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.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Mike Siroky’s SEC Report: The League Is Settling Into Living Up to Preseason Expectations

By Mike Siroky

The Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball is quietly wrapping up another season with little warning shots at other conferences. 

The settling is shows the league is what we thought it was.

The top tier already headed for home games in the NCAA eliminations before January is over and as many as six scrambling for their own entry tickets.

Tennessee was eliminated from the regular-season title with a home loss to the best team in the conference.
No. 3 Mississippi State

As if the lead dog in conference needed a break, they took a week to get ready for Tennessee.

 The Lady Vols were the only team in America to play four ranked teams in a row when State visited Sunday. 

They lost three of the four, two embarrassingly to higher-ranked teams, so it will be interesting to see if the midterm grades affect the national poll much.

The teams split last season, each winning road games. 

Coach Vic Schaefer said they were overwhelmed at home on Senior Night “from the jump” in their only home loss. 

They had only two more losses – both against South Carolina -- until the national championship game, but it cost State the conference title.

But now he has won two straight in Knoxville, after the program having never won there before, this time 71-52.

They held Tennessee to a season-low 26 first half points and capped it with an 18-8 fourth quarter exclamation, meaning UT scored the same half.

It will play out that they will start the elimination games at home and then probably head back to the Midwest Regional, this time as the top seed.

This win at Knoxville makes Mississippi State the first conference representative to 20 wins.

The game also completed an excruciating four-game schedule for UT, all against ranked teams and two of the three losses against high-ranked teams.

Tennessee may hold onto a Top 15 positioning, but this loss at home means they will not win the conference marathon in the regular season.

Senior Victoria Vivians was smooth as always, leading with 24. She averages 20 points per game against Tennessee for her career.

 Center Teaira McCowan easily got her double/double, 12 points, 18 rebounds, 10 on offense giving her side more chances. They were 15 under their season scoring average and it just did not matter.

“Teaira competed all night, against an all-American, a first-round draft pick," State coach Vic Schaefer said. "Roshunda and Blair were just making big shots. Victoria was great.

 “We talked about needing to punch first and for being able to punch again. It was about being ready to play and I thought we were."

Half of her eight 3s and Roshunda Johnson 2-of-3 as they completed the plus-10 hit parade. State took 14 more shots and had 11 assists of 10 steals.

It was so methodical the 13,436 may as well of been sitting on their hands.

Tennessee could not get the ball often enough to center Mercedes Russell, her 16 points as quiet as ever she has had with but four rebounds on classic defensive denial.

 Senior classmate Jamie Nared tried too hard and was an abysmal 3-of-14 from the field. Guard Meme Jackson was 1-of-10. Tennessee was shut out from the field in the final eight minutes.

"That was a heck of a basketball game between two really great teams," Schaefer said. "Today was about toughness and competitive spirit. If you are going to come in here and play this program on a special day, to honor Pat Summitt, it was about toughness, rebounding, competing.

"To win the rebounding battle says a lot about my kids. Tennessee has a heck of a basketball team. It is the hardest-playing Tennessee team in awhile. I love my kids today.

 “We were competitive, loose balls, hustle plays. We got those balls. We set the tone early. To establish what we wanted to do early was great."
No. 6 Tennessee

Tennessee’s reward for besting the four-time defending conference champs at their place for a consecutive season was to not move at all in the rankings. 

Oh well.

The lady Vols dove into Notre Dame, previously No. 2. 

From the start, Holly Warlick had a better plan. 

Every starter scored in a 27-10 splurge.  

For a recruitment game, it looked pretty good for the southern girls on the frigid Plain. 

Mercedes Russell was already 3-of-4 from the field.

They knocked the cockiness out of the home team, Warlick was already dipping into her bench.

The home team had a run in them, 10-0 to close the half while collapsing on Russell.

Warlick as not satisfied with the 39-27 lead.

“We should be penetrating,” she said. “We’re Just throwing the ball around.” 

Tennessee was hitting 60 percent from the field. Could they maintain that or had N.D. used its energy in the mini-rally. 
Those were the questions for the second half.

ND answered with a vengeance, crippling UT with a 34-10 fourth and a reversal of the runaway, 84-70.

UT once again faces the merits of interrupting an SEC season for a meaningless loss, their second in three games with the best team in the conference due in. 

Not many programs think so much of themselves that they schedule such a game season after season.

ND played the perfect patsy, anguished over injuries before this game, then incinerating the visitors. 
UT is likely out of the top 10 again. 

Russell finished with 12. 

They still hit 56 percent from the field; the shots were good, there were just not enough of them and they did not match the fire of the home team.

It was a mystifying joke of an effort, even if the higher-ranked team won at home.

“We did so many things we didn’t need to do,” said Warlick. “Tough night. We’re gonna have to learn. We didn’t need to force it. We needed to move the basketball. 

“Down the stretch, we kept throwing the ball out of bounds and I honestly don’t have a reason for it. We needed to throw it to the people in Orange and we kept throwing it to the people in Green up in the stands.

“Our freshmen have enough playing experience and we just made a lot of mistakes. Our seniors could have done a little better at leading this team.”

Russell agreed the defense let them down. 

Jamie Nared said the 28 turnovers are something you cannot do and especially against a top team which has now won six of the past seven games in this series.

“The defense lacked,” said Russell. “They kept punching. We have gotta forget about it and get back to practice, just make it simple. We’re trying too hard.

“These freshmen are not freshmen any more. We need to get to work.”

Tennessee has only one game in the next seven against a ranked team. 
No. 10 South Carolina

Alabama started the SC free buffet week as the Gamecocks are hanging in the Top 10, awaiting the return of All-American A’ja Wilson and her bad ankle. 

In a conference like this, if your star needs time out, it’s best to be playing three of the unranked teams.

Lindsey Spann stepped up at Vanderbilt, 5-of-7 3s in the first half as SC took a 48-40 edge. Alexis Jennings was 6-of-7 from the field, 2-of-4 from the line with seven rebounds.

As  usual, the better team won every quarter and skipped through the 95-82 win.  All five starters hit double figures, led by Jennings’ season-best 27, 9-of-10 from the field. 

She is among the many starting elsewhere after Kentucky ran several off. It is only their 16h win of the season, but slow and steady.

 They are two games behind Mississippi State for the conference lead. They do play in StarkVegas to start next month.

Wilson’s backup, Mikiah Herbert-Harris, is out with a left knee bone bruise, at 4:33 to go.

 Then Spann, having hit 5-of-7 3s, tweaked her right ankle and sat down with 7:13 to go in the third. But she got it taped and returned. Harris wanted back in, but Dawn Staley said let her rest.

“It seems like the injury bug is hitting us,” Staley said. “We just have to have a positive outlook and utilize the players that we do have that are healthy.

“Going into the game, our emphasis was points in the paint, so I feel like I’m very good at getting the ball in the paint very well, and I’m efficient there too,” Jennings said.

“We had a great opportunity to come in today to play a top-caliber team who was having some adversity on their own,” Vanderbilt coach Stephanie White said. “Yes, we got better, but we also missed some opportunities for areas that we could’ve exploited.”

Carolina has not lost back-to-back league games since 2013. They only drew 2,117.

Whatever is left of a once-competitive program had scheduled them for a Rupp Arena appearance. But Kentucky is unranked and not soon to be.

Wilson was back and so the win was quite easy, 81-64. She played 21 reserve minutes and hit 10-of-12 inside, 26 points, eight rebounds, four blocks. Jennings was 7-of-10 with two blocks in her UK return, and seven rebounds.

Jennings said, “It was not weird at all, I did what I did best and that is to score the ball. So, I think I did well.”

She had played the majority of her games at venerated Memorial Coliseum, the women’s only venue now, but she did not dismiss playing at Rupp, where they drew only 6,521.

 “Very different. You know Rupp Arena is very big but I’m not shying away from the crowd because we have a lot of fans at our gym too. It wasn’t anything to me.”

They hit 60 percent from the field

“I knew it would be emotional for her,” said Staley, “whether she let on or not because it is difficult. You start your college career here and then you transfer. 

“So you have to feel a little bit, and I thought throughout the game I probably took her out a little bit more than I usually take her out because I didn't want the emotions to take over. 

“But I thought she handled it well. I thought she played tremendous for us. She didn't change her preparation or anything. It was just her experience getting out here and playing.

“We got the ball to the right people, that's one, and gave the ball to our post players who benefit us to get a victory,” said Staley. “Once they start touching the ball everybody starts feeling it a little bit. 

“I thought we were quick to take outside shots and unexpected shots that threw our transition defense off. So once we got all that under control, we were able to defend a little bit better as well.”
She said they took advantage of their experienced players against the youth of ever-rebuilding Kentucky.
“They are the youngest at this time but they're talented. You know, I think what is missing from them is just them getting more experience in our league. 

They are talented in different ways. So, they were able to knock down some 3-point shots and outside shots, as well as be aggressive in the post.

“What they ran into tonight was just hard post girls who are more experienced at playing this game and playing in our conference. But they are good and they are going to grow up and they'll probably grow up before the end of the year. I think we just got them at the early part of our SEC season.”

 Of course, Wilson’s return was welcome.

“It helps tremendously. It helps on so many aspects of the game. Obviously she can score the ball a lot and she can rebound. Defensively, she blocks shots. She is an intimidator in the paint.

“So, it just helped out all around. She's a voice. She is a voice out there when she talks on the court with our young players and she gives us a great deal of comfort.”
She also praised the effort against Maci Morris

“Well, for us, we're in last place in defending the 3-point line, which is embarrassing to be quite honest. So we did want to concentrate more on especially running Maci off the 3-point line, making her take a two on us instead of a 3 on us. 

“She did get loose on a couple of offensive rebounds they got and she got some open looks and she made us pay for them.”
Wilson said it is her first game as a reserve since her freshman season, when she was the league’s Sixth Player of the Year.

“It definitely feels good to be out there. I really did miss my teammates and just being out there. 

“It kind of sucks being on the sideline, just listening to coach yell all the time. I’d rather her yell at me. So, just being out there is a lot of fun and it felt good to kind of get back in it.

“I mean to me, it’s the SEC so everyone is going to give you their best. Especially coming in on the road, it’s tough playing here. So, our mindset doesn’t really change depending on the team we play. It’s just more us, focusing on us and sticking to our system and our role.”

Carolina has lowly Arkansas next then Missouri in a revenge game.

No. 16 Texas A&M

In its one game this week, all the Aggies had to do was rebalance at Alabama. They continued to climb in the poll despite another loss to an unranked team.

They have never lost to Alabama.

As much as the Tide hoped to hit 20 wins and an NCAA berth this season, the 13 wins so far means time is running out.

Khaalia Hillsman and Chennedy Carter scored 20 points apiece for Texas A&M in the  73-54 rout. 

Hillsman doubled with 10 rebounds, her fourth straight. 

The outstanding rookie Carter has had four straight 20-point outings and has yet to fail to hit double figures. They led by as much as 53-36.

"I'm just really disappointed tonight in our effort," said Alabama Kristy Curry. 

“When I talk about effort, I’m talking about scouting report tendencies. We weren’t doing those consistently tonight, so I’m not talking about effort in terms of just running around. I’m talking about the little things with our effort, which are mental, physical and emotional.”

The Aggies are home for LSU and are at Vanderbilt this week

Trend: With 17 wins, Georgia is now likely as the sixth league team (with the Top 25 teams) already qualified for the NCAA tournament with at least 20 projected wins and a month to go in the regular season

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