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.

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.