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.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Mike Siroky’s SEC Report: The Top Six All Ranked Heading Down The Stretch

Guru’s note:  resolving technical problems  here is the  report that was filed Sunday ahead of the Mississippi State-South Carolina showdown on Monday night.

 By Mike Siroky

The Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball remains unlined in the familiar pattern with the top six all ranked in the final month of the season.

Mississippi State is unbeaten and No. 2 in the nation.

The Bulldogs are two games up on everyone with the conference’s own Big Monday against South Carolina.

An ugly discussion was started when South Carolina won at home against feisty Missouri last week. 

The Tiger AD – who was not at the game – accused SC coach Dawn Staley and others at Columbia of fostering an atmosphere of rough play.

Staley, of course, defended her school and team.

The Missouri coach – who was at the game – said both sides got a bit overworked. 

Two Missouri players were ejected for leaving the bench during one pushing match. No one from SC was ejected, it must be noted.

If the standings remain unchanged, Missouri would play SC in the conference tournament semifinal. They have done little in the conference in recent seasons beyond one and done.

It is easy to observe they could actually win something before popping off. The conference needs to put this to rest and advise non-participants to worry about their own teams, especially when commenting about games they did not bother to attend.

The league had its second 20-game winner this week, Georgia, as 20 wins long the litmus test for inclusion in the NCAA eliminations’ as no league team with 20 wins has ever been not invited. 

Tennessee has 19 wins, South Carolina and Texas A&M 18. Tennessee lost its four of the latest seven or would already be there. But they are three of four in the final 10, one of the NCAA qualifiers.

UConn ended the next  to  last  non-league contests until the national playoffs by blasting SC.

The A’ja Wilson Award – also known as the SEC Player of the Week – was won for the third time this season by the South Carolina senior. She is also one of five finalists for the Wooden Award, traditionally one of the top player of the season honors.

Mississippi State senior Victoria Vivians is the only SEC player in the final 10 for the Drysdale Award, emblematic of the nation’s best shooting guard.

A’ja Wilson is in the Naismith Hall of Fame finals for its Leslie award, another player of the year competition. Gamecock Tyasha Harris is in the finals of the point guard award named after her coach.

Also this weekend is the mini camp for the Women’s National Team At South Carolina. Wilson is the only college player who  will attend of the ones invited due to scheduling  conflicts. Staley is the incoming national coach as they build to the next Games.

“I’m excited any time that we can get together with USA Basketball and have a training camp that assembles some of the best players in the country,” Staley said. “It’s always a great thing. It gets your basketball wheels moving. All of Columbia is excited to have our USA Basketball training camp here.

“It’s exciting to bring the incredible pool of players to our city and campus. Seeing Tiffany and Allisha’s names included on the list makes me proud, knowing they are one step closer to accomplishing their dream. I can’t wait  to get this training camp started and work with champion coaches and players.”

Onto the real games . . .

No. 2 Mississippi State

The Bulldogs cannot and will not move higher, but they can focus on a league title and a No. 1 NCAA seed, which would be a program first.

Their only game this week was at  No. 15 Missouri, which had dropped two straight.

State got right into it, losing the opening quarter but winning the rest.  

State fell behind with 12 seconds left as the crowd of 5,095 roared.

But coach Vic Schaefer had a time out saved for the moment and used it to set up his scoring star, Victoria Vivians, with four seconds left.

“We were going to get the ball in, give it to Tori and get out of her way," Schaefer said. “You better let your best players go win the game for you.”

Blair Schaefer then drew a charge, a tough road call, to seal the deal, 57-53. 

State seniors have won 112 games, the best collective effort in program history. They had won six straight against ranked teams at home, including a contentious one with an imbalance of fouls favoring them against South Carolina. 

They had taken 14 straight of their 23-0 start by double figures. They came from nine back at the half.

They held the home team to six third-quarter points. The defensive marker was what made it all possible.

“I couldn’t be prouder of these kids,” Vic Schaefer said. “That was one heck of a basketball game. Missouri has built quite the program. Two teams were getting after it. Both teams played extremely hard. We are giving God the glory for 23-0. This is not normal. It is so hard to do. My players continue to battle, to fight, to handle having that target on your back.”

Blair Schaefer led with 20 points, Teaira McCowan scored 17 and Vivians 15. 

McCowan recorded her conference-best 16th double-double with 17 rebounds.

To start the second half, State scored seven within the first minute. A jumper by Schaefer gave the Bulldogs a 43-40 lead after three quarters.

Four-straight free throws by Schaefer capped an 8-0 run as the Bulldogs led 53-47 in the fourth. But back came the home team and the frantic finish.

 State was 30 points under its season scoring average, Missouri 23. The State defense was eight points better than the average allowed.

State hit 18-of-59 shots from the field, 4-of-14 3s, but 17-of-27 shots from free throws. 

Missouri outshot them, 20-of-49 from the field, 7 of 20 3s but a strange yet not unprecedented lack of awarded free throws, 6-of-7.

Missouri won rebounds, the first time that has happened to State, 39-36. Missouri has the best rebounding team in the league. The ’Dogs had five assists and six turnovers, while the Tigers had 14 assists and 12 turnovers.

The biggest games of the latest seasons have been State vs. South Carolina. Three of State’s four losses last season were to SC, there, in the SEC conference post-season title game and the National Championship game.

So Monday’s home game fits right in. State has yet to lose a home game, of course, and defense of the homecourt generally underlines a regular-season title, though Tennessee made sure neither did that last year.

No. 7 South Carolina

We ask the same question we asked of Tennessee starting its latest troubles by losing at Notre Dame.

What good does it do to stall conference confrontations to play another ranked team, in this case uninterrupted UConn. Win and you have an artificial high. Lose and you, well, lose.

Sure the coaches are pals, Geno Auriemma elevating Dawn Staley to the next Olympic and overall USA coach. But each now has a pedigree for success. Neither needed this national scrimmage. It left the league at 132-41 for the season, before the NCAA eliminations start.

We always look for those single-digit defensive quarter statements as a good proof of who should win. Only twice this season has a conference team overcome that.

A 29-8 second quarter – 11-of-18 from the field -- silencing the top home crowd for women’s college ball worldwide, 18,000, in the 83-58 blowout. That is 17 points more than the average SC points allowed and 19 below the scoring average. 

Only Tennessee has scored more against them and that was without Wilson to counter.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma even was impressed by his own team. “If you really know about basketball, you’re going to say, ‘Wow, that’s amazing,” Auriemma said. 

This is why everyone is hoping to avoid UConn’s bracket in the post-season as the edge toward a record 12 NCAA titles.

Kia Nurse had 23 points and Katie Lou Samuelson 20.

“I guess in a sense, yeah, you could think that way,” Nurse said of the NCAAs. “The coaches have done a good job of getting us to think about what’s next. But obviously you take the positives away from every win.”

They had 23 points off turnovers.

There were plenty of them for UConn. The Huskies’ 53-24 lead at the half solidified the 21-0 start for the fourth time in five seasons. They extended the NCAA mark with their 48th straight road win.

Gabby Williams hit 6-of-8 for 14 points and 14 rebounds. Napheesa Collier had 19 points and five blocks. Nurse made five of the Huskies' 11 3-pointers and their defense held South Carolina All-American Wilson to 4-of-18 shooting, although she ended with the customary double/double 14 points, 16 boards and six blocks.

No. 7 South Carolina (18-4) fell to 0-6 all-time against UConn and 0-15 in program history against No. 1 teams.

Nurse hit two straight 3s and Samuelson added one of her own as UConn broke on top 13-4 in the first four minutes. Wilson had no such help, though freshman Bianca Jackson had a career high 20 points for the Gamecocks, 16 in the second half.

The Huskies sprinted to a 19-2 start to that second quarter. The Gamecocks rally cut a 33-point lead down to 21 in the third quarter.

“It’s kind of hard when you’re in a hole like that to dig your way out,” Wilson said.

"In these types of games, you have to take away what went well,” Staley said. “We all know what went wrong, but we had some things that went well. If we get an opportunity to play them again, we will utilize those things.”

South Carolina is focused on Monday’s game at Mississippi State, for all intents and purposes a last chance to bring State back to the pack.

Gamecocks fans will have an official watchparty at a local wings pub in Columbia, attended by former SC legends of recent vintage and co-sponsored by the athletic department. There will be program giveaways.

No. 12 Tennessee

Finally earning their way out of the Top 10, the Vols had the revenge rematch at home vs Texas A&M.

The Aggies hit 21-of-26 free throws in an overtime win at their place. Tennessee was only awarded 11 free throws (and hit nine). It was unlikely to be have a blatant imbalance in Knoxville.

Guess what? This game featured that single-digit defensive things, a 25-8 fourth, and the home team had 11-of-16 free throws compared to 5-of-7 in the 82-67 win. A&M had no free throws in the opening quarter. The crowd of 8,841 --  second best anywhere applauded.

A&M coach Gary Blair said the game’s fast pace kept many fouls from being called. 

The two starting centers -- Russell for Tennessee and Khaalia Hillsman for Texas A&M -- didn't attempt a single free throw.

“We fouled each other, but they let us play,” Hillsman said.

Tennessee's fourth-quarter defense helped the Lady Vols end their slide and break open a close game, 82-67. “I thought we wore them down a little bit,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “I thought our press was really good.”

Jaime Nared scored 23 and Mercedes Russell had a double/double, 18 with 13 rebounds. Tennessee, 6-3 in conference, had lost four of its last six games after a 15-0 start.

“What makes this win a good win for us is how much doubt has come from the losses and everyone questioning us, and how much different things have been when we’ve lost games, from all around,” Nared said. “Just the fact we’ve stuck together and we’re still working. ... Despite what anybody says or has to say about us, we know who we are. We’re going to keep fighting and keep getting better.”

Nared had shot a combined 11 of 35 in the three games leading up to this one. She was 8-of-15.

Except for the latest downspin, Tennessee this season had shown an ability to close game (unlike last season) and has used the “we’re still learning” party line all year as well with the dependence on the nations best rookie class.

Anastasia Hayes scored 16 off the bench, fellow-rookie Rennia Davis 11 and Meme Jackson 10 for Tennessee.

Chennedy Carter scored 25 – still double-digits in every game of her rookie season --  and Jasmine Lumpkin had a career-high 22 for the Aggies, though all came in the first half before Tennessee adjusted. She was allowed just one shot in the second.

Carter scored 23 in the first three quarters, but she went 1-of-5, committed three turnovers and scored two points in the fourth.

“In the fourth quarter, I felt like all we were doing is what I call ‘hooping,’ ” A&M coach Gary Blair said. “That means you’re playing rec ball. You are not running an offense. You are not running anything. Everybody was trying to win it by themselves.”

The Lady Vols exceeded last season by winning at Vanderbillt, 74-64, with six games left.

Nared and Russell took over as seniors do.

They combined for 50. UT used a 31-23 fourth to seal the deal. Nared scored 16 of her career-high 30 in the quarter. She had 14 rebounds and hit 15 f 17 free throws. 

Russell had her 41st  double/double, 20 (10-of-6 from the field) with 11 rebounds. Each played the entire second half without a break. Steady off the bench, rookie Anastasia Hayes scored 10, six in the second half, with six rebounds.

Tennessee took a 41-29 rebounding edge, 13 second-chance points coming off 19 offensive rebounds. They finished with an 11-point advantage in the final six minutes. They drew 4,771.

 “Both Jamie and Mercedes, they know what a battle it is in the SEC. Jamie has just matured and knows what needs to be done. They’re focused, tuned in and aware of everything that is happening. We want to get the ball to those two.

“We play inside out, if Mercedes gets it and is covered, she kicks it right out.
“Anastasia always changes the look of the game for us.  I love her coming off the bench, she gives us that extra punch.”

Nared said the closeness of the game allowed the defense to overshadow the offense.

“We knew we had to get stops,” she said. Russell agrees. “We were stagnant in the first half. In the second half, we started moving around more, which leads to rebounds and free throws.”

UT has a winnable game at Arkansas and comes home for long-time rival Georgia this week
No. 14 Texas A&M

The slow and steady Aggies came back home for another team with a losing record, Auburn.

 Danni Williams scored 20 to reach 1,000 career points. She had three 3s among her 8-of-11 from the field. Chennedy Carter, added 23 and No. 14 Texas A&M beat Auburn 78-59 on Sunday for its 11th straight win in the series.

Jasmine Lumpkin chipped in 10. Anriel Howard had nine points, 10 rebounds and five assists.

Lumpkin has had arguably the best stretch of her career over the past five games, averaging 11.2 points and 9.4 rebounds in that stretch. At Tennessee, she had a career-high 22 points while making 10 of her 12 field goal attempts.

 “I came in with the mentality that I needed to score,” said Lumpkin. “I know if I was knocking down those shots and being confident, then I’ll open it up for the rest of my teammates.”

 She has contributed in several different ways in this stretch, posting either 10-plus points or 10-plus rebounds in each of the past six games, and setting a then-career-high in either points, rebounds, or assists in each of the previous four games before this one.

“I got to do whatever it takes to help my team win, whether it’s scoring, playing defense, making stops or getting steals and rebounds,” said Lumpkin. “I want to contribute in any way I can.”

Against LSU, for instance, she scored 10 with, eight rebounds, and eight assists, coming close to the fourth triple-double in program history.

 “Knowing that it’s my senior year, [I’m] going into every game and playing like it’s my last,” said Lumpkin. “I’m doing what I’m capable of doing and seizing the opportunity and seizing the moment.”

“Our kids were really ready to play,”  coach Gary Blair said. “ I think a lot of it stemmed from how well our men played yesterday. They went in and made a Final Four team look very average. They shared the ball really well. Danni missed her first two shots and then was lights on the rest of the game. 

“Chennedy and her are really starting to work well together. They’re starting to understand where they want the ball, ball reversal, and putting it in the shooting pocket. There’s not anybody in the league who has as good a combination as those two guards there.”

 He said it is a payoff of hard work for Williams.

“She spends a lot time in the gym and a lot of time in the classroom. Her parents spend a lot of time driving back and forth for every home game and about a third of the road games. It’s just a great family. The best thing about is that it’s only 1,000. She’s gonna get a lot more points next year and the rest of this year.”

 Williams shares her success.

“It feels really good,” she said. “I’m thankful for my teammates that have helped me out. I can’t score if they’re not passing me the ball, so I’m very appreciative of that. It did feel nice, but because I knew it was coming up, it feels kind of nice to just get it over with.”

The chemistry with Chennedy Carter has been building.

“It’s taken some time. We both have that scoring mentality, so it’s taken some time, but as you saw today we can play off each other and be really special together. It was fun. It was probably one of the most fun games we’ve had playing together. It’s very important for us to continue.”

They drew 5,127, a Sunday SEC best.

They have a winnable game against Ole Miss then head to a team which always seems to battle them well, the rematch with LSU.

No. 17 Georgia

The stutter step in the rehabilitation of the the ’Dawgs continues as they lost the first road game in 10 tries, 71-60, they won a ninth road game, this time at LSU. They then came home for one of the favorite visiting teams, Ole Miss.

Georgia Lady Bulldogs basketball tea had its seven-game win streak snapped, the programs best conference effort in this decade. LSU needed to win four of its past five – including a home upset of Tennessee – to even get to 14-6, but is just one game back of third-place Georgia in the league at 6-3. 

“This was the first time this season I thought we did not execute the game plan and were not locked in defensively,” Georgia coach Joni Taylor said. “Credit LSU — they outworked us and they were the better team tonight. We are going to put this behind us.” 

A lone bright spot: Senior forward Mackenzie Engram reached the 1,000-point career mark.

Georgia was four back after three, but the were forced into 5-of-20 from the field in the final quarter. Freshman Que Morrison led the Bulldogs with 15. She scored Georgia’s first eight. 

LSU’s one trick pony, Raigyne Louis scored six-straight to begin the second quarter as the Tigers built their then largest lead — 24-20 — with 6:01 until halftime. They led, 33-32, at the break. 

LSU jumped out to its largest lead, eight, with 4:37 left. Only 1,802 showed up
Ole Miss was a more doable game, as the ’Dawgs had won six of the past eight against them, 17-1 overall.

 Led by double-figure performances from Engram (7-of-10) and junior forward Caliya Robinson (8-of-13), they erased Ole Miss, 69-45. 

Engram and Robinson totaled 18 and 17 points recorded their 17th double-digit outings of the season. Robinson’s two blocks placed her in the top five all-time in the program.

“We came out with adjustments in the second half and it made a difference, the intensity turned up,” Taylor said. “Ole Miss is a  good team, they have played everyone close and are very good offensively and defensively.”

Georgia, the league-leader in field-goal percentage defense, forced the Rebels to their lowest scoring output of the season, marking the fourth league team to score its fewest points against the Lady Bulldogs.

 The Georgia defense also caused 28 turnovers for the second time this season, the Rebels’ most of the year. For the first time in conference play, three Lady Bulldogs -- Engram, Robinson, and freshman guard Que Morrison -- posted three steals apiece to contribute to a team total of 14, the most for Georgia in SEC competition.

 “We settled in and were finally able to get the ball inside which made all the difference in the world,” Taylor said. “That’s what we weren’t doing in the first and second quarters, we were settling for jump shots and not making them.” 

They drew 4,700.

The Tennessee two-step starts with Vandebilt at home, then the showdown at Knoxville.

Trend: Why they lead the league: Mississippi State has the top scoring offense, 85 points per game, and the stingiest league defense, 55.6.

For the second straight season, No 11 Missouri has declined to participate in our coverage.