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.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Mike Siroky’s SEC Report: State Goes Back to the Final Four

By Mike Siroky

Nothing against StarkVegas, but Mississippi State preferred to continue this team one more weekend on the road.

It will represent the Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball in a consecutive Final Four of the NCAA eliminations after UCLA  became the 36th victim in 37 tries this season at the Kansa City Regional finals.

The usual suspects, Teira McCowan and Victoria Vivians led the win as the Pac12 was erased, 89-73. McCowan scored 23 with 21 rebounds. Vivians scored 24.

ESPNs clown gabbers had told us Jordin Canada was unstoppable and needed to be double-teamed and the Bruins would be too fast  anyway. 

The immediate supposition (suggested by the clowns) was if you double-team Canada, does UCLA do the same for McCowan.

Nope. Even when the clown commentators threw in another “this team doesn’t quit” malaprop about UCLA, the best team in the SEC was better than anyone in its Regional. 

The first two No. 1s to try it made it the Final Four. Two more may do so Monday night.

State smothered Canada, alright. But they used superior balance to win.

They have lost but once since the National Championship game, that to the team that beat them from their own league.

The two top seeds advancing meet Friday night in the national semifinal. It is an even match of the champs of the top two conferences in the land.

“They’ve lived all year with a bulls-eye on their backs,” said State coach Vic Schaefer. 

‘That’s hard to do, y’all,” said Schaefer.  

“These kids are special.” These kids draped the net around his neck out of respect. They wouldn’t be where they are if he wasn’t where he is.

“I just had a real confidence today,” Schaefer said. He said it occurred to  him after his Sunday devotionals that he saw no reason to doubt his group.

 “The TV crew made a comment, `Coach, this is the most chill I’ve seen you.’ I just had a real confidence.”

Sunday when Canada led surge after surge, finishing with 23 points, eight rebounds and five assists, the Bulldogs knew they had seen one of those in their own conference and went undismayed.

Even when it was a six-point lead with 2:53 left, the Bulldogs simply matched them down the stretch.

 McCowan hit 5-of-6 free throws in the final 39 seconds, each after grabbing a defensive rebound offered to her then, 9-of-11 for the game.

 They traded basket-for-basket down the stretch.

 Morgan William, another senior, scored 17, with five assists and two steals and two 3s, 7-of-7 from the line. 

Roshunda Johnson, another senior (see a trend, ESPN?) scored 12 with two 3s, five assists, 4-of-4 from the line.

Mississippi State finally pulled away from the foul line in the final minute.

Early on, the Bulldogs followed the same formula they used in routing North Carolina State, dumping it into the much larger McCowan for easy baskets inside. 

The 6-7 center of the season, scored six during an 11-0 run that gave her team the lead.

But Vivians kept the Bulldogs in  control.

The senior forward converted a three-point play to begin the second period, then added eight more later in the quarter. She finished with 16 points in the first half, and her spinning, driving layup helped the Bulldogs take a 42-26 lead into the locker room.

The only offense UCLA could muster came from Canada, and most of that was at the foul line.

“Mississippi State’s game plan was to pressure us and try to get the ball out of my hands,” Canada said, “So I thought in the beginning of the game we had a lull where we couldn’t run anything.”

The Bulldogs’ lead eventually reached 18 points midway through the third quarter before the Bruins, fueled by defense, began to nip away at it. UCLA finally got it under 10 at 53-44. 

But senior Blair Schaefer did what seniors do, hitting a couple of 3s just in case UCLA wanted to pack the middle.

With 6:52 to go, another 8-0 UCLA spree cut it to six again.

So Schaefer knocked down her third 3 from the top of the key to silence the Bruins’ bench.

Mississippi State kept finding answers until putting the game away.

The Bulldogs are where no State team has ever been, If they do not win another, they are still a legend that cannot ever be forgotten.

“We really challenged our kids,” Schaefer said.

“We talked about transition defense and the importance of rebounding. I challenged all our kids. We outrebounded them 39-33 and they absolutely outrebounded Texas the other night and UCLA played so hard. But giving glory to God for No. 36.

“We’ve had a very difficult regional, and these kids are special. This entire team has been very, very special. To be able to handle that night-in and night-out in our conference is just extremely hard. 

“Then to do it with our postseason, with the teams we have had to go against, I just take my hat off to them. They’re really incredible. To be where they are, to do what they’ve done is really, really difficult to do.

“I just can’t be more proud of ‘em. I was really worried today, y’all.

“I got four seniors and I don’t have the words, whenever this comes to an end, I don’t have the words. These seniors have meant so much to our program, to my career, to me personally. I’m so glad the good Lord gave us another week.

“These kids have worked their hearts out, and they deserve it. I think they will be on a mission. We talked about UCLA being on a mission today, and I was proud of what Victoria said the other day, our vision, our focus, our intensity hasn’t changed since last year. 

“We’re even more intent on trying to do what we didn’t get done a year ago.

“Proud of our kids today. How about our fans? Made this arena really special for both teams. Great environment for TV as well as for both teams. Again, boy, it was a special day for these Bulldogs.”

State made a statement as they walked down the floor to the free throw line with 20 seconds to go, senior linking arms with McCowan for a Walk of Fame sure to be in the program highlight reel forever.

Vivians explained it: “ In the huddle the ref was like, ‘We need to go ahead and go,’ and I was like, ‘Y’all, let’s form a line and walk and talk. Because they were trying to hustle us up and get to the free throw line so I was like, ’Let’s walk and talk.’: All alone in the crowd.

“Coach called the plays and he asked me were they hugging me and I said, yeah, they were trying to deny me the ball and if they do that the backdoor is going to be wide open. 

“The first time was my fault because I didn’t go through and the second time it worked fine. Coach was saying they couldn’t guard me. Just go try to get a bucket and lay it up, and fouled, scored both.

“That we were fine and we didn’t need to get rattled. We’ve been in that situation before where we kind of got rattled. We didn’t get out of our bodies and get rattled. So we were fine.”

McCowan said the whole season prepared them for now.

“This season we faced everything that we’re going to see in the NCAA Tournament where is we’re tied or it’s a close game or it’s a blowout, but we still have to execute. 

“This game, yeah, it was a close game but at the same time we maintained what we were supposed to do. Our mindsets were we’re good, we got this. So we didn’t veer off from anything that we haven’t done all season,” she said.

William observed: “Every time you get a huddle, it is four seniors in there and then it is T. And we were talking about gotta execute this play and then get a stop. So stop score, stop score. We executed plays. Went back down and got a stop, and I felt like we kept building and kept repeating and that helped us.”

Schaefer said improvement seems to be a constant.

“Yeah, we’re different,” he said “We’re just different because of our skill set, because we’ve got kids that can stretch it and shoot it and you’ve got the big piece inside where you just can’t double on her. 

“If you do, we can play through her. A lot of times you can play to a big kid and heats it, it either goes in or that’s it. We can play through T, and she is really good at that. 

“You double her, well, she is going to find where it came from. She has had enough experience now, she has seen every defense you can possibly do to her.

“Now you have Morgan who has decided she is excited about scoring and that adds a dimension that we probably haven’t had consistently all year. I thought Jazz came off the bench and gave us huge minutes and did a great job.

“ We’re fortunate at point guard to have that kind of point guard play; but Teaira, 23 and 21. I mean, the kid is incredible. I just thought all four of those seniors, Blair makes two big 3s today, makes a big one when they had cut it to 6. They leave her open. She knocked it down from 23 or 24. That was a big shot. That’s where they were coming off of T. 

“They came off that set, left her open and she made ‘em pay.

“This group is hard to guard. There is no question about it. I’ve walked off the floor sometimes and said I see what it’s like to have Golden State because this group, they can all score it.

“That kid, (his daughter), she is just special. She’s done it all her career. She takes coaching, probably takes it a little harder from the coach than the rest of ‘em. She is a pro. She knew it, and it there was an adjustment she needed to make and I need to do remind her of that. “

Her 3s were each crucial

“Again, just happy for her,” her dad “I know how hard she has worked to be in the position she’s in. To see her take advantage and be prepared. That kid has worked her tail off all her career for that moment. To see her be able to answer the bell in that moment, it’s just really rewarding as a coach.

“It wouldn’t matter if she is my daughter or not, you got kids that have worked and prepared to be in that moment; again, she is the poster child for everything that’s right with kids staying the course and competing and fighting and getting better, not fleeing.

“I know her parents. Her daddy is really proud of her. Because I know had he has rebounded a lot for her over the course of his life and he’s proud of her for making those shots as well and they were big ones.

“ The one where they cut it to six was really a big one, no doubt about it. She made that one from the top of the key and she made one from right over in front of the bench.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll get chastised more from that from my fans when I get home than anything else that happened today. They don’t like it when I coach her like that.”

In a lighter mode, Schaefer was reminded he was so relaxed he didn’t shed his coat for quite awhile. He also mentioned his team’s spirit of competition in post-game.

“ ‘Evaluation’ was on our board today as one of the thoughts so now I’m being evaluated for my coat, how long it stays on.

 “I really felt good when our kids wanted to walk to to halfcourt and shake their hands and they turned and went to the locker room. Our kids, we usually like going and shaking hands at the halfcourt and apparently that wasn’t the protocol today in the NCAA Tournament.

“So that kind of rubbed our kids wrong to be honest with you. I don’t know if that was planned or that was something that was supposed to happen but our kids noticed it.”

He said the SEC certainly prepared them for this.

“I don’t think there is any question when you go through that gauntlet you’re prepared for anything that comes down the pipe. I am glad you brought that up about the AP poll.

“We lose one game to the No.  8 in the country and we drop from 2 to 4. Our kids noticed that. We lost one game. Is there anybody else in the country that’s lost one game, but we dropped to 4? Again, hey, no problem but I think our kids wear that a little bit.

“We got beat by a really good team back in the championship game of our tournament. They played better than us. But it wasn't that we weren't ready to play or any of that. It just wasn't our day, but these kids have been ready every game. All year long.

“Again, the league is absolutely a nightmare but that’s the fishbowl we choose to live in. When you do that, you gotta get ready night-in and night-out. 

“That’s the thing that’s really remarkable about this team. Their average margin of victory in 16 SEC games is 24. Last year when we went 13-3. It was 13 and I thought that was off the chart.

“This team’s average margin of victory in our league is unbelievable. Again, I think that’s how special this group’s been every night. Every night they’ve been ready. Hard to do.”

Schaefer and his team were high-fiving the band and the fans in celebration.

“Our band and our cheering squad and all our fans, they’re the best. Look, if we weren’t here today that arena would have been empty. 

“It’s incredible how our fan support has grown and mushroomed to where it is today. We love ‘em. We cherish them and appreciate them so much.

“They’ve come to Kansas City and by the way this has been a great place, so many good people that have really gone out of their way to make this a wonderful place for the Regional.

“They’ve come here. They’ve spent three, four days, spent their money, taken off work; and so for me, I’m cognizant of that. I would hate to walk out of that arena tonight not only for my kids but I hate to look at any of my fans in the eye and know that we lost that game, because I know what it means to them.

“You know, when we lost the one game you would have thought the sky was falling in Starkville. Just the way it is right now.

“But for us right now, in answer to your question, is they are very special, all of ‘em are, fans, band, cheer, the whole nine yards. 

“Again, it’s not like that in most places. Mississippi State is very special for women’s basketball. It’s also very special in a broad term for our fan base. They are passionate. I’m telling you, passionate about their university. It’s what makes it so, so special and a great place to be.

“Praise the Lord and go Dogs.”

And that will be the final line when the movie is made.
Kentucky loses another

University of Kentucky senior guard Makenzie Cann has elected to skip her redshirt senior season and graduate this May with a bachelor’s degree in integrated strategic communication with a minor in psychology. 

She will probably attend another university for graduate studies while starting her career.

She joins a group of Kat players to leave the program in the past several seasons. 

Two of them went on to start for other prominent teams.