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.
By Mike Siroky
The focus gets sharper and sharper.
The games of the ratings week started an important NCAA metric.
By now you oughta know who you are.
The final five games of the regular season is the time to prove it. The Selection Committee counts the final five games as a precursor for an NCAA run, as a way to break seeding ties and, occasionally, as a way to earn a seed.
As well as the Southeastern Conference has planned major showdowns, the overall final five as a group is more important. There are three ranked teams in the conference.
Tennessee, for instance, blew any chance to achieve 20 wins, or a Sweet 16 hosting chance, by bottoming out at home to a younger team.
If Mississippi State is the only team to defend the home court, then a string of home undefeateds automatically winning the league is done.
That one road loss of State at SC breaks the title tie, though they will be co-champs of the regular season. SC will have been the only undefeated road team.
Purists define the regular season as the real champs.
In deference to money and the NCAA, the conference tournament champ is the recognized champ, as agreed by all conference members.
It says here the top four regular season finishers have a wonderful chance to host Sweet 16 qualifiers.
What the league might also validate is several NCAA entrants without a winning conference season though two of them also lost at home. Texas A&M made a leap towards 20 wins.
No. 4 Mississippi State
The Bulldogs jumped back to their highest ever ranking with two winnable games, Vanderbilt at home and then the state rival rematch with Ole Miss.
They won them both.
They have the fourth-best RPI in America, second-best in the league, one spot behind conference leader South Carolina.
Most importantly, a team ahead of them lost to start the week meaning another record ranking – No. 3 – is within their grasp.
It is almost unfair to watch the varsity of Mississippi State against the decidedly junior varsity of Vanderbilt.
The 23-6 start allowed Vic Schaefer to bring in the three backups early, reserves who would be starters in Nashville.
It is the fewest points allowed in a quarter for State this season and, obviously, the lowest-scoring quarter for Vandy.
The deadly single-digit start for Vandy – no serious team with single digits in a quarter has won a SEC game this season – put away any sense of competition. The Commodores were hitting 14 percent from the field.
State already knew it had its program-record 10th conference win, and a 24-1 start.
The exhibition continued, Victoria Vivians hit back to back 3s and had 17 as the quarter began.
There was a likely sense of urgency as how much longer would they let her play in the runaway.
Hey, look, Vandy scored 10. Vivians had more than twice that already.
It was 42-15 at the half. State did not let up, which is a credit to the work ethic.
It was 62-25 at the end of three. The State bench had 15. The reserves are averaging 19.
Blair Schaefer had six, 2-of-2 on 3s. Roshunda Johnson alone had 17 second-half points.
The seven reserves who scored combined for 39 in an 86-41 wire-to-wire run.
They drew 5,052, third-best in the league.
“Well, I just really love our defensive intensity. Our focus. I am just really happy with our work on that end,” said Vic Schaefer. “We need to continue to be aggressive.
“This was a special night by a special bunch of young ladies. They don't like to practice, but when the lights come on, they really like to play.
“Defensively in the first half, we were great. We held them to 15 points on 18 percent shooting.
When the lights come on, this team has been special this year.
“We give God all the glory for victory No. 24. He has blessed us with a special team.
“The main thing we saw tonight is that we can go two-deep in every position,” Schaefer said.
“We can substitute without losing the continuity. To be a great team, you really have to have that depth. You have to have that many players who can contribute.”
State remains unbeaten at home with the loss at South Carolina the only road loss. The SEC has never had two teams this dominant in any one season. State can secure another program record by winning the final two home games, including the season-ender with Tennessee.
Ole Miss welcomed them in having already lost the first encounter by 11 and having lost only their second home game a few days earlier. They had 15 wins, 13 at home. Those numbers stayed static as State blasted them, 66-44.
The four-point second quarter for Ole Miss renewed there’s that single-digit thing again.
Of course, 21 points you own self is another good trend. It was 41-18 at half and, as usual, it was already over, the largest margin in the series.
“Awfully proud of my basketball team today,” Schaefer said. “I was proud of the energy and effort, especially there in the second quarter. We won the hustle points, which we take great pride in. That was the difference in the game. In the second quarter, we hit our second wind.
“We got every loose ball. We got every denial. We got some fast-break points.”
Sophomore center Teaira McCowan highlighted a dominant afternoon with her second double/double before halftime, finishing with 17 points and 18 rebounds, the season high rebounds for any Bulldog this season. She also had the three State blocked shots.
“This is an emotional game for a lot of people,” Schaefer said. “For this team, at this time, in our program, this was the next one up. I am proud of our business-like approach and our toughness. Really proud of Teaira and of Ketara (Chapel). They came in and gave us some great energy.”
The Bulldogs matched a school record for conference wins in a season, while improving on their school record for road wins with their 11th victory away from home this season. The 25 overall wins are third most in program history.
The Bulldogs will win an SEC tournament bye on Thursday at home against Georgia.
Mississippi only won 10 last season and less than 15 five of the past six. But they drew a respectable 4,634 for the rivalry game.
No. 6 South Carolina.
The Gamecocks had only to blast Auburn before Monday night’s challenge in Storrs, a preview of two national No. 1 seeds, possibly the NCAA title game.
After this one, the Tigers had lost five of six, stuck on 15 wins with the whisper they’d get a gift back to the NCAAs, if the league gets eight bids. That also shows the magnificent difference between the top teams and all the rest.
The usual understanding of a South Carolina game was there from the start: Stop A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates or you’re gonna die.
Auburn didn’t and they did.
Coates had half of the first dozen points, the Gamecocks were hitting 55 percent from the floor and holding the Tigers to 28 percent. Auburn scored in single digits for the quarter and there was that deadly marker of non-survival.
Well into the second quarter, the shooting percentages remained static and there seemed to be no reason for SC to worry.
It was 29-16 at half, Auburn was down to 21 percent from the floor.
It grew to a 20-point lead as Kayla Davis scored 11 when guard play rotated to the fore. Wilson crept towards double figures as well. SC was hitting 64 percent from the floor.
It ended a 19-point blowout.
Wilson had 17 and Coates 16. Auburn hit less than 30 percent from the field and was outrebounded by nine. They drew a world-best for college women, 13,360.
SC has one loss at home and is unbeaten on the road in conference. It is unlikely to lose again in the league.
“We just wanted to see how they came out and played it today,” said coach Dawn Staley
“They actually packed it in. I thought they would play it a little bit more aggressive, and at times they did do that. We just wanted to be patient and reverse the ball a few times and find where we could get ahead of the possession and get easier shots.”
“It was the same offensive game plan we have every game, start inside,” said Wilson.
As for UConn, Wilson said, “We could be pretty excited but we have to take it as another game, because that is what it is.”
No. 24 Tennessee
It makes as much sense as anything in Tennessee’s rollercoaster ride that the Lady Vols hit the national rankings after a loss to a .500 team. Still, they have the 14th best RPI in America, third in the conference, with only UConn having a tougher schedule.
They beat a poor team and naturally crumbled against a good team to fall out of the rankings again.
These 1-1 weeks defines a team with no heart. Let’s stop thinking of Diamond DeShields as All-American. She is barely All-SEC and only that because the league all-conference team has too many members.
So they did get ranked somehow, if only for a week. They carried that compliment back home to welcome Missouri, which had more overall wins but a far weaker non-conference schedule.
The back and forth start satisfied no one. DeShields was shackled early with two fouls. Mercedes Russell scored eight of the 14-11 lead at the first stop.
Without DeShields’ decisiveness, especially on defense, Missouri stayed in it.
Coach Holly Warlick encouraged the Lady Vols to spread the defense and drive on in. They never did.
Missouri went on an 8-0 run. DeShields is fully a third of the offense. Someone else needed to step up and no one seemed willing.
Russell couldn’t beg an inlet pass. They had to put DeShields back in and did.
Tennessee considered a zone defense. Warlick had to call time out down by six.
Uh oh, Missouri was cursed by the TV commentator saying they never give up. Cliché city.
Please, just once, someone point out a team that does give up.
Mizzou maintained its lead to halftime.
Cierra Porter had surpassed her season average with 15 for the visitors and UT had no answer yet.
At the start of the third, the scoring by committee effort had UT down just one. Then Deshields was left unguarded on back-to-back 3s and they were on top to stay.
Each side hit 45 percent from the field at that point.
UT owned the fourth, extending the lead to a dozen.
“Here’s the deal, we need stops,” Warlick said. “You gotta hunker down. All they are doing is putting their heads down.”
UT hit 14-of-21 from the floor, 60 percent from 3 range and 10-of-12 from the line. They did not falter at all. They are 11-2 at home.
DeShields had 22. They won the half by 16.
Jamie Nared, the league Player of the Week, awoke for 18 and three of the four starters had double figures. Porter got four points in the half.
“Just being here, this is a winning program, I am just doing what I can to get us back where we belong,” said DeShields.
“We’ve seen glimpses of it, of being among the best if not the best in the country; it’s all mental.”
They drew a surprisingly low 8,084. That is second-best in America, but some 2,000 below the average a couple of seasons ago.
Russell only got one shot in the second half, which shows the Lady Vols still need to distribute better.
“We needed DeShields to be in there,” said Warlick. “She has to be smart enough to not get into foul trouble. But we play better on offense and defense when she is in there.
“I think she got open shots. It separated us.
“Once we settled down we didn’t help them. We even threw a little 32 zone in there. We ended up doing really well. It worked.”
DeShields said, “The first two fouls coulda been avoided so the third was up to me. I thank my coaches for trusting me and putting me back in there.”
Missouri missed 10-of-11 to start the fourth.
“We knew we had to make it tougher for them to score,” said Nared.
So here came Texas A&M, with one more conference win than Tennessee but not ranked. Maybe they will be now that they knocked off a lowly ranked team on the road, capturing a 19th win, a strong third in conference and likely Sweet 16 host.
A&M started its final five on Sunday after disabling Alabama to start its work week. They drew 4,042. They threw the deadly single-point defensive effort on the Tide in the second quarter.
They were 18-3 overall.
A pair of guards, sophomore Danni Williams (37.2) and senior Curtyce Knox (36.6) are 1-2 in the conference in average minutes per game. Williams is one of four in double figures (17.9); Knox is third (10.8) with 228 assists.
Tennessee had been the second-highest scoring team in the league, ahead of South Carolina, A&M and Kentucky. A&M was on a three-game win streak.
Gary Blair outcoached Warlick and his team lost the first three quarters only to win the fourth, 14-5, in a two-point win. Yes the single-digit quarter curse lives.
Khaalia Hillsman converted an offensive rebound for the go-ahead basket with four seconds left. Those were her 10th points with 16 rebounds.
Williams scored 18 and they only needed to go six deep. Three players went 40 minutes, Knox, Williams and Hillsman.
DeShields was 4-of-12 from the field and scored eight with no foul trouble in 32 minutes.
Russell scored 17 but obviously had little support.
It was Blair’s first ever win in Knoxville. He’s coached 204 SEC games.
He claimed a lucky 1945 half-dollar which he “rubbed hard” the second half provided the luck.
He was born that year.
He had saved some fouls to give for the endgame and used them.
“Give my team credit because we had some fouls to give,” he said. “But Danni hit some big shots down the stretch and Curtyce Knox, oh my goodness, 10 assists and no turnovers.”
As gracious as always, he praised Tennessee as a “very, very, good basketball team.” In coachspeak, that infers if they are good, then what does it say about your own team for having won at their home.
“Sure DeShields did not have a very good night, but she was guarding Danni, too,” he observed.
“But give my kids credit (assistant coach Bob) Starkey’s defense stiffened up in the second half.
“We played a little bit of bend don’t break.
“It was huge. It is the first time we’ve seen man in three straight ballgames. Nothing but zone.
“Now it is all about LSU (the next road game). I want to finish in the top four in our league.
“I want to reward our fans with an NCAA game at home. Our fans have no excuse for not being at the Mississippi State game next Sunday.”
There is a coach who does not interrupt the league season for anything.
This season, UT has the marquee win at South Carolina and the other big win against Notre Dame.
But they also lost to Auburn and ND does nothing positive for the conference mindset, as we have written for years.
That is why, even with the big wins, UT has the same number of wins as last season and are but one conference spot better, not exactly a great stride.
They are 2-2 in the most recent games. The next three should be winnable, but who can really say with this group.
They had finished the third quarter on an 8-0 run.
They scored four to open the fourth, DeShields then Russell, for a 12-point edge. Which means they scored one more point after that.
Warlick cannot understand it, which is not a good thing if you are the leader.
“We gave up offensive rebounds, and we jumpshot the basketball and didn’t rebound as well,” she said. “You’re up six with three minutes to go then we gave up. Texas A&M battled and just had a little bit more of a will than we did down the stretch.
“This was a must-win for us, and this was a great opportunity for us. We let it slip away.
“Down the stretch, they got the loose balls. On the last shot at the end, we gave up two offensive rebounds. I do know that we quick-shot the basketball the fourth quarter. We should have gone inside. We should have penetrated. Diamond got 12 looks at it.
“I think it is more frustrating to me to give up second- and third-chance points. I just don’t think we were disciplined down the stretch. We shot the ball quick early in the clock.
“Down the stretch, it was grit. It’s rebounding. It’s not about the talent; it's just grit. You got to box out and get loose balls.
“Again, I’m not going to concede to and we’re just tired. You got to suck it up and go get the ball and be as physical. Basketball is a game of runs, and you can control any run that happens.”
The 10,032 in attendance must have wondered as well. They drew that many to see a home flop.
Vivians, Makayla Epps of Kentucky, Coates and Wilson are among the 20 finalists for the John Wooden Award, emblematic of the best player in women’s hoops. There is no favorite.
Knox, Gray, Morgan William of Mississippi State and Epps are among finalists for the national Dawn Staley Guard Award, administered in Staley’s hometown of Philadelphia. The winner should be Kelsey Plum of last season’s Washington Final Four team.
After the loss to A&M, Alabama had muffed a fourth straight try at 16. Even with a WNIT opportunity, they won 15 last season. The program hasn’t been there in this century, three coaches ago. So, at home against a team that was 3-4 in conference, Florida, they naturally blew another chance and, with it, a chance at the NCAAs.
Auburn also lost at home, also stuck on 15 wins. They only way they get into the NCAAs is as an absolute gift recipient and UT might just claim that golden ticket.
Kentucky improved to 5-5 on the road at Georgia and Arkansas and, more importantly, right now the fourth-place team in conference, even if they are three back with four to go. They drew 3,234.
They have 17 overall wins. They will have to beat one of the top two in the final games of the season to hit 20, however.
LSU also won its 17h and climbed above .500 in the league at Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, assuring a return to the NCAAs.
Missouri rebounded after Tennessee to win its 17th, 7-5 in conference, at home against just-awful Arkansas, 2-10 in conference.