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, November 14, 2017

Mike Siroky’s SEC Report: Openers Don’t Contain Any Surprises

 By Mike Siroky
 The best Southeastern Conference women’s basketball teams – those ranked by the Associated Press –had a soft start to the season unbeaten, as expected.

These early games are often traditional games – linking back to before the top teams were the top teams – and of regional nature. Players seldom play more than one half in the exhibitions
They strangle the early statistics. Players also arrive on the “watch lists” for various national awards. The lists help identify and contribute to the All-America designations.

Whatever was not completed from the previous season – banners and ring ceremonies – are also finished, mostly to celebrate the fans and impress recruits.

So here we go . . . 
No. 4 South Carolina

The returning national champions served notice in the only exhibition game when this year’s one and done superstar – former Penn State point guard and graduate Lindsey Spann -- scored 20 in the first half and finished with 8 3s in introducing herself.

Bianca Cuevas-Moore is one of 20 national nominees for a guard award, named after Nancy Lieberman. There is one other conference nominee, showing that a guard is a part of a foundation of any successful team. Moore is one of three considered as point at SC. She is recovering from a sprained knee so her senior season has yet to start.

A’Ja Wilson is the SEC representative on the Associated Press All-American preseason team. She was an All-American in the championships season.

 She is also on the national forwards watch list for the Leslie Awards administered by the Basketball Hall of Fame. She is one of four SEC players on the list, not coincidentally all from ranked teams.

The home opener was Alabama State, tripled in points 99-31. They had the banner hanging and rings award in a joyous pre-game. The best draw in the world had 13,723 in attendance. Three single-digit defensive quarters, a sure sign of victory came in the first, second and last segments.

Wilson scored 16 in 14 minutes. Spann also scored 16, 3-of-5 on 3s. Alexis Jennings, the Kentucky transfer, is also a starting forward. Junior guard Te’a Cooper from Tennessee did not play, even in a blowout.

The weird aspect: Reserve Bianca Jackson’s mom, Freda, coaches Alabama State.

SC had 23 offensive rebounds. 

“We have projections we go after and get,” said Wilson. “We were not happy about boxing out on the other end, but we have work to do. We are going to get everyone’s A game every time. It’s go time, we’re back at Stage 1.”

“I get a little nervous then I get excited,” said Spann. “It balances. It’s motivating (to be at SC). I think we do a great job playing off one another.”

This marks coach Dawn Staley’s first decade at SC. She is the longest-serving coach in the country’s best conference.

“It was great,” she said, “great to experience it with our fans. The ovation the excitement. We moved the needle on the defensive standpoint. We got over zealous by the way we were fouling more jump shooters than I would like. But the intensity was there, the focus was there. We have a long way to go.”

The national game of the week was Monday’s first SEC team vs. another ranked team at No. 15 Maryland of the Big Ten, which tipped after the weekly deadline for this report.
No. 7 Mississippi State

Center Teaira McCowan is on the Leslie list. Morgan William is the other conference nominee for the Lieberman award. Victoria Vivians is one of two SEC players on the watch list for the first Anne Meyers national award. Meyers is a celebrated player from UCLA and the Olympics. It is administered by the Womens Basketball Coaches Association.

The returning national runnerup and conference co-favorite celebrated its highest starting ranking ever by winning its exhibition largely, with McCowan scoring 20 in 20 minutes. They hit 15 3s overall.

They welcomed former national contender Virginia of the ACC to StarkVegas to start it for real in a balanced 68-53 win. They do not dodge early challenges.

Vivians led three in triple digits with 22. With her first make of the game, a 3, Vivians moved into third place in MSU scoring history and now has 1,776 career points. 

She is back in the four-guard starting lineup after drifting out at the end of last season. National Australian player and State rookie Chloe Bibby scored 13. “I had no idea she scored 13,” Schaefer said. “It was a quiet 13. Her skill set is really good. Her skill set is a little bit different and we’ll use that. She didn’t miss a shot in practice I told you I was going to play whose hot. I told you I will play who practices best. Of the thousands things in my head I always have one more after practice.”

“I did not know I would play 29 minutes in my first college game,” Bibby said. “But I had my teammates.”

“There is no point in taking bad shots,” said Vivians, “We practiced on it.
“I was more concentrating on defense.”

“Tori (Vivians) made some big shots for us, really critical good shots,” said Schaefer.

Morgan William had seven assists with no turnovers. McCowan was going against a 6-9 defender and so transitioned to doing other things, distributing to the guards.”

They drew 6,811, a few hundred more than last season’s home average.

It may be early, but Schaefer is always in full coach speak mode.

“That felt like an NCAA Tournament game," he said. "Virginia is going to have a great year. This was a heck of a game to play for the opener. I have been sick preparing for what all they like to do.

“We had to play a lot of young players a lot of minutes. We leaned on some veteran players. The only reason we won the game is because we defended."
They hit 5-of-8 3s in the third quarter. Schaefer jumped on the distance train.

“We have a long way to go in so many areas,” he said. “When we made our run, it was on defense. If it wasn’t for transition, it would have been a long night. They were 6-out-10 in the fourth quarter. The kids played hard tonight. The crowd was great. This was a special night for this university."

This week, Georgia State and Southern Miss visit.              

 No. 14 Tennessee

The exhibition victim was literal neighbor Carson-Newman, just across the river from the Tennessee campus and a traditional game. They could have their pre-game meal on their home campus and be back in the dorm before the nightly news. 

UT is unchallenged until next month, so playing time with eight healthy player is crucial. Half of those are rookies in the No. 1 national recruiting class.

“They’re a talented group, and we recruited them with the understanding that they're going to contribute,” said coach Holly Warlick. “Because they are going to contribute and I love what they do. They ask questions when they don’t know, they listen, and they’ve been very respectful. 

“It's hard—time management is tough for these kids. They’re going to school, they’re playing basketball, they're learning a different system, so there's a lot piled on them, and I think if you're willing to ask questions and learn—the four of them have really done that.”

From the get-go, Tennessee’s aim Is to find a home in the middle of the conference, don’t get upset at all and build for the SEC and NCAA tournaments, saving Warlick’s job. With another Top 5  recruiting class signed, the Vols  may just have a basis for hope a season away.

This was another tradition game, with many cross references, against visiting East Tennessee State.

The latest four-guard starting lineup includes rookies Evina Westbrook and Rennia Davis with returnees Meme Jackson and the senior star power of Mercedes Russell and Jamie Nared.Davis got two quick fouls and sat down for awhile.

ETSU burned all it had on a 6-5 start and did not score again in the quarter, setting the marker of a single-quarter defense for UT. The home team had 19
The second was another defensive quarter for the Vols, 18-10, allowing 16 percent from the field for the half. Rookie Anastasia Hayes hit all four free throws and led the very balanced scoring with eight, matching Russell. Nared had eight defensive rebounds.

In the end Tennessee took it, 87-49, with 25 points off  turnovers. They fed the monster in the middle as Russell earned her first double/double, 20 points and 10 rebounds. Maybe when the taller players now rehabbing rejoin the team she will be better established. Nared also doubled up, 13 points and rebounds.

Hayes hit 12-of-13 free throws among 17 points.

"That's just what we're capable of, how we're capable of playing," Nared said. "I don't think we should take any teams lightly."

"They're our leaders," Warlick said of her senior leaders. "They're expected to have big performances. Both of them were solid, vocal, active, rebounded when they needed to, scored when they needed to. They're seasoned vets, and we're going to rely on them a lot."

Warlick has never lost a season-opener. The four freshmen combined for 33 points but 16 of the 24 Vol turnovers.

"Honestly, I don't even notice they are freshmen out there.” Warlick said. “I thought they played well together. The defense was solid, we moved the ball. We're going to rely on those kids. I loved it. I love that they are all producing."

She did see room for improvement, of course.

We had too many turnovers and we gave up too many boards (39),” she said.

Russell also balanced praise with needing to improve.

"I think it was our defense, just getting out and pushing the ball in transition and getting to  the free throw line, Russell said. “We shot about 30 free throws on the night, which is good. We need to make a couple more. I think we really got out and ran on them, which is good. 

I would say (we need to get better) taking care of the ball on offense. We had too many turnovers, but I think we could clean that up easily. Then just getting down on defense, getting down in the stance and boxing out." 

Nared knows where the focus is.

"I think for the most part we played pretty sound defense,” she said. 

“I think we gave up a few lineups and layups which should never happen,” she said.

“I think we just took things away from this game. Obviously, we are getting better from the exhibition games to this game. We gave them 23 offensive rebounds, so that's another aspect that we need clean up on the defensive end. I think we are getting better and I think that it's something that we are looking forward to. Each game just getting better and everything coming together.

"It's encouraging. I think it's just how we need to play all the time. We started off the game on a 17-0 run but it's just how we are capable of playing. I don't think we should take any team lightly. I know we've done that before, but I don't think. this year to take any team lightly. It's to take compete every game and compete our hardest." 

Two ETSU players are from Knoxville, including 6-3 sophomore center  Anajae Stepheny from Warlick’s Bearden High School. The coach is Brittany Ezell, a former two-sport Alabama athlete. Susan Yow of the three coaching sisters got her start there. A former Tennessee player, Tammy Larkey, ended her career there.

Next up this week is unheralded James Madison coming to Rocky Top. The world’s second-best draw had 8,869 for the opener.

  No. 20 Texas A&M

Chennedy Carter, the prohibitive favorite for league rookie-of-the-year, said hello in the exhibition win with 15 points and seven assists. She had no turnovers. 

Danni Williams is the other SEC player on the watch list for the Meyers national award. Khaalia Hillsman is on the Leslie list.

The Aggies also opened at home in the pre-season NIT, 83-65 over Houston of the Big 12. They have won six straight home openers. Hillsman scored 19 with 11 rebounds for the first SEC double/double, her 16th career. She will hit 1,000 career points with 26 more. Williams scored 21, with a career best five 3s. She played 39 minutes. Anriel Howard played 38 and scored 11 with 14 rebounds, 11 defensive.

Carter is the first rookie start at A&M since 2004. She scored 15.

Coach Gary Blair is 12th all-time in coaching wins, 740. They drew 3,085.

“In the first and fourth quarters, we did what we were supposed to,” said Blair.

“ When Chennedy went out of the ball game in the first half due to frustration, the second foul she got, our offense quit running the offense. That’s where I’ve got to have Lulu (McKinney) or Danni be able to run our offense without turning the ball over. I think the turnovers at the end of the second quarter were huge and the other thing was, we had trouble the whole night stopping dribble penetration.

“We opened up in our match-up zone just trying to corral them a little which we were doing early and then, they just put the ball under their wing and went to the basket, spin, reverse. They even missed a bunch of shots that were wide open. 

“Give them credit because they attacked us and that’s what you’ve got to do. We’ve got some things to work on, but I was pleased we had the four get in double figures.

“Danni’s been shooting the ball well. When you spend time in the gym and you get the extra shots, that’s what will happen.”
 Hillsman said: “The beginning of the game emphasis was to start inside out, so to punish them on the inside with me and Anriel and then work our way outside. In the second and third quarter, Houston did a great job of taking me away, but Danni was already on fire, and she just kept shooting, which then allowed our offense to open back up and keep me open.”

 But Houston cut it to four.

“We had to worry about our defense first,” Hillsman said. “Coach (Bob) Starkey was telling us to take away their drives because they were getting every drive they wanted. They were so fast. They warned us about them, but I think we might have underestimated them just a little bit. They were definitely really fast. I think next time, we just have to be more aware of our opponent’s quickness because they were definitely flying everywhere on us. After we fixed our defense, we were running our plays and doing everything we were supposed to do.”

Williams hit back-to-back 3s in the crucial fourth quarter.

“Coach Blair had just called one of the plays and I was open, so I shot it and it went in. Then I think Coach Blair was like ‘Let’s see if she can get another one.’ 

“I give a lot of credit to Houston. When they closed that gap at four points, I think our experience with Khaalia, Anriel, Jasmine (Lumpkin) and I really showed out there tonight because we played a lot of minutes last year. Chennedy can play with us. She is going to learn, so I think overall it was a pretty good game for us.”

In the semifinals, it was again at home, welcoming in Louisiana Lafayette.

The Ragin’ Cajuns won the opening quarter but A&M settled and won the rest in an 83-62 final. 

The Aggies led 33-30 at halftime, but back-to-back 3-pointers from Williams and Lulu McKinney help close the third on a 21-6. The rookie Carter led them with 18 points.  Howard  scored 17 with 14 rebounds, seven defensive, Williams 16 and Hillsman 11 with 11 rebounds, eight defensive.

“One of our goals on the board was to get 30 free throw attempts after we got 36 the last time. We hit it on the nose.” Blair said.

“I think we are doing a great job of driving the basketball and not just being a jump-shooting team, which is what we have been in the past. Hillsman is a load inside, but they were doing a great job on her early. 

“We didn’t have any turnovers in the second half. Khaalia opens it up for everybody else because that is who they are going in to stop first. I thought Howard had a solid game. 

“Lulu McKinney was the story of the game. She changed the atmosphere. Lulu is not that quick, but she goes hard, and she can follow a game plan. We were running our stuff pretty good in the second quarter, so I left her in the third quarter. 

“With our small lineup, it was pretty effective because we were scoring. Our rebounding was good the whole game, and our press was in-and-out good. 

We were trying to make them play faster than they wanted to play. We are going to take it as a win. Danni  has given me two very, very good ballgames. I have been pleased with her in her first two ballgames.”

 He singled Howard out for her work ethic.

“She put more time in the gym than even Williams did this summer and that is hard to do. She really said, ‘I want to be more than one-dimensional.’

“She really worked on the drive and her outside game. It gives us a threat (on the outside) because they are sagging in. If she has her feet, she has the green light to shoot that 3. She has to learn how to drive and pass when they take that away. She has to realize there are other options in the offense.”
 His adjustment at halftime was simple.

“We kept them in front of us on the drive a little bit better,” Blair said. “Coach Starkey gave his sermon. We just decided they are going to have to stop us inside first. Then, let’s get into transition. We have to be a running team to keep people from sagging and taking a lot of our set plays.”
Howard faulted herself for the slow start

“We came out not fully ready to play, she said. “We kind of underestimated them and they gave us their all and did really well, so once it clicked for us we turned the game around.

“I think I still have to improve on finishing. I have also been working all summer on my 3s, midrange, and finishing with contact, so I just have to keep improving on that, but definitely finishing is something I am aiming for.”

 Carter is working to get up to speed

 “I feel like I played with a little more sense of urgency” she said. “I feel like my teammates kept me involved and kept me pushing. They pretty much told me to just keep shooting and don’t worry about last game. I feel like I focused on this game and just went out there to compete and it made a difference.”

The Aggies earned a game with No. 11 Oregon at home in the NIT semifinals this week. “I hope  people realize more than likely we are bringing in a top 10 team to play,” Blair said. “I hope everybody comes out because you’re going to see a Sweet 16 or Elite Eight type of game. Let’s get the students out and the town people out. They are going to see a great game.”

They drew 2,867 for this one.

For the second straight season, Missouri has declined to participate in our coverage.


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