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.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Guru's NCAA: Oregon Stuns Maryland While UConn Stops UCLA

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

BRIDGEPORT, Conn.  – Cancel the expected drama many were looking forward to happening here Monday at the NCAA women’s basketball tournament Bridgeport Regional at Webster Bank Arena.

A major threat to the University of Connecticut’s run to a fifth straight NCAA title and ongoing record win streak has been replaced by an unknown threat.

The overall top-seeded Huskies, as expected, got to the Elite Eight round and gateway to next weekend’s Women’s Final Four at the American Airlines Arena in Dallas by beating fourth-seeded UCLA 86-71 in the second game of Saturday afternoon’s doubleheader.

But third-seeded Maryland, a position handed by the NCAA committee at the outset in the 64-team draw that was considered low by many observers, became the latest to be stunned by the happy-go-lucky 10th-seeded Oregon squad, 77-63, as the youthful Ducks (23-13) advance from their first-ever NCAA Sweet 16 appearance to making their debut as a regional finalist.

“I continue to be amazed by this team,” said third-year coach Kelly Graves, who previously built Gonzaga into a national force and also led the Zags as a double digit seed into an Elite Eight stage of the tournament.

“You know, just the fact that over the last five days we went cross-country twice, had final exams, played a great team – three great teams in this tournament,” Graves continued.

“And you know, they continue to show poise down the stretch, and I’ll tell you it’s just impressive to watch. We continue to get better and better as a basketball team. We’re excited to move on.”

Oregon got started with escaping seventh-seeded Temple 71-70, stopping the Owls on the last play, a week ago at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., and then in what was essentially a true road game took down the second-seeded Blue Devils 74-65.

“I’ll tell you this, Oregon is for real,” said Maryland coach Brenda Frese, after her Terrapins (32-3) got short circuited from getting a second shot at the UConn squad they barely lost to at home 87-81 in late December. “I thought they were sensational. I thought they punched first. I thought they were fearless, aggressive, confident, really pushed us in terms of any mistakes, any breakdowns that we would have.”

In a matchup of two of the nation’s top freshmen, both guards, Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu easily came out ahead of Maryland’s Destiny Slocum, scoring a game-high 21 points, shooting 7-for-13 from the field, including 3-for-5 on three-point attempts, a perfect 4-for-4 on the line, while grabbing six rebounds and dealing seven assists.

Slocum scored nine points, shot 3-for-8 from the field, including 0-for-1 on the long-range blanks attack that had the entire Maryland squad going 0-for-6 from beyond the arc.

“We’re blessed to be in this position,” said Ionescu, one of three freshmen starters for the Ducks along with Ruthy Hebard and 6-foot-5 Mallory McGwire. “And I think we’re excited about everything. No one’s been here. None of our kids have ever experienced anything like that.

“So I think we’re just excited to be able to play another day and see where that takes us.”

One person not surprised at Oregon’s run is the coach of the Ducks’ Monday night opponent, Hall of Fame Connecticut mentor Geno Auriemma.

“I’m not even the least bit surprised at what they’re doing,” he said following the Huskies’ win over the Bruins. “Not even a little bit.

“I remember when Kelly got the job. I told everybody in the coaching profession, I said, `They’re going to be in the Final Four sooner than anybody thinks.

“As I said earlier today, it better not be this soon. But they’re going to be there because he’s a hell of a coach. You can recruit pretty good players to Oregon. He’s done that.

“They are a really, really good team. If you got really good guards, you can have a really good team. They’ve got some pretty good guards.”

Behind Ionescu’s performance, Hebard scored 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds with three steals. Maite Cazorla had 15 points, shooting 5-for-9 from the field; Lexi Bando had 10 points and Oti Gildon, off the bench when McGwire had her fourth foul, had 11 points.

“It felt great,” said Gidon, who also had nine rebounds and four steals. “Coming off the bench, I had to make sure I did whatever I needed to do for the team, which was defense and rebounding, so I just had to make sure I kept doing that.”

Maryland’s two all-Americans, Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker Kimbrough, each scored 16 points, but Walker-Kimbrough’s came late for the most part, while Brianna Fraser, a sophomore, had 10 off the bench.

The game was close early when most of the 14 lead chances occurred, as well as one tie.

Hebard’s layup with 7:34 left in the first half, grabbed the lead back from the Big 10 champions, and Oregon held it for the rest of the game with Ionescu’s trey with 30 seconds left in the half making it a 36-27 nine-point advantage.

A Slocum layup with 5:26 left in the third got the Terrapins within three at 40-37 but Oregon answered with a 7-0 run for a 10-point lead that grew to 14 just before the end of the period before Maryland got two back.

Oregon rebuilt the 14-point advantage with 5:06 left in the game at 69-55 but Maryland fought back to within six with 3:19 left in the game at 69-63 but it would be the last points the Terrapins scored on the season.

“I thought we pressed early,” Frese said of Maryland’s offensive struggle. “They took the air out of the ball, which was really a smart move by them. We’ve seen that in the past but we didn’t handle it well at all.

“Then it felt like every time we would get it to within six points, we would have some sort of breakdown, whether it was off an O board, whether it was a defensive stop, then they would break it back open.”

 Ionescu quickly countered with a jumper, sending Oregon on the way to closing with an 8-0 flurry.

“You know, like I just told the team in the locker room, I’m not going to let one game define the season we had this year, and I’m pretty proud of this team and everything we’ve been through,” Frese said.

“Most proud of our seniors. You know, 125 career wins, they leave with six conference titles, two Final Fours, and everything they mean to Maryland for us.”

The Terrapins total was their lowest of the season.

“I just think it was one of those days,” Slocum said. “We were clicking on offense, things were just – we kind of lost our game, and I think even though it was a low scoring game, we were trying our best, doing anything we could. I don’t think there’s really an answer for it.”

But Walker-Kimbrough noted, “Their defense was pretty good, making my shot difficult. I credit the defense, their defense.”

Oregon is in the tournament for the first time since 2005, a 12-year gap.

“I thought Oregon likened to our 2006 championship team,” Frese said. “They’re confident and really disciplined and make you pay for your mistakes.”

Oregon has the tallest lineup in the country and one that held Maryland to 27 points under the Terrapins’ scoring average, highest in the country.

Bruins Felled as UConn Returns to the Elite Eight

With 4:28 left in the first quarter of the nightcap the score was tied 11-9 as UCLA was threatening to make it a Pac-12 sweep to add to the semi-monopolization the conference held with five teams in the Sweet 16 heading into the weekend.

Then UConn did what UConn does going on a lengthy 13-2 run the rest of the period for a 22-13 advantage.

The Huskies then kept it going into the next period for combined 28-7 explosion after Katie Lou Samuelson’s layup and the differential would reach 20 in the final minute before Paulina Hersler’s triplet reduced it slightly to 17 as the break arrived with UConn in front 48-31.

The Bruins (25-9) then stabilized it which was good but didn’t do much to reduce the deficit with UConn up by 20 at 60-40 with 4:29 left in the third period.

That was enough in the Huskies scoring account to withstand a UCLA ensuing rally that cut the lead to 12 points before it settled at 13 at 65-52 with 10 minutes left in the game.

The Huskies got it back up to 20 at 76-56 with 6:15 left in the game before one more Bruins rally cut it to 12 with 2:01 left.

But that would be the high water mark of a UCLA late-game insurgency as UConn (35-0) closed it out 6-3 the rest of the way for a final tally of 86-71 and it was on to the Elite Eight for the 12th straight time.

That led to the current immediate postgame notes update activity as the UConn records continued to roll.

Among them, the overall extending unbeaten streak dating back to 2014 now stands at 110 straight while the triumph in NCAA competition became 112, tying Auriemma with the late Tennessee Hall of Famer Pat Summitt.

It’s the second straight year that UCLA’s season ended here but the first that UConn was the final opponent with Texas having won the previous closeout.

“Well, you know, credit to UConn,” said Bruins coach Cori Close afterwards. “They are so consistent in their standard of excellence.

“I thought we were prepared. I thought we believed in what we were doing. We just had that segment in the first half for about eight minutes where we sort of lost our focus and our discipline,” she continued.

“When you lose that, they capitalize. So credit to them. They’ve set the bar of excellence and they’ve kept it there for a really long time. It’s just a really big commitment to all the little details, a lot of the little inches.”

Four Huskies scored in double figures with Napheesa Collier having the super night with 27 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, and three blocked shots. Gabby Williams added 17 points and nine rebounds while off the bench senior Saniya Chong, many times the unheralded Husky, had 16 points, while Katie Lou Samuelson scored 15. Kia Nurse had nine points while shooting 3-of-4 on three-pointers, a category of which Chong shot 4-of-6.

Junior Jordin Canada had 20 points and 11 assists for UCLA, while Monique Billings scored 17, and senior Kari Korver, a cousin of NBA player and former 76er Kyle Korver, scored 15 in her final game of her collegiate career.

Korver was Close’s first key recruiting signee after the former Florida State assistant’s hire in 2011 that eventually with UCLA’s first ranking under Close made her one of what is now 35 women to play and coach on a team ranked in the Associated Press women’s poll.

Close captained the 1992 UC Santa Barbara squad that made the final poll for its first appearance and last until several years later but nonetheless qualifies Close for the special mention.

With Korver’s last game, the marking brought a bit of Auld Lang Syne emotion to Close’s postgame remarks.

“..I don’t want it to end,” Close said. “I just love these young women. These guys, I mean, (nodding toward Korver), this little kid from L.A. said, ‘Hey, I want to stay home. I want to build a program, take a risk, do something special.’ We fell short, but that’s exactly what she’s done.

“Kari Korver, she was one of my first phone calls within my first week when I got the job. She believed in our mission, not just on the court. We do things a little differently at UCLA. She believed in it before it bore fruit on the court.”

Asked what caused things to change from UCLA holding UConn under control in the opening minutes until things suddenly got out of hand, Korver said, “I think we didn’t rebound particularly well. We had a 10-minute stretch where we didn’t get any rebounds. They had a bunch of transition threes where we weren’t getting matched up very well.

“They had second-hand points. They hit threes in transition.”

Canada agreed with her teammate, adding, “We also had some mental lapses in the second quarter. That’s when they went on their run.

“For a second, we kind of looked defeated. That’s when they capitalized on their opportunities to score in transition and get offensive rebounds. I think it was just our lack of focus.”

Chong’s performance became the attention-getter afterwards in postgame questions to both Close and Auriemma.

“That didn’t surprise me,” Close said. “You can’t do a good job on just one or two players with Connecticut. You have to do a phenomenal A-plus job on the team. I’ve watched her a lot on film. She did a great job all year long for them.

"Didn't surprise me at all. It's never about the individual. It’s always about the team. I think she was just ready when her number was called and her opportunity came.”

Auriemma also praised his older player.

“Today, the effort and play of Saniya, I thought it was the difference in the game,” he said. “You know what you’re going to get from those other guys. They did what they always do, for the most part.

“Saniya made some big plays, some big shots. She’s as good now as she can be. It’s at the perfect time in her career. I mean, she’s a senior. Sometimes it never happens. I’m really thrilled for her that it’s happening. She deserves it. She’s hung in there,” he said.

“This year, it’s all kind of fallen into place for her,” Auriemma said after noting how much Ching struggled her first three seasons. “She deserves it. She’s worked very hard. She deserves it.”

AS for how the game went, Auriemma said, “…today it was a struggle for us. Even when we got up 20, I didn’t think it was like being up 20 against someone else, where you know it’s going to go from 20 to 30. I never had that feeling.

“It was a grind for our guys. We felt it a bit in the fourth quarter.”

As for the youthful next opponent on Monday night that is the last hurdle on going back to the Final Four again, Auriemma said, “They were too young to know any better. They didn’t realize they’re suppose to be, like nervous. They don’t realize this is suppose to be really hard, you know.

“You’re not supposed to just walk into the NCAA tournament and just start beating teams with three freshmen in the starting lineup, and a freshman point guard.”

As to how Maryland went down, making the youthfulness attitude from Oregon becoming the unknown factor, as opposed to what was expecting to be a strong challenge from the Terrapins, Auriemma said, “Sometimes the pressure that teams put on you by scoring, and I think that’s what they did to Maryland today, they would come down and get a bucket, and Maryland would miss, then they would come down and run 28 seconds off the shot clock, get another bucket, and Maryland would come down and miss. After a while the pressure to have to score gets to the kids.

“I don’t know if we can defend (Oregon) on Monday. I really don’t. We’ll come up with something. But this time of year, I want to try to get to 90 and take my chances. I don’t wwant to try to win games 65-60. That’s probably not going to work.”

Meanwhile, in the Stockton Regional, with top-seeded South Carolina putting down the Cinderella uprising of Quinnipiac 100-58, and third-seeded Florida State upsetting second-seeded Oregon State 66-53, the complete Elite Eight are set.

On Sunday, two of the Final Four will be determined with top-seeded and injured Notre Dame meeting second-seeded Stanford in the Lexington Regional at Noon before top-seeded Baylor meets second-seeded Mississippi State at 7:36 p.m.in the Oklahoma City Regional.

Monday night, as mentioned, Connecticut will meet Oregon here at 7:06 p.m. Before South Carolina and Florida State meet at 9:06 p.m. In the Stockton Regional in California.



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