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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.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Mike Siroky’s SEC Report: Gut Checks Everywhere

By Mike Siroky

The Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball had gut checks everywhere  and most of them belong to Tennessee’s unfathomable schedule. 

The Lady Vols dropped the undefeated flag, leaving Mississippi State alone to carry that banner.

South Carolina did not have available the best player in the conference, A’ja Wilson. They played a step behind, losing a home game. In past seasons, not winning all the home games generally meant not winning the conference title.

Late in the previous game against Auburn, Wilson injured her right ankle. At the time, it was dismissed as no big deal. It was a big deal. In the pregame for Tennessee, she had a pink soft cast on it and was getting around on an non mechanized scooter, no pressure on the ankle.

Several players advanced to the Wooden Award Midseason list. Wilson, of course, but Jamie Nared and Mercedes Russell from Tennessee, Victoria Vivians and Teaira McCowan from Mississippi State and rookie Chennedy Carter of Texas A&M.

 No. 4 Mississippi State

Everything State does runs through superlative center Teaira McCowan.

She is the reason they lead the SEC pack. They are one win away from 20 Halfway into January; they have qualified for the NCAA eliminations. They took out two middlin’ teams this week, one of them possibly a ninth SEC team in the big tournament.

What coach Vic Schaefer sees is the view of the non-stars.

Jordan Danberry wanted to come to State from the start. As the Arkansas high school player of the year, she caved to the pressure of well-meaning homestate folks but soon discovered Arkansas did not have a real.

So it was back to her first best choice.

“I think Jordan is trying to find her way right now,” said Schaefer of the transition. “She’s streaky. I thought she played really well against Arkansas. The importance of taking care of the ball is very important. When you’re just scrimmaging every day, sitting out when you’re not going to play – Myah Taylor will you right now: I’m on her for turning the ball over.

“Don’t get comfortable turning the ball over in practice because that one day, at one point, it isn’t going to be okay. I think for Jordan, she got to make some really great passes against Arkansas and that’s her point guard mentality coming out. She sees the floor extremely well. I think that’s just something that she brings to the table. 

“She not only can get to her spots on the floor when she wants to, but she sees the floor extremely well. So I think she’s settling it and becoming more and more comfortable and trying to figure out what’s needed when she comes in.”

His senior point guard, Morgan William, agrees. “I think she did a pretty great job,” William said. “I see it every day in practice. I see her making big shots; so when she gets comfortable in the game, they are going to fall for her. Sometimes she gets upset when they don’t fall for her, but I know it’s coming. When they do start falling, I’m really going to be happy for her because I know it will really help our team.”

Another growth spurt is due from Australian import, Chloe Bibby.

“For Chloe, it was a really special to know that her parents flew 22 hours from Australia, landed and were able to see her play for her college team their first time in America was pretty special,” Schaefer said.

 “It was a pretty neat deal. She played 23 minutes, big minutes, for us. I think she had ten points and had four rebounds, maybe. I thought she did a good job and really helped us when Victoria got in foul trouble, the first time Victoria has gotten in foul trouble all year. I thought she did a really good job for us.”

William welcomed the help when Vivians had to sit.

“We put Chloe in as a four. I thought she did a good job. She didn’t miss a beat. She’s not the attacker that Victoria is, but she can go out there and shoot the ball. She stretches the floor as well. It wasn’t too many curve balls. I think Chloe stepped up and did a good job for us.”

 “Coach always tells us when our names are called, be ready. That day Chloe was ready. Her whole family was there. I am proud for her.”

Against Ole Miss, the Bulldogs issued single-digit discipline on defense in the first and last quarters to win easily, 76-45. McCowan was the main prosecutor, 12-of-13 from the floor, with four blocks in just 26 minutes.

“She's realizing how great she really is,” State guard Blair Schaefer said.

“I'm proud of a lot of things tonight,” Vic Schaefer said. “I thought we responded tonight and showed some toughness in some situations where maybe we haven't in the past.”

Ole Miss coach Matt Insell said his team played hard, but had no answer for McCowan. Her 92.3 percent ties her own school record for shooting percentage in a game.

“She's one of the best players in college basketball,’ Insell said. They drew 761, near capacity at State.

Next up was Alabama and a celebratory crowd of 9,010. The 28-8 single-digit lockdown in the second quarter signaled the end then, with a final of 75-61. Schaefer likes the defensive stand by his backup guards, Danberry and Jazzmun Holmes.

“Jazz and Jordan came in during that second quarter and really made a difference,” Schaefer said. “They played extremely well and impacted the game.”

Mississippi State earned its 11th straight victory by double digits, but this one was more difficult than most.

Alabama had a surprising 20-16 lead at the end of the first quarter. Hannah Cook hit a pair of 3s to jump-start the Crimson Tide's offense.

A frustrated Schaefer inserted Holmes and Danberry and that’s when things started to turn around. The duo helped force 10 Alabama turnovers during the second quarter as the Bulldogs rallied for a 44-29 lead by halftime.

“It's hard to be 19-0 in this league,” Schaefer said. “We've played an incredibly tough schedule, but you know what, we've played it with some incredibly tough kids.”

Vivians scored 21 points while McCowan had 19 points and 16 rebounds for her SEC-leading 14th double-double. Vivians scored in double figures for the 18th time in 19 games this season. Roshunda Johnson added 14 points.

Vivians said she wasn't surprised that some of the team's best moments on Sunday came when backups were on the floor.

“We feel like the starters can take a break, other people can come in and make the game better,” Vivians said.

They have a week off before a showdown at Tennessee which inevitably decides the conference regular-season title. Thanks to No. 2 Notre Dame’s whalloping by Louisville, they oughta be the No.2 team in America.

No. 6 Tennessee

The Lady Vols stayed next-best in the conference.

Texas A&M had a fundamental plan to win: Use only the starters on offense.  Once UT lost the third quarter by six, they needed to win the fourth by three to fashion a 70-70 regulation tie. Rebounds were even at 42. No one was in foul trouble.

Seniors Jamie Nared and Mercedes Russell let the game come to them. With two free throws each to start OT. Minutes passed with rushes and miscues. Khaalia Hillsman finally hit two free throws for the visitors.

Russell hit a jumper to untie it, but Evina Westbrook fouled Danni Williams on a 3 and she hit all three.

“I thought I was going to throw up,” Williams said. “I knew I just needed to breathe and relax, and treat them like everyday free throws.” 

Westbrook turned it over and Nared had to foul. Williams sealed the deal with two more free throws, 79-76.

“You've got to at least get a shot off there, and we didn't,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “It's another learning opportunity for us.”

No one on the A&M bench scored a point. “Yes, we were dead tired and, yes, I probably should have subbed more,” A&M coach Gary Blair said. “But this team is used to playing those kinds of minutes, and every possession was so important.”

Russell scored 21 with 10 rebounds, Nared scored 18. The bench scored 16.

A&M had 22 each from Hillsman and Williams and 21 from Chennedy Carter. 

Williams was 7-of-7 and Hillsman 6-of-6 from the line.

As sometimes happens in SEC games, one side was awarded way less free throws than the home team, 11 for Tennessee, 26 for the Aggies. Blair declined to comment on his windfall and Holly Warlick never plays for the ratings. 

She guessed her team was seen as less aggressive. This is two weeks in a row where inequal officiating affected top teams in a road loss. The league needs to address this.

“We'll go back and get better,” Warlick said. “Hats off to A&M, they battled and they got the win. Both teams were getting after it. It was a fun game, and our young kids will learn from this.”

The difference is in style, who created contact and how it is viewed by officials. The unafraid team had its play pay off.

At South Carolina, the statistical matchup was most efficient offense (.498 field goal percentage) against its most effective defense with South Carolina shooting the league-best and Tennessee leading the league with .344 field goal percentage defense.

But all that hinges on reality. The reality of this one was the best player in the league, A’ja Wilson, did not play.

Last season at this time, UT was the only team in the nation to win at both South Carolina and Mississippi State, the eventual national title game contenders. They  also had a wild player to interject when needed.

That also brought drama.

This season, the Lady Vols are a better team with addition by attrition and more reliable, coachable.

Unfettered by weird foul irregularities, the visitors stayed with a plan. There was no guarantee of a win, but UT won each of the first three quarters and had an 11-point buffer into the fourth.

Mercedes Russell and Jamie Nared each had 14. Nared was 10-of-11 from the line. Anastasia Hayes, 4-of-5 from the field, brought 11 off the bench.

Tyasha Harris gamely kept SC in it. She was 4-of-6 from the line, 8-of-13 from the field including 3-of-6 3s.

Even though the roar of the 14,763 crowd caused a small infusion of energy, SC never got closer than four but was gassed. UT ripped off a 16-6 close en route to the 86-70 win. 

Russell concentrated on defense in the second half and double up with 12 rebounds, 10 defensive. Evina Westbrook scored 16 with five assists. She had five of the seven, including a 3. Nared and Russell also scored when needed. Harris finished with 28 for the home side, her best outing.

“All my teammates, every single one, had my back,” Westbrook said. “I had to learn from it, move on and on to the next one.”

Russell said she and Nared let their young teammate know that everyone makes mistakes and that Westbrook needed to shake off the end of the A&M game. “You can't get it back so forget about it,” Russell said. “Do the best that you can moving forward.”

It is SC’s worst home loss since 2013, when Tennessee administered a similar whipping.

“This is how we used to beat up on people in this league the last four years,” Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said with a grin. “It doesn't feel so good on the receiving end.”

The Vols continue the toughest road trip of anyone this season the annual debacle at No. 2 Notre Dame before Mississippi State visits in their league off week, only two Sunday games. Warlick has said  the league did not do them any favors.

But she also said the ND game was a tribute to Pat, her mentor Pat Head Summitt, and part of a UT tradition. They are 16-1 already qualified the for NCAA eliminations.

No. 7 South Carolina

Before Tennessee, Carolina finished the trail of woe for Auburn: Road games at Tennessee and SC sandwiched around a home date with A&M.

It was over early as Lindsey Spann hit 2-of-4 3s, A’ja Wilson was 3-of-3 inside and Alexis Jennings 2-of-2 as the Gamecocks cruised to a 30-10 opening quarter. Tyasha Harris already had six assists. Everybody would get playing time.

Wilson finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds, eight defensive. They eased away. 71-63, winning the first and last quarters. She was hobbling a bit as the game wound down, but Harris assured everyone it was no big deal.

Coach Dawn Staley assessed it as a minor sprain, that perhaps a day off would be in order before the Gamecocks welcomed in Tennessee for the week’s finale. Wilson hit two free throws early to push past the program career mark of 2,000 points.

Staley just wants basic basketball. She said when the Gamecocks get up early, they can lose focus and look to make stunning, ooh-and-ahh, no-look passes and long 3-pointers. “We try to swing for the fences and hit home runs,” she said. “Singles are fine. Doubles are fine.’’

After this, SC takes two road winnables, UK and Vandy.

No. 17 Texas A&M

Unnranked Georgia was 6-0 on the road and had a three-game winning streak.
A&M did not get the home benefit at the line it got against Tennessee.

Amazing how those two undercurrents collided.

Without extra free throws, A&M lost to unranked Georgia, eliminating itself from the SEC conference race with the OT home loss, 92-84.

Chennedy Carter had 31 points, one of four in double figures, including Senior Khaalia Hillsman was named SEC Player of the Week, keeping the upperclass march alive.

Freshman Gabby Connally returned to her home state and scored 37, 15 in overtime, before 4,702 witnesses.

Connally, from San Antonio, came in averaging 8.8 points per game with a season-high of 13 but against the Aggies made 10 of 17 shots, including four 3s, plus 13-of-14 free throws. 

Her 37 points rank third all-time among Georgia freshmen behind Coco Miller (45 in 1997) and Janet Harris (39 in 1982). Mackenzie Engram made 6-of-7 3s, tying a career high with 23 points while Caliya Robinson scored 18 with a career-high 19 rebounds.

Connally made 5 of 6 free throws in the final minute. A&M missed its final five field-goal attempts.

“I thought we had the game in hand through the third quarter then they made some uncharacteristic turnovers that gave us a little life,”

“In the fourth quarter when they made three shots in a row, I thought that was the turning point when we had the lead and then all of the sudden we went from a seven to eight point game to they were up by two and making shots. (Gabby) Connally had her career game, but the difference was (Caliya) Robinson. 

“We had some very good shots, and then we had some poor shots that we were trying to do it individually and not collectively. Every game that we have this year in conference is going to be very similar to this. We are going to have to fight through it, and we are going to have to have some young players mature on the scene and some older players step up and be the all-conference performers they are. 

“We ran some sets and sometimes we weren't patient. One time I ran a perfect set when she had their back up post player in there and what did we do? We backed out of the thing. Chennedy got down there, and she backed out after a free throw play, so we threw it to Danni, and we were playing pop a shot in there.

“What we need to do is find Khaalia. When they rested Robinson, we didn’t take advantage of Khaalia inside. When we got Anriel at the high post when they were doubling over her, she knocked down two or three of those shots, and that is what we have to have. 

“Her trouble was scoring when she did a great job on the offensive boards. She is just awfully small, and that is the best defensive player we have played this year. I mean it looked like Robert Williams last year. We were doing a lot of things well, but so was the other team. This is the SEC. We signed up for this.”
Trend: Tennessee is tied for the lead in conference team offense, yet their best scorer ranks seventh among individuals, showcasing coach Holly Warlick’s theories of team before individual.

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


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