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.”