Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Two Carry The League Forward to The Sweet Sixteen
The end is the beginning for the Southeastern Conference women’s basketball season. The top two from the start are the top two at the end.
South Carolina may be a little more reduced with the loss of its senior center. Mississippi State has revised its lineup to start a taller center with years remaining and has benched its leading scorer until and unless she can find a championship rhythm.
South Carolina is actually reduced; Mississippi State is purposely reduced.
They head into the Sweet 16 this weekend, projected to the Elite Eight and perhaps breaking the league drought of national titles since Tennessee’s win in 2008.
South Carolina first made a Final Four in 2015. That conference is so faded into history that even coach Pat Head Summitt’s record number of NCAA tournament victories will next be eclipsed by Geno Auriemma and Connecticut of the mighty American Athletic Conference.
That league has three titles, or as many as the Big 12.
Right now, it says here, either advancing would be an upset.
Friday: Mississippi State (31-4) vs. Washington (29-5)
This is a No. 2 vs. a No. 3.
W ash i ngton, of course, was in the Final Four last season and so is a surprise no more. They also have the NCAA’s best scorer in Kelsey Plum.
That collides directly with the Bulldogs’ barking about defense, the career specialty of State coach Vic Schaefer.
Mississippi State allows 52.6 points per game. Washington averages 85.6. Whoever controls this part of the matchu p obviously advances.
On the flip side, Mississippi State averages 76.3 and these Huskies allow 63.7.
Senior guard Kelsey Plum, 5-8, is everybody’s All-American. She averages 31.8. the only other double-figure scorer is 6-2 senior Chantel Osafor.
Dominique Dillingham is the Mississippi State player most often tasked with guarding the best opposing scorer.
“We’re probably going to have to do some things with more than just Dominique and that’s the challenge with trying to come up with a game plan for somebody as great as her,” Schaefer said. “You better have more than one plan going in with her because if one doesn’t work, you go to the next one.
“Once that ball is in her hands, she is really making some great decisions,” Schaefer said.
“What she does is at an all-time level, something that has never been done.”
In the qualifying game, “Everybody was so worried about her, they’re helping off their man and the other players are knocking down shots,” Dillingham said. “I think they had 18 threes last night.
“So she’s just an all-around great player. I think we will have a great game plan for her and it is going to be a team effort. It’s not going to be just me.”
Victoria Vivians still leads Mississippi State at 16.1 points per game. Morgan William is at 10.2. Teaira McCowan is the new starting center with a seven rebounds per game average. State has not lost a game outside of conference.
Once they had a relatively bad offensive run in the conference tournament, Schaefer was not afraid to bench his all-conference center Okorie or shooter, Vivians.
For that matter, his sparkplug point guard William also saw limited time, still a starter but only 15 minutes played in the qualifying game because she was injured.
None of this is to say they will not start again.
Schaefer merely decided to let those who had watched the majority of a special season from the bench apply what they had learned, messing up the scouting reports in the process.
Of course, he was not yet coach of they year in conference as selected by the sorority of coaches . . . yet he plays on while the one who did get gifted the award lost two of three and her team is watching the tournament from here on.
He is unquestionably one of the best coaches in America if his own conference cohorts refuse to acknowledge, for the final four vote of the national honor, the only conference coach so elevated.
That’s is three of five by any math.
“We’re playing some different combinations right now (but) it’s not like we just threw them together," Schaefer said. "I’ve been seeing them in practice for a while. I’m not so reliable on one or two kids right now. We’ve got a lot of kids that are doing good things right now.”
His own daughter, Blair, responded with a career-high 21 points in the first NCAA game and then 18 in the second, including eight 3’s those games.
She said the urgency for her is knowing the pressure a dad can be under for playing his own kid and that she always is aware her “window” of opportunity is a small one.
“I won’t be able to outrun the number of people in this world wondering what the heck I’ve been doing with her,” the coach said. “She’s had two really good games back-to-back making shots. I was concerned with her about the matchup defensively and it never bothered her.”
William’s backup at point, Jazzmun Holmes, also erupted with a career-best 14 points, six assists, two steals, two rebounds and just one turnover.
“Coach just always talks about having poise and playing with a chip on your shoulder,” Holmes said. “I just felt like they couldn’t guard me. It felt like high school again and nobody could guard me.”
The opportunity came because William has a hurt finger – Schaefer also said Vivians had been playing while being “nicked up” – but, really it is an example of a coach who will play the hot hand.
He keeps his bench focused. He said the first steal Holmes got is because of what she had witnessed on the bench.
“You want them to be learning and see what’s happening so they can come in and make a play. That shows me that kid is engaged. That’s what our team needed.”
So, now, the Bulldogs have the equivalent of eight starters and it doesn’t matter who is up first.
No other team is going to have the best shooter, the best defensive center and the best playmaker coming in fresh as needed.
If the opponents fail to gameplan for that, they will get burned.
Sometimes, you take risks and run with it.
The Dogs are barking right now.
Saturday: South Carolina (29-4) vs. Quinnipiac (29-6)
This is a No. 1 vs. a No. 12 seed. If you had to play a team from Connecticut in the Sweet 16 and had a choice, you’d obviously choose the Bobcats.
Quinnipiac has three seniors. Addily Martucci, Morgan Manz and Brianah Ramos.
Manz came off the bench to hit six of eight 3s during a career-high 22 just to get here. The Bobcats hit 15 of 26 3s. By the way, they had never won an NCAA game until this season.
“My teammates and coaches are more confident than I am in my shot,” Manz said. “I just did what my coaches have been asking me to do for the past four years.
“I just let it fly because we had nothing to lose.”
They have two 10-point scorers, Martucci and Jen Fay. Not a lot of oomph.
The team scores 69, on average. South Carolina allows 57. The Gamecocks score 77 per game, 20 above what Quinnipiac has allowed.
South Carolina, among its many guard blessings, has a rookie running point.
Tyasha Harris of Indiana has established the Gamecocks will have no questions in that area for years to come.
Not even Vic Schaefer of in-conference rival Mississippi State. He credits Harris with having the presence to control the conference championship game.
He said it is “pretty special.”
She plays, of course, for one of the legendary point guards in Dawn Staley.
A three-time Gold medalist as the United States Olympic point guard and the next U.S. coach for the Games.
Staley has infused her with confidence, telling her to just play her own game, to let it come to her by defining the game, not letting the game define her.
This time last season, she had not yet committed to South Carolina, waiting until after the tournament, having analyzed the other top teams.
Having mastered the blend for this year’s run, Staley brings her team in with the usual preparation.
“At this stage of the game, everybody’s a threat” she said. “The ones that are supposed to be here are here. We’re going to approach it as any other team.
“They play a different style. But it’s not a deal like we had to prep one day. That’d be a little more difficult.
“After four days, we’ll be used to their style.”
Allisha Gray ended her Sweet 16 qualifying early, literally carried off the court with at the time looked like a serious leg injury.
It was not.
“She’s going to be fine,” Staley said. “She’s gonna go. She’s not going to let this opportunity pass.
“It wasn’t like it was her decision. It wasn’t her decision. It was mine. It was just a bad Charlie horse, her hamstring.”
She said they have adjusted to the reality of losing their “big,” senior center Alaina Coates, to injury, but the team just looks to the next available talent and a different, faster style with a four-guard universe and All-America forward A’ja Wilson.
”You have to go with what you have,” said Staley.
“If it’s seven, if it’s eight or nine, with what feels good and what is working. We shortened our bench (use) a little bit against Arizona State because that was enough.”
The swing across time zones is all part of the preparation.
“You leave one day earlier,” said Staley. “We left Wednesday. We will practice at the time of the game time.
“Once we land, just get acclimated. Everybody’s acclimating. Even Oregon State (in the other half of the bracket) is coming from playing on the East Coast.
“So you just get acclimated.”
And you play on.