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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 01, 2018

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: The Conference Battles Begin

By Mike Siroky

The best conference – the Southeastern --  started league play on New Year’s Eve, so technically completed 2017 and started 2018 all at once, including a terrific Top 25 matchup, the first of many for the league. 

Two teams, Mississippi State and South Carolina, showed the overall health of their respective schools by campaigning on with vigor while the schools’ football teams also won bowl games during the New Year’s seasons. Tennessee has both basketball programs in the national rankings.

Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia all showed they are unlikely winners of the league by losing at home, following the formula of teams which win all their home games win the conference.


No. 4 South Carolina 

The Gamecocks opened with a ranked opponent, No. 22 Texas A&M.

No surprise that A’Ja Wilson, the best player in the conference and a certifiable All-American, is now third on the all-time SC scoring list at 1961. She also has led the Gamecocks to 100 straight weeks in the AP poll, a program best.

The Gamecocks had a 5-4 edge in the series since A&M joined the league. 

The Aggies refused to lose despite a 20-11 first quarter deficit. By the end of the half, they had the score down to 27-25.

 Rookie Chennedy carter has hit double figures in every game, the first in program history. She had 13 then. Rebounding specialist Anriel Howard battled to eight, five on offense for second chances.

SC had weathered a seven-point defensive stop and so needed to break that new standard of defense if they were to win.

A&M was on a 10-2 run for the final 8:10 of the half, topped by a Carter 3 with four seconds left. 

Hello league, this newbie is ready. The third was more A&M defense. The lead was seven when Dannii Williams fed Carter for a streaking layup with four minutes left in the quarter. Carter hit another jumper and had scored 26.

A’ja Wilson had a dozen points and nine rebounds but three fouls with three minutes left in the third.

Still SC scored the first eight points of the fourth and tied it at 49 with seven minutes left. Just your usual SEC slugfest. 

Doniyah Cliney opened the quarter with a layup and a jumper, each assisted by Tyasha Harris as Dawn Staley ran the offense through another route. 

Carter missed a layup and a jumper. Wilson made a block and claimed the rebound. Cliney returned the assist favor to Harris for a score. Wilson scored. Assist Harris. Carter got an offensive rebound, but missed the jumper. Wilson took that rebound, then Carter fouled her.

Either each defense was tight, or each side was troubled. More misses, then Wilson got fouled and hit two. Fouls and more misses then Cliney hit a layup. But there was plenty of time left in a 53-49 game, the home team leading.

Inside of the next minute, there were steals, turnovers, misses and finally Carter cut it to two with a layup. Timeout SC.  Off the timeout, SC forced a foul and then Wilson hit a jumper. Carter missed and Wilson took the rebound, fed it to Alexis Jennings and she scored her second basket of the game against a 12.4 average.

Dannii Williams – finally someone else from A&M willing to shoot – scored. Misses and rebounds, rebounds and misses. Carter was fouled on her way to another basket and hit both from the line.

Tie game at 1:49.

More misses.

Williams made a turnover with four seconds left, the Aggies’ 11th. Immediate timeout.

Who would you feed?

The best player in the league of course. Wilson made the layup.

She finished with 12 points in the quarter, 26 overall with 11 defensive rebounds among her 15. Cliney scored 16 and Harris 11.

Carter had 36 points, four 3s, 15-of-37 overall. This is just the first against a quality defense, so expect more to come. She took 37 of A&M’s 59 shots. For the mathematically challenged, that’s 63 percent.

 “As for as A'ja Wilson, it's bittersweet.” Dawn Staley said. “I see a tremendous player who has developed into somebody who is really special. She’s reading the defense a lot quicker. She’s very complete. 

“I don’t think there’s another player in the country like her from a collegiate or pro standpoint. Her ability to dribble the basketball, consistently make outside shots, rebound the basketball on both sides of the court. Now's just her hopefully taking us to another championship.”

The best crowd im the world checked in at 13,341.

Lindsey Spann had missed four SC games with a banged-up restructured knee. She returned and the fine experiment for the Penn State graduate transfer continues. In a game where every point was needed, her one made basket, a 3, was significant. They were the only bench points. A&M did not get a bench point.

Due up is at 10-3 Ole Miss.

No. 5 Mississippi State

Senior Victoria Vivians started her last SEC season as the Player-of-the-Week. As we projected in our preseason look at the league, seniors rule this year, with all but one Player-of-the-Week in the graduating class. Vivians is averaging 19.8 points per game on 54.9 percent shooting from the field. Her 41.4-percent conversion rate on 3s is the best of the Bulldogs.

They also opened at a competitive second-tier team at Georgia with 12 wins and unranked. 

But, Georgia has won every game in Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer’s reign.

The Georgia bench had scored 144 in the previous five games, 20 in this one.

Three of these Lady Bulldogs’ Top 5 scorers are first year players -- Que Morrison, Taja Cole and Gabby Connally. This is the best start for coach Joni Taylor. 

She needs eight SEC wins to return to the NCAA  eliminations. She missed it last season. 

While 12-2 would be celebratory in other conferences, it is not so much in the SEC. They drew 3,614 for their previous game, 2,934 for State.

The visitors won every quarter of the 86-62 romp.

Center Teaira McCowan continued her inside dominance into league play, 26 points and 13 rebounds.

"I have never won here," said Schaefer, speaking of his time as an assistant coach and as a head coach. "It is good to finally walk off with a victory."

The previous win was 72-71 in 2002.

Vivians scored 20, Roshunda Johnson added 16.

The coaches agree Mississippi State's inside-outside balance is formidable.

"With our shooters, we make it hard to guard us," Schaefer said. "We got a lot of good looks today."

Two years ago Georgia held Mississippi State to 43 points, and last year, State won 58-49, trailing with nine minutes to play.

"They are much better offensively," Georgia coach Joni Taylor explains. "If you play them man, they go inside. If you zone, they stretch you. We did not mix up our defense well enough. They have a really good team. They are better offensively than they have been, than even last year. 

“When they are all hitting, it makes it extremely tough.”

McCowan scored nine of Mississippi State's 16 in the first quarter. She had 12 rebounds in the first half when she already earned her double/double, her seventh straight.

Mississippi State came in accustomed to a fast start, averaging a 25-13 first-quarter spread. But it was Georgia that bolted out of the gate, scoring the first two baskets in less than a minute, prompting an early timeout call by Schaefer.

"After that timeout, until the last five minutes, we played special today," Schaefer said. "We have been practicing against a six-man zone to make the extra pass, and we did today."

Due up next up for State is the home crowd for improved Arkansas. They lead the league at 16-0, two more than anyone else. The probable theoretical is 19 by the Jan. 21 game at Knoxville.


They closed the non-conference season with the Mississippi sweep, against winless Mississippi Valley State and its new coach. Maybe the best nickname in women’s college basketball, the Devilettes.

A basketball exorcism, 112-36, the middle quarters each single-digit defensive efforts.

It was the McCowan show, 41 points in a career best and the fourth-best crowd in program history – 8,535 – appreciated by Schaefer. They have raised the attendance bar three times in the seasons of this year’s senior class. And they could once again win 30 this season.

The Bulldogs are living in the program’s Golde Age. No one will ever doubt this was the start of the national footprint.    


“I want to thank the crowd,” Schaefer said. “They provided a great atmosphere for our student-athletes and for Mississippi Valley’s. The second and third quarters were more indicative of what we are expecting out of this program.”

They scored the program’s third-largest point total, while matching the second-largest margin of victory in a game. McCowan had the 12th 40-plus point game in school history, tying Morgan William for eighth place in one fewer season.

“Teaira was dominating,” Schafer said. “Even though she does not have a lot of size on her, she is making some shots. She has that touch that you need to make more shots. She is getting better each game. I am pleased with T. She was a good helper.”

McCowan’s 41 points includes 13 rebounds and five blocked shots for her 10th double/double of the season.

Victoria scored 16 with six rebounds, Roshunda Johnson scored 14. Jordan Danberry led the team with seven assists, while Johnson and Blair Schaefer each had five.

State hit 12 of 19 shots from the field for a second straight quarter to build a 59-20 lead at halftime. They shot 61 percent from the field for the game, including eight 3s with 28 assists and six turnovers.

No. 7 Tennessee

Tennessee point guard Evina Westbrook was instrumental in knocking Stanford out of the national rankings. Hers career-high 17 points, with four rebounds, a block and a steal make her the league Freshman-of-the-Week.

Then, oh to bring the fabulous freshmen to open conference play at a serious rival, which the Lady Vols did at formerly ranked Kentucky. 

The Kats were on an 0-5 skid with no wins against ranked teams. In the preseason we glumly projected all the transfers out and the graduation of the remaining best players would severely weaken this program. That appears to be exactly what has happened. 

The Vols stomped them from the start, a 26-7 quarter, laying down the marker of a single-digit defensive effort. Westbrook had 13 at the half with 3-of-4 3s. It was 36-20. UK was hitting 23 percent from the floor.

The Vol wall of defense continued in the third which ended 49-31. No Kat was in double figures. Westbook was up to 15, 6-of-8 from the floor, and Russell was at 12, with three blocks and five defensive rebounds.

It meandered to a 63-49 end. Jamie Nared scored all 11 of her points in the fourth and double up with 10 rebounds. Westbrook scored 17 and Russell 16 to complete balanced scoring.

Coach Holly Warlick acknowledged the rivalry.

“It’s been a while since we’ve been up here and gotten a win,” she said.

“We focused on a couple of things. One was to take away their transition baskets and I thought we did a good job there. Second was rebounding. 

“Kentucky is a great rebounding team. We wanted to make sure we zeroed in on that and I thought we did an awesome job. And thirdly, we did what we practice, and as coaches, when you practice things and see them on the court is awesome. 

“And the only thing we didn’t do is we didn’t understand what a charge was. So, we’ll go back home and make sure they know what a charge is.”

Jamie Nared had a very quiet game, with her slow start.

It did not affect the team. 

“Jaime Nared came out of the game and I said ‘Great game.’ ” Warlick said. “I didn’t even know she was 2-of-11. I just saw her be a great leader. I saw her rebound. She had assists and steals. She had to do those things outside of scoring.

“ I didn’t think we let up, but we missed easy shots. I just love our energy and effort and how we are playing together. I would love for us to play a perfect game, but we’re not. Our goal was to be 1-0 in the SEC for today and we are that.”

She praised her two freshman guards, Westbrook and Rennia Davis (nine points, 11 rebounds).

“They are two outstanding freshmen point guards for us. They are two different styles, which I love. I am not surprised by them bonding at one of the all-star games in the summer, and they came in to Tennessee and it wasn’t about them. 

“In this day and time, that is hard to find. They came in wanting to learn and the upperclassmen came back to step up and go, ‘You know what, we need you.’ The freshmen listened, the upperclassmen were respectful, knew we were going to go through ups and downs. 

“You know, coming into the SEC with the schedule we played and those two leading our team is outstanding and I can’t say enough about them both. They’re poised. They make turnovers, but I told them the only time I am going to get upset with turnovers is when we are not attacking the basket or we are not trying to make a play.”

 So this year’s no-drama team has been a refreshing change from the recent past.

 “I can tell you how much fun it is,” Warlick said. “I got braces and I love to smile. Usually, I’m not going to smile with braces. 

“Any coach knows that when you got talent that’s great, but when talent works hard and listens, you love it. When they want to learn, talent and these kids make you look like a great coach.

“ And my job and the staff’s job is to put them in the right situation to be successful. They’ve got to be willing to learn and listen as well, and I think you’re seeing an example of these kids being willing to put their individual goals and what they want to do individually to the side and do a lot for this basketball team.”

Russell liked the focus on defense.

 “I think our defense was really good tonight from the start,” she said. “We played really good. Our communication was on point. So, I think we really relied on our defense tonight, even though we weren’t making shots that we usually do.”


They mixed in a lot of zone defense.

“I would say that it’s very effective, but I think just depending on what team we’re playing, I mean that was part of our game plan, just kind of throw them off a little, ’cause they’re used to getting in the rhythm in man-to-man,” she observed. “So, I think zone is very good for us. I think today we played it very well and that’s the best we’ve played all year, and obviously their shooters hit a couple 3s but I think we limited them as much as we could.”

 Westbrook, training on the job, sees room for personal improvement.

“Personally I just have to take care of the ball better, point blank,” she said. “As a point guard, as I said last game, I can’t have the highest turnovers for the team. That’s not how that should be, but I just have to get past it and get better next game.”

 As Warlick said, the freshmen look to the seniors.

“It’s been amazing, especially playing alongside Mercedes,” Westbrook said. “She’s so smart, it makes my job a lot easier that she knows what I’m doing at all times. She knows when my passes are coming, and that’s just kind of as the season goes on, it amazes me more that she knows what I’m going to do before I do it.”

Even while patiently waiting this game, for Nared to arrive, Westbrook sounded more like an upperclassman herself.

“Everyone has their games. Everyone has games where they’re not gonna hit all their shots. She’s been good for us just scoring-wise, but she did a lot of stuff defensively that helped us as well. So her not scoring a lot, we just had to. Everyone else had to contribute, and I think everyone else did a good job.”

They await Auburn in their conference home opener. The Tigers won by 18 at home in UT’s rollercoaster ride last season.

No. 22 Texas A&M

The Aggies slumped to a lower ranking even before the South Carolina loss, unsuccessful against any ranked team.


But they did complete the Texas sweep by upending SMU before the conference started. It avenged a one-point loss from last season.

Not every coach gets to 750 wins. Only 11 have. 

All are in the Women’s College Basketball Hall Fame. Most of the rest are also in the overall Hall of Fame.

Blair joined the 750 Club by completing Texas dominance as they erased SMU, 79-57 in a home game attended by 4,316. About half of the wins are at A&M.

The Aggies’ 11th win was led by their youngest player, Chennedy Carter, with 28 points and seven assists without a turnover.  

Junior Anriel Howard added 15 points and a game-high 16 rebounds. She is seventh on the program rebound list. It is her ninth straight with at least 10 rebounds, 13 of 14 this season. For the second time in three games, four Aggies scored in double figures, with Danni Williams adding 14 and Khaalia Hillsman 13in her 89th straight start.  They led by as many as 31 in the fourth quarter.

“I thought overall our defense was very good, especially in the first half,” Blair said.

“They made a little run before the end of the first half. We only planned on staying in the zone for a few possessions, but I looked up and SMU was 7-of-32 in the first half so I said, ‘Let’s stay with them a little bit longer.’ We will work man-on-man later when we go to South Carolina. We will get better. We played them last year and got beat up in Dallas and were not executing our offense. 

“I was surprised how much zone they played against us. The difference was transition offense in the first half got us a lot of easy baskets. Since our threes weren’t falling, I thought our kids did a pretty good job of quitting shooting the three in the second half, just go and get the twos. I told Danni ‘If your 3 isn’t going, quit trying to impress somebody.’ She has to get to the line and get some twos. 

“I thought Carter was into the flow,” Howard said. “She sees the floor so well. She would have had five more assists if we had a couple post players that could have hung on to the ball. She wanted to distribute. 

“I thought Howard was good as always. It was a good solid game. You just don’t notice it. She goes 4-of-8, 7-of-8 and grabs 16 rebounds, three assists with no turnovers. I know what Chennedy [Carter] did, but we couldn’t have done it if it weren’t for Anriel Howard. 

“I thought Howard was the best player on the floor tonight. That’s a junior who is the unsung person on this team. She didn’t make All-SEC last year like the other three did for us and she might not make it again this year. But, we’d be dead in the water if we didn’t have her energy and what she brings to the table.”

Howard prefers to comment on her rookie teammate.

 “She can open the lane just with her dribble-penetration. She has the ability to score, you saw a little bit of that when she went for 46 against USC. She is a very unselfish kid and she was trying to find her teammates.

“She’s remarkable. I haven’t seen any other freshmen like her before. I’m glad I get to play with her this year and next year. Once she truly understands the program with what Coach Blair wants, we’re going to make it pretty far.”

“I think we’re definitely growing. It’s good to see how all of us played pretty well together. We hustled most of the time. There are still some areas that we have to work on. But, I think that we’re growing for sure and that’s good to see.

 “I like to get the rebound and kick it out. If I have a shot, of course I’ll go back up. But just being able to get an offensive board and being able to restart the shot clock, that’s another offensive possession for us so that’s good. It’ll help us with our offense and just get us going.”

 The home opener is spiraling Kentucky. The Aggies are 8-2 at home.

Trend: Alabama hit its 10th win before the SEC season. It took five straight wins after three straight losses. They need upsets to reach 20. The Tide did defeat Missouri and Tennessee last season, but went 3-11 in the rest of league play.

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


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