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, March 21, 2017

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: On to the Sweet 16

By Mike Siroky

The incomparable Southeastern Conference advanced its top two women’s basketball teams to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA eliminations in home games. Two more will attempted to qualify and failed.

No. 7 Miss. State (30-4) 92, No. 19 DePaul 71 in StarkVegas for the Oklahoma City Regional

The alternative truth of the NCAA Bulldog lineup – Victoria Vivians and Chimwe Okorie on the bench – worked again Sunday. DeShields, in fact, was the ninth player used. The only clue Vic Schaefer has dropped is she was “nicked up,” which he revealed after the SEC tournament. The streetcar avoids her neighborhood nowadays.

It was, therefore, a competitive 17-all opening quarter. It stayed tight and was 38-37, Mississippi State, at the half.

An inspired Okorie had six rebounds and eight points. That’s more points than in each of the past dozen and about her season rebound average.

Vivians had four points with an assist. Her scoring average is still 16, but nine in the previous four games.

All were concentrating on defense. Was State playing only to the level of their competition, as so often happened all season? Schaefer needed an inspirational halftime to allow continued play of his best team ever.

It worked. They won the third quarter by 10 and DePaul began looking more like RuPaul.

Vivians scored 12, 6-of-6 at the line. Okorie scored 12 with nine rebounds.  In fact, five reserves all hit at least 10 with 22 combined rebounds.

Among the starters, Blair Schafer hit for 18 with four 3s.  State outrebounded the taller Demons, 48-25. They drew 6,035.

“I am really humbled and so proud of my kids today,” Schaefer said. “They played their hearts out. I was proud of their focus and their energy. DePaul is really good.

"They are so skilled and well-coached. We talked to the kids in pregame about who we are and what we are known for. We talked about toughness, resilience and competitive spirit.

“We talked about not being outworked and not being out-hustled. I thought the kids really responded to that.

“In the second half, we really executed,” Schaefer said.

He had worried about DePaul.

“I got up in the middle of their game Friday and haven’t slept two hours since then. I was trying to think about how we are going to deal with them. We talked to our kids in pre-game today about who we are and what we are known for.

"We talked about toughness and resilience. We talked about a competitive spirit, about not getting out toughed or hustled. I felt like we really embraced it.

“At halftime I felt like we were up 10 and we were only up one. Coming out in the third quarter I was really proud of how we responded immediately outof the gate. I think we executed offensively really good.

“Our inside game was really good. Jazz (senior Jazzmun Holmes) came in off the bench and played 25 minutes and was leading the No. 7 team in the nation. In the biggest spotlight of the world, on the game’s biggest stage, she led the team like a pro.

“The pride that I have for her, how happy I am for her, knowing how hard she worked. She played with a presence. She had presence. She wanted to be in the moment.

“Just a heckuva basketball game. I serve an unbelievable Lord that just instilled in these kids an unbelievable energy. Our fans today, and all across the country can really see what this program is about.”

Included in the mix is coaching his daughter, Blair.

“First of all she has earned her way,” he said. “She is a heck of a player. There is no moment too big for her. I have spent so much time in a gym with her throughout her career. It is one thing to just be on the team because. It is another when you are a vital part of it.

“She prvides us so much that you don’t see in practice. Her toughness, her reliance, her competitiveness, her competitive fire.

“She doesn’t have a bad day. She is a great teammate. She is a heck of a basketball player that has a heart as big as this state. She plays with a lot of emotion and fire. She is tough. I give her all thecredit because she makes it easy for me.

“There are times when I’m a little harder on her. Give her teammates the credit you make it easy for me.”

Holmes said every player is prepared to answer his call.

 “I felt like we had to go inside, there was a mismatch, for Chinwe and our opponent. It was easy for us to go inside where they can finish over the smaller opponent,” Holmes said.

“Coach just always talks about having poise and playing with a chip on your shoulder. I felt like
they couldn’t guard me. I felt like high school again and nobody could guard me. I just had to do
what I had to do.”

She said the team attitude extends to the lineup.

“Well he is not crazy. I think we have 10 starters. Anybody could start. We are really deep. Blair
and Ro deserve to start just as much as me and Tori. I don’t think it has been crazy. We have a
lot of different combinations in practice. We are used to playing with each other, it is no different.”

They had lost the last day of the season, on Senior Day.

Now they are done for good at The Hump for this season.

 “Leaving was a lot better,” she said. “It is a bittersweet feeling, knowing this is the last time I will be playing in the Hump. It was great to leave and know everything we have accomplished over the last four years. I just love the fans so much. I just want to thank them for everything.”

They have the program record 31 wins. They await playing Washington, the winner over -Oklahoma Monday night.

No. 3 South Carolina 71, No. 10 Arizona State 68, in Columbia for the Stockton Regional

SC started hot, 62 percent from the floor in the first quarter and led after one, 19-15. The guards ruled, Allisha Gray with six points, and four rebounds, Kaela Davis with five points and two assists, Bianca Cuevas Moore had three steals.

A’ja Wilson scored six with two rebounds but the Sun Devils took the lead for a possession at 24-23.

Arizona had eight off the bench and eight more from senior Sophie Brunner. They edged ahead by four and certainly SC was unsettled without being able to control the game.

Their last basket of the half came at the 4:45 mark. Cuevas-Moore hit two free throws and it was Arizona State, 37-31. Wilson hit two more to cut it to 37-33, But Brunner drove in for a layup and the 39-33 half.

The home team was rattled.

Yet no one was dominating. Brunner had 14. Wilson had 12 but only five rebounds. They lost the quarter by 10.

This was the game in which the absence of Alaina Coates was most evident. SC was losing the boards, 18-11. As with the other two SEC coaches this day, Dawn Staley needed a booster rocket at halftime.

They floated along, behind by five most of the quarter and closing to two as the fatal fourth loomed for someone. Arizona State had only a free throw in the final 84 seconds.

 With 18 seconds left. Doniyah Cliney, usually a SC mop-up player, had a steal and a layup. Her average is two points and two rebounds as a sophomore guard.

Wilson ended the final threat with a defensive rebound. Wilson had 17 points and Davis 16.
As the fourth began, Davis tied it on two free throws. After another Brunner basket, Wilson tipped it in off a rebound. She hit a free throw. Davis hit a jumper.

A worked-up Arizona State bench got a technical. Davis hit them both. Then another Davis free throw and a Gray layin. The lead was five for the home team.

Another Gray free throw and Wilson with a steal. The back-and-forth continued. SC had a seven-point lead with four to go but a 3 cut into it. A jump shot later by a senior left the lead at two with 2:25 left.

A 3 put the Sun Devils ahead. One minute left in someone’s season.

With 46 seconds left, Wilson missed, got her own rebound and tipped it back in.

Brunner missed a jumper. Mikiah Herbert Harrigan claimed it for SC.

The Gamecocks freshman point guard missed two free throws. Brunner got the rebound.
Davis stole the ball. Staley called consecutive timeouts when they could not inbound.  An Arizona senior took the foul, 15 seconds left.

Wilson hit two free throws. Brunner missed a 3. The No. 1 seed could exhale and start California dreamin’.

SC needed every available player to pull this off. They had fewer 3s, rebounds, assists and steals.

They won three quarters. The technical foul led to five immediate points in a three-point win.

Late in the game, Gray landed hard and came up hobbling. She was carried from the court.
Staley said evaluations had begun and she would follow the doctor’s orders.

But that’s for future consideration.

In the here and now, Wilson was massive, 21 points, 11 rebounds (seven defensive) and two blocks, 7-of-7 at the line. Davis scored 20, 4-of-4 at the line. Among the rest, Cliney had two blocks and two assists. Every role player showed up.

Brunner had to be tired. She scored 20 with nine rebounds and gave Wilson all she wanted.
Arizona State had streamed through two SEC teams in the regular season and earned this marquee matchup of two Top 10 teams.

They had to come East to try and earn a trip back West.

South Carolina had the home court and the most fans of any Round of 32 teams. They had the attitude of being assigned the furthest Regional from home, so the 8,276 crowd ached for the national stage from which to send them off.

Carolina is one win away from 30. Who they get next is the Cinderella Quinnipiac squad that that upset Marquette in the first round and then Miami in the second.

Kelsey Moos, Quinn Dornstauder and Sara Hattis ended their ASU careers.

Staley and her players said their experienced players paid off for a great fan base.
Gray and Davis may be in their first SC seasons, but each has NCAA experience.

Staley said now is the time to rest up and prepare.

“We’ll spend less time on the floor and more time watching a little film,” she said. “We’ll be ready to play Friday.”

Wilson said all the lead up to these games pays off,

“I feel like we’ve been in that (late game) position before,” she said, “Maybe not in games but in practice. We prepare very well for situations. I trust them to get me the ball, so I was not worried.

“You attack the paint and get to the free throw line if shots aren’t falling.”
In the closing seconds, it was all schoolyard strategy.

“I just figured they were going to find me eventually,” Wilson said.

“I listened to the coaches’ yelling ‘Get The ball!’ I said, OK that’s the plan. I guess that was the plan. It’s a great feeling here are home to know we went out with a bang. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Davis agrees there is no cock watching, just drive and determination to get to the best position.
“Throughout  the game you have to be positive, to never put yourself in a position to be down,” she said. “We never look at the score.

 “You have to find when to take shots and when to be aggressive,” Davis said. “That was the game plan.”

No. 11 Ohio State 82 No. 18 Kentucky 68 at Lexington in the Lexington Regional

Here was the perplexing thing: Ohio State had more depth, more wins and were higher ranked than Kentucky, yet the Kats had the home court, with a low turnout of 2,644.

The assignment was probably due to the views of the conference values, the Big Ten behind the SEC in mystique.

It surely motivated Ohio State.

Junior Kelsey Mitchell scored 19 first-half points, 15 in the first quarter (against a 22.8 average) and OSU used their pent-up energy positively.  She only needed 15 all game in her opener.

She is a national caliber guard. A home state player from Cincinnati, she was the national freshman of the year and an All-American the next.

OSU was so dominant in the 50-37 first half that UK senior Evelyn Akhator had 14 rebounds, classmate Makayla Epps had 15 points and neither were barely noticed.

A frustrated Matt Mitchell even went to his non-existent bench and found four points, causing an obviously clueless ESPN cheerleader/announcer to declare UK was “in business.” Yes, if that business is getting outplayed on your own home court.

So enthusiastic were the Buckeyes that they did not play for the last shot twice as the half was winding up.

It started with a competitive 20-16 first. UK had already given up trying to stifle Mitchell.

When Mitchell hit a 3 with six minutes left in the half, it had been a 10-2 run. With five minutes left, it was 34-18. OSU was content to trade punches in the third, the lead never threatened. OSU shut out Epps for the quarter

On came the deciding quarter, the NCAA “upset” in hand. Linnae Harper, an all-star player at Kentucky before transferring to Ohio State, had eight off the bench.

It’s a curious thing when all-star seniors look into the abyss of their final game. They can bring their teammates along in a final frenzy.

UK cut the lead but never quite caught up. They only won one quarter and you can’t gain overall success that way. It was a two-point deficit with 7:25 left.

Epps cut it to one with on a feed from Akhator with six minutes left in their careers.

Ohio State scored 17 of the final 21 points. Harper snared a rebound, Tori McCoy scored six unanswered, Harper assisting the last one in her old home gym. Epps began missing, four straight. Akhator’s last attempt was a missed 3.

Harper snagged the final rebound, for her double/double, 10 with 12 points and a game-high eight assists. She outscored everyone on the other side, with the exception of the big two.

Akhator scored 14 with 23 rebounds.. Epps scored six in the second half.

Mitchell kissed them both off with the expected script. He referred to Harper as someone he has gotten over a long time ago, among “those who didn’t want to be here.”

Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff was angling to meet top seed Notre Dame in the Regional semifinal They won their national championship while he was the recruiting coach there. The other top seeds will be there as well.

McGuff was enthusiastic about Harper.

“She obviously was unbelievable today,” he said. “She played extremely hard. She made big plays. She moved the ball and just had an overall amazing performance.

“She’s really a unique player because she’s the best rebounding perimeter player I’ve ever coached. That allows her to do things you saw today.”

“She’s such a great kid and ‘team first’ player. Somebody else might have been trying to make this about coming back to the place they transferred from. She just wanted to contribute to our success today.”

The Buckeyes handled the pressure well. They had a season-low six turnovers.

“Overall, our execution was excellent. It resulted in a bunch of good shots and low turnovers,” McGuff said.

Harper said, “There’s no words to even describe it. Just being back here on the court was a good feeling and getting a win overall was great for our team.

“Just seeing the work we put in pay off was great for our team. It’s March Madness, so every team is going to play their best. We just really focused on preparation and playing as hard as we could.

“He (McGuff) put us in the best position we could possibly be in and our team being very cohesive and staying together.”

Harper said, “There’s no words to even describe it. Just being back here on the court was a good feeling and getting a win overall was great for our team.

“Just seeing the work we put in pay off was great for our team. It’s March Madness, so every team is going to play their best. We just really focused on preparation and playing as hard as we could.

“He (McGuff) put us in the best position we could possibly be in and our team being very cohesive and staying together.”

Kentucky has ended two straight seasons at home, trying to advance in a home Regional. They get one more shot at it next season as UK completes the rare three-year Regional commitment.

Losing their two best seniors makes it look like more of the same.

The Buckeyes host the National Championship next season. They have only one senior, Shayla Cooper.

No. 10 Florida State 77, No. 25 Missouri 55 in the bottom bracket of the Stockton Regional

 The alleged league coach of the year went 1-2 after being gifted with that award. The Tigers do not wish to participate in our reports.

 Louisville 75, Tennessee 64 in the Oklahoma City Regional at Louisville

There seemed to be no home court advantage at the start.

 Jamie Nared, shackled with foul trouble in the opener, broke loose with 11 Lady Vol points in the opening quarter. Louisville won the quarter by a point as leading scorer and All-Atlantic Coast Conference sophomore guard Asia Durr scored nine. At that, it took hitting 57 percent from the floor.

Both defenses clamped down. Louisville again won the quarter, this time by three. Nared was up to 15 but Diamond DeShields and Russell were shut out in the quarter.

The unfortunate trend of a bad game following a good game – inconsistency not solved all season by the coaching staff – was in ugly evidence. Of course, Durr also did not score in the quiet quarter. The Cardinals’ bench came up with the difference, 8-0.

The third quarter was Tennessee’s best, 16-11. Nared hit a 3 and finally the Lady Vols led, 36-35. UT missed the next three shots while Louisville scored seven straight. Again, it was Nared with a layup.

Russell made her first basket since the first to put UT up by one, 45-44.  Neither she nor DeShields had scored since the first and there were four minutes left in the third.

Opportunities kept presenting themselves and UT found a way to muff each one, missing jumpers and layups, not scoring off rebounds.

It was painfully obvious UT’s head game was once again gone. They had a tenuous one-point edge as the final quarter opened.

Louisville won the fourth, 29-17, a mercy killing.

Nared had 28, 7-of-7 at the line and 3-of-5 3s, but she was all alone out there. Russell had an unimpressive double/double, 13 rebounds and 11 points. DeShields mailed in 15, 3-of-12 from the field. The team missed two-thirds of their shots. They had 13 turnovers.

They did hit another 20-win season. But this game was winnable. As in so many UT games this season, they looked uninspired and unprepared. They were 3-of-18 from the field in the fourth.

Another of several dismal records: Tennessee lost its first second-round game in tournament history and they have been in all of them. They did have one opening loss under the previous coach.

Tennessee loses seniors Jordan Reynolds and Shaquilla Nunn. But they welcome in a new team next season, with the best recruiting class in the nation (four McDonald’s All-Americans), two junior college transfers and two recovered from knee rehab, including the former starting point guard.

It will be coach Holly Warlick’s make-or-break season with the new athletic director.

She said she was disappointed, of course, and singled out the seniors.

Russell and Nared represented the players and said it took a while to figure out how to get the ball inside.

“It’s the end of our season and so it is frustrating,” Nared said. She is planning workouts for her senior season now.

“We will take what we are feeling now and use it for motivation next season,” Russell said.

They had missed 18 consecutive field goals. Past UT teams would just increase the defensive pressure and wait for the offense to arrive.

Not this one.

Nared said they weren’t getting the stops and “It just didn’t add up.”

They even seemed flummoxed that Durr is left-handed and they seemed to not have practiced against that.

Both players said Louisville obviously planned correctly for Russell to be the only rebounder they nneed worry about.

“We got good looks,” insisted Warlick.

“You’ve got to make plays down the stretch and we didn’t. Jamie’s right, we only had one player going to the boards.

“We have kids that got it done throughout the years and tonight we didn’t get it done.”

So, at the end, it is merely a prelude to next season’s injection of talent. Warlick talked of the former culture of winning and the need to revive it.

“We’ll give them a chance to play and, believe me, they’re going to play and they’re going to play a lot.

“We’ll have the kids to be competitive.”

UCLA 75, Texas A&M 33 in the Bridgeport Regional at Los Angeles, with UConn on deck

No record comeback in this one.

In fact, a dismal start, the dreaded single-digit first quarter.

On the short end of 22-6, they were further stomped in the second and were doubled at the half, 42-21, still not having scored as much as the Bruins opened with.

They actually tied in rebounds but had seven turnovers and were 9-of-30 from the field,
It looked like they were going to just accept another 22-win season and a 12th straight NCAA appearance.

A 20-10 third only inflicted more pain. UCLA went on to its second straight Sweet 16 – the only two in this century – and A&M went home to Aggieland.

A neat note to end it. A&M’s last points and rebound came from senior Alyssa Michalke. She is the first female commander of the Corp of Cadets at A&M, a walk-on voted team captain.

Blair, as always, has a wonderful perspective.

“Is it about the win or the loss,” he asked. “In reality it is about neither, it is about did you put your best effort out there.

“Sometimes, you need to compliment the team that won. We tried our best.

“Chuck Berry died. He had a great song you old codgers remember: Sweet Little 16.

“For UCLA, that is what it is about right now. They are going to see the best basketball.
Right now, nothing better than 16. Sweet Little 16. Enjoy it.”

UCLA is really a future team which will send its one senior and seven juniors to the UConn firing squad next.

A&M says farewell to national assists leader Curtyce Knox – 304 in 34 games -- and fellow-seniors Taylor Cooper and. Michalke.

The Aggies lose but 13 points off a 69 average and five rebounds off a 38 average. They will be OK again.

Alabama, discounted out of the NCAAs, got its 21st win, most in this century.


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