Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Traditionalists Survive to Round of 32
Down to business.
The traditional round of 32 is now set in the NCAA eliminations.
The mighty Southeastern Conference has six participants, the top four playing Sunday for spots in the Sweet 16.
Three of the matchups have both teams nationally ranked.
Here’s what happened Saturday:
No. 5 seed in Bridgeport Regional Texas A&M vs. Penn at UCLA
We have been harping on this.
Gary Blair was somehow judged not the conference coach of the year.
He had graduated four starters. His team was picked out of the running – eighth – by the majority female coaches in the preseason.
Yet they won 22. They finished sixth. They easily qualified for the NCAAs.
Before the elimination season, he talked of the joy of playing at UCLA in the opening games because it meant he could take his kids to DisneyLand and ride the rides, with himself first in line for the rollercoasters.
Oh yeah, then there was the opening round game against the champs of another league, Penn.
The Quakers had a senior guard, a senior forward and, especially, a 6-3 senior center. They had been in three of the past four NCAAs.
He had his kids.
He teared up the night before the tournament, talking about his kids and the emotions of unending pride.
Then came the game.
It was a fearful as projected.
They were down by 21. He was in shirtsleeves, of course, drawing up plays on the fly, listening and encouraging the group which had never individually played in as many games in a season.
It was still 17 at the end of the third.
It was 58-37 with nine minutes left.
Blair was in full coaching mode. The players were listening and believing. They went on a 26-3 run.
They completed the largest comeback in NCAA tournament history, erasing a 21-point deficit.
Not the league coach of the year? Not much.
Two of the starters played every minute of the 63-61 win. Another one played 39 and another one 38. Curtyce Knox, the senior point guard, has only missed 15 minutes the entire season.
Of all the upsets to come, of whatever happens next, this was a defining moment for the NCAA and for Texas A&M.
Knox had eight assists, 303 for the season.
Anriel Harris had 16 rebounds, 10 defensive.
Khaalia Hillsman had 27 points.
In years to come, the 2,256 who actually witnessed the game in person will swell to many thousands more in urban legend. No matter. They did it.
Next up is the home team, an 83-56 winner over Boise State.
The Bruins accumulated 24 assists in rolling past Boise State, 83-56.
Jordin Canada had 15 points and 16 assists. Monique Billings scored 19. Two others scored 14 apiece.
Blair had a press conference for the ages.
“I thought we had them all the way.
“Folks, let’s give Penn the credit that they deserve. Three quarters of the game, they outplayed us, I got outcoached, they wanted it more, they were
cutting hard to the ball, they were making shots, you name it.
“They probably deserved the game, but when you’re in the NCAA Tournament, you have to win a game like this along the way, to be able to get to that next level, to get that sense of urgency in your team.
“We’ve had this problem all year, getting way behind, trying to run the perfect play instead of knowing how to play -- and particularly on the defensive end.
“They shut us out of our zone, our matchup. We were doing a lousy job on switching, hedging and everything.
“And give credit to them. That’s why they’re Penn. That’s why they’re so well-coached and that is one of the best teams we have played this year, but when the momentum changes, and we were able to play defense without fouling in that fourth quarter and we made all the hustle plays.
“Even when we started coming back, we missed four straight shots that were dead on. And then all of a sudden, Danni Williams, hadn’t hit anything since we got into it, all of a sudden, she hit one from downtown.
“Then, all of a sudden, she’s not afraid to miss -- and that’s what you have to have when you’re a shooter and a scorer, you can’t be afraid to miss.
“You’ve got to think about that next basket. I’m so proud of this team, but I’m also so proud of Penn, because, I know Mike’s (McLaughlin) going to get back and second-guess himself and everything like that -- but he shouldn’t.
“They outplayed us. We won the fourth quarter and the last I heard, it’s 40 minutes.
“We played defense, and Anriel Howard gave us all the energy. She was everywhere and had a bad night shooting. Two-for -11, but 16 rebounds. That girl is not afraid.
“The only thing she did wrong in the whole ballgame -- when I told her to miss the last damn free throw and she shot an airball.
“So, we’ve got to work on that. I’ve got to have something to work on.
I’m so proud of these kids and we did not want Curtyce Knox to finish her career like we played those first three quarters.”
He was absolutely as stunned as everyone else about the record comeback.
“That’s the biggest comeback I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “If some of you out-of-towners don’t remember our men last year, we came back on Northern Iowa. That I had never seen before, either. Maybe that’s what A&M does. The game’s never over at A&M, until we decide it’s over.”
Of course, like every SEC team, he is proudest of defense.
“We had to go to the press, because obviously we couldn’t guard them in the halfcourt. Khaalia was giving up shot after shot. Shot after shot. Even the ones she missed, she was wide open. She could have hit three more of those in the second half.
“The defense, it’s just a gut check. Sometimes, it isn’t just one word that I said or that Coach (Bob) Starkey said.
“That’s what we do at A&M. We find ways. It wasn’t pretty. We’ve been like this all year, folks.
“We haven’t been a Top-25 team, I don’t have any McDonald’s All-Americans on this team.
“I’ve got a lot of kids that are playing in the pros, but I’m going to tell you one thing -- I’m going to have 11 graduates that are going to go on to that next life and they’ll remember this one. I want them to remember Monday night more than this one tonight.”
The season-long leadership of Curtyce Knox also propels him.
“She’s gone through sitting for four years waiting, redshirting her first year, playing behind
Jordan Jones -- a kid that got into the WNBA Draft and playing in Poland. She never complained and in today’s world, with student-athletes, their parents and summer coaches -- they’re always saying transfer, transfer, transfer.
“That’s what’s wrong. It’s an epidemic in men and women’s basketball right now and it’s all because… kids want success as a freshman.”
Hillsman said the coach and concentration never allowed them to worry about the deficit.
“To be honest, in the fourth quarter, I was really just trying to have some pride in what we do,” she said.
“We weren’t representing our school very well for about 30 minutes and then the last 10, we found something in us. We really didn’t want ‘Tyce , for that to be her last game and if it was going to be our last game. We didn’t want it to end like that.
“I think we played as bad of basketball as we could have played. They were getting wide open shots everywhere, on everybody, including myself. None of our shots were falling, my shot was getting blocked and there was just nothing going right for us, but I’m so glad of the fight that we showed as a team and that last 10 minutes was amazing to me.
“I was trying to leave it all on the floor didn’t want ‘Tyce to go home. I wasn’t going to go home either.
“If I was a spectator, I’d probably be sweating bullets. I don’t think I’ve seen one like that at all. But being a part of it was definitely exhilarating. My adrenaline is still pumping from the game so I’m sure it was fun to watch.
“We talk a lot about ‘Tyce, but I don’t know if anybody really understands how much ‘Tyce means to us, so when we see her, when we see it in her eyes, like she doesn’t want to go home, that ignites all of us.
“We’re like, ‘Tyce doesn’t want to go home, we aren’t going home.’ I mean ‘Tyce just means so much to us, oh and when we see our seniors like that, when they got that fire in their eyes, you see all that they’ve given to this program -- how can we not go out there and give them everything we have?
“Because we don’t want them to go home; we don’t want their careers to end like that.”
Knox was her usual calm self.
“Well, I just think that it was the fact that, if we lose we’re going home. So, we don’t have time to be tired or get a sub or take a play off, but I just think we came out in the fourth quarter and we played our hearts out,” she said. “And I can honestly say everybody on this team, we left it out on the court. I’m very proud of my teammates for that.”
Williams said no one key play changed it up.
“Personally, I don’t think there was a play,” she said.
“We kept fighting. Like coach said, we missed four straight shots and it didn’t really affect us.
“We just kept pushing, kept pushing. We were saying like ‘We’re 10 down, that’s five baskets,’ every time and I can’t speak enough about how hard they were playing, my teammates were playing out there, just giving everything, flying around and that’s special.”
She hit an NBA depth 3 with 20 seconds left. Like all the other plays, she downplayed it.
“No, I don’t think so. I just give credit to the teammates. We fought so hard just to get back and I’m honored to be able to shoot that shot at the end, that the coaching staff and my players put that much trust in me. I’m just proud of them.”
She had a defensive play at the end as well.
“Well, she face cut me and I knew I had to get a tip on it. I knew we were down; I think we were down one and as soon as I tipped it, because I fell and I saw the ball and I knew she was going to hit it and it was going to go out of bounds, I already knew.
“So, I kept telling them, I know it’s our ball, so draw up the play so we can score.
“I just got the ball, I knew we needed a shot. To be honest, I really didn’t know it was that far. Coach Blair kind of got on to me about two of them in the first half. But that’s a shooter, you just got to keep shooting and I was ready.”
No. 5 seed Tennessee 66, Dayton 57, in the Oklahoma City Regional in Louisville
After one-and-done in the SEC tournament, the Lady Vols escaped that clause in their opener.
UT started the first quarter on a 20-9 outing. They couldn’t celebrate the single-digit defense long, because Dayton did the exact same to them in the second quarter.
Tennessee ended the third quarter on a 9-1 run and led by nine at that break.
The Flyers seemed unimpressed and ready to slug it out. UT, without a true point guard, was further hampered when Jamie Nared was forced to sit with four fouls. That puts more pressure on Diamond DeShields to control the game and run the plays rather than flying free, which is when she has her best games.
Mercedes Russell was being battled evenly at center by 6-5 senior center Saicha Grant-Allen.
UT pushed the lead to their largest, 14, with five minutes left and settled in on defense to see if Dayton had another run left.
They did not. Nared was back in to rebound and enhance the defense.
Deshields scored 23. Russell scored 14 with 10 rebounds, nine defensive. UT did not even attempt a 3. Senior forward Shaquilla Nunn brought 14 off the bench with 15 rebounds, her season’s best.
She is a transfer from Winthrop. That was 10 points above her average, a disruptive stat for any scouring report. She is in the NCAA all-time record book now for Tennessee. Practicing again Russel paid off.
First-year coach Shauna Green had inherited a team with seniors Allen, Christy Macioce, Croatian-born Andrijana Cvitkovic who did her high school work in Indiana at Culver Academy and leading scorer Kelley Austria.
All season, Tennessee had struggled to put wins back-to-back. This is that. But it is also true UT won at South Carolina and Mississippi State, as well as beating another No. 1 seed, Notre Dame and another No. 2, Stanford, all while unranked. They play up tp the ability of their foes. This is also that as next is No. 13 Louisville at Louisville, another SEC/ACC confrontation.
They also hit a 20-win season and are in the Round of 32 as a No. 5 seed.
“Just happy for our effort tonight,” coach Holly Warlick said.
“We need to just attack the moment,” said DeShields. “When you’re on the big stage, you can’t shy away from that. I’ve seen my brother on numerous big stages. I’ve seen my dad on numerous big stages.
“Competitiveness runs in our family. So to just not shy away from it, attack it and be who you are, no matter where you are playing.
She passed 1,000 career points at Tennessee.
“I mean, points are what I do,” she said. “I’d be more excited for like an assists record or rebounding or something like that. I never get too high about points because that’s what my team expects from me each and every night.
“That’s my job. So had it been, like, rebounds, I’d of been, like, what? This is what I came here to do. So I’m happy. Be a contributor, the hard work rewarded.”
Russell said, “Just from the start, us attacking them in transition really helped us out with easy baskets. We were really moving the ball well, getting food cuts and good looks at the basket.”
“Just to piggyback off what Mercedes said. We were also taking care of the basketball. We were utilizing the possessions we had and we were able to hit good open shots. We were hitting those shots.”
Still, there was the usual lack of killer instinct and the 4-of-16 from the field in the second quarter.
“That’s a question we have been trying to answer all season,” DeShields said. “I can look at it like we gave up a lead, but on the other side, they fought back. They’re here for a reason. Credit to them for not giving up.”
“I really think our defensive pressure was huge tonight,” said Russell. “Playing the 3 line, playing defense without fouling and then boxing out. I honestly think we did all three things well.’
“We made them work for good lucks,” said Warlick.
“And they missed fourth-quarter shots. I think it was the pace of the game and our pressure.
That’s what we wanted to do.”
The unexpected gift off the bench delighted every Lady Vol.
“Shaquilla Nunn was outstanding,” said Warlick, “We don’t win if she doesn’t get 15 rebounds and she doesn’t hit 6-for-10.
“That second quarter we were getting good lucks and the shots weren’t falling. Then Jamie Nared got into foul trouble. So I thought Shaquilla was absolutely huge.
“Obviously, Diamond went to her.”
Asia Durr scored 27 to lead Louisville, 82-62 over Chattanooga.
Durr credited her teammates, who set a school record with 28 assists in a tournament game, for her 16th 20-point game of the season.
"They just did a great job of finding me on the court," Durr said. "Coach (Jeff) Walz called a few plays for me as well, and I was able to knock the shot down."
California 55, LSU 52, in the Oklahoma City Regional at Baylor
The Ben-Gals have earned the reputation of a middling team in a great conference. Sometimes, they seem to accept the lower plateaus.
In the conference tournament, they hit 20 wins and quietly faded out.
They earned a spot in the NCAA games but mostly seemed happy with the appearance and ended the season with a second straight loss.
As an example, LSU’s top two scorers went 0-for-13 in the first half.
Four players had 10 points each. Jasmine Rose, Rina Hill and Alexis Hyder ended their careers one and done.
Sophomore Asha Thomas had 4-of-6 3s for Cal. LSU did not account for her. Her 3 with 79 seconds left were the deciding points. Sophomore Kristine Anigwe was 7-of-7 from the line, including two with seven seconds left.
LSU coach Nikki Farkas summed it up: “Again, late game, down the stretch, we’ve got to make plays, and we can’t -- things that we’re going to get nailed out.
“Every play that we missed, every and-one opportunity, we’ve got to go try to score the ball and I think this group is very well aware that they’ve got to make their own breaks.
“I think those are life lessons for them, that you’re going to have to make them in life, as well, when you leave here. It’s a 40-minute game.”
No. 7 Mississippi State (30-4) vs. No. 19 DePaul (27-7) in StarkVegas for the Oklahoma City Regional
No. 19 Kentucky (21-10) vs. No. 11 Ohio State (27-6) at home in the Lexington Regional
No. 24 Missouri (22-10) at No. 10 Florida State (26-6) in the Stockton Regional
No. 3 South Carolina (28-4) vs. Arizona State (20-12) at home for the Stockton Regional.