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.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Mike Siroky’s SEC Report: Ain’t It Great To be State

By Mike Siroky

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The world of women’s college basketball saw in the National Semifinals of the NCAA eliminations Friday night just what the Southeastern Conference had to deal with all season.

Mississippi State  is back in the title game, against Notre Dame, on Sunday evening. 

The Muffeteers upended UConn as they are wont to do, ending another season-long winning streak.

 For the second straight season, the Huskies are mushed in the national semifinal. In overtime again. State did that to them last season.

This season, Them ‘Dawgs proved they are what coach Vic Schaefer discovered his own self just last week at the Regional final: This team, these seniors, just refuse to lose.

They came back.

They also won in overtime, 73-63, the two overtimes another NCAA first and another national record for Mississippi State’s program.

One of the Fab Four seniors, transfer-in Roshunda Johnson, hit the 3 with six seconds left that got them to overtime against Louisville. It was her only 3 of the evening.

“You're down three with, I don't know, 11 or 12 seconds left and not much -- you're going to have to do something right, and a lot of people are going to have to do it right,” Schaefer observed. It was a set play.

“I thought we executed really well on a sideline out of bounds play. We put Blair(Schaefer) in and ran her out and the whole team seemed to run with her as a decoy. We put Ro out on the back side, and T (McCowan) really set a tremendous screen for her, but you've still got to make the shot. 

“I thought, obviously, when you're in that position, there's a lot of things you've got to do well in that spot.”

“Shooters never give up on a shot,” she said, as Vivians nodded agreement.  “I felt like, even when I was missing, I wasn't going to stop shooting just because I wasn't making any.

 “My teammates got me open. The Coach wrote up an excellent play, and we just had to go out and execute it. When I hit the shot, I mean, it made me 1 for 3 (laughter).”

It was a night like that for Mississippi State.

That little Mississippi State matter  of survival decided, they won overtime, 14-4.

Vivians had been relegated to the bench due to four fouls.  Perhaps that is why they were behind. Perhaps it gave her extra energy. Both are possible.

She claimed a rebound. McCowan got the next three, then Johnson got one before Vivians scored again. Then she fouled out, inside of a minute left.

She has only fouled out twice in her past two seasons, each time in the National Semifinal’s overtime.

Jazzmun Jones got another Mississippi State rebound, then hit a jumper.

Louisville had blown its chance. The defense caved in the roof.

Jordan Danberry hit free throws surrounding a rebound. McCowan blocked her third shot. She took two more defensive rebounds. William hit two free throws, then another.

A rebound and putback for McCowan. Then another free throw. Then a final block and the hippity hops of excitement began.

 They ran to their fan section in the sold out arena. Asia Durr, the ACC Player if the Year, hit 6-of-17 on her way to 18 for the Cardinals.

Danberry, another transfer-in, but in her first season of gaining that spiffy ring the NCAA awards every player  on a Final Four team, shadowed her well. 

She provided 10 points in a game where every point was precious She validated her move from Arkansas in just one game. She will start next season.

“Jordan Danberry comes off the bench and plays 26 minutes, really did a nice job defensively on her, held her,” said Schaefer. “Really, that kid's not played half that many all year but was really playing well today, hit some big free throws for us.”

They held Louisville to 13 points below their scoring average, while exceeding the points allowed by 20.

Speaking of 20, McCowan had another 20 double, 21 points and 25 rebounds, two assists, three blocks and played every minute.

 “All 40,” said Schaefer. “45.” Reminded McCowan, immediately.  “I stand corrected,” said the national Coach of the Year.

  “That's just hard to do for anybody. It's hard for Morgan William to do or anybody in a smaller size, but you put Teaira McCowan out there, and she's dragging everybody up and down the floor. Then competing every possession. She wants to get them all. 

“I'm telling you, she wants every rebound, and you can see that as she's playing, how hard she plays.

“This one -- what do you say about T? 25 and 21? She's done it all year against the best teams in the country, the best coaches in the country. She did it tonight on the best stage you can do it on.

“I am so proud of  my team today, as I have been all year,” Schaefer said. “ We talk about when things get a little bit tough and too tough for most people, when it gets really, really hard, that's when it gets about right for us.
“Today was pretty tough. 

“But just so, so proud of these kids for -- we talk about toughness all the time, competitive spirit, and I just thought today it was really special with them. I've said it all year. I don't have the words, y'all, for when this is over.

 “These four seniors, I don't have the words. So at least now I didn't have to have anything -- I wouldn't have had anything prepared today. At least now we're going to play the last game in the last game of the year, and maybe we'll figure it out when we get to there.

“I thought their toughness won out.”

Vivians said,  “We just had to settle down and play our game. Like Teaira said before, we need to get out of our bodies. We just need to stay calm and do what we do best.”

Of the screen on the play that ended regulation, McCowan said, “We set up the play for -- well, they thought we were going to go to Blair. So once I saw everybody shift, I took one fake back and screened for Ro and got her back in the middle of the free-throw line. So I knew she was going to be open when she threw the ball, and Ro knocked down the shot.

“As for rebounds, Coach always says, Go get them all. So that's what I try to do, go get them all.”

“ Coachable,” Schaefer observed.

Now relaxed, Vivians said, “I'm feeling good. I hope they're (her teammates) feeling good too. It means a lot. This is our second time doing it, and we're still making history for our school. I just feel like this year, we're going to have to execute and finish it all out and be on top this time.

“I didn't feel like the game got away from me. I just feel like I had slow down and focus and be mature about what I was doing at the time because my team needed me. When I got back in, I was making smart decisions. I guess in overtime I didn't make a smart decision, and I fouled out. But, hey, my team finished it out well. I'm proud of them.”

The motivation after doing the same thing last season, remains the pilot light.

“It drives us because we didn't do all the small things that Coach talks about,” McCowan said. “Sometimes as players, we blow Coach off and say we'll do it in the game. Sometimes in the game you can't turn it off like that. So we focused on boxing out, rebounding, playing plays out, and that's gotten us to where we are today.”

She said the multiplicity of fresh defenders is not an issue.

“I mean, they were subbing them out, so I didn't really know who I had. So I guess I was wearing them pretty good.”

Vivians agreed that preparation is everything.

“Well, in practice we play bulldog, it's a little scrimmage of five minutes. It's the toughest five minutes ever. That just really prepares me in the game. You don't get any subs. So you're just going three games, five minutes -- four minutes?

“ So, yeah, just going and competing.

“It takes pressure off because we know we're an overtime team. If it's overtime, we say it's our time, it's our game. I feel like everybody just locked in, locked down, and they knew what it was time to do and we came out with the win.”

McCowan looked all the world like she was scowling at the end. She showed it in the press conference.

“This one?” she asked

“ I just was feeling, I was in the moment. Came up with a face.”

“ Welcome to my world,” Schaefer said.

It is world any coach would like to have.

Of the final regulation play, he said, “ I don't think you can get caught up into where she (Johnson) is tonight. I mean, I've seen that kid for three years now, I've said it for three years. She's a pro. She's going to get to play basketball a long time after Sunday, and she wants to be in that moment.

“ Her and Blair, I could have picked either one, but I really felt like they were going to run with Blair. I thought she'd be a great decoy.

“Plus we were on this side, and we brought it back to her left hand. So that was the side that you want to bring it to Ro on. So I just felt really confident. That's a play we've run several times. Not a lot lately. 

“So if you hadn't gone back a ways, you might not get that in your scout. But, again, I thought, when Blair took off across the top, they just -- they were running with her. I knew the back end would come wide open if Tea could just catch half of her, and she caught all of her.

“Ro's got to make a shot. Let's face it. It's the biggest shot of the night, of your career, on the biggest stage you're ever going to play on. I don't care where she plays after this. 

“That stage out there tonight is the biggest stage you're ever going to play on in my opinion, and it's going to have the most ramifications. So, you know, I've got a lot of confidence in Roshunda Johnson. She's been somebody we've just been really blessed to have, and she's made the difference in our team many nights, as you know.”

He said Danberry was as unscoutable.

“I don't think I expected that much. I don't know that I expected her to play 26 minutes. She hasn't played 20 minutes, I don't think, all year. But she was really doing a good job defensively, and we were doing a poor job rebounding.

“I  knew going in, we've had two really bad days, y'all, of rebounding in practice, and it's not something we've had an issue with, but we've had two bad days of it, and it reared its ugly head tonight.

“Jordan gives us that rebounding edge at the guard spot. But I thought she was doing a really good job on Asia. You know, between her and Ro just trying to rotate fresh people on her, giving her a different look. Both of them maybe lack a little size, but, boy, they bring a lot of quickness and savvy. So just trying to do that.

“And at the end of the night, Jordan really was the difference, I think, in a lot of areas for us, both ends, obviously.”

As for Vivians’ 25 points, he said, “I wouldn't have guessed she had 25. It was pretty quiet. But she made a couple of big 3s when we needed them. You know, her start was not what I wanted it to be. But, again, when you need a bucket, she's a good one to go to. We went with her and T both, just trying to isolate them a lot down the stretch.

“Victoria's been in that moment all her life. You score 5,700 points in your high school career, you've probably done that a bunch, and then she's done it for us for four years. 

“I can't think of anybody better to have the ball in her hands in that moment when you're really dying on the vine and you need a bucket. She's just, you know, tonight struggled a little bit defensively, then picked it up, struggled rebounding a little bit, then picked it up. 

“But just like last year, remember, she fouled out last year in this game. I don't think she's fouled out but twice in two years, and it's both in the semifinals in overtime. 

“Killing me.”

“I thought it worked a little bit because she came back in and took a better shot. Her first two shots, I thought were a little off the chart. I want them on my chart, not her chart.

“So I thought she settled in after that and really made some good decisions.”

Now the regroup:

“ I think it's real important from this moment on that we do some things a little different. The fact that we were able to play in the first game and not the second game. 

“You know, last year we walked out of the arena, went back to the Loews hotel in Dallas, Texas, and walked through the lobby at 1:35 in the morning, and there were 5,000 people waiting on us. I mean, you talk about an amazing atmosphere, but still you're walking out of there really late.

“So it will be different. Coach Schaefer will do some things different. I already had planned it if we advanced. There's just got to be a way that I need to manage it differently, so we will. 

“You know, our kids, especially those four seniors, they got one left. We've had this opportunity before, didn't go the way we wanted to. It doesn't matter who we play tomorrow, y'all, both those teams are monsters. Super talented, well coached. It's the best of the best. So you'd better be ready.

“I don't think I go into any ball game thinking -- you know, I don't have any minute number, but Teaira's played a lot of minutes for us.

 “Most games, she's logging 36-plus. I need to be better getting her out with 30 seconds before media, just to get her that extra time. But you're in a ball game like this against a great team like Jeff's, I can see me taking her out, and Jeff going after my redshirt sophomore Zion down there because that's the kind of coach -- I mean, he's a great coach, and he's got great players, and he's smart.

“So I think that's in the back of my head. And you know what, you want to see a scowl, take Teaira McCowan out of a game. She don't like it. It doesn't matter if we're up 20 or down 20. 

“She does not want to come out of the game. So for her, I just think it's where she is, it's where we are. I'd like to get her some time here and there, but it's really hard sometimes when you're in a knock down, drag out.”

He said McCowan will be ready.

“Again, she's an All-American. It doesn't surprise me. Just really proud of her development, continue to be proud of her development in so many areas, not just as a basketball player. You know, tonight, we all were out there. I mean, she's got a couple people hanging on her most of the night. That can wear on you a little bit. She was able to really control her emotions, I thought, tonight in a really positive way. That's some growth for her.

“So proud of her. But am I surprised? I'd have to say, no, I've seen her get 30 and 20 in our league. The kid's done it night after night after night. So she's a warrior. If there's a better five player in the country, y'all bring her. I'd like to see her because she is an absolute monster. I love her to death. I'm not trading her for anybody.

“You know what, that's what makes me so proud of that kid, and, of course, Coach (Johnie) Harris, who's brought her along and developed her. She wants to. Most big kids are going, hey, Coach. 

“They want out. Give me a blow. I'm tired. She's not that way. She wants to play. And I got a whole team of kids like that really, though, to be honest with you. Victoria didn't like coming out tonight either, trust me. But I needed to have a word with her, get her calmed down a little bit, and she's right back in.”

“Anything we've done this year validates last year. You know, like I've said many times, I wasn't hired at Mississippi State to bring them a top 25 basketball team. 

“I was hired to bring them a Top 10 program, which you have to understand at my university women's basketball is very important. They give us, in women's basketball, all the resources that we need to be where we are right now.

“What you also have to know is my fan base has changed in six years. Our first game might have had this many people at it six years ago. Now we have 10,000 tonight.

 “They all thought going into September practice, October, this is going to happen. If this hadn't have happened, the sky was going to fall in Starkville, I'm telling you. They thought we were going to show up, and we're going back to the Final Four. It doesn't obviously work that way.

“Our administration, our president, our athletic director -- there's so much that goes into this, and you have to have the support of everyone because you can't do it unless those people in a university are supporting you.

 And I think what we've shown the country is that, when you get the support of the right people and there's an investment in a program, this is what can happen.

“ You can be in Final Fours. You can play for National Championships. You can have 10,000 a night at your games. You can have a passionate fan base that make the Final Four so special for everybody. I'm telling you, I couldn't be prouder. I couldn't be prouder to be at Mississippi State, to coach this team. The good Lord has blessed us in so many ways. I think, for us, this is the new norm.”

Notre Dame Deals Connecticut Another Heartbreaker While Mississippi State Returns to the Championship Contest

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Having built a reputation as the dominant team in NCAA women’s basketball tournament history, the Connecticut Huskies became a lightning strike victim at the finish in overtime Friday night for the second straight season when Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale hit a jump shot with a second remaining to give the Irish an improbable 91-89 victory in the national semifinals.

Ironically, a strike of midnight to prematurely end what otherwise was a magic run occurred at midnight.

The shocking defeat again short-circuiting another unbeaten finish in the Women’s Final Four came one year after Mississippi State’s Morgan William beat the clock in the extra period to end UConn’s record 111-win streak.

In the opener here Friday night at Nationwide Arena, the Bulldogs earned a way back to a second straight national title game appearance when Roshunda Johnson nailed a game-tying three pointer with seven seconds remaining in regulation and Mississippi State went on to a 73-63 victory over Louisville.

It was the first time both games went into overtime in the national semifinals in tightly-fought contests to make the evening the best-ever at this stage of the tournament since its initial season in 1981-82.

All-American Victoria Vivians had 25 points for Mississippi State and Teaira McCowan, the other Bulldogs all-American scored 21 while grabbing a record 25 rebounds.

Asia Durr had 18 points for Louisville, Jazmine Jones had 15, and Myisha Hines-Allen scored 15 for the Atlantic Coast Conference champions.

“Ro’s got to make a shot,” said Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer about the finish in regulation. “Let’s face it. It’s the biggest shot of the night, of your career, of the biggest stage you’re ever going to play on.

“I don’t care where she plays after this. She’s been somebody we’ve been really blessed to have.”

Schaefer and Notre Dame’s Muffet MGraw have received most of the national coaching awards handed out in the postseason.

“It was a great ball game,” said Louisville coach Jeff Walz of the opener. “I mean, back and forth runs by both teams. I thought we competed, we played our hearts outs. I thought they played their hearts out. Just an unbelievable basketball game.

“It’s just a tough one, but I couldn’t be more proud of these young women.”

Before Friday, one could point to improbable rallies and upsets by heavy underdogs at the 2005 semifinals as best ever when eventual champion Baylor erased a 15-point deficit over LSU in the final 28 minutes and Michigan State roared back from a 16-point deficit with 14.5 minutes remaining to overcome Tennessee in Indianapolis.

The other candidate best-ever twin bill in the national semifinals in terms of upsets as opposed to rallies came in 2011 also in Indianapolis when eventual champion Texas A&M edged Stanford before Notre Dame took down its conference rival UConn out of the old Big East.

But both of those must now take a back seat to what was already perceived as the most loaded Women’s Final Four with each team having been made a No. 1 seed when the 64-team field and pairings were announced.

Furthermore since last November’s opening tip, in terms of strength, Connecticut (36-1) had shaken off the loss to Mississippi State to stay at the top of the polls the entire way into Friday night while the Bulldogs (37-1), Louisville (36-3), and Notre Dame (34-3) were all top five the final 14 weeks of polling out of 19 overall prior to the start of March Madness.

Notre Dame almost took the Huskies down in their annual regular season meeting when the Irish were on the way to an upset through three quarters but succumbed to an 80-71 loss at Connecticut, which surged down the stretch.

The two Philadelphia-bred coaches, UConn’s Geno Auriemma, who has almost every record as a women’s mentor, and Notre Dame’s McGraw, who played at Saint Joseph’s, are both Hall of Famers.

Auriemma has won a record 11 national titles, earned another record 19 Final Four appearances, including the last 11 straight, while McGraw won a national title in 2001 and on Sunday her Irish will be in their sixth national title game and fifth in the last eight years when they meet Mississippi State, which fell a year ago in the championship to Southeastern Conference rival South Carolina under Dawn Staley.

The 180 combined points are the most in a Women’s Final Four contest. The previous total was 178 in the national championship won by Texas over Southern Cal in 1986 and the previous semifinals combined scoring mark was 171 in 1986 when Tennessee beat UConn.

For all of the Huskies’ success they have found Notre Dame to be a thorn when meeting in the Final Four, which is now seven meetings with a 4-3 advantage to the Irish as of Friday night.

Furthermore the last back-to-back semifinals losses were to Notre Dame in 2011 and 2012.

McGraw’s ability to reach the championship is considered her best effort considering her group has lost four key players to knee injuries reducing her roster to seven healthy stars, which at times have been less to other nagging setbacks.

“We got off to a straight start,” McGraw said recapping the game in which Notre Dame roared to a 13-point lead in the opening quarter and finished the period up by 10.

“We had a little but of trouble in the second quarter but responded well,” she referred to a UConn rally to own the period 27-10 and hit the break ahead 41-34.

“It was kind of a dogfight, I thought,” she said. “Both teams throwing punches. I thought it came down to rebounding in the fourth quarter and the overtime.”

Connecticut was down five with 21 seconds left in regulation but came back on a three-pointer by Napheesa Collier and a steal and layup by Kia Nurse to force the extra period.

It was obvious this time that the Irish were not going to fade.

In the extra period, Jessica Shepard, the transfer from Nebraska who was surprisingly granted eligibility at the outset of the season, snapped the tie, making one of two shots, Nurse responded with a trey, and then before Ogunbowale tied it on a layup.

Shepard’s shot and two foul shots by Ogunbowale pushed the Irish to an 86-82 lead with 3:04 left in the overtime before Crystal Dangerfield cut the deficit to two.

But Jackie Young, who had a career-high 32 points and also grabbed 11 rebounds, made three of the next four foul shooting attempts to make it 89-84 with 44 seconds left in the overtime.

Collier than hit a jumper, Ogunbowale then missed a pair of free throws, and Dangerfield tied it 89-89 with 22 seconds left off an assist from Gabby Williams.

Then Notre Dame made the last possession good, Ogunbowale atoning for two missed foul shots with her game-winner to finish with 27 points while Shepard scored 15 and grabbed 11 rebounds.

Collier had 24 points for the Huskies, reserve Azura Stevens scored 19, Katie Lou Samuelson had 16, Gabby Williams scored 12 and grabbed 10 rebounds, while Nurse scored 10.

“Well there’s really not a whole lot you can say about a moment like that, to have a game like that and then come up short,” Auriemma said. “We knew we were playing a great team, obviously, and we knew they had a lot of players that could decide the game.

“They thought they had us put away a couple of times, and we kept coming back and coming back, and we just ran out of time.”

Said Nurse, the star Canadian who finished her collegiate career, “I think it was one of those games, obviously, it was just a grind back and forth the entire game, and it was just a battle.

“I think, like ‘Coach said, “there were so many times they could have put us away, and we clawed and clawed and clawed back into it and made big play after big play. Some I’m proud of my team and the way they played in that section.”

Asked to comment on coming up short after the effort, Auriemma said, “Some things don’t need explanations, you know. You can’t really really describe what goes into — what goes into getting here and trying to win a championship.

“It’s very, very difficult. For a long time, we made it look like it was easy, but it’s very, very difficult, as it’s played out the last two years. There are no bad teams. There are no bad players. You can’t luck into a national championship. You have to play great,” he continued.

“For us to make the plays that we made … I mean, that’s what Connecticut basketball is all about. But they made one more big play than we did tonight.”

On the way the entire night went, McGraw said, “Unbelievable. Both games, hard fought battles and exciting for the fans. That had to be great a TV game both times.

“I probably should thank every Catholic from coast to coast for all the prayers on Good Friday at the end of that game.”


Thursday, March 29, 2018

Women’s Final Four Offers a Fearsome Four


This is the ultimate fearsome foursome. 

It should be a fun time in Columbus this weekend when the all No. 1 seed NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four commences with Connecticut, Mississippi State, Louisville, and Notre Dame, the Mount Rushmore of the 2017-18 season.

They are a combined 141-6. That alone should make for spellbinding and awesome hoops. In one corner, there’s two dynamite individual stars going head-to-head in Louisville’s Asia Durr and Mississippi State’s Teaira McCowan. Though they won’t be guarding each other, they are the headliners on their respective star-studded teams, though the Bulldogs’ Victoria Vivians deserves equal billing among the Southeastern Conference representatives.

In the other corner, the sport’s best rivalry continues between UConn and Notre Dame. 

This will be the 48th meeting between the former Big East rivals. Hopefully head coaches and Philadelphians Geno Auriemma and Muffet McGraw play nice with each other this week. This is the millennium version of those epic UConn-Tennessee battles in the late 90s and early 2000s. 

While this will be the first time Louisville and Mississippi State are meeting on the hardwood, the programs are forever bonded because they have pulled off two of the three biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. Two improbable triumphs. Two shining moments for women’s basketball.

In 2013, Louisville toppled undefeated and prohibitive title favorite Baylor in a Sweet 16 game in Oklahoma City. The Bears, you may recall, were led by Brittney Griner, who was an unstoppable force of nature during her sterling collegiate career. Of course, everybody remembers where they were last year when Mississippi State’s Morgan William made the game-winner at the buzzer in overtime  and simultaneously ended UConn’s 111-game winning streak in Dallas.

The Bulldogs lost in last year’s championship contest to SEC rival South Carolina. They are motivated to return and add the missing piece to an amazing three-year run under head coach Vic Schaefer. Motivated by last season’s ending, Mississippi State tore through its schedule and posted an undefeated SEC regular season.

The first semifinal will be fascinating as both teams are balanced and have obnoxious defenders that have made life miserable for opponents. While Durr and McCowan garner most of the headlines, both Louisville and Mississippi State feature game changing players in Myisha Hines-Allen (16 double doubles) and Victoria Vivians, respectively. Those two are special to watch. 

The last two times Louisville advanced to the Final Four, it lost to UConn in the championship. 

UConn is always around. This is the Huskies’ 11th consecutive trip to the national semifinals and 19th overall. Three of UConn’s losses to Notre Dame have come in the Final Four. In 2014, these heavyweights played in the first national championship game between teams with perfect records. It was a meaningful moment for women’s basketball. It didn’t matter that UConn rolled that night in Nashville.

UConn has played with ruthless and relentless efficiency all season. Its offense is literally poetry in motion because of the numerous scoring threats from every corner. 

Gabby Williams is special and can do anything she wants on the floor. Kia Nurse just knows when a big shot is needed. Katie Lou Samuelson shots are often on target that you’d think she was a robot. Crystal Dangerfield is gifted and Naphessa Collier is fearless and fantastic. Then, the Huskies bring in Azura Stevens, who has been dynamic throughout the season. 

Yet, the Fighting Irish before most of their injuries had the Huskies on the ropes in the Dec. 3 meeting this season in Hartford. It was one of three losses for Notre Dame with the other two coming to Louisville.

The Huskies trailed 65-54 early in the fourth quarter before scoring 21 of the next 26 points to win 80-71. Marina Mabrey, who has assumed most of the point guard duties after the season-ending injury to Lili Thompson, fired in 21 points against UConn in that December meeting.

The UConn-Notre Dame game should be full of motion, back-screens and passes by the bushel.

This Final Four showcase has the potential to be memorable. There will be three close and exciting contests in Nationwide Arena. UConn will be pushed and challenged as it should be. Louisville, Mississippi State and Notre Dame aren’t in Columbus because it won a trip in a raffle. Each squad has a legit chance to win the national championship. 

This weekend will be a fantastic finish to a memorable tournament that saw two Mid-American Conference (MAC) squads in Buffalo and Central Michigan advance to the Sweet 16 and Villanova win its tournament opener before being ousted by Notre Dame. 

It’s always sad when outstanding careers end and it’s hard to say goodbye to A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Mitchell and Lexie Brown, three transcendent talents that have elevated the sport to another level. This is only the beginning for those three talented ladies that provided numerous indelible moments. 

No surprise here, but UConn adds to its national title collection with a lot more effort than in previous Final Four appearances. They’ll need a second half rally to edge Mississippi State in a final that will be one for the ages. 

A Siroky Viewpoint: What Next in the Evolutionary Trail of Organization?

By Mike Siroky

What about everyone else?

NCAA Division 1 football elites seasons ago told the NCAA to step aside in the playoffs. The schools and conferences make the money now.

The elite of men’s college basketball is poised to do the same. 

If they leave the NCAA and start their own rules/own governing body, so be it. They could allow players to be paid.

 If it is just basketball, other sports might remain weakened  in a severely less-important NCAA.

Would football also splinter away? The could have their own rules (pay among them) and the new organization would make more money.

But what about everyone else?

We long-time writers of women’s hoops (there are two of us) know the move to the NCAA from the player-friendly AIAW was a big marketing move. 

The uninitiated followers might not recognize Old Dominion vs. Louisiana Tech as significant, but they sure got Tennessee-Georgia and other lesser conference matchups. 

The women’s game would not have elevated so quickly.

But look back to the AIAW and for instance, Final Four players collecting all sorts of swag from not only the host sites but also from major athletic wear companies, all legal. 

The writers were also gifted with carry bags, notebooks, shaving kits, etc. Well, there were  not that many of us.

Would the women be invited to the new basketball governors? Why would they? 

None of them support themselves financially. 

Would the men in the big programs want to support them? Would the playoff field be a more-workable 32 again?

Cast adrift, all other sports would be in serious trouble.

 Notre Dame dropped an endowed wrestling program because it was not financially feasible. Try to find many gymnastics or even men’s volleyball competitions. 

The Olympic sports would rapidly fade as training grounds. Already the best track athletes go to Europe for “performance fees” while waiting for the Olympic cycle to come around. 

Except for the best of the bets, we wait to get introduced every four years then we cheer. The best woman swimmer in America just this week took her medals and Pac 12 titles to the European circuit.

Remember, the University of Chicago was a founding member of the Big Ten. They 
still have sports. So what?

Bad administration cost marquee names from the Big East.

If the others join or become a version of the NAIA, OK. If the AIAW is rejuvenated for the women, OK. 

The power conferences would be a sought sale for the alphabetical broadcast outlets. 

This weekends women’s Division 1 women’s basketball championship has proven for years it can exist on non-network TV. The schools agree to 11 a.m. starts even at Regionals because they are accepting the money and not sharing it with the athletes.

Sports always change. Radio used to dominate. The NIT used to be important. The Olympics used to take the starters from the NIT men’s championship and begin America’s basketball team that way.

Now that big money is involved on every level– the FBI investigation has revealed a $250,00 signing bonus for one basketball player brokered by his coach -- it gets shatteringly serious.

There is a chance the women will be left behind again. They had better be ready fast to organize.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Mike Siroky’s SEC Report: Mississippi State Does Final Four Coaches Teleconference

By Mike Siroky

Psst. Hey NCAA Selection Committee,. You messed up. Three of the Final Four coaches are guys. 

There is a reasonable expectation one of them at least will be in the championship game. Maybe two.


Vic Schaefer, the effervescent National Coach of the Year of SEC champ  Mississippi State, and Jeff Walz of ACC champ Louisville meet in one national semifinal.

Walz said all the right thing at the first Final Four Media Day, admitting he could not fathom a way to slow Victoria Vivians or Teaira McCowan. He jokingly suggested Schaefer drive the team bus and take a wrong turn to Columbus.

What a dream of a difference a year makes. State was in the national semis last year. 

There was once a coach at Auburn, Joe Ciampi, who made three straight Finals Fours and never won. Pat Head lost more than she won for a long time. It is not unprecedented in this league.

So the journey is actually important. Getting here can be enough or at least a lot more than Dawn Staley’s concession to not winning the Regional this year.

Schaefer was in full Schafer mode again as he arrived in Ohio.

“I really want to first start by just talking about how proud I am of my kids and our team. Obviously very hard to do what they have been able to do this year. ‘They have had the target on their back from Day 1, just talking about last year and what they were able to accomplish; as the year went on this year.

Unsaid was the idea last year at this he scuttled his starting lineup for the NCAAs to  advance the practice players to starters. And it worked. 

Vivians especially is markedly better for that experience in shot selection  alone.

Being undefeated for 32 games was a big challenge and they handled that like a pro all year long.

“The one game we did lose, we lost to the better team that night. South Carolina is obviously very good and Dawn does a tremendous job, her and her staff.

VJust wasn’t our night. Wasn’t that we weren’t ready. Wasn’t that we weren’t prepared. Just it wasn’t our night.

‘These kids have had two pretty big bulls-eyes on their back all year long  and have just really handled that, unlike any time I’ve ever coached.

“ It’s the best offensive team I’ve ever been associated with in 33 years. To have four senior guards, the leadership that they have provided has been outstanding, and their maturity, really, is beyond anything, again, that I’ve ever experienced as a head coach.

“In particular Teaira McCowan inside is a double/double machine. She has had an incredible year. She’s had 26 double/doubles this year; she’s had had 30-20 games, numerous 20-20 games and she and Tori are both very deserving of their All-American statuses they have earned.

“Point guard play has in my opinion been tremendous with Morgan (William) and Jaz(mun Holmes), it’s allowed us, people don’t realize, we’re redshirting three-time Gatorade Player of the Year, Myah Taylor, who came in as a point guard and that’s the luxury we have with two great point guards in Morgan and Jaz.

“Just really excited, again, to get back.  so hard to do to see these kids have the success they have had. I’m just really proud and happy for them.’

 ‘I’d be remiss without mentioning my staff,’  Schaefer said.

 ‘Johnnie Harris, my associate head coach came here to Mississippi State. I would not have come here without her. She has been named the Assistant Coach of the Year by the WBCA. Carly Thibault has been named one of the 30-for-30 coaches. Dionnah Jackson-Durrett, my other assistant, who is on our staff and does a tremendous job.

“ ‘So I’m just really blessed with what I think is the best staff in the country. They do a great job preparing these kids, and help develop them. 

“That’s been a secret to our success. I think anybody that’s followed us over the last six years, they know our recipe is recruit, retain and develop and I think we’ve done that.

“We have no McDonald’s All-Americans but we have kids that fit in our system, they play extremely hard. They are committed. You know, I think the other piece that people don’t realize is we had a team GPA of 3.4 in the fall. Really proud of our program and where we are and excited about the opportunity.

‘ Well, my staff, is incredible. We are all so much -- first of all, we’re family. They don’t work for me. They work with me. We work together. They embrace the grind. They embrace the process. It is a hard-working -- they are so committed to our student athletes. Their attention to detail is spot-on.

‘I mean, we are all so much alike in terms of competitiveness and making sure that we cover our bases. We have everything, you know, not wanting to be surprised by anything in our preparation, and then the recruiting piece, they are just bulldogs, for lack of a better word. They are bulldogs when it comes to recruiting.

‘”Just really blessed to have this staff, a mixture of experience and youth; and at the same time my youth is mature beyond its years, just again, the work ethic that this group has is amazing. 

“I’ve been able to surround myself with people that have the same goals, the same drive, the same vision that I have, and that’s the secret I think to any company, any program, is you’ve got to surround yourself with people that are better than you in some areas, you know that, have a drive and embrace the grind.

“There is no time in our day. Theres no -- in other words, there’s no 8 to 5. It’s daylight to the next day. I mean, it’s just the way it is. I just appreciate them so much.

“I was able to hire Dionnah a couple years ago. I got her from George Mason, came highly recommended to me, and you know, her and Carly both have been tremendous additions. Johnnie and I have been together a long, long time, and you know, we’re family. I mean, she’s done a heck of a job developing Big T, and as a post coach does so much for our program.

“She’s that assistant that when I’m gone, if there’s got to be a decision made, she knows which decision to make and which one I would make. She’s tremendous. I can’t say enough about Johnnie, what she means to me personally as well as professionally. We’re family. That’s the best thing I can say about her.

“Obviously you have three other great, great programs, great teams, great coaches, in the Final Four, and we are just proud to be a part of it.

“Well, the (post-season awards) are very well-deserved. I’m really happy for them, proud of them. Again, I think it shows a tremendous commitment on their part, my staff’s part, with those players.

“Those student athletes are very deserving. Morgan, as our point guard for four years here, she’s really playing well right now, too. And again, she gets pushed every day by Jaz in practice, and they have made each other better.’

Unsaid was the idea last year at this he scuttled his starting lineup for the NCAAs to  advance the practice players to starters. And it worked Vivians especially is markedly better for that experience in shot selection  alone

“You know, Victoria, to improve your shooting percentage 13 percentage points from two, and I think seven from three, from junior to senior year, is really astounding. 

“Typically, the most improvement you make is between your freshman and sophomore year, but she’s really taken off, playing with so much confidence right now. Had a heck of a regional in Kansas City, her and Teaira both were MVPs. I’ve never heard of that, co-MVPs of a regional, and both of them were deserving.

“ I commend the people that voted on that for giving it to both of them because they both were outstanding.

“Obviously Teaira, I’ve said it all year long, the kid does it night-in and night-out, 27, I think. You would know better than me but I think it’s 27 double-doubles in the Southeastern Conference with two and three people hanging on her.

“To be able to do it consistently over the course of the season, is really, really difficult to do. We had a heck of a non-conference schedule, as well, and just so proud of her and her development.

“And I say this all the time: I still think she’s got -- she can go a whole lot further. I think her development is still way out there, and she just can become even more dominating, if that’s even possible, which it is in my mind, you know, with another great summer and a good fall.

“The thing that’s really impressed me about her is just how hard she plays the game; in particular, her pursuit of the basketball rebounding.

“She just -- there are times when I thought over the weekend, there were times when she just would not be denied, and she has really become that -- that Bill Russell-type, who understands angles and shots when they are coming off. 

“She just has a tremendous nose for the ball. Her pursuit of the basketball has really become I think a staple for her.

“It’s hard to get a body on her and it’s hard to move her. You know, her strength, I think is really another dominating factor in her game. I think the thing that as the year’s gone by now this year, she’s developing that skill set.

“Her touch around the rim, her ability to get to her spots, and score from them, in more than one way. 

“That’s still coming and we still have a lot of work, in my mind, to do there, but just to be able to watch her develop her skill set; her free throw percentage, for instance, 

“She started off the year in the 30s. She’s now in the high 60s, but if you look over the last five games, she’s at 80-something. She’s done a tremendous job there improving her touch, her face-up game and her range.

“I’m proud of her. As you know, those post players, they do all the dirty work. They are down there, you know, leaning, rubbing, getting shoved around and a lot of their development, too, is not just the physical piece but after you do all that and you run the floor and a guard misses you on a post-up, you know, you can’t get upset about that.

“You have to turn right back around and go back and do it again and hope the next time, they don’t miss you.

“That’s the mental possess that a lot of the big kids, post players, men and women, sometimes have a hard time dealing with, and she’s been just a champ and a pro.”

He has the institutional support to do what he needs to do. He is living the dream.

“My vision is exactly what we’re experiencing last year, this year. I believed this could happen. I believed that we had the blueprint.

“Again, part of that blueprint was Johnnie coming with me. You know, her knowledge of the game and her knowledge of what it takes in a program. That’s such a broad -- there’s so many things that go into developing a program. I didn’t believe I was brought here to have a Top-25 team.

“As I told Scott Strickland, my athletic director then, I wanted to come here and build a Top 10 program. There’s a difference between Top 25 teams and Top 10 programs. 

“Programs are there every year. Year-in, year-out. You pick up a preseason poll, you’re looking for a certain team in the Top 10. You don’t know where they are going to be but they are in the Top-10. Those teams 17-25 are fluid. One week they are in the poll, the next week they are out, the next week they are not receiving votes, the next week they are receiving.

“That’s not what my vision was. I envisioned us building a Top 10 program here, and again, I believed we could do it because of the people, because of the administration. 

“Our facilities are incredible, and it’s a beautiful part of the country.

“ I’m not from Mississippi. I don’t think I’ve been in this state other than to recruit the No. 1 player in the country one year and then I had to play here three times out of six years when I coached at Arkansas. So other than that, I had never even been through the state, but it’s a tremendous place, tremendous people in this state. And we have a beautiful campus.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had recruits and parents here and their parents have told me, ‘Coach, we had no idea this was here.’ I think I’ve lost six kids in six years who have actually been on official visits here.

“But again, the only piece is, I had to have the right staff. We had to have the right people here that would be committed to our mission, and again, we didn’t panic. That first year, when we went 13-17, that may be the best job in coaching I’ve of done. I didn’t think we’d win three games and we won 13, won five in the league, and so you know, we didn’t panic. We just went would work. We went recruiting.

“That first recruiting class wasn’t highly ranked. I think they were ranked 35th and maybe seventh in the league of 14 teams, but they were kids that fit. They fit our style of play. They fit what we desperately needed here, which was a competitive spirit and toughness. We just didn’t have that.

“So it’s been fun building it.

“Every year is new and different. Our mission this year is unfinished business. Our kids have embraced that. I’m sure Connecticut’s is similar. They want to get back and have that opportunity again, and they have been driven by that.

“I think you could see (in the Regional championship), they are very focused and playing at an unbelievable high level. I mean, they are so, so talented, so good, so well-coached. You know, they are just -- they are on a mission, as well.

“We’ve both been probably fueled by what happened a year ago. For us, we’ve now got to get ready and play a very, very good Louisville team that’s extremely well coached, great players. We’re both from very good conferences and so you know, that’s our challenge this week is trying to get ready for them.

“I’m sure that everyone has their own motivations to get to where we are right now, and I think it’s, you know, I’m glad I’m one of the 1-seeds that made it. I would have hated to have been the one that didn’t. All four No. 1-seeds made it and now we are all motivated to try to get to the last game of the year.

“: Our kids, I think they are going to see a very -- a team that typically all year has been able to score. We shoot it extremely well. We’ve got four kids around the perimeter that can really shoot it. We’ve got the big bookend inside in Teaira.

“But past all that, you’re going to see a team that plays extremely hard. You know, someone wants to describe you as an individual player or your team, as a tough, physical, aggressive basketball team, you’d probably like that.

“I think a football coach would like it if they described your football team as a tough, physical, aggressive team; you’d like that, I think in any sport. Well, that doesn’t say anything about your skill set.

“For us, we’ve really tried to embrace that. It’s part of our program. It part of our DNA of who we are. We have a saying in our locker room: It’s not what we do but how we do it that separate us from the rest of the country.

“This team has really prided itself on work ethic, attention to detail, and I think you’re going to see a team that has tremendous chemistry, and they love playing the game.

“They really have a lot of fun playing a game. They have been a blast to coach. I think anybody that has seen us across the country knows that. Anybody that hasn’t seen us, I think they will be impressed by how hard these kids play.”

He knows there is more and more foucxs on the 3.

“Well, this year’s team certainly has it. I’ve never, like I said, this is the best offensive team I’ve ever had. They are just really, really talented. We can space the floor and shoot it at four shots and then again it’s hard to get help off anybody to deal with Teaira inside.

“So we have, we’ve embraced it. Really, again, it the first team I’ve had like that. Last year’s team was more defensive-minded. I’ve complained a lot about this year’s team defensively, and yet we averaged in the Southeastern Conference, we held people to 55 points a game and something like 39 percent field goal percentage defense, which isn’t that great. But the points, I do like the points allowed.

“Offensively we’ve averaged, 82, 84 points a game all year. Our point differential in the Southeastern Conference was 24 points in 16 conference games, which is unbelievable. It’s off the chart.

“Last year’s team was 13, when we went 13-3, it was 13 points. So year’s team is obviously offensively much more skilled and talented. So we’ve certainly embraced the four at one end for sure.

“Yet they are --  like every other team – somewhat under the radar compared to UConn.

“ Tt’s a level of excellence never before seen in the game of basketball, not just women,” Schaefer said.

“What Coach Auriemma and his program, his staff, have been able to create with their student athletes is outstanding. It’s an incredible run, and it’s not like it’s going to end any time soon, I don’t think. They are obviously extremely driven and highly motivated. They have done it every year.

“So if and when it ever does -- when they retire, which obviously I don’t know when that will be, but if and when that run ever ends, I don’t think it will ever be seen again. I mean, it’s just -- they have just been incredible. They are to be commended for it. 

“It’s an incredible feat, and trust me, I’ve lived it for the one year here, and they have done it forever, it seems like, just forever.

“ I have so much respect for them, knowing how hard it is, and they just do it every year. I mean, they just crank it out every year, do it every year at such a high level.
“Look, they are not just winning. He said it.

“It’s not just about winning for them. It’s how they win and how they play the game, and that’s what I’ve tried impart on these kids here in our program. It’s how you play the game and how you respect and honor the game, and I think that’s where he’s at with his program and how they coach. It’s how they play. I think that’s the piece that gets lost in all this is the way they play the game and dominate the game, in all facets, not just one.

“Tthey talk about their offense and how good it is, but let me tell you, they are really good defensively, trust me. I got held to 38 one time.”

He like his floor leader, too.

“No question. She’s really been special and what a blessing to have had her here these last four years.

“You know, we saw a kid that provided who we are: How hard she plays; she’s so quick, athletic, fast, long, but really just plays the game like a bulldog. She’s just tough, hard-nosed, competitive. That kid played with a broken leg her sophomore year. Most kids would have turned it in and sat out six weeks. She played through it.

“It’s just been a blessing for me and our program here for four years. Love her like my own. She rooms with Blair. They are roommates. You know, just a special, special kid. But we saw a kid that fit what we needed and we’ve had some -- I’ve been a part of some great point guard over the years, but that’s where it starts, really, for me, and for us is you’ve got to have great point guard play.

“You have no chance in the Southeastern Conference if you don’t have great point guard play, and she’s really provided and been a steady player there game in, game out, day-in, day-out in practice and year-in, year-out.?”

And surprisingly, neither McCown nor Vivians were high school All-Americans.

“ I don’t think there’s any question; you and I both know, people get all caught up in putting a number by some kid’s name, and it affects in how they are judged in so many opportunities. Not just in what college thinks they are good enough or recruits that, but even past that whether it’s representing your country, or even at the next level.

“These kids have all had opportunities to make some other teams while they are here, and they have not been chosen. You know, for whatever reason, these kids, they have tremendous pride. I do, too.

“It’s disappointing and disheartening because I know who they are and how hard they work. I know what kind of basketball player they are and I know what kind of teammate they are. I don’t think there’s any question that, you know, these kids belong. They have proven it and I’m happy for them. It can be a little bit frustrating.”

A delicious part of the national semifinal is it puts two top-level Southern programs against each other who have somehow never managed to play in the regular season. That will surely change,’ but for now . . . 

“ Well, they are really good,” Schaefer said “ They are awfully talented. Obviously Jeff does a tremendous job. We’re going to have to really play well. They have obviously got one of the greatest players in the game right now and Player of the Year in the ACC. But they have also got the other players around her.

“One of my questions yesterday in our staff meeting: Okay, we know about Asia, but who else is capable of going off and really hurting you, and of course, we all knew the answer, but it created an opportunity for us to have conversations about that because they are very talented at every position.

“The thing is, Jeff’s going to do a great job. He and his staff are going to do a great job not only getting them ready but having them prepare for the things that we do and we do well. You’re going against a complete program. You’re going against an incredible staff. You’re going against great players. They have had a heck of a year as all four teams have had. But just you’re going to have to be on your A Game and because they are really, really talented, really, really special.

“Jeff, I know Jeff well and I have a tremendous amount of respect for the job he’s done there at Louisville.

“ We saw each other that first year when I was year. I think we saw each other in Puerto Rico or maybe Puerto Vallarta that we played a tournament together and didn’t play each other, of course he was very good then and we weren’t very good.

“I think that’s the thing this time of year. We had never played UCLA either. Typically I’ve got a file that’s three inches thick on every team I play, and even the TV people made a comment about my file on UCLA. Well, we just haven’t played them very much, or any. The same will be true with Louisville.

“I have had the opportunity to watch them play. I’ve made a point to watch them play during the season because I have so much respect for Jeff and their program and like watching how they play the game. They are similar to us in a lot of areas.

“You know, I have seen them play, but it is a unique deal when you don’t play somebody or haven’t played them before. To play them on this stage, on a national stage, you know, it will be unique.

“You know, No. 1, they are really good defensively. I think they play a lot like us in some of the things they like to do. Obviously you’re dealing with an All-American in Durr that’s just really hard to deal with.

“Again, you have to be careful. If you take your focus away from someone else, there’s someone else on that team that can go get 20 on you if you blink.

“So you’ve got to be prepared for a total, total team, and so for us, we’ve really got to pay attention to detail. We’ve got to understand the scout. We’ve got three days to do that.

“And then defensively, I know he’s -- I’ve gone back and looked at historical things that he’s done in the past with certain teams that might be similar to us, and so again, it’s just going to be real important that we -- I call it coaching against a ghost. I’m always worried about what somebody might do. Well, that’s what I’m worried about here because what he might do, he’s done before. But just because he hasn’t done it in the last ten games doesn’t mean he won’t do it against us.

“So that’s what makes a great coach, and a great staff, is whatever they have got in their defensive package or offensive package, that’s what you’re constantly worried about. I think they are so multiple in so many things they can do offensively and defensively, it’s what makes them a great team, and Jeff a great coach.

“Over the years, it’s been a pressure, our ability to pressure the basketball and take away things that people want to do.

“it’s become increasingly more difficult to have that philosophy, but we haven’t changed. Back when three, four years ago, we had some little changes and some emphasis in hand shaking and things like that, if you notice across the country, there’s a lot more zone being played.

“I remember calling Johnnie in that day, saying, you know what, we are going to coach better and teach better. We’ve built a fan base here based on how hard our kids play, our toughness, our competitive spirit and I just don’t think that we’d have the fan base we’d have right now if we were standing around in a 2-3 zone, and that’s not to knock that. 

“It may be great for someone else, but it’s not what we hung our hat on around here, and I don’t think -- I don’t think we’d have 10,000 people come to see us play every night if that’s what we were doing.

“But it’s what’s been successful for me as a coach is our pressure man, and we pick up full court, we press the whole game. We just try to wear you down. You know, we’ve been really fortunate to have some great players here that have been able to provide that type of intensity. They embrace the fact that you have to play so hard.

“Praise the Lord and Go ’Dawgs.”

 We have told you since January that Texas A&M rookie Chenneddy Carter was the best in the land. Thd Women’s Basketball coaches Association confirmed our pick, 

She is the first in program history to win any national superlative award, the 16th overall All-American.

Carter set the Texas A&M freshman record with 785 points on the season.

She led Division I freshmen with 22.7 points per game, while averaging 4.9 assists and shooting 44.3% from the field. 

Carter previously earned National Freshman of the Year honors from both USA Today Sports. She averaged 31.3 points per game in the NCAA Tournament, and was on the Spokane Regional All-Tournament team. She is honorable mention All-Associated Press


A’Ja Wilson, one of the player of the year candidates, from South Carolina, made the USBWA first team. Mississippi State’s Victoria Vivians is second team. There are only two teams.

Back at home for a minute, the trio from Mississippi State earned Associated Press honors.

Vivians, Teaira McCowan and Morgan William are so selected. We told you about Wilson as a first-teamer previously, garnered All-America accolades from the Associated Press on Monday.

Vivians became the first MSU player since 2003 to be first-team honors from AP. 

McCowan is third team. William is an honorable mention for the second-straight year.

Vivians, a three-time All-America selection, was named Co-Most Outstanding Player along with McCowan in Kansas City. She averaged 19.0 points and shot 53.6-percent from the field. The Regional final is her 18th 20-point game of the year, and the 36th time in 37 games she has reached double figures.

 Vivians has posted the best shooting numbers of her career, knocking down 48.5 percent from the field, 41 percent from 3-point range and 82 percent from the free-throw line.

She has scored a career-best 727 points this season, second-most in program history. Her 276 made field goals also rate fourth in the program. Vivians is  second at State in career scoring with 2,481 points. She is second  team All_USBWA.

McCowan averages 18.1 points this season, and 13.6 rebounds per game, second most in the country. She averages 6.0 offensive rebounds per game, tops in the Division 1.

McCowan has 502 rebounds so far, the second-most in SEC history and the most by a league player since NCAA records began with the 1981-82 season. She is third team All-AP.

William has averaged 8 points and hit 40.8 percent from the field and a program-record 86.4 percent from the line this season, but she has been outstanding at setting up her teammates for success, an SEC third-most 4.6 assists per game while tallying a 4.1 assist/turnover ratio that is second in the nation..

She once again turned up the offense in March, averaging 15.0 points and shooting 42.1 percent from the field, 60 percent from the arc and a perfect 11-for-11 at the stripe in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight victories. She has collected double-figure points in five of her last six games.

Senior Jamie Nared of Tennessee is the other SEC player to earn honorable mention.

University of Kentucky senior guard Makenzie Cann has joined the basketball players leaving the program.

She will graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in integrated strategic communication with a minor in psychology.

 Cann is forgoing her last year of eligibility to continue her education elsewhere, at an institution that offers more specialized classes in veterinary tech or non-profit management programs.   

“I want to thank my teammates, coaches, all the fans and everyone that has made my dream of playing for the University of Kentucky come true,” Cann said. “Wearing the Blue and White the past three years has been an honor and although pursuing my future career path shortens my time in the program, I will always be a Wildcat and a part of Big Blue Nation.” 

She transferred in from Cincinnati in the summer of 2015, sat out the 2015-16 season due to NCAA transfer rules. She earned 35 starts and played in games with 35 starts,  including 31 of 32 this season

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Mike Siroky’s SEC Report: Old Tradition Tops New Tradition

By Mike Siroky

Old tradition won, 94-65. Yikes.

What we knew coming into the UConn-South Carolina matchup that one team for sure was being eliminated from a return trip to the Final 4.

 The current National Champ was taking on the one from immediate previous seasons. Old tradition won over new, UConn advancing.

The defending champs were not favored. 

Nor was their coach, for one of the few times, expected to out maneuver the man who has become the mentor to all important women coaches and handed off leadership of America’s National Team to her. 

In seasons to come, they will name the NCAA Coach of the Year after him. Not yet, but as soon as they get over the idea that he is a guy.

The formidable challenge for the best player in America – though she still can win Player of the Year after this – faced A’ja Wilson in one of the few games her team was not expected to win. 

We are sure the Clown Commentator for the SEC network gave at least one “this team never gave up” hurrah.

They had already lost – at home – to the Huskies by 15.

A’ja Wilson was named first team Associated Press All-America this day. But the Huskies have four.

 It was another edge for the Regional home team in Albany, N.Y.

The unscoutable entity – even for Dawn Stacey – had to be Crystal Dangerfield. 

She started with five straight 3s. She had one straight 3 and that’s all she wrote in the first matchup.

 “Tonight, my teammates did a great job of finding me when I was open and I was able to knock those shots in early,” Dangerfield said.

 It’s the reason UConn is in the Final Four for a 11th consecutive season..

The Huskies led by 18 after one quarter and that was just the way it was gonna be.

Katie Lou Samuelson—Uconn’s first team All-American --  had nine points, including a four-point play, during the first 10 minutes.

The other Huskies hit 4-of-5 3s, eliminating any battle underneath in Wilsonland. The UConn run at the time was 15-4.

Even in the stands, UConn had better players, greats Tina Charles and Breanna Stewart, who helped the Huskies to four consecutive national championships. 

Stewart grew up two hours west of Albany. The crowd was the playoff best, 9,522. 

And it’s back in Albany next season.

It was 52-31 at the break.

At the end, Gabby Williams had 23 points, Samuelson 17 and Napheesa Collier 16. 

UConn scored the most points in school history for this round of the NCAA Tournament.

 Williams was named Most Outstanding Player of the Region, but write down Samuelson already for next year’s Player of the Year.

Wilson was seated early, three minutes to go and down by 31, crying as the game wound down. She scored 27. She is SC’s all-time points leader, 2,369.

Carolina guard Tyasha Harris set a program single-season assist record,  220.

Gamecock junior forward Alexis Jennings scored  15 points against the Huskies to join Wilson in double figures.

Samuelson, a 6-3 junior, averaged 17.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists and hits 53.1 from the floor, 46.2 percent on 3s and  83.8 from the line. 

Wilson, by contrast, two inches taller and a 6-5 senior, scored  22.6, with, 11.8 rebounds, 55 percent from the low inside and 3.2 blocks, She received two more first-place votes than did Samuelson.

But the Husky had help in second-team senior All-American guard Williams, third team junior forward Collier and – surprisingly buried but injured some this season --  honorable mention Kia Nurse.

 That overbalance of no-question talent made the difference.

In that first game, Wilson not even  the leading Gamecock, scored 14, despite 37 minutes played on her side. Alexis Jennings was MIA, with five then. 

Good teams do that to second-best players. It’s a coaching fundamental. Nurse then had 23, Katie Lou 20, Collier 19 and Williams 14. Nice balance, hey.

Not much changed in the rematch.

The Huskies get former Big East speed bump Notre Dame in its national semifinal, Friday in Columbus, Ohio.

 They have the most Final Four appearances of any basketball team, men or women. 

They have the most national semifinal appearance by any team, men or women. 

Conference winners Louisville (ACC) and Mississippi State (SEC) are in the other tussle.

 State eliminated UConn in the previous national semifinal.

“Every team starts the season saying that’s our goal to go to the Final Four. For us, it’s an opportunity to go back to where we felt like we didn’t really give our best effort,” Auriemma said. “We lost to a really good team. Happened in a way that was really, really disappointing. I know that we were anxious to go back and put ourselves in that same situation and see how much we’ve changed since last year.”

“I think we definitely have something to prove,” Williams said. “Not only to the rest of the world, but to ourselves as well.”

Captain Obvious masquerading as Staley, said without a bit of irony: “We got beat by a really good UConn team. We didn’t have enough to compete in the way that we would have liked to, but now all is well in women’s basketball.

Staley said, of course, it was the Dangerfield show, except she got plenty of respect.

“ Well, she made wide-open shots. They were practice shots, with her feet set and no one really around her and then if you watch them in warmups, those are the kind of shots that they hit. 

“Certainly we didn’t do a good job of staying close to home to her. We kind of dug ourselves in the hole by helping off too much.”

Of her team, she is still pretending to be surprised,  “Super proud. Super proud. Our team performed all year long under adversity, couldn’t be more proud of our players and the way that they have handled themselves and the way that they did not succumb to, woe is me and why does it happen to me. 

“They just played it out, and believed that we could be here.

“ First, I thought we, are to the most part, stuck to our game plan. When we shoot the ball that well -- I think our turnovers killed us in the first quarter. We didn’t have very many of them. I’d rather have 27 of them tonight and win, versus just 13.

“ UCONN makes you pay. You’ve got to pick your poison. If you dig in too much to help in the paint, they are going to kill you on the outside. If you over play on the outside, you know, they are going to backdoor you for wide-open layups.

“It was that kind of game in which we could not control it, especially early on.

“ It’s bittersweet (she said of Wilson). I wouldn’t want her to have another year.

“Selfishly as a coach -- you have to let her spread her wings and fly in the WNBA and overseas. She’s done so much for our program, our state, our university, and all the little girls that grow up looking like her; she was a poster child for inspiration and a beacon of hope. I want her to go to Las Vegas (with the top NBA draft pick) and do the same.

“Obviously we were on a trajectory of being a really good basketball team and program. It’s like asking where UCONN would be without Diana Taurasi. That’s kind of unfair.

“A’Ja was an integral part of taking our program to the next level. There won’t be a whole lot of A’ja Wilsons left in our game. I’m just really fortunate that I got a chance to coach her for four years, and knock-on-wood, for very few injuries.”

Wilson has had also apparently prepared for the loss.

“I think I’ve served my time at the University of South Carolina and the NCAA,” she said.

“I have had a great four years. I wouldn’t change anything. Coming to South Carolina was the best decision I’ve made at a young age.

“ Of course, it’s all fun and I hate to see it come to an end but at the same time, I wouldn’t trade anything for my time that I had at South Carolina. It was just the way the ballgame was going. 

“We could have tried anything but they were shooting pretty well; great, from 3-point line, and that was one of our kind of keys was just defend the 3-point line and we had a little trouble doing that. At that point, you just have to give everything that you have and leave it all on the court.”

So it ends, with little expected at the start.

“ I don’t know exactly what I was thinking, honestly (when she came to SC). I just knew Coach Staley has done such a great job with this program and I wanted to be part of it.

“ I couldn’t have written this out or couldn’t even imagined this as a young girl, but it’s definitely been a blessing to be coached by Coach Staley and I’ve learned so much from her and just so much from my teammates over the course of my four years.

“If I could have called it, it would have been great, but I didn’t. I think that’s what makes it a lot of fun is it’s been a journey. I’ve been through the ups and downs of everything. I’ve had a blessing to just compete in the NCAA, and make it to the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 and two Final Fours and National Champions.

“There’s a bunch of girls out there that dream to do that, and I was part of it So just to be part of something and show people that it can be done, it’s been a blessing.”

Jennings started at SEC rival Kentucky realized her error and ended at the better school.

She has that transfer season of eligibility left and may well play on as a Gamecock. 

That would lessen the impact of graduation. Plus former Tennessee starting point guard T’ea Cooper will be at last eligible to pair with Harris and the rehabbed senior Biaca Cuevas-Moore.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Mike Siroky’s SEC Report: State Goes Back to the Final Four

By Mike Siroky

Nothing against StarkVegas, but Mississippi State preferred to continue this team one more weekend on the road.

It will represent the Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball in a consecutive Final Four of the NCAA eliminations after UCLA  became the 36th victim in 37 tries this season at the Kansa City Regional finals.

The usual suspects, Teira McCowan and Victoria Vivians led the win as the Pac12 was erased, 89-73. McCowan scored 23 with 21 rebounds. Vivians scored 24.

ESPNs clown gabbers had told us Jordin Canada was unstoppable and needed to be double-teamed and the Bruins would be too fast  anyway. 

The immediate supposition (suggested by the clowns) was if you double-team Canada, does UCLA do the same for McCowan.

Nope. Even when the clown commentators threw in another “this team doesn’t quit” malaprop about UCLA, the best team in the SEC was better than anyone in its Regional. 

The first two No. 1s to try it made it the Final Four. Two more may do so Monday night.

State smothered Canada, alright. But they used superior balance to win.

They have lost but once since the National Championship game, that to the team that beat them from their own league.

The two top seeds advancing meet Friday night in the national semifinal. It is an even match of the champs of the top two conferences in the land.

“They’ve lived all year with a bulls-eye on their backs,” said State coach Vic Schaefer. 

‘That’s hard to do, y’all,” said Schaefer.  

“These kids are special.” These kids draped the net around his neck out of respect. They wouldn’t be where they are if he wasn’t where he is.

“I just had a real confidence today,” Schaefer said. He said it occurred to  him after his Sunday devotionals that he saw no reason to doubt his group.

 “The TV crew made a comment, `Coach, this is the most chill I’ve seen you.’ I just had a real confidence.”

Sunday when Canada led surge after surge, finishing with 23 points, eight rebounds and five assists, the Bulldogs knew they had seen one of those in their own conference and went undismayed.

Even when it was a six-point lead with 2:53 left, the Bulldogs simply matched them down the stretch.

 McCowan hit 5-of-6 free throws in the final 39 seconds, each after grabbing a defensive rebound offered to her then, 9-of-11 for the game.

 They traded basket-for-basket down the stretch.

 Morgan William, another senior, scored 17, with five assists and two steals and two 3s, 7-of-7 from the line. 

Roshunda Johnson, another senior (see a trend, ESPN?) scored 12 with two 3s, five assists, 4-of-4 from the line.

Mississippi State finally pulled away from the foul line in the final minute.

Early on, the Bulldogs followed the same formula they used in routing North Carolina State, dumping it into the much larger McCowan for easy baskets inside. 

The 6-7 center of the season, scored six during an 11-0 run that gave her team the lead.

But Vivians kept the Bulldogs in  control.

The senior forward converted a three-point play to begin the second period, then added eight more later in the quarter. She finished with 16 points in the first half, and her spinning, driving layup helped the Bulldogs take a 42-26 lead into the locker room.

The only offense UCLA could muster came from Canada, and most of that was at the foul line.

“Mississippi State’s game plan was to pressure us and try to get the ball out of my hands,” Canada said, “So I thought in the beginning of the game we had a lull where we couldn’t run anything.”

The Bulldogs’ lead eventually reached 18 points midway through the third quarter before the Bruins, fueled by defense, began to nip away at it. UCLA finally got it under 10 at 53-44. 

But senior Blair Schaefer did what seniors do, hitting a couple of 3s just in case UCLA wanted to pack the middle.

With 6:52 to go, another 8-0 UCLA spree cut it to six again.

So Schaefer knocked down her third 3 from the top of the key to silence the Bruins’ bench.

Mississippi State kept finding answers until putting the game away.

The Bulldogs are where no State team has ever been, If they do not win another, they are still a legend that cannot ever be forgotten.

“We really challenged our kids,” Schaefer said.

“We talked about transition defense and the importance of rebounding. I challenged all our kids. We outrebounded them 39-33 and they absolutely outrebounded Texas the other night and UCLA played so hard. But giving glory to God for No. 36.

“We’ve had a very difficult regional, and these kids are special. This entire team has been very, very special. To be able to handle that night-in and night-out in our conference is just extremely hard. 

“Then to do it with our postseason, with the teams we have had to go against, I just take my hat off to them. They’re really incredible. To be where they are, to do what they’ve done is really, really difficult to do.

“I just can’t be more proud of ‘em. I was really worried today, y’all.

“I got four seniors and I don’t have the words, whenever this comes to an end, I don’t have the words. These seniors have meant so much to our program, to my career, to me personally. I’m so glad the good Lord gave us another week.

“These kids have worked their hearts out, and they deserve it. I think they will be on a mission. We talked about UCLA being on a mission today, and I was proud of what Victoria said the other day, our vision, our focus, our intensity hasn’t changed since last year. 

“We’re even more intent on trying to do what we didn’t get done a year ago.

“Proud of our kids today. How about our fans? Made this arena really special for both teams. Great environment for TV as well as for both teams. Again, boy, it was a special day for these Bulldogs.”

State made a statement as they walked down the floor to the free throw line with 20 seconds to go, senior linking arms with McCowan for a Walk of Fame sure to be in the program highlight reel forever.

Vivians explained it: “ In the huddle the ref was like, ‘We need to go ahead and go,’ and I was like, ‘Y’all, let’s form a line and walk and talk. Because they were trying to hustle us up and get to the free throw line so I was like, ’Let’s walk and talk.’: All alone in the crowd.

“Coach called the plays and he asked me were they hugging me and I said, yeah, they were trying to deny me the ball and if they do that the backdoor is going to be wide open. 

“The first time was my fault because I didn’t go through and the second time it worked fine. Coach was saying they couldn’t guard me. Just go try to get a bucket and lay it up, and fouled, scored both.

“That we were fine and we didn’t need to get rattled. We’ve been in that situation before where we kind of got rattled. We didn’t get out of our bodies and get rattled. So we were fine.”

McCowan said the whole season prepared them for now.

“This season we faced everything that we’re going to see in the NCAA Tournament where is we’re tied or it’s a close game or it’s a blowout, but we still have to execute. 

“This game, yeah, it was a close game but at the same time we maintained what we were supposed to do. Our mindsets were we’re good, we got this. So we didn’t veer off from anything that we haven’t done all season,” she said.

William observed: “Every time you get a huddle, it is four seniors in there and then it is T. And we were talking about gotta execute this play and then get a stop. So stop score, stop score. We executed plays. Went back down and got a stop, and I felt like we kept building and kept repeating and that helped us.”

Schaefer said improvement seems to be a constant.

“Yeah, we’re different,” he said “We’re just different because of our skill set, because we’ve got kids that can stretch it and shoot it and you’ve got the big piece inside where you just can’t double on her. 

“If you do, we can play through her. A lot of times you can play to a big kid and heats it, it either goes in or that’s it. We can play through T, and she is really good at that. 

“You double her, well, she is going to find where it came from. She has had enough experience now, she has seen every defense you can possibly do to her.

“Now you have Morgan who has decided she is excited about scoring and that adds a dimension that we probably haven’t had consistently all year. I thought Jazz came off the bench and gave us huge minutes and did a great job.

“ We’re fortunate at point guard to have that kind of point guard play; but Teaira, 23 and 21. I mean, the kid is incredible. I just thought all four of those seniors, Blair makes two big 3s today, makes a big one when they had cut it to 6. They leave her open. She knocked it down from 23 or 24. That was a big shot. That’s where they were coming off of T. 

“They came off that set, left her open and she made ‘em pay.

“This group is hard to guard. There is no question about it. I’ve walked off the floor sometimes and said I see what it’s like to have Golden State because this group, they can all score it.

“That kid, (his daughter), she is just special. She’s done it all her career. She takes coaching, probably takes it a little harder from the coach than the rest of ‘em. She is a pro. She knew it, and it there was an adjustment she needed to make and I need to do remind her of that. “

Her 3s were each crucial

“Again, just happy for her,” her dad “I know how hard she has worked to be in the position she’s in. To see her take advantage and be prepared. That kid has worked her tail off all her career for that moment. To see her be able to answer the bell in that moment, it’s just really rewarding as a coach.

“It wouldn’t matter if she is my daughter or not, you got kids that have worked and prepared to be in that moment; again, she is the poster child for everything that’s right with kids staying the course and competing and fighting and getting better, not fleeing.

“I know her parents. Her daddy is really proud of her. Because I know had he has rebounded a lot for her over the course of his life and he’s proud of her for making those shots as well and they were big ones.

“ The one where they cut it to six was really a big one, no doubt about it. She made that one from the top of the key and she made one from right over in front of the bench.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll get chastised more from that from my fans when I get home than anything else that happened today. They don’t like it when I coach her like that.”

In a lighter mode, Schaefer was reminded he was so relaxed he didn’t shed his coat for quite awhile. He also mentioned his team’s spirit of competition in post-game.

“ ‘Evaluation’ was on our board today as one of the thoughts so now I’m being evaluated for my coat, how long it stays on.

 “I really felt good when our kids wanted to walk to to halfcourt and shake their hands and they turned and went to the locker room. Our kids, we usually like going and shaking hands at the halfcourt and apparently that wasn’t the protocol today in the NCAA Tournament.

“So that kind of rubbed our kids wrong to be honest with you. I don’t know if that was planned or that was something that was supposed to happen but our kids noticed it.”

He said the SEC certainly prepared them for this.

“I don’t think there is any question when you go through that gauntlet you’re prepared for anything that comes down the pipe. I am glad you brought that up about the AP poll.

“We lose one game to the No.  8 in the country and we drop from 2 to 4. Our kids noticed that. We lost one game. Is there anybody else in the country that’s lost one game, but we dropped to 4? Again, hey, no problem but I think our kids wear that a little bit.

“We got beat by a really good team back in the championship game of our tournament. They played better than us. But it wasn't that we weren't ready to play or any of that. It just wasn't our day, but these kids have been ready every game. All year long.

“Again, the league is absolutely a nightmare but that’s the fishbowl we choose to live in. When you do that, you gotta get ready night-in and night-out. 

“That’s the thing that’s really remarkable about this team. Their average margin of victory in 16 SEC games is 24. Last year when we went 13-3. It was 13 and I thought that was off the chart.

“This team’s average margin of victory in our league is unbelievable. Again, I think that’s how special this group’s been every night. Every night they’ve been ready. Hard to do.”

Schaefer and his team were high-fiving the band and the fans in celebration.

“Our band and our cheering squad and all our fans, they’re the best. Look, if we weren’t here today that arena would have been empty. 

“It’s incredible how our fan support has grown and mushroomed to where it is today. We love ‘em. We cherish them and appreciate them so much.

“They’ve come to Kansas City and by the way this has been a great place, so many good people that have really gone out of their way to make this a wonderful place for the Regional.

“They’ve come here. They’ve spent three, four days, spent their money, taken off work; and so for me, I’m cognizant of that. I would hate to walk out of that arena tonight not only for my kids but I hate to look at any of my fans in the eye and know that we lost that game, because I know what it means to them.

“You know, when we lost the one game you would have thought the sky was falling in Starkville. Just the way it is right now.

“But for us right now, in answer to your question, is they are very special, all of ‘em are, fans, band, cheer, the whole nine yards. 

“Again, it’s not like that in most places. Mississippi State is very special for women’s basketball. It’s also very special in a broad term for our fan base. They are passionate. I’m telling you, passionate about their university. It’s what makes it so, so special and a great place to be.

“Praise the Lord and go Dogs.”

And that will be the final line when the movie is made.
Kentucky loses another

University of Kentucky senior guard Makenzie Cann has elected to skip her redshirt senior season and graduate this May with a bachelor’s degree in integrated strategic communication with a minor in psychology. 

She will probably attend another university for graduate studies while starting her career.

She joins a group of Kat players to leave the program in the past several seasons. 

Two of them went on to start for other prominent teams.