Gamecocks’ lowest half of the season.

“I’m so proud of my kids,” said State coach Vic Schaefer. “Our offense is aggressive as we asked them to be. But on defense, we’re playing so well.

“If we can hold them to 28 again, we’ll take it.

Coates and Wilson were 9-of-10 from the floor.

The trends they were chasing: the No. 1 vs. No. 2 conference scoring offense (SC 80.8, MSU 79.4), the No. 1 vs. No. 2 scoring defense (MSU 53.5, SC 55.1), the No. 1 vs. No. 2 margin of difference (MSU 25.9, SC 25.6), the No. 1 vs. No. 2 field goal percentage (SC .469, MSU .464).

At the half, SC had 11 turnovers to Mississippi State’s 3.

SC guards Kaela Davis and Alisha Gray are new to this particular battle, having become eligible after transfer seasons.

 Davis made it more than forwards scoring with a 3 to open the second half, obviously, a halftime directive from coach Dawn Staley.

This led to a 17-8 spree and SC ahead by two with 2:30 left in the third.

Vivians and Richardson each had eight. But Wilson had 20 and Gray had 13, with two 3s. As much as State denied Coates, they could not corral Gray.

The home team was ahead by two as the final quarter started, hitting half of its shots, or 10 percent better than the gutty visitors.

It was soon tied at 53. But Vivians had three fouls, as did Dillingham. Okorie and McCowan each had four. Too much time – eight minutes -- was left.

Vivians missed consecutive 3s and a closer shot, then turned it over.  SC missed everything as well. It burned two minutes.

Coates fed Wilson for a basket. Still no inside answer once the bigs had the ball. Morgan William fed McCowan for a layup, then a steal.

But McCowan fouled out, as if SC needed more of a frontcourt advantage. Okorie also fouled out, 10 rebounds but just four points.

You could easily call the game with four minutes left. But no.

Schaefer railed on the sideline. His daughter, Blair, hit a 3 for their last lead at 58-55.

Vivians missed another 3. They didn’t dare go inside.

SC took its time.

 State tried rolling the ball inbounds to conserve clock. Two free throws and it was 60-59. An exuberant dash after a steal rolled off the rim for Vivians.

Wilson got the ball and eventually fed Coates for a layin and 62-59 with 27 seconds left.

State used a time out.

They didn’t go quietly. Each coach was hollering at their own teams.

A 3 rimmed out at 16.5. A foul was called anyway. Vivians made two of three  free throws, 62-61.

State appeared to drop the rebound out of bounds. There was a long film study anyway and State was awarded the ball.

With six seconds left, a Vivians corner 3 bounced out. She was 4-of-15 from the field.

One last play, either way. The game had lived up to the hype.

Bodies hit the floor. Wilson grabbed her seventh defensive rebound, waited to be fouled and hit the last of her 26 points at the other end, 6-of-8 from the line for the 64-61 final She also had three blocks in a game where every defensive stand counted.

It was the lowest point total of SC’s season, 16 below its average. State was 18 below, .17 percentage points off its usual shooting. There were 10 missed 3s and six missed free throws.
Coates and Wilson played 38 minutes.

“We hadn’t been pushed to 40 minutes before, didn’t know if we had it in us,” said Staley. “Now we know.

“I knew Mississippi State was gonna scratch and claw so this was the fight we had. I’m glad it showed up today.

“This is what we had been looking for. If this game wasn’t here, we don’t win it.

As for Gray, “What I told her we were gonna put the ball in her hands. We set up plays for her and she delivered,” Staley said.

“But she chased Vivians everywhere and sometimes you’re going to give up offense for defense.

“We’ve been looking for this team to play 40 minutes and, thanks to Mississippi State we now know we can.”

They drew the women’s record attendance in South Carolina and the best in America this season, 13,120.

“It was a wonderful basketball game,” Schaefer said. “South Carolina made one more play than we did. I am heartbroken for my kids. I couldn’t be prouder of 19 offensive rebounds. South Carolina and Tennessee are the two biggest teams in our league. We really competed from the opening tip.

 “I know how hard our kids work. It came down to one play and we were in a position. We forced three second-half turnovers and that wasn’t enough. Once we got calmed down (in the second half), I was proud of how we responded.”

Usually, this signals the end of the Southeastern Conference race, as the team that wins all its home games wins the league.

Not so fast my friend. Mississippi State could still win all their home games, with Texas A&M on Sunday and even Tennessee to close the season.

SC is at Georgia on Thursday and welcomes in Tennessee on Sunday.

Even if SC should stumble on the road, they have the tiebreaker now. Being undefeated at home for the third straight season means a likely title and a top seed in the NCAA tournament.

The national seeding committee should alter their phony excuse of last season and send them to an SEC site, Kentucky, for their regional, which means they avoid UConn until the Final Four, though UConn will wax them in the regular season in a few weeks.

These two plus Kentucky are the clubhouse leaders for the NCAA right now as favored to host the Sweet 16 qualifiers. Both are projected No. 1 seeds, third place UK a No. 4. Another team is likely to make it four from the SEC.


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