Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Go Forth in NCAA Openers and Win
The top three of the Southeastern Conference led the first night of the elimination season at home. All now are one game away from the Sweet 16s. One more league team lost.
Three of the winners were home teams, a decided advantage in qualifying for the Sweet 16.
The fourth was also ranked.
The next play Saturday, all road warriors.
Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer’s fans know he was dissed by the sorority sister vote for league coach of the year, but he has been selected the top conference coach by the Naismith Coach of Year group in their final four candidates.
No. 7 Mississippi State (30-4) 110, Troy 69
Being the No. 2 seed in the Oklahoma City Regional has its benefits.
The fun home opener leads to the suspected easy second game Sunday against Big East champ DePaul.
Schaefer crossed everyone up by benching two season-long starters, all-SEC guard Victoria Vivians and all-SEC senior center Chimwe Okorie.
Vivians is coming off the worst three consecutive games of her Bulldog career, the SEC tournament.
She failed to hit even double figures after leading her side all season at 16.7
Okorie was benched for the first time in favorite of the Big Dog, Teaira McCowan, who grew to a 6-7 force in the middle her sophomore season.
Moreover, Schaefer’s move rattle the opponents who basically game plan on stopping Vivians and dealing with the athletic Okorie rather than a traditional center.
It didn’t hurt this change happened against Troy, at home, as the No. 2 seed in the first NCAA home game they outright earned, with 5,572 fans for a noon game.
Each played 16 minutes. Vivians scored 13, 3-of-5 3s and had six rebounds. McCowan scored nine, with 13 rebounds and four blocks in her first start.
Blair Schaefer, the coach’s daughter, hit four 3s, 5-of-6 from the line and celebrated her start with 21 points in 26 minutes. Three others hit double figures.
Coach Schaefer and his team will tell you the points made are never as important as the points denied. The usual key statistic – single-figure quarters – was imposed in the 29-6 second quarter.
“Really proud of horses to run with the big dogs. State stretched the lead to 34 inside of six minutes.”
Every player got into the NCAA record book by participating. Only one did not score. They set a team record by exceeding 100 in an NCAA game and with 24 3s. They set another program record with a 30th win,
“I’m proud of my team and my university today," coach Schaefer said. “We had 5,500 on a Friday afternoon and that is pretty doggone special. The electricity in that building makes it special. It starts with the university, the administration, the fans. Our basketball team was really good today.”
As for the new lineup, he was inscrutable.
“It worked fine and we’ll just keep it at that. There’s so much that goes into this position at this point in the season. You want to make sure everybody is as focused as they need to be. You’ve got to find a way to keep an edge. I never had second thoughts. Sometimes, there are changes to be made and you just have to do it.”
McCowan was focused on rebounds.
“We knew we had to box this team out,” she said. “coach told us in practice we had to box out hard and get rebounds.”
Roshunda Johnson has played through pain most of the season. She said it is a supportive unit. It was her seventh start. She is a transfer from Oklahoma State.
“Our team has chemistry and we all play well together. I feel like I am playing without pain. My team always has confidence in me. I had to hurry to get back because you’ll have an effect on your team no matter who you are.”
Blair Schaefer echoed her junior classmate. This start, her second, was well-charted.
“Roshunda and I have been working all week together,” she said. “We usually play on (scout team uniform) white and this week we wore maroon in practice,
“We just had to get our chemistry together. What we can do together on the floor is really special. My shots were just falling. I’m always told my window (of opportunity) isn’t going to be very big, so I just took my window and it just worked.”
As we previously reported, DePaul is one of those paper teams, with a reputation made mainly by staying in the abandoned Big East and playing in the wasteland of Chicago women’s hoops.
The Demons followed 25 points from sophomore Tanita Allen to an 88-67 elimination of Northern Iowa.
“She's capable of this kind of game,” DePaul coach Doug Bruno said. “She's a really quality shooter and was ready to let it rip.”
“It was just the way the game evolved," said Prochask. “No one on the team is an ‘I' player who looks for their own stats.”
That single-digit defensive quarter thing was back in play wth Depaul’s 22-9 first.
No. 3 South Carolina (28-4) 90, North Carolina-Asheville 40
What mirror images the top two in conference proved to be.
The Gamecocks kept their altered their championship lineup. Senior center Alaina Coates’ college career is over with a bum right ankle. They enforced the single-digit quarter twice, in the middle quarters, then played reserves in the final one. Everyone scored. They drew the day’s best 8,225 for an early afternoon game.
Coach Dawn Staley mirrored Schaefer’s decision-making deliberations.
“We're going to have to play the small lineup,” said Staley. She said she depends more on feel than analytics to try to find the five who will work best on the court. “For how long? As long as it is working.”
But they still have All-American A’ja Wilson – we’re calling it already – and that works swell in openers. She scored 18 with a block.
This game, though, followed the four-guard theme and Allisha Gray lit the dynamite with more points (23) than minutes (22) and 12 rebounds.
“I was down there, so why not rebound?” Gray said.
She was 11-of-13 from the field in her first NCAA game for SC after transferring in from North Carolina, main campus.
Asheville (19-14) will have to wait another season in which to win 20.
“We locked in on the ball,” Staley said.
She called for more defensive pressure in those crucial middle quarters.
“It’s probably more of a response to the game situation. I just thought we need to change how we were playing ball screens in particular and also just the pace of it.
“We needed to create some offense from our defense and the best way to do that is to speed the game up and press a little bit.
“With a smaller lineup, we were able to get out and play fast. It worked for us today.”
Sunday, they get the second SEC-Pac 12 showdown of the tournament in Arizona State, which erased Michigan State,73-61 and got coach Charli Turner-Thorne her 400th career win..
The Sun Devils (20-12) beat Florida by six and Kentucky by a basket, finishing fifth in their conference.
In their NCAA opener, Quinn Dornstauder scored 16, 6-of-6 from the field and 4-of-4 from the line, eliminating Michigan State, 73-61.
The team hit 59 percent from the field in the first half to lead by 22 at the break.
“It was just a good day. We all shot very well. And we had a good offensive start,” Dornstauder said.
No. 19 Kentucky (21-10) 73, Belmont 70
Upset alert: Belmont had a plan on UK’s home court and came up a basket short.
In the end, they never overcame the lead, even though the final quarter was contentious in the 73-70 final.
Maci Morris made four free throws in the final 11 seconds. All-Ohio Valley Conference player Darby Maggard missed a 3 at the buzzer. Their 25-game win streak was ended.
The Kats are also at home, with a chance as the No. 4 seed to remain town for next weekend’s Regional.
Maggard scored 15, part of a trio led by 23 from Sally McCabe.
UK coach Matthew Mitchell was delighted by the escape.
“What a fantastic team they have and great season they’ve had. They really tested us in every way imaginable,” he said. “They were really, really tough and played a great game so we respected them going into the game and they have our total respect after the game. They pushed us to the limit.
“Where it certainly all didn’t go right for us, we had to have a gut check at halftime and the players came back and gave enough efforts to win. “
His All-SEC seniors. Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator stepped up again. Epps played all 40 minutes and scored 30. Akhator scored 22 with 12 rebounds. Kentucky has no depth; the starters did it all.
“At halftime, Mitchell preached communication.
“This year with this team we really tried to work on improving our communication so we’re very matter-of-fact.
“I was just so displeased with the second quarter. I don’t know what happened there. We did a good job and I had expected that there may be some rest but we handled ourselves pretty well in the first quarter and then we just stopped hustling and I just didn’t understand why that was happening. So I didn’t have a lot that I could tell them. I couldn’t help them a lot schematically or strategically until we got that fixed.
“So I was just matter-of-fact with them and let them know that until we got the hustle turned around, there wasn’t really anything that we could do to help them. Belmont was really the aggressor in that second quarter and I thought that was really dangerous for us because they got into a rhythm and then they started having some great belief that they could beat us.
“It was a difficult game and that second quarter was uncharacteristic of us from the standpoint of hustle. “So we just tried to refocus on that. One big indicator is the boards when it was 20-9, that shouldn’t be the case if we’re hustling.
“ They’re a great rebounding team. They were plus-12 all year but we just weren’t active and we weren’t trying the way we needed to. So I tried to talk about that and to our players credit they got it turned around.”
The game was only tied for 16 seconds. At the end, he knew he had to appear calm.
“I thought they just played fantastic. They never stopped moving. They played with great energy and they played with some freedom. I thought we started looking at the scoreboard a little bit and felt some pressure. I know our team didn’t want to lose today so we did what we had to do to win.
“Well, I was just calm on the exterior. I can assure you that in my mind and inside I was taking off my jacket and loosening my tie, but that's not helpful to our team. They’re a great group of players and young women and for whatever reason but we just were not with it mentally in certain segments of the game and that’s what allowed it to be a close game.
“We had to get that corrected but when I lose my composure and get upset that doesn’t help any so I just try to do the best I could to stay calm. I was asking them to have some character and play with some intensity and I’ll do the opposite -- staying calm and instructing them on what they need to do.”
He had no qualms about getting Morris the ball at the very end.
“I don’t think she worried too much about what was going on on the court and that’s a good demeanor to have in those types of situations.
“On the last couple of free throws, my heart was racing because you watch these kids, and I’ve been coaching for over 20 years now, and I still get amazed at watching these young people go up there in those situations and knock down those free throws.
“ Maci is just a real cool player and didn’t get worked up about it. She made a bunch of defensive mistakes today but what I love about her is that I can get a little frustrated with her and she just keeps going. She’s always done that since the first day she got here.
“The 3-pointer that she didn’t think much of was a huge play in the game. That may have been the play of the game. It a great weapon to have – being able to get the ball to your 90 percent shooter and she produces. You need those type of things to win games and I’m really proud of her for making them.”
Morris was concentrating.
“At the free-throw line, I just didn’t want to miss because in the past I’ve missed big free throws that could’ve helped us get a win, so I didn’t want to miss this time. After I missed one free throw, Epps told me that I would make the next two. So I know my teammates have a lot of faith in me.”
Epps said, “In the last minute I just wanted to make sure we got the ball to Maci. She’s the best free-throw shooter, shooting at about 80-90 percent and even though I had missed two, I had it in my mind that if they fouled me I was going to step up and make them.
“It was just a really good feeling today being back in Memorial Colliseum. For Evelyn and I it was Senior Night Part II and so now Sunday we have Senior Night Part III. So, we’re just going to keep celebrating Senior Night until Senior Night is over. We’re proud of the team and the poise that we had down the stretch.
“We didn’t want to go home today so we had to be able to fight.”
They drew 3,557.
Now comes a very real national threat in Ohio State and an old friend.
Ohio State took out Western Kentucky in an efficient 70-63 dispatch.
Kat fans welcomed home former UK all-star and top recruit Linnae Harper.
She is the first Buckeye off the bench in all games for which she was eligible.
North Carolina State 62, Auburn 48
The Tigers were the other league team in the Lexington Regional, their opener at Austin, Texas.
Many questioned a team with only 17 wins and, now, 15 loses. They didn’t answer any of those questions.
The Tigers hit 24 percent from the field. They scored four in the second quarter and eight in the third to eliminate themselves.
Seniors Katie Frerking and Brandy Montgomery, the top two scorers, close their careers with classmate Khady Dieng.
But four starters will be back.
Coach Terri Williams-Flournoy has completed five seasons there. They beat both Tennessee and LSU this season.
“We knew State was a very good team and that they could score,” she said. “We did a good job at times but we didn't do a good job enough to stop them from scoring and we struggled scoring as well, but we continued to play hard and that's who we are. We were relentless all the way to the end.”
Frerking said, “I think it was an interesting season. It was a little bit of a roller coaster. We had some good wins, a lot of close games and some tough losses, and it's a long season and that happens.
“But I'’ll say I’ve played here four years, and this is my favorite team I’ve ever played on here, because we are relentless.”
“And no matter what came against us, no matter what we faced, we always bounced back, and we had 13, 14, 15 girls who just wanted to be out there, and we loved each other, and we just played hard. It was a good season. I'm proud of everybody.”
No. 24 Missouri, No. 6 seed in Lexington Regional, survived South Florida at Florida State, 66-64, scoring just before regulation time expired.
The Tigers do not participate in our reports.
The remaining of the NCAA league teams start play.
No. 5 seed in Bridgeport Regional Texas A&M vs. Penn at UCLA.
No. 5 seed Tennessee in the Oklahoma City Regional vs. Dayton in Louisville.
No. 8 seed LSU in the Oklahoma City Regional vs. California at Baylor.
It is probably not advisable to schedule opposite the NCAA, but Alabama won its 20th. Ole Miss ended its season by three at home.