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 20, 2018

Mike Siroky’s SEC Report Part 1: Two Move To Sweet 16 And One Misses for the First Time

Guru’s note: Your Guru traveling back from Notre Dame through the WNIT in New York delayed email access so here, so you don’t miss a beat, is the first of likely two SEC specials to get you up to date.

By Mike Siroky
The Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball sent three home teams into the Sweet 16 qualifiers on Sunday. Two moved on. Two more get their shots Monday to make the Sweet 16 one-quarter SEC.

The one loss was an NCAA record-setter. But the biggest win made ESPN look even more foolish.

There are two more nationally ranked teams completing the field Monday night.

This was the fun one. ESPN analysts had foolishly proposed freshman Chennedy Carter would be in awe of the NCAAs and not up to it.

No way.

The one player in America who is irreplaceable continued to build her legend in her second NCAA game.

DePaul was supposed to bomb Texas A&M out of its own building.

They had 12 3s.

But Carter had all seven of the Aggies’ 3s and sent the home crowd of 3,162 into joyful hysteria by hitting the last one, with 3.2 seconds left, for the 80-79 ticket to the Sweet 16.

Sure, all they had to do was make up a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter. 

It is the largest comeback ever in the second round of the tournament and the fourth- largest ever. All she had to do was score 32 points after halftime. 

Silly ESPN. 

What have they been watching all season? Last year, A&M cane back from 21 down.

Texas A&M trailed by two when Carter's long 3 from the top of the key gave the Aggies the final lead. 

Fifth-seed DePaul may have  had a chance to win it, but Jasmine Lumpkin stole the inbounds pass from Kelly Campbell. 

DePaul had led for 38-plus minutes of the game.

It left Blue Demon coach Doug Bruno solidly in that group which always makes the playoffs (representing the weak Big East; they stayed when the better teams left)  but will never win anything significant.

Gary Blair, on the A&M side, remains the mad genius who somehow gets his team motivated just enough. 

Every Texas A&M recruiting class since 2004-05 has made at least one trip to the Sweet 16. The 26 wins are the most in a season since 2013. 

Carter scored more than 20 for a fourth straight game. She only missed one game in double figures all season as the national Freshman of the Year. 

Anriel Howard has the program record with 18 points and 19 rebounds for the 19th double this season, and the program career record 31st. 

Bruno saw her overall play as the most significant aspect of the loss. He praised her and the Aggies for being “relentless” while Carter handled the offense.

He said everyone else will talk about “the shot, the shot, the shot” but he maintains it was Howard that won it.

He was not far off from Blair’s assessment, which led to another Aggie first.

“You know, it’s not just A&M and DePaul,” Blair said, “It’s what the elite of women’s basketball can do to entertain people, and I think we entertained a nation. At least we entertained in the second half; DePaul entertained the whole game.

“I am so proud of this team. This wasn’t like the Penn game last year like when we came back from 21 in the fourth quarter. We just had more talent in that ball game.

“This game was about two very evenly matched teams that both ran their offenses pretty doggone well.

“I’m so pleased with the effort. I was pleased with the crowd, how they stayed with us. This is what Aggies do. We don’t give up. We find a way even when we come out on the losing end sometimes. I was so proud of the fight and the spirit.

“I gave a game ball for the first time in my career to one of our players, and I gave it to Anriel Howard  because of how she played the game. I mean, they were sending two people to block her out. She was on her rear more than she was standing. 

“But, God, the fight and the spirit. I know we’ve had great Aggies over the years in football, baseball, and everything like that, but I don’t think you’;ve ever seen a basketball player will this team to what she did today.

“She willed the team to victory.

“And these two guards have ice in their veins. They have ice. You got to understand when certain things are not running  or every time we would make a great play, we would get caught on the back door. They would post up one of my guards. 

“But all of a sudden, these two here are the heart and soul, because they knew if they missed the shot, Anriel was going to get the rebound or  Lumpkin would be in there and get the rebound. Lumpkin got 10. Went and got rebounds and made the steal at the end of the game.

“So instead of pouting because she wasn’t scoring, she made a crucial play.

“This is what this team’s all about.  I’m so proud of Anriel Howard because she refuses to let us lose. There isn’t a player like her in the country, and I’m just proud to say I coached her. But I’m sure glad to have my offensive side because they did a hell of a job.

Carter said, “The thing that brought us together was coach got us really hunkered down. He was helping us and really encouraging us. We kept playing. It was honestly the hard work of the team, getting loose balls, everybody just staying together. That’s what encouraged me to keep shooting for my teammates out there.”

Howard said, “I’m just honored that people are recognizing it, but I don’t really need recognition. I just want to play hard, do the dirty work in order for my team to win.”

Back to Carter: “I knew we needed a rebound, but I knew that Anriel was going to get it. So my first thing that I did was I looked at how much time was on the clock. And out of the corner of my eye, I seen Coach Blair and I knew that it wasn’t the time to look or try to call a play. 

“I didn’t know how much we were down by, honestly. I just knew I needed to hit a big shot, and that’s what I did. I just shot it.”

“Danni Williams  said, “And that you did. Go, Chennedy.”

All agree the fabled “12th Man” fans – borrowed from football -- meant a lot.

Howard said, “I think it was huge for us. Every time we came back or we would get a bucket, we would come back on defense and you could just hear them screaming. I think that really affected DePaul. They’re not used to hearing that. For us, it just gave us the motivation, knowing right there they’re supporting us. Maybe they’re not on the court, but they’re supporting us through the whole thing. That really  helped us."

Carter said, “It’s  March Madness. I knew anything could happen. The most important thing was us playing together. I knew my teammates out there just as well as they need me. So I wasn’t really worried about the first half because it’s a long game, and I knew there was a lot of basketball left to be played.”

Next up is top seed Notre Dame.

If ever there was a chance to knock off a No. 1, it is the next game. The Irish have five healthy players. No one has yet to figure out how to get into a war of attrition. Of course, A&M has to protect Carter.

Blair defeated Notre Dame for his 2011 National title and ND has refused to schedule them since. But the rematch is upon us.

 ALBANY: South Carolina

The sweetest moments in women’s basketball jump into our hearts with a magnificent player getting her due at home.

A’ja Wilson is more than the National Player of the year.

She is the epitome of a star doing things the right way. Accepting coming off the bench for parts of the season. What All-American does that without a without a whimper, because it is what the team needs.

 She is the only one ever to be Player of the Year without starting every game for which she was available.

She steps up when the spotlight is the hottest. No slumps for her. She is paired with a superior coach in Dawn Staley. Their sisterhood is special.

 SC may never see this again Most national programs pray for the once-in-a-lifetime player to come in and be as good as advertised, as selfless as any student in the stands. No drama. It has seldom before happened.

No. 2 seed South Carolina won its seventh Sweet 16 berth in eight seasons, eliminating No. 7 seed Virginia. at home, 66-56.  

Yes, that means Wilson has never not been in the Sweet 16. To get to another Final Four they will have to upend UConn, but another SEC team has already proven that can be done in the tournament. Even the regular-season loss is less relevant.

These are elimination games and the ends of senior careers --- even for the best ones – if the horn goes off when you are behind.

There really was no such worry in the win over Virginia The best crowd in  the nation, 11,085, had plenty of time for Wilson’s sendoff.

Staley watched it all and whispered to an assistant, “How are we going to replace 22?”'

Wilson, scored  25 and naturally doubled with 11 rebounds . It is her 23rd double/double of the season and 53rd of her career. She has 29 double-digit scoring results in 30 games played.

'At the end of the game when I got subbed out that’s when it sank in, this is my last time here,'' Wilson said. ''My last time here in this uniform.''

Up 30-25 at the half, South Carolina opened up a 12-point lead in the third period but the Cavaliers cut it to 46-40 with 10 minutes left. 

Virginia still trailed just 52-47 with 6:39 to play.

But  Doniyah Cliney hit a high-arching 3, just besting the shot clock,  followed by two short jumpers by Wilson and the celebration roared off.

Wilson had the home curtain call with 34.5 seconds left, to a standing ovation. She hugged Staley before standing on the sidelines and gabbing with the training staff as time ticked away.

After a quick TV interview, Wilson danced her way around the Colonial Life Arena, waving to adoring fans. 

Some of them wore pajamas in honor of the late starting time. Wilson saluted her pep band to dance some more before running to embrace her parents. Just another college kid having the time of her life.

''This has been a great four years,'' said Wilson. Her family home is about 30 minutes from campus in Hopkins. ''This is my home and, hopefully, when I return, we'll have the same energy.''

Wilson added three of her team's five blocks and three assists in her final game on her home court. The Gamecocks have gone 62-4 at home with Wilson on the roster.

Staley saw a blue-collar game. “Sometimes it’s just timing,” she said.

“It’s going to take more than a quarter, and sometimes it takes two quarters to put teams away and gain some separation. Virginia is a very good team – they have some great guards and great post players. We were confident, and we got the better of them over that 40-minute period.”

 The Gamecocks get either No. 3 seed Florida State or No. 11 Buffalo in the next round. All four top seeds advance, so UConn still looms.

LEXINGTON: Tennessee

Never before has a Tennessee team lost at home in the second round. 

They are the only program to qualify for every NCAA elimination. No. 3 seed Tennessee was 57-0 at home in NCAA play. Now UConn picks up the chase to erase that record.

No. 6 Oregon State used that very motivation to win. Mercedes Russell finally woke up but fellow-senior Jamie Nared disappeared. The freshmen looked it in their first competitive elimination game.

 Oregon State out-thought and outfought UT.

 Holly Warlick can now ponder what might have been, her coaching called into question one more time. If ever a coach needed this forced break, it is Warlick.

The home folks knew. They drew only 4,338, about half the season average. Not exactly declining attendance when cast nationwide, but a sure metric on loss of support.

With the fantastic freshmen coming back and three national-level recruits arriving, UT will be OK. But not great. Nevermore great.

The No. 3 team in the Pac 12 embarrassed the tradition of the SEC in this one.

Oregon State coach Scott Rueck read just that morning about the 57-game streak. 

His first thought was to tell his team at the shoot around that here was a chance, one chance, to do something no other program in their position had ever done. After all his team has made two straight Sweet 16s and a Final Four.

Senior Marie Gulich was the best upperclassman on the court, 14 points and 12 rebounds to lead the 66-59 win. 

That’s three points below her average, but enough this game. Sophomore guard Mikayla Pivec upped her average by three with 15, six 3s, and seven defensive rebounds. She dominated guard play against the usually steady Lady Vols.

"We had an opportunity to do something today that is really special and that is a first," Rueck said. "So when the clock was ticking down right at the very end and we knew we had it, I just couldn't hardly believe how far this team has come."

Rueck can say the same for his program. 

The one-time Pac-12 Conference doormat has become a perennial contender with expectations to make deep tournament runs and share the stage with tradition-rich Tennessee.

It's the second straight season that Tennessee lost in the second round of the NCAAs and will miss the Sweet 16 in back-to-back seasons for the first time in the program's 37-year tournament history. 

That is a new legacy for the formerly outstanding seniors. When UT praises them for their contributions, this also has to be included.

Tennessee's swarming pressure defense flustered OSU early, forcing turnovers and contested shots. The national leader in 3-point field goal percentage, OSU started 1-of-7 from 3. 

But perhaps that very effort by the Lady Vols burned themselves out.

The run in the first quarter led to a 17-7 quarter. So Rueck switched to a zone defense and Warlick could not conjure up an answer.

"It's amazing to see this program grow. I've been a Beaver fan since I was a little girl, and once Scott got here it just got better and better," said junior guard Katie McWilliams. "I am so happy to be able to play for this team and that we are making this Sweet 16 run again." McWilliams hit four 3s and was 6-of-10 at the line for 15, doubling her average.

The Beavers had their own 13-2 run and led with 2:44 remaining in the half. Rennia Davis hit a 3 to send Tennessee into halftime with a 26-24 advantage. It was unsettling.

"I think it just made us stagnate," Russell said of OSU's zone defense. "We were standing around on the perimeter a lot, not really passing and cutting and moving the defense, which we should have. We didn't really make them work defensively."

Nared backed that up.

“We just kind of made a couple of passes and shot it,” Nared said. “We didn’t really make them work on defense. It’s easy when you don’t have to play defense for a long period of time. For us, not getting stops on the other end of the court. It kind of translates. You put a whole game of that together, and you are going to be successful.”

Came the third and more of the same. The Beavers ended on an 11-2 run for a 44-39 lead. Lost from early in the season for UT was the energy to hit the next gear. 

Instead, the visitors outfought the Lady Vol from the start of the season’s final quarter, a contentious rebound win on the first possession. Pivec capitalized with a 3 off that possession.

The Beavers built the lead to 13. Tennessee never rallied. They had to watch the celebration by the minority of the West Coast crowd.

Russell, slumping most of the end of the season, doubled with 21 points and 14 rebounds, Nared, exhausted after carrying the team this far, scored nine, all 3s, missing the other 11 from the floor. UT lost two of its final three, another check mark against the senior leadership.

Warlick naturally thanked the seniors for their contributions and wished them well in their future endeavors.

“Sometimes the things thrown at these kids are unfair,” she said.

There had been talk UT and Oregon State should have flipped seedings, with the No . 4 team in the Pac 12 exceeding the No. 5 in the SEC and with one less overall win.

The NCAA seeding tradition has always been to seed the team coached by a woman higher than one coached by a man if they are close.

 It happened to Mississippi State last season, with the same coach and the same players. That idea of UT getting the unearned break was also floated nationally. They are so far the only seeded team to lose at home.

“They come wanting to learn and get better and just play the game,” said Warlick “They get criticized quite a bit. These kids are tough and they’re resilient. I’m tough and I’m resilient, but right now I’m hurting.

 “Tomorrow we’ll get up and figure out how this team is going to get better. You can’t take away the love of this program and the commitment these kids have. If you’re not a part of it, then you don’t understand it. 

“This isn’t about a win or lose.

 “It’s about young ladies getting better on and off the court and I don’t think they deserve half the crap thrown at them. People said we shouldn’t be a third seed.

 “Well, that’s a bunch of bull. Our team played a tough schedule. We took care of business and got that seeding. We didn’t win today, so I guess the critics can say they were right.

“So I’m upset but on the other side, I’m angry. But it’s just a basketball game and we’re going to get better and move on. That’s what we should do. If it means something to you, it should hurt. Those young ladies are hurting in the locker room and so is their coaching staff.”