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 last month before March Madness is all about positioning in the Southeastern Conference of women’s college basketball.
When the final qualifications open with the SEC tournament in Greeneville, S.C. on March 1, it is safe to say the top six in the league are likely invitees.
But will those be the top six finishers? Or the top six seeds? Or the six with 20 wins?
That’s what this month is all about. The finish. And earning a “We’re No. 6!” T-shirt.
Remember, while it may seem evident the top two can be No. 1 seeds, one of them has to lose to the other in the conference tournament finals.
No. 4 South Carolina
The Gamecocks celebrated their elevation in the Associated Press poll by losing composure in the previously reported loss to Tennessee
Sadly, their official fan website gained some national online notoriety by playing the "We Wuz Robbed" attitude. Never mind all the controversial coaching decisions on both sides. Never mind the silly fourth foul by their superstar, a tech for unsportsmanlike, very out of character.
Accept the team loss. Stop crying.
SC is still a top team in the toughest league but the best doesn't always win, as evidenced by their flop in last season's NCAA elimination.
When the 3-point shot was coming to the men's game they asked Bob Knight, a tactician who contested every point, about it and he said the secret to not losing a game to a 3 is don't let the game be that close.
Get ahead by more than two needed 3s and constant fouling down the stretch. A contested call then makes no difference.
The opposing player had to hit all those free throws. Simple.
SC jumped right back in at Kentucky, which had faltered at Missouri, celebrating their own return to the Top 25.
Mizzou had never before beaten Kentucky. They were tied for third in the league. The Gamecocks were 43-44 against ranked opponents all time, three straight wins in this series,
The Kats need five more wins to reach 20 and validate their NCAA parking ticket among those most likely to host NCAA Sweet 16 qualifiers.
They still needed five after this one. SC won their 19th with a passion on the road. They remained the best road draw, 5,593 with all students free.
A five-point lead after one was keyed by A’ja Wilson, nine points, five rebounds and two blocks.
Having established itself, SC rested Wilson to start the second, which put the focus on frontcourt mate Alaina Coates. SEC Player of the Week Alisha Gray was in waiting
That also changed on a steal and driving layup. SC was rotating in guards, playing on the home team’s lack of depth and taking pressure off of Coates
Gray buried a 3 and it was 28-21.
Kentucky was hitting 37 percent from the floor, with six turnovers.
Matthew Mitchell had told his team the message was “Attack. Offensive attack. Defensive attack. Anything we’re doing out there, Wildcat attack.”
That works with stamina. They didn’t have any. SC was on a run. Wilson was back in.
Kayla Davis stole in inlet pass, laid it in immediately and it was 32-21. The Kats needed a time out after Davis hit a jumper.
“Guys, we’re the turning ball over and taking real bad shots and that’s a bad recipe,” Mitchell said in the huddle. UK missed a 3. No points in four and a half minutes.
UK was gassed. So much for the attack fervor. The Kats were down to 30 percent from the floor.
It was already over.
The 19-0 run ended with two Makayla Epps free throws. She had 11.
SC won the half, 42-23, Wilson with 11 and seven rebounds, four defense.
“Pace, we controlled the tempo of the game,” said coach Dawn Staley. “Kentucky’s not defending our perimeter play, so we go to work.”
SC had five 3s, three by Gray.
Winning the third by two points did little to escape the inevitable. Coates and a double/double,10 with 15 rebounds by then, finishing with 20 and 18. Wilson also scored 20.
Kentucky shot 34 percent from the floor at home.
Staley said they never thought about the previous game.
“We turned the page,” she said “It’s not something we want to continue to talk about. It was a game we lost. We’ve got to move on, and I thought our players did a great job at focusing on the task at hand.
“You can’t overlook anybody. You have to give everybody in this league the right amount of attention or else they’ll come up and bite you, especially playing on the road.”
She said Gray does indeed like defense more.
“She’s always one that thrives on whoever she’s assigned to guard. She makes it very difficult because she’s relentless. She makes it hard for them to touch the ball. So I was really happy and pleased with her relentlessness to just make it difficult for Epps to get touches. We know when she touches the ball magical things happen.
“She is one that competes. She plays exactly how she plays in games in practice. There is no let-off, so for us we see it every day. I think for some other people, and maybe you didn’t see as much of it in North Carolina, but we put a big emphasis on it and she’s taken it to heart.”
Wilson said, “I felt like we came out first half with a lot of energy. I feel like we just picked ourselves up, and that’s something we do a really good job of because coach kind of makes us turn the page no matter what. I think we did a pretty good job doing that.”
The Gamecocks immediately turned to winning a third in the ratings week, at Arkansas.
“It’s a tough week for us,” said Staley, “but we knew what was coming. Our players knew what was coming. So when you know something’s coming, you can plan for it. We’ll have one day to prepare for Arkansas, and we’ll do that.”
They got their 20th win, 10-1 in conference. No one plays evening games on Super Bowl Sunday, so the long work week was over before dark.
Coates and Wilson each had 10 at the half, Coates already with a double/double via as many rebounds.
The defense was holding the home team to 30 percent from the floor, signaling this one would allow Staley to do whatever it wanted after intermission, which was focus on the guards and scoring at will.
The good thing is ESPN was televising. The bad thing is ESPN shows it lack of depth by automatically hiring former players as the No. 2 microphone.
The outstanding comments in this one: “Arkansas is not going to give up” when behind 66-34 having scored single digits in the third. That is a weak plea to not change the channel, having absolutely nothing to do with the game.
Find us a team that does admit to giving up; then you’ll have something to say.
And, “They really got after it in the shootaround today.” You mean when the other team was not present?
Such insipid remarks, with no insight whatever, really hurts the occasional fan who turns in to see what the SEC is about. Why comment on the team with two league wins?
It shows a lack of intelligence if your aim is to engage basketball fans. The other ESPN game had Nell Fortner in the second chair, an upgrade by plenty.
It ended in a 79-49 rout. Arkansas did indeed collapse. SC remains unbeaten on the road.
The fans seem to have matched Arkansas’ enthusiasm: 919 showed.
“We knew coming into the game where our strength would be,” said Staley.
“I didn’t challenge her (Coates) but I did see less activity from her, giving us the target she had been giving us posting up. Once you bring it to her attention, she does a really good job of making adjustments.
“Once she makes an adjustment, it is very hard to stop her.”
Next, they have Auburn at home in their only game prepping for destiny in Storrs next Monday.
No. 5 Mississippi State
The Bulldogs won the 22nd out of 23 at Auburn, one of those interesting 15-win teams in some NCAA discussions.
The Tigers are building to a second straight NCAA appearance and were 3-4 against Vic Schaefer.
The Bulldogs have plans of their own, of course, starting with a 26-9 opening quarter, an early defensive stand.
Chimwe Okorie had 16 at halftime. A 25-5 run led to a 30-point win and Auburn put itself nicely in the group of “others.” Victoria Vivians ended with 17, three 3s. Teaira McGowan was once again superlative off the bench, her 15 outscoring the Tiger bench by 13. Auburn was outrebounded by a dozen.
Morgan William, State’s point guard, said Schaefer prepared them for the Auburn press by having six defenders in practice.
“And, once get past halfcourt, we go on the attack,” William said.
“If the 3 isn’t there, we go for the layups. My posts helped me get my six (assists). I don’t remember getting six. You just keep punching and the lead kept going and going.”
Back in StarkVegas, Missouri wandered into town. Vivians got seven in the opening quarter, shaking off that slow start thing.
Dominique Dillingham woke up big time and had 16 at the half, already 10 above average. State was up by 11.
The third quarter extended the State run, a single-digit defensive stand. It was 52-36. Missouri was only that close by hitting 13-of-14 from the line.
Breanna Richardson became the third Bulldog in double figures with 11. She stepped up when Vivians got her fourth foul.
The cliché book for ESPN second chair commentators was in use as we heard “Missouri doesn’t quit!” when down by 15 and “You’ll have to play more than 40 minutes” to hold down the opposing top scorer. In other words, more minutes than there are in the game.
Then they did not notice center Chinwe Okorie did not play at all in the third quarter. Hint: It was the four fouls.
Nonetheless, the visitors’ five-game winning streak was shattered. State remains the only team to have defended the home court and is 23-1. Their seniors – on the floor as the game ended – have won 100 in their careers.
"It's great to be represented by two seniors like (Dillingham and Richardson)," Schaefer said. "And we are not done yet. These players came here and believed in our vision. We had nothing to show them but what we wanted to do."
Dillingham had a career-best 24. They drew 5,792, best in America this day.
“Auburn can wear you down,” Schaefer said, “so I was concerned going into this game. Missouri has an excellent team, so we knew we would have to bring a lot of energy. I like how we started the game. I like our toughness."
Next, they catch up with South Carolina in SEC games played with two this week, protecting the home against Vanderbilt and then the state rematch at Ole Miss. They won the first one by 11.
Auburn next had to go to Texas A&M. The Aggies opened their workweek winning against an impotent Florida team. Amazingly, each hit 17-of-36 and 3-of-9 on 3s in the first half.
Auburn burned ’em by hitting 10-of-16 in the second half, recovering the lead. But they never could compensate for a single-digit first. The Aggies won No. 17, tied for third in the league at 7-3. They drew 5,012.
Tennessee kept its mojo at home again against LSU and former player Nikki Fargas, assisted by former UT player Tasha Butts and journeyman and one-time UT assistant Mickie DeMoss. Even with all the orange, they ain’t Tennessee.
As the third-best conference scoring team, they had a 2-0 week going. They drew 10,209 at home, best in America this night.
Mercedes Russell had 10 and Jamie Nared 16, one point behind the entire BenGals team in a seven-point halftime lead on Wear Pink night. It ended with a single-digit defensive fourth quarter and a 77-58 win.
Unfortunately, there’s more.
They had a third game in the ratings week, at Georgia, where they started with a single-digit first quarter. No one has yet solved that.
They gutted it out to double overtime and lost. The five-game win streak is over. Once again, they played down to the level of their opponents.
Non one, it seems, can win three in a week.
Kentucky, tied for third in conference, wasted Vanderbilt to finally gain a 16th win in their third attempt. Looking to continue the reboot, they will be favored in the next three, at Georgia and Arkansas and then Florida at home. But their daunting two final regular season games are against the co-leaders, so 20 in the season is not likely.
LSU won its 16th and pulled even through 10 league games.