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, February 19, 2018

Mike Siroky’s SEC Report: Mississippi State Makes it Official

By Mike Siroky
The Southeastern Conference of women's basketball is satisfied the national rankings will reflect the conference finish with but two games to go. 

Mississippi State has won it, as we said last week.

 Everybody has two games left and they have a three-game lead.

That makes How About Them Dogs the No. 1 conference seed and a national No. 1 seed, earned at home, for the NCAA eliminations.

 The national organization has a ban on awarding home games to teams in states which display the Confederate Battle Flag – South Carolina is the other – but sees a distinction in earning home games.

South Carolina has to end the season – thank you schedulers – at Tennessee, but it likely is No 2.

They are likely a No. 2 seed in the nationals at least.

Georgia has dropped two spots in two weeks but won’t lose again until the SEC tournament. They are the rebuild of the season after not even qualifying for the NCAAs last season.

Their coach oughta win the coach of the year honor and erase that embarrassment of 2017 when an undeserving coach was handed the title as the fourth-best coach in reality. She backed that up with one-and-dones in the SEC and NCAA post-seasons.

Tennessee is back in the national picture, so will be in the half of the league, with Missouri. The Lady Vols’ resurgence is based on the flimsiest of platform, the play of the best recruiting class in the country which will be followed by another good one, solidifying their competitiveness for seasons to come, not necessarily even a conference title contender.

The SEC oughta shape up with Mississippi State playing Missouri and Tennessee/Georgia/South Carolina/Texas A&M bumping into No. 2 vs. No. 6 and No. 3 vs what’s left. 

No. 2 Mississippi State

The Bulldogs have one of the best scoring duos in America, Teaira McCowan and Victoria Vivians underlined that with 19 apiece in a 95-50 road win against Vanderbilt. 

With the conference title, the Bulldogs also are the top seed in the conference post-season tournament, which they have never won. They have program records with 27 straight wins and 32 of the past 33, joined by 13 straight in conference.

“We came out ready to play,” coach Vic Schaefer said. “I was concerned going in because Vanderbilt has been shooting the ball well as of late. They shot the ball well in this game. We forced 26 turnovers. That was a big stat. I really thought we went out there and took it tonight.

 “This team has been in this position (clinching the SEC) and didn't respond. Tonight, they did. We played well in every phase of the game. I liked our toughness. The way we shared the basketball. The way we defended.”

The Bulldogs shot 54.4 percent from the field, including hitting 10 3S. MSU also forced 26 turnovers, scoring 34 points off the takeaways.

McCowan's 11 rebounds earned her 19th double/double. Three others hit double figures. Morgan William had nine assists, while Jazzmun Holmes and Roshunda Johnson each had five steals.

Before the next game, Schaefer addressed the concepts of playing against his mentor. For the near future he has surpassed No. 17 A&M.

“It’s always odd when we play each other since I was on the same bench with them for 15 years. I won’t prepare any different for this game than I have for every other game that we have played. 

“That’s my job. We prepare every game as if it's the National Championship. There's no more significance to this game than the last one. We got a chance to clinch (the SEC title) this game outright, and that's the only significance I see.”

 They have already won the top seed in the SEC Tournament. 

“It is important, but there is more parity in our league right now than ever before. I think at the SEC Tournament this year, there are a lot of factors that will be in place. I tell my kids that on any given night, you can get beat and embarrassed if you are not ready to play and not focused on the game.”

His daughter, Blair, is one of the seniors. She is not coincidentally sharing a name with the Bulldogs coach. She earned her starting spot as the 3 threat.

“I think we just have to understand that all the teams in the SEC have great guards, great posts – they.re great teams,” she said. “ We have to prepare for each team differently, and Texas A&M is another great team that is up next. We're focused on preparing for them and preparing for them only right now.

 “At the end of the day, when the lights come on, that's not what we're thinking about. We're thinking about just another game and how we have to execute and do the things we.ve been doing all year.”

William, forever the owner of The Shot that eliminated UConn last season, recognizes the significance of playing Texas A&M for her coach.

“Yeah of course. I mean, he was there for a long time before coming here, so of course it's in the back of his head,” she said. “When we go play, it really doesn't matter. We just have to go out there and execute and do the things we do. Whatever happens, hopefully we can come on top and then he can celebrate. And yeah, that moment, he deserves it.”

The 24-9 start said all that was needed against A&M. Vivians had nine and Johnson eight to starter. The Bulldogs were 6-of-10 on 3s, Johnson with two of those.

It was a comfortable 36-25 at the half. Vivians had 14 points and seven rebounds. Morgan William had four assists. The 9,933 in attendance approved.

It was a 76-55 finish, the first league title of any women's sport in school history.

“I believed and dreamed of this day to share with you in this moment,” Schaefer said. “This is what makes Mississippi State so special.”

Vivians led, of course, 26 points and 12 rebounds on 10-of-16 shooting.

Postgame, Vivians played in confetti shot out of cannons. With losses in back-to-back SEC Tournaments and the national championship a year ago, she relished this celebration.

“We're so used to having it thrown in our face after a loss. We enjoyed this one,” Vivians said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity (to win a championship) and I couldn’t do it without my teammates and our coaches.”

Crafty A&M didn’t start national rookie of the year candidate Chennedy Carter. She skipped three minutes, then scored 16 of their first 21 points and finished with 31.

“Johnson had a good game because she was the one responsible of shutting down Danni Williams,” A&M coach  Blair said. “It wasn’t so much that we were doing wrong that they were doing right.”

While the Aggies were nearly one-dimensional with the exception of Anriel Howard (14 points and 10 rebounds), the Bulldogs had too many options than A&M could handle. Along with Vivians, Johnson had 16 points, and McCowan added her 20th double/double of the season, 11 points and 11 rebounds.

William had 12 points and seven rebounds, Blair Schaefer finished with 11 points. Mississippi State held the Aggies to 32 percent from the field and allowed just one 3 in 12 tries.

“To be able to do it in front of our Mississippi State family, it was very special,” Vic Schaefer said. “This entire team pays the price every day. I’m happy for my players and my staff.”
A&M is knocked back to the Tennessee level in conference, 9-5. State is the only undefeated home team, a recent necessity in winning the league. They are 8-0 in the final 10, a test the NCAA uses for seedings. 

They celebrate Vivians, Schaefer and William with the most-explosive Senior Night in the league against Auburn, then play the skeletal remains of Kentucky to close it out. 

Schaefer has never won at Kentucky, so there is always motivation.

No. 7 South Carolina

Georgia wanted to make sure everyone notices them, so forcing South Carolina into missing two-thirds of their first-quarter shots while hitting 58 percent their own selves made the 23-22 first-quarter lead interesting.

 The 'Dawgs also led at half. 

That makes the 77-65 SC win more fun especially since it is the first time this season Georgia has lost with a halftime lead. They drew 4,071.

SC is alone in SEC second place and likely to stay there.

Tyasha Harris scored 20 (6-of-8 from the floor and 7-of-9 from the line) and All-American  Wilson hit a double/double with 18 and 16. Alexis Jennings shook off a several-game funk with 19 points. That trio usually determines SC games.

There were three ties in the third quarter, the last at 45. The Gamecocks scored the next six points, including five by Harris, and closed the period with a 14-5 run.

The 77 points are its most against Georgia under coach Dawn Staley. It is just the second time a team reached 70 points in a game in this series since 2009. 

SC earned a fifth win against a ranked foe. The Gamecocks reached five or more wins over top-25 foes for the fourth straight season.  The three losses are also to ranked teams, not exactly an NCAA benchmark.

“From a game plan standpoint, we executed offensively,” Georgia said coach Joni Taylor. “We did what we wanted to do and got some really good looks. Our kids played really hard.”

But the four-year regular-season reign is over.  

SC can still win the official SEC title, the defined tournament for the automatic NCAA bid, but purists always accept the marathon season over the madness of the back-to-back-to-back tournament games.

The Gamecocks welcomed Kentucky having won seven straight and 10 of the past  12 contests.

 They eased into a 19-18 first. Wilson was 4-of-6 from the field, 3-of-3 from the line with five defensive rebounds a block and two assists. Alexis Jennings had her usual jitters against her former team, 0-fer-all.

It was 38-26 at the break. Wilson had 17. SC had imposed an eight-point second quarter on UK, the usual sign of who would win.

It ended 81-63. Wilson had 29 and sat the fourth quarter because of the lead. They drew a world record 14,895 this day for women's basketball.

“She's played well against Kentucky in the past. I think she feels that coming into the game. Our focus was getting the ball in the paint and working inside out like we always do. And fortunately for us, A'ja had it going on,” Staley said.

“We didn't have an answer for A'ja Wilson,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. “What a great player she is. She's been tough to compete against for four years, and I have a lot of respect for her.”

“I just came out with a lot of energy, because I feel like if I have a lot of energy then it'll trickle down to my teammates,” Wilson said. “My biggest thing was just, how can I hype my team up, how can I bring the positive energy in? And hopefully I did a good job of it.

“Basketball's just a game of runs, and they came out with a lot of energy as well, so they really put the pressure on us,” Wilson said. “But I think once we settled down, stayed within our system, things started to fall in place and we started playing more like us, and that's when we started to pull away.”

South Carolina’s second-leading scorer, freshman Bianca Jackson, collected all of her 12 points on 4-of-5 3s. Sophomore point guard Tyasha Harris was 4-for-4, with seven of SC 21 assists.

“We must have great ball movement in order for us to be effective. If we don't, people will just hang out in the paint and guard our post play,” Staley said. “But that’s one of the emphasis we.ve had over the past several weeks is to continue to move the ball. 

“Teams that move the ball and reverse the ball are a little bit harder to guard, and our players seem to able to see better shots when we have that ball movement.”

South Carolina hit 92 percent from the free throw line, a season high and the third best mark since Staley came to USC a decade ago. Typically the Gamecocks have not been strong free throw shooters — they entered making 69 percent from the line.

“I guess it was one of those nights,” Staley said. “A’ja takes the bulk of them, so if she's having a good night, usually it leads to us having a good night. Our players just focused in on making free throws ... it just happened that way. I hope we can bottle that up and take it into next week.”

Kentucky is two games under .500 with two to go. They would need an SEC tournament win to even qualify for the NIT while the NCAA plays it third straight Regional at their place.

Wilson will celebrate her home career with a group of program-defining seniors against rising LSU and then go to Knoxville in an attempt to ruin the Senior Party for Mercedes Russell, Jamie Nared and others.

SC is 7-1 in the league in the final 10.

No. 11 Tennessee

This week had free-falling Alabama (the team which ejected the from the SEC tournament last season), then the scary road trip to contentious Missouri. Rennie Davis earned Freshman-of-the-Week honors.

Thank goodness for the second wind of Davis and the end of Jamie Nared’s slump. Both have been pushing the offense while Mercedes Russell seems injured, disinterested or tired.

Davis have five points and five defensive rebounds early in the second quarter and Nared had nine points (two 3s) as they tried to establish a guard-led pattern for success. 

They had imposed an eight-point first quarter on the Tide. A single-digit quarter is usually a marker for a loss.

 Not this time in a 72-63 loss before a league-best 8,432 this night. They have lost 2,000 in average attendance over the past several seasons. Second-best in America is not bad, but it ain’t what it used to be.

Yet Alabama began its rally with a 21-10 second quarter and led by four at the half. 

Russell was 1-of-6  from the field and the Tide ain’t that good defensively. It wasn't over even after UT took a 25-15 third, but seemed anemic nonetheless.

Alabama, with nothing to lose, led by seven with two minutes left. A Russell free throw cut it by one but Alabama’s Jordan Lewis answered with two. With a minute to go, mighty Alabama had the same press notes win for the second season in a row and Tennessee was luckily back in reverse.

Let us skip the tired “we’re young and learning” Orange party line. The majority of this team also cannot lean on tradition, of course, so losing for the fourth straight time to a second-division team consistently leans of them.

 Alabama is an NIT home team again. This was their first win in Knoxville, which will lead the season recap and place highly in next season’s publicity book.

Where is the expected magnificent play of Russell? What coach is failing here? She is definitely not an All-American no matter the watch list and is not even the second-best big in the league anymore.

Oh, sure she will make all-conference based on career, because that is an easy vote and what this conference does, reward accumulated statistics rather than actual season play. 

Sad to say, a rookie will determine more about what happens once they qualify for the Sweet 16 than will the senior center. Russell edged into the weakest double/double ever 11 points and as many rebounds, accumulated after it didn.t matter.
Nared scored 22 and Davis 18.

“I’m really proud of our team,” said Alabama coach Kristy Curry, mindful of the program’s first win in 22 Knoxville appearances.

“We came out with toughness and grit.  At times when they would make a run, we stayed together and stayed close to give ourselves a chance.  It comes down to balance, and when we have four in double figures we.re tough to beat.  Ashley Williams played like a senior should on the road and Jordan.s (Lewis) point guard play was unbelievable down the stretch.

“We need this tonight for our resume. This was important.  We needed to play desperate and I thought that we certainly did.”

This is the game where we learned UT will not win the conference as the legitimate sixth-place team, nor will they contend for the national title. They have a chance to let the Sweet 16 qualifier at home – the first two games – drop away for a third consecutive season.

Print playoff tickets? Not so fast.

Of course, they went to No. 13 Mizzou and lost again, 77-73, the Tigers. fifth straight, seven of eight against Top 25 opponents at home. 

Tennessee used to do that. It also busted the 9-4 SEC tie, which these days means the difference between third and sixth.

With the disinterest of Russell, Nared has led them with 22.2 points per game in the past five (84 of 98 from the line in league play)

Russell did not score in the first quarter, a 25-13 deficit.  Of course, they had no answer for Sophie Cunningham, already at 16 points when it was 34-19, 5-of-8 from the field (2-of-3 3s) and 4-of-4 from the line.

As the half wound down, the led remained the same and Russell had yet to show up. Without her contributing, the rest of the team rallied to 44-40 early in the third, Nared with 16.

UT was still down by four with two minutes left. Russell had finally showed up with 10 points.

Nared hit one of two free throws.

Mizzou hit two free throws and Cunningham hit another, then Jordan Frericks hit one, her 16th point. So UT came back from a terrible start and it was still a loss with no lesson. Nared finished with 25, Cunningham 30, 11-of-12 at the line. They drew 11,092.

“We weren't really aggressive in the first half, we just came out too slow,” said Nared. “We weren’t really dictating on defense. From that point on, we were just playing catch up.”

Before SC arrives, the Lady Vols go to underperforming Florida, which will not even qualify for the NIT. Tennessee is 5-3 in final 10.

No. 17 Texas A&M

Oh these Aggies, once again in sight of the SEC title but no possible bridge there,

They had Florida before the SC game.

For the Gators, they drew a respectable 4,000 and won their 20th for the 13th straight season, 85-80.  SEC Freshman-of-the-Year Chennedy Carter led with 28 points.

 The Aggies came back from a 43-37 halftime deficit. Carter sealed the deal in the final minute, hitting a jumper and a 3 on back-to-back possessions, extending A&M’s lead to six.

 She sure is not a freshman anymore. The league will make up for its pre-season diss by probably putting her on the all-conference team after not even a mention to start. 

She has seven of the best eight freshman scoring outings in program history.

Anriel Howard had 21 points and 12 rebounds for the Aggies, marking her fourth 20-plus point, 10-plus rebound game this season. Danni Williams had 15 with five assists. The imbalance came at the line, where A&M generally gets a home break, this time 24 awarded and 20 hit, 16-of-17 in the second half. Florida was only awarded eight tries and hit five.

A&M is in that gang of four behind Mississippi State and South Carolina.

Coach Gary Blair is always gracious in his post-game observations.

“Well first I’d like to commend Cameron Newbauer and Florida. We were their sixth straight top-25 team and they have been in almost every game,” he said.

“They are a very good offensive team. They ran some stuff, shot 3s well and rebounded with us. You have to give them credit.

 “When you can win a ball game and not play your best, it says a lot for a team. We cut a six-point lead down to one at the end of the third quarter and that gave us a lot of confidence. Chennedy Carter and Danni Williams were just doing their thing. They are two of the best in the league and country.

“I had Carter, Lumpkin and Williams playing 40 minutes again. I was pleased with the outcome but was not pleased with the defense. Give Florida credit because they were running their stuff very well. It would have been a letdown to lose in front of breast cancer survivors (the charity for this game) and the students who came out. 

“I just admire them for coming and I know it is hard to draw people out to any sport here at Texas A&M on a Thursday night. However, we kept them entertained.

“I thought we did some good things offensively. The poise was good. I am tired of being Reverend Blair at halftime but sometimes this is what the team responds to. 

“We had two bad practices leading up to this and they are not a light switch; you can't just turn them on at 7 o'clock in the morning. When you prepare to win you find a way. 

“We made some key play down the stretch and give us credit we only turned it over six times. We just have to take care of business and go forward 4-0 some way.”

Carter focused on her defensive lay and then explained her offense.

“I just took what the defense was giving me,” she said “I was knocking down shots the whole fourth quarter and I felt pretty confident. My teammates kept the confidence in me. My coach told me to shoot if I was open. At the end I was able to come off and feed a teammate which was a bigger play than hitting shots myself. 

“We just have to play harder. We just have to fight. There are people out there with breast cancer that are out here supporting us who are fighting right now. Coach was in the locker room telling us that we have to fight for them because they.re fighting for their life right now. We came out and tried to play hard, play tougher and give people a chance to come out and watch basketball and have fun tonight.”

At Mississippi State on their Senior Night was always going to be a tough assignment, as the two best male coaches in the league know how to put in a show.

They close with two teams that play them hard: At Arkansas and then Missouri for Senior Night, the latter game likely defining third in conference.

 Last season, Mizzou standout Sophie Cunningham predicted her team would start a run in the SEC tournament. They were one and done and were run out; they are still waiting for a run a year later.

A&M are 5-3 in the last 10.

Trend: SEC players keep getting mentioned on national lists, the latest being the Hall of Fame’s Naismith Award, the third-best statuette. 

Chennedy Carter of A&M is the only freshman among 30 finalists and undoubtedly the conference rookie of the year and will get some All-American mention despite being ignored by the league in pre-season predictions.

Of course, everybody's All-American, A’ja Wilson, likely the conference and national Player of the year is in the Naismith mix, as are six other league players: Victoria Vivians and Teaira McCowan (Mississippi State); Jamie Nared and Mercedes Russell (Tennessee) and Sophie Cunningham (Missouri).

For the second straight season, No. 13 Missouri has declined to participate in our coverage.