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 03, 2018

Mike Siorky’s SEC Report: The Top Seeds in the Conference Tourney Move On

By Mike Siroky
NASHVILLE — The Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball cleared the mystery out of its tournament.

Naturally, the lone unranked team – Kentucky – started the day by winning the first quarter against mighty Mississippi State, the top seed, 23-22.

 Blair Schaefer’s two 3s led the Bulldogs. The scoring was well-distributed as the break ended after the first double-bye.

The No. 2 and undefeated team in the nation scored 19 of the first 21 points of the second quarter --  this is your  wakeup call – Schaefer hitting another 3. 

Victoria Vivians and Teira McCowan were cleansing the boards with four each. 

Roshunda Johnson and Vivians each scored 11, all elevating in that streak. Johnson was 3-of-4 on 3s. It was 45-32 at the break. 

Only one team was worried. Dilly dilly.

After 11 straight wins in the series before this season, here came a second UK loss.

State has won 36 of the past 37 games. Coach Vic Schaefer does not treat his superlative team like it is anything special.

“Y’all are just playing horse and they’re beating us,” he said at the first break.
“Your kid makes a 3 and y’all are just letting them shoot a 3.

“They are playing harder than we are. Senior ballclubs just don’t make the mistakes we are on defense.”

Johnson scored 20 points.

“He said we weren't playing hard enough and that’s not how we wanted to come out,” Johnson said of Schaefer’s message after the first quarter. “I just felt like we had to come harder.

“And he said it, we, some people weren’t playing hard, so we had to keep going and get ourself together.”

McCowan doubled 12 points and 11 rebounds. Vivians scored 17.  Blair Schaefer had 15, tying her career-high with five 3s.

There is something special about players in prime condition releasing energetic smiles after a nice win.

The comedy team of Schaefer and Vivians kept it light. With the coach hammering them in-game, they just smiled glistening smiles, Schaefer even allowing how her mom just remained mom, a rock to lean on whenever she needed it and no basketball talk needed.

“We are  just focusing one game at a time, who is next,” said Blair. “Pressure is what you put on yourself. We don’t do that. We see who needs the ball and they get the ball. We listen to our coaches because they have the best in mind for us and the outcome.”

Vivians said, “He gets on us all the time. We need to hear it. We need to play basketball.”

They laugh together, smile a lot and are just living the life. Hope someone tells them this the time of their lives.

“When you got Ro and Blair out there making 3s, you better find them,” Vic Schaefer said. “And the thing that Ro can do so well is she will just take you off the bounce if you go get her. She’s really good outside and in.”

The Bulldogs outscored Kentucky 23-12 in the third quarter, taking a 68-44 lead into the fourth. They led by as much as 70-44.

Kentucky finishes two games under .500. 

It is done before any post-season for the first time since 2007 and never with the current coach. 

Star player Maci Morris deserved better than this. We have said all along the desertions would diminish this season.

 Two former Kats are playing on conference champions elsewhere and a third starts for South Carolina.

Congratulations Texas A&M. You eliminated LSU and won a chance to challenge Mississippi State.

Freshman Chennedy Carter scored 27, a Texas A&M record in a Southeastern Conference Tournament game, Khaalia Hillsman had a double/double and the non-upset win for the No. 15 past No. 24 LSU, 75-69.

 A&M won the second half, 41-30.

The fifth-seeded Aggies secured their fourth straight win. The fourth-seeded Tigers finally resorted to just fouling her and she hit six straight in the final minute. 

Only in the SEC can a higher ranked team nationally be lower seeded than the team they beat.

Hillsman had 17 points and 10 rebounds. The early games drew 6,344.

A&M coach Gary Blair remains the best talker of anyone here.

“The best day of basketball in any of the BCS conferences is on Friday when you have eight top-25 teams, NCAA teams going against each other,” he said, hyping Kentucky a lot.

“It’s been this way ever since I was at Arkansas way back in ’93. If I’m a fan, I would want to be up in the stands watching these ballgames. It does not get any better. 

“Everybody's done a great job. The media coverage has been good. And we gave the country what they wanted to see, elite women's basketball.

“And it’s nothing better than elite basketball. Give LSU a lot of credit. They were doing some things that hurt us in the first half and we were very, very sluggish in that second quarter. Our body language wasn’t good. We were just lucky to be only down by five.

“Thank heavens Howard hit that shot to cut it to five. But we made some adjustments and the kids took some tough love and I had a couple seniors speak up in the dressing room and that’s what you got to have, you got to have: Accountability from your seniors to everybody else on your team.

“The senior that really spoke up the most is the one that played the least and that was Lulu McKinney. Give her a lot of credit for getting our team together.

 “I just would like to say it was great women’s basketball, we played very well, and here’s the other thing that is never put in the press: Who designed that zone offense to start the second half? Kelly Bond, not Gary Blair. My associate head coach.

“She’s the next head coach in waiting (he previously had Vic Schaefer whose senior daughter, we remind you, is named Blair) and she’s going to be an outstanding one if some of these ADs get off their high horse and start hiring some of the great assistants in our league, because we have got some great ones.

That might have been an early endorsement for the “Ole Miss” job, which became open Friday when the school and Matt Insell cut ties.

“Kelly Bond has been with me 15 years, those were her tweaks at halftime on our offense, she did a great job, she’s been doing it for me for 15 years, so she knows what's going on. But I’ll leave it to my players.”

If that was a last positive speech for the regular season, it was a doozy.

Of course, the night shift had the tantalizing South Carolina/Tennessee meeting and one more drama.

A’ja Wilson was always going to play, wasn’t she, vertigo and all. She missed both other games with Tennessee. The Gamecocks lost both.

 UT had the distraction of its best player, senior Jamie Nared, playing on with a severely bruised hip from a hard fall in the opening round. It was in-state and Tennessee started the idea of women’s fans showing up at road games.

 These were the two best draws nationally in America (and by extension the world of college hoops). They brought 7,489 to Nashville.

So there was a first game of great atmosphere.

Carolina had earned the double-bye. Wilson came in almost immediately off the bench. She hit her first five shots. SC took a 9-3 lead, but Nared’s early 3 was the only lead UT would have. 

The Gamecocks worked it to 14-5 and it was comically easy. Alexis Jennings the Kentucky expatriate, had half the points as Wilson attracted frontline attention. 

Mercedes Russell continued her non-disclosure with no points against a freshman defender.

Dawn Staley has surpassed Holly Warlick in everything but head-to-head victories.

 Staley continued to win the coaching battle here. It was 16-7 with a minute left in the first.  Nared did not score a second basket. The Orange seniors were MIA. The lowest UT output for a first quarter this season had arrived. They shot 10 percent from the field.

It rose to 20 percent in the second quarter. 

Warlick got a technical foul when it was 26-13, probably for the blouse she was wearing. It really didn’t matter. 

SC led by 10 at the break.

 Russell actually hit a basket and had a rebound. Nared was gassed but did not show it, even getting four rebounds.

 Jennings supported frontmate Wilson as the “it” factor with 11 points and nine rebounds. Hey, she started in the national title game as well.

UT almost caught up, cutting it to one with possession but Wilson quickly erased that rumor. 

Wilson was allowed a little in-game locker room break for not revealed reasons.

 She sat out a while in the fourth, finished 19 minutes with four blocks, 12 rebounds and 24 points.

 Tennessee doggedly kept its starters in this last SEC game for them and cut it back to 10, so Wilson returned to be the facilitator of the 73-62 win.

Tennessee’s Rennia Davis had her usual no-show against SC, fouling out. Nared limped through it and was allowed to earn a meaningless double/double, 15 points (but it took her 4-of-17 to do it) and 12 rebounds, most of her work while Wilson was relaxing on the sideline. Russell got an equally meaningless 12.

Wilson finally sat down with 90 seconds left and lead still 10. Jennings finished with a fine 19, with 12 rebounds, 10 defensive.

No one has ever been four-time SEC Player of the Year. Nobody.

Wilson will be the one to do it. Jennings should be all-tournament as well, with two games to go. Nobody from Tennessee should be there unless it is team photographer Will Bill Ewart.

“We been doing a lot of turnovers. Our kids are resilient. We don’t mark the injuries that have been done to us, we just play the cards we are dealt,” said Staley.

Warlick realizes the legends of those who started the SEC women’s game have little impact on the here and now; she is in the mix but not the leader.

“Well, just stay the course,” she said. “I thought we battled. Stay focused. I thought we got pushed around a little bit more. We got to be a little bit more physical. We didn't have any quit in us which I loved. We've got to stick to our scouting report a little bit more.

“We let A'ja go left. . . so there were so many different things that we could have done to maybe limit their ability to score. We play hard and aggressive and we usually win the game. I don't have an answer for it.”

The quarterfinal was Georgia and Missouri. 

The Bulldogs overcame an eight-point second quarter and won going away. The petulant Tigers are one and done after being one and none until now.

Their best player fouled out on an unsportsmanlike call as did their second-best player.

The best player skipped the post-game press conference.

But the loss eliminates a WWE rematch with South Carolina.

 Their game at SC ended with some tussles, some shoving and the Mizzoo AD claiming racial invectives, even though his team starts four white players and SC starts none.

It has led to Dawn Staley filing a defamation suit and the league fining him for comments on a game he did not attend.

That’s all gone until next season.

Georgia’s Joni Taylor tells her team “defense travels” which means you can play defense until the offense arrives.

Indeed, the SEC first-teamer was 3-of-17. The next-best was 4-of-18. It is Mizzou’s lowest team total of the season. They were allowed double figures in just one quarter, an SEC record for futility.

Hold that Tiger indeed.

Georgia is nine games ahead of last season’s win total. Freshman Que Morrison scored 16 and senior Mackenzie Engram 14 with 11 rebounds.

But it was all-SEC second team Cayila Robinson, a junior, the devastating director of defense. She demoralized the would-be scorers with six blocks, owning underneath. 

They stopped coming in.

“We ask these girls to do this and they answer every time,” said Taylor. Engram said there is no chip on their shoulders, just a desire to “prove everyone wrong and play together.” They had been picked eighth in the preseason.

“Well I think I have a bad habit of getting down on myself and when I do that I tend to stay down on myself. And so I knew for this tournament I didn’t want that to be the case, so when I got the two fouls I came off.

 I had one of my teammates tell me our code word and I was out of it. And I just wanted to be there for my team and be positive and keep them lifted, because I knew they were going to have to carry us while I was out.”

Taylor said the challenge of South Carolina and a player she has never defeated is cause for a pause.

“Yeah, so obviously we'll go back and we'll watch film on South Carolina, said Taylor, looking for football defensive backs.

“ Not let them catch the ball. That's what makes them so tough is that obviously they have got three players inside who can score and then they have got perimeter players too. 

“So we have got to, again, be really sound defensively, make them catch it in an uncomfortable situations, and not let them score in areas where they want the basketball.

“It's going to be tough.”
Saturday’s Final Four

It’s a fine grouping. A&M vs. Mississippi State and South Carolina vs. Georgia

All of them have home dates for the Sweet 16 qualifiers. Two Friday night losers were also projected there. Could A&M make it seven?