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.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Mike Siroky’s SEC Report, Part 1: South Carolina Returns to the Elight Eight

By Mike Siroky

South Carolina was unsettled by Buffalo from the start.

 No one could claim an advantage early, although A’ja Wilson was willing to carry her Gamecocks to 20-20 by scoring half of the points.

 Then frontline mate Alexus Jennings woke up and also had 10 as the half wound down.

From 24-20, they sprinted to 49-28, winning the quarter by 10. They settled out of confusion, but the guards needed to step up. 

Cierra Dillard, a junior guard  transfer from UMass for Buffalo, had more than half of the points, 16 of the 31. 

She had already surpassed her season average.

Wilson said at halftime: “They’re a high-energy team. You never know when the shot is going to come. We are matching them, It’s fun. We’re happy.”

ESPN’s SEC analysts were seemingly on the Cinderella thing for Buffalo and seemed to be cheering for the upset. Andy Landers is doing swell. Maria Taylor has never whiffed an upset she didn’t inhale fully. Nell Fortner can’t shake the clown image. She will tell you every game “this team won’t quit.”

 Like last season, it would be meaningful if there ever was a team that did quit.

Would That ESPN gave us real analysts to help Landers. Oh well.

The Bulls were in their second tournament of the past decade, opposed to SC’s build to a regular success. 

The coach is Felisha Legette-Jack.

She has led the team for six seasons, recruiting all these players. They have four straight winning seasons for their time in the MAC. 

 She had similar success before this at Indiana University and brought her best assistant along. 

The third quarter trudged along. The significance of the struggle for the defending national champions making another Elite 8 was apparent.

The lead hovered around nine, Any SC faults were exposed.

 Wilson had 13, the team was hitting more than half its shots, but they could not corral these Bulls.

 If not for the superstar, the game would be very much in doubt. Dawn Staley was way out of her comfort zone.

At the moment, Buffalo was better than all but one other SEC team.

SC threw it away inside of a minute and Buffalo converted on a floor-length pass to make it nine. SC missed two tries underneath and Buffalo was just trying to run it out at midcourt when Wilson made the silliest foul of her career with unnecessary contact at midcourt. 

Staley argued for no free throws, but Buffalo got ‘‘em with 0.3 on the clock. The lead was seven. The Bulls were dancing on the sidelines, led by the coach.

Wow. Seed 11 refused to lose. Even UConn, interested courtside observers, seemed surprised.

This is where your national player of the year needs to ignore the lack of support and once again show big.

The guards and Wilson’s backup, Herbert-Harrigan, arrived. 

The team kept hitting free throws as Buffalo kept fouling, 15-of-16 at  the line all the difference, Wilson was 6-of-7 and Jennings 6-6.

 Fundamental rather than outright domination. Herbert Harrigan had back-to-back blocks. Tyasha Harris had nine assists and was 4-of-4 at the line. The guards combined for 25.

It was a soft but safe 15 point lead within the final minute, 79-63. Wilson had 20 points and 13 rebounds. Jennings had 20 and nine rebounds. Guard Doniyah Cliney scored 12, 6-of-8 from the floor.

The Bulls were back to pasture. The Gamecocks looked like defending national champs, a win away from 30.

 The ESPN goofs, of course, said they knew it all along, that they never really doubted Staley. Despite what they said at halftime.

Staley said, “We knew our strength was in the post. They had to be strong and do what they have been doing all year along. A’ja does what she does.”

She also kept trying to play they are underdogs. Landers did not buy it, pointing out they started the season as a Top 5 and are once again a game away from the Final Four. 

They earned the match with UConn, despite having been dominated by the Huskies in the regular season.

 The defending champs against the champs of  the years previous. Two No. 2s survive, yet here is one against the top overall seed. Not so good, Selection Committee.

“We’re excited to be moving on to the Elite 8,” Staley said. “It  took a long time to get control of the game and that was due to the way they played us. I’m extremely proud of our players staying resilient, not playing their best basketball but they did enough to move on to the Elite 8.”

Alexis Jennings is mindful she started at another SEC school, Kentucky, and that did not work out. But she has an NCAA championship ring in her reboot and now seeks to end her career with another Final Four ring.

“ You know, I just feel like we just did what we do best,” Jennings said. “We have four good post players. We just used our advantage. We’re all back to the basket type of players and we like to get in, and once we got position on them, it was just focusing and finishing at that point. I think we did a good job with that tonight.”

Wilson agrees.

“I think everyone kind of knows that’s our bread and butter and that’s kind of our go to, getting in the paint, whether we are dribbling or using our size inside, that’s something we’re blessed with and we used that very well. We all bring something to the table to it’s hard to stop us in ways.”

She knows what her leadership assignment means.

“I don’t know, I just feel like my energy really helps my teammates and that’s the biggest thing and that’s my goal and whether it’s just screaming at one or screaming at everyone or putting the ball in the basket.

“ I feel like that’s how I operate to help my team and I really try to use that in every possession that we have. Because I mean, we -- that’s how we roll. That’s how we have to get hype.

“We have to let everyone know everything is going to be okay and push through when times aren’t in the game. 

“That’s my role in this team and I try to embrace it anyway I can. I don’t know if I’m trying to be an extension of Staley because she yells more but I definitely try to help my teammates out in any way.

“ It’s just us. That’s just us. I think we all really kind of came together and said, you know, this is us, and even before the game, I told my team that losing the Sweet 16 is not a good feeling, and I did not want them to have that feeling.

“So we were going to do whatever we can and whatever we could in the game to pull out the win. We came together and set the tempo and got the momentum back the way we did and stayed within our system, and we executed pretty well.”

Especially Jennings. She started with two in the first quarter and finished with 20.

“I don’t feel like it takes awhile for me to get going,” she said “I feel like I contribute in other areas if I’m not scoring. I play defense and rebound and I just do the best that I can.

“I did have a slow start tonight, but I picked it up. I just did what I needed to do for my team tonight and that was just focusing and finishing at the rim, and I appreciate my teammates who were giving me the ball.”

“Honestly, I don’t think it was them that really was frustrating me,” Wilson said. “I think it was myself. I really kind of got -- this whole tournament I’ve really been inside my head a lot. 

“We were just talking about it on the way here; I feel like I’m defending myself and I’m blocking shots of my own, and that’s really not good.

“It’s going to come. It’s going to click. Yes, there was times in the game I was very frustrated at my game, I was very frustrated and I felt like I wasn’t contributing to my team the way I should, and I can’t stand that feeling. I hate it.

“ And they really helped me lift up and they lifted my spirits. They might not know that, but they definitely do.

“I don’t think it was necessarily anything Buffalo did. They are a great team but I think it was more myself than them.”

Staley said, “I thought the crowd was terrific. Obviously it didn’t favor us but just the atmosphere created here, I thought everybody that organized getting people in the stands did a great job of filling it and it felt like a postseason place. It felt like a berth to the Sweet 16 and to the Elite 8. 

“So a lot of energy was in the gym. I take my hats off to the organizers. I thank the MAC for doing a great job at getting people in the stands.

“ I just thought we played too fast. I think our team was anxious to play. We’ve been working on Buffalo for four days, and you know, we saw ways in which we could be effective and we just played too fast.

“I don’t think they were speeding us up because they were sagging. It was us. A’Ja walked like five times. That’s uncharacteristic of her. It is characteristic of the last few days’ games in which we’ve turned the ball over. 

“We’ve got to figure out a way in which we limit those turnovers and turn them into at least shots at the basket.

“The way we were shooting the ball today, we would score at least half, or even a quarter of them, and I think we would feel a little bit better about getting control of the game a little bit earlier.

“When you play in the best conference in the country, you sometimes won’t play your best basketball for one reason or another.

“But it was familiar to us. I don’t think we’re playing our best basketball. I don’t think we’re playing, you know, as well as we played two weeks ago in the SEC Tournament. I think the long break really was a disadvantage for our team.

“You know, I probably fought myself because I gave them more time than I usually give a team off, just because I thought we played -- we don’t have a whole lot of depth and we needed to kind of rest and recover. 

“I think they looked pretty good from a physical standpoint, but from a -- just the chemistry and the cohesion is not there. 

“But at some point, it wasn’t there during the season when we played some other SEC teams, but we found a way to win the game. I know there are a lot of other teams that would love to be in our position and winning ugly and continuing, rather than losing pretty.”

As for motivation . . . 

“ Basically you just talk to her (Wilson) Staley said. “You don’t get her overthinking because she’s already overthinking. You get her to familiarize herself with what she does best.

“You know, she’s by far the best player in the country and she has to get back to feeling the best, and not invincible, but surely, taking a glimpse down at the “S” on her chest because she’s been Superwoman for us, and not playing her best basketball. 

“She ends up 20-13, but I’m hoping sooner or later, Monday night, she gets back to playing like A’ja Wilson.

“ I’m extremely proud of Alexis. You know, obviously Alexis does a lot of -- she’s our bull. She’s the physicality. She plays a lot of physicality. I don’t think we get her the ball enough, especially when she has two feet in the paint.

“When she does, she’s pretty efficient, like she showed today. I’m glad that she gave the contribution she gave us today.

“Kiki is playing tremendous basketball, Lele on the perimeter gave us a bright spot in the second quarter. It’s going to take that kind of effort from multiple people in order for us to continue in this tournament.”