Siroky's SEC/NCAA Report: Elite Eight Just Won't Wait
Anther season, another first for the Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball co-champions South Carolina.
It didn’t come easy. The Gamecocks had a four-point edge at halftime against arch-rival North Carolina, which was just one basket’s worth of points extra to edge the Tar Heels, 67-65, in the Greensboro Regional.
SC is in its second Elite Eight. The top seed will meet two seed Florida State for the Final Four trip.
Second seed Tennessee goes for the same positioning Saturday night in Spokane.
The two SEC teams in the NIT are done in the Round of 32.
Top-seeded South Carolina waited a whole year for this one.
Last season, NC eliminated SC at the same point of the playoffs.
Two-time SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell extended the
Sweet 16, earning the program's second trip to a regional final.
"It is nerve-wracking (late) because you don't want your season to end," SC coach Dawn Staley said. "But I thought our team was really resilient . . .."
North Carolina saw a three-point lead evaporate in the final 90 seconds of their season.
The Gamecocks came from 63-60 down entering the last 90 seconds.
Oliivia Gaines had a 3 bounce in to tie it with 60 seconds left. Such is the luck of a seldom-used senior.
Alaina Coates hit two free throws and put SC ahead with 46 seconds left for a 65-63 lead. NC had one more basket left and the game was tied. On came Mitchell.
"It was kind of emotional but we stayed the course and kept our heads," Mitchell said. "We knew North Carolina was going to give us their best push and we knew they had runs in them, so we just had to answer them and just keep our head."
Fourth-seeded NC had the last shot hit the backboard as time expired.
"They are a great team," NC coach Sylvia Hatchell said, "but I thought we were a great team tonight, too."
By the way, freshman point guard Diamond DeShields led last season’s win by the Tar Heels. She has since transferred to Tennessee and will be eligible in the coming season.
Coates scored 18 points, including those two key free throws, and had 10 rebounds with a 10-for-10 performance at the foul line. It made a mostly home crowd of 6,286 happy, almost twice as much as at any other site.
Staley said, “We're fortunate we only had to take a bus ride" and that even though they are essentially playing "on someone else's home court, I think our fans make us feel very much at home."
SC had not lost since last year’s event, except for UConn and at Kentucky to close this season.
Two players familiar with each other Are seniors N'Dea Bryant and Welch, high school teammates at Goose Creek High School. "We have some great high school memories together, but at the end of the day, it's still your opponent," Welch said. "You love them from a distance. Bryant scored nine points in her final 23 minutes.
Sophomores Allisah Gray and Stephanie Mavunga had been putting up consistently big numbers for the Tar Heels.
Mavunga scored a career-high 27 in the qualifier against Ohio State, most on breakaways. She fouled out battling Coates for a rebond that led to the last free throws.
“I still think we’re the better team,” she said afterwards.
Gray led NC scoring all season at 15.9, She had 54 3s, but none in this one. She scored a dozen.
"I've been waiting for this game, waiting for revenge. The time is now," guard Khadijah Sessions said. "We were just ready for me and my teammates to prove what we should have proved last year."
Tennessee plays Gonzaga in the Zags’ hometown of Spokane. It is Gonzo’s seventh straight NCAA tournament. They earned their way in by winning the West Coast Conference regular season and gaining an at-large bid, as did UT in winning its conference and getting an at-large bid.
The difference is the respect the NCAA gives the SEC winner (a No. 2) vs. the West Coast (11).
Interestingly, each side has a senior point guard and each is coached by someone who spent a long time as an assistant.
Each coach was the recruiting coordinator and so recruited the teams they inherited.
This is Lisa Fortier’s first year leading the ’Zags. A story not many people have awakened to is her husband, Craig, is an assistant with the men’s team.
That has never happened before in the history of the NCAA playoffs, husband and wife both coaching for separate participants.
Duke, Louisville, North Carolina and Notre Dame were the other schools to have men’s and women’s teams in the Sweet 16,
The Bulldogs got this far by winning on someone else’s home court in the sub-Regionals, at Oregon State.
Emma Wolfram with a career-high 17 points, led it.
Germany’s Sunny Greinacher's had a key late layup underneath. Keani Albanez's layup just beat the shot clock to make it 68-64 with 1:26 left and time ran out for the Beavers.
Keani Albanez, the 5-10 point guard, averages 12.9 pintsd this season. Center Shelby Cheslek, at 6-5, doubled her scoring average to 14 this season, and 8.3 rebounds.
She is a redshirt junior. Greinacher, at 6-4, averages 13.8. She was a high school exchange student in Oregon and played hoops on the state titlist there. The other player in double figures is Elle Tinkle, 11.9.
The SEC experience in the WNIT ended with both participants losing third-round road games, each one shy of the magic 20-win season.
Middle Tennessee 82, Mississippi 70: For Ole Miss coach Matt Insell it is a second loss to his dad’s team.
If there is any consolation, the Rebels did win the second half, 44-42. But a terrible start decided it early.
These games are the only ones ever in Division 1 featuring a father/son coaching matchup.
The home court advantage had the Blue Raiders start 7-0 and hitting nearly 60 percent from the field, 28-of-47.
Dad was a gracious winner.
"Really Matt has just done a great job this year, and I'm just proud of him," Rick Insell said. "That's what I told him after the game. It's what I told him before the game: ‘I'm very proud of what you've done, son. You're doing a real good job, and you're a superstar and just keep doing what you're doing.’ "
Rick Insell predicts the rematches are going to happen more and more, as he is willing to schedule dad every season. In the men’s game, dads have dominated winning 16 of 18.
The Rebels have their best finish since 2007, with a team that featured eight newcomers. Had the other coaches not gone with mere winning in their voting, he may well have been the coach fo the year in conference.
Matt did not like the home officiating but would not elaborate to avoid a league fine.
His best player, Tia Faleru never got loose with three fouls and ended her career with 17 minutes and four points. She had been averaging 14 points and 31 minutes.
His point guard, Gracie Frizzel, who had been having a nice scoring tournament, also had three fouls and scored three points in 25 minutes.
Erica Sisk had four fouls and scored six points. Leading reserve Bretta Hart fouled out, in 11 minutes.
“I’m not going to say anything,” said Matt. “I'm building a pool house. I'm going to Tampa, Florida, here in a little bit. I'm going to the Kentucky Derby here in a couple weeks. I want to have fun with that money instead of having to pay it."
Both father and son seized on the family angle to promote the game which drew 2,806.
Middle Tennessee even took out a full-page newspaper ad touting "Family Feud II" and "The Battle in the `Boro" for a program in the WNIT only because the home team lost a six-year streak of NCAA Tournament berths.
Rick Insell bought a bunch of tickets for family and friends to turn out at the Murphy Center. But knowing the coach on the other bench only went so far for Matt Insell, a Middle Tennessee graduate himself.
"It's a great place," Matt Insell said. "They got a lot of history here. They got a good basketball team. The one thing that dad does, he recruits winners. Those kids know how to win games.
"They may not be as talented as us, but those kids are winners and they make winning plays and they've been winners their whole life. They've won at high school, won at AAU, they won at junior high."
And dad may have gotten the last word in when asked if Matt gets his fiery coaching approach from his father.
"His mama acts like that every night," Rick Insell said. "You just can't get it out of them. What can I say?"
Michigan 65, Missouri 55: Kentucky, just a couple of seasons ago, used to term its defense “40 minutes of Hell.
Well that hell froze over in the past two seasons.
So Michigan has adopted the slogan “40 Minutes of Fire.
The Tigers got singed in Ann Arbor to close the season.
The Wolverines used their speed and quickness advantage to overcome the Tigers’ size edge.
Missouri hit just 36 percent from the field – 25.8 in the second half -- and was 6-of-27 (.222) on 3s.
Morgan Eye had hit 9-of-18 3s in the Tigers' previous game, but was 2-for-10 from beyond the arc as the sharpshooter ended her career with 367 3s, 25 short of the natuonal record.
Jordan Frericks, MU’s season-leading scorer and rebounder, had her first-half playing time limited by foul trouble. She ended with 14 points.
“It wasn’t a matter of getting outworked,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. “It was just a matter of, man, we had a hard time knocking down shots, and we got pretty good looks.
“I feel like those are the same looks that you saw us knock down against K-State, and tonight they just didn’t fall for us,” Pingeton said. “And then defensively, probably our offense kind of dictated our defensive intensity a little bit there.
“I felt like we did a good job chasing them off that 3-point line, but we just had a hard time keeping them in front of us and gave up too many dribble-drive opportunities.”
"They want to go out hanging a banner," Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said of her three seniors -- each one instrumental in this win.
"They're on a mission. They don't want to take off that Michigan uniform. So, we're playing with a passion and enthusiasm that had gotten stagnant for a little bit."
Senior guard Shannon Smith said, "We're trying to do something that's never been done, and that's hang a banner. We're trying to win every game and compete every night."
Just as Mizzou was fighting for the SEC rep, so is Michigan trying to elevate the Big Ten footprint.
This victory was about tenacious defense as much as three seniors who didn't want this to be their final game. Captain forward-guard Nicole Elmblad had 11 points, 5-of-8 fron the floor. Smith had 13.
But the Big, 6-3 forward Cyesha Goree stole the show. She had 12 points, 14 rebounds, three assists and blocked shots.
"Shannon Smith was sensational in the second half, a difference-maker,” said Barnes Arico. “And Cyesha just had a great game overall. Nicole had some really good looks because they were doubling on Cyesha or focusing on our (outside) shooters."
Goree had a steal and drove the length of the court for a basket in the first half.
But in a second-half stretch when Missouri tried to get back into the game, she zapped the Tigers.
Goree had a steal before pulling a rebound away from two opponents. Then she tied up a player for a held ball before forcing a travel.
"That little kick I got or whatever I did to spark the team went well because we took off from there," said Goree.
If the Wolverines were a fire, Goree wielded the torch. Time after time, they blanketed Tigers coming off screens with hopes of getting a clear shot.
The constant pressure wore down Missouri, which often had to hustle just to beat the shot clock.
"It was more of having a killer instinct," Smith said. "Coach always talks about that. We want to fight -- just keep fighting."
“It seemed chaotic at times, but our team really understood what the game plan was and executed perfectly. ... We wore them down," said Barnes Arico.
She thought her team became "stagnant" late in the season, and she emphasized defense and competition more in practice to spark the defensive fire that has led to three consecutive WNIT wins.
"We had some of the greatest practices of the year," she said, "and since then we've been moving forward. It's just a rejuvenation, a renewed attitude."
Elmblad said, "It's a mentality Coach has brought in practice. She's made things more about defense. She's gotten on us about it and made it as important as a score."
Barnes Arico was pleased that the rebounding battle finished 36-36 despite having the shorter team.
"Yes!" said Barnes Arico, lifting a fist high in jubilation when told that statistic. "Cyesha did a great job of defensive rebounding (with 13 on defense)."
On offense, a Michigan team that averaged 6.2 treys per game was able to win despite making only 1-of-7 shots from behind the arc.
"We had to go under them and use our quickness," said Barnes Arico. "And I thought our guards did a great job of getting to the basket. It was a balanced job by our guards. They just scratched and clawed and got in there."
They got enough offense to win with their strong defensive effort. The Crisler Center crowd cheered approvingly as the team filed off the court, and many players shook hands with the fans.
There were 1,383 in attendance which is a big deal in Michigan.
"It was just excitement," Elmblad said of that moment. "I enjoyed it. I love this team and this program. When it comes to an end, it's really going to hit me how much this program has meant over four years.”
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