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.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Guru’s WNBA Report: Collier Overall No. 1 Draft Pick to Dallas In Selections That Also Include Rutgers and Lafayette Stars

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

The first non-playing but formal event to season No. 25 in the WNBA just under one month away from court action was the annual draft Thursday night and suitable to what will be a summer long celebration of a quarter of a century in the existence women’s professional basketball league were historic moments associated with the picks.

The Dallas Wings, who missed the playoffs last summer on the final day of the league-wide action in a bubble environment on.a shortened 22-game schedule in Bradenton, Fla., near Tampa, had three picks in the first round, including a first-ever possession of the top two, which they used to take Texas’ Charli Collier as the No. 1 overall and then made history within history by selecting center Awak Kuier, who will become the WNBA’s first player from Finland if she makes the opening day roster.

For the second straight year because of the COVID pandemic the draft was held by remote with players awaiting at home of their professional futures, the media conducting interviews via zoom software, though this time around commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced the picks from an ESPN studio in New York instead of her home in northern New Jersey.

The Wings also used the fifth pick in the opening round to take Arkansas guard Chelsea, who was instrumental in handing Connecticut it’s only loss of the regular season.

Locally, in a surprise plunge, Rutgers’ scoring sensation Arella Guirantes, who averaged 21.3 points per game and was targeted as the sixth pick going to the nearby New York Liberty in many mock presentations, fell all the way to overall No. 22 as the 10th pick in the second round by the Los Angeles Sparks.

“The wait was terrifying,” said Guirantes, who was the only Big Ten player to rank in the top five in points, assists, steals, and blocked shots per game. “It was just a bunch of emotions flying around. I didn’t know because you talk to coaches and they’re selling you a dream.”

New York used its sixth choice of the first round to take UCLA star Michaela Onyenwere after the Atlanta Dream with the third pick selected Aari McDonald, who led Arizona all the way to a final missed shot resulting in being edged by PAC-12 rival Stanford earlier this month in the NCAA title game in San Antonio, Texas, at the Alamodome.

The Indiana Fever had the fourth and last lottery pick, taking West Virginia’s Kysre Gondrezick, who was part of the Mountaineers’ attack to oust Drexel in the NCAA tournament first round.

With a second chance to pick Guirantes, New York passed again with the 17th overall pick, opting for Baylor defensive star DiDi Richards in the fifth pick of the second round.

“This is stunning from everything they (New York) said in talks with us,” said a Rutgers source asking for anonymity because not having permission to speak on behalf of the team.

The failure to go quickly brought back memories of Penn State three-point shooting ace Kelly Mazzante, who just finished her second season as a Bucknell assistant coach, projected high in the first round in 2004 but ending up going in the second round to the former Charlotte Sting. She later landed with the Phoenix Mercury in the dispersal draft and became a member of a WNBA championship squad.

“To not see other things happen from the other side of things, and just be kind of left out on an island, I can’t say I’m not used to it,” Guirantes said. “But it’s okay. God has a plan for me. I know he doesn’t play about me at all. Eleven other teams that missed out, that’s fine.”

When Guirantes gets to Los Angeles, she will find a sister alum in Erica Wheeler, then with the Chicago Sky who made it from undrafted signee to earning All-Star MVP accolades in 2019.

“I’m excited to hear the knowledge she has for me,” Guirantes said. “She knows what it takes to last and survive, beat politics.”

Guirantes wasn’t the only surprise gaining less than projected.

Syracuse’ Tiana Mangakahia out of Australia, who led the nation in assists at 7.2 per game and averaged 11.4 points and 3.1 rebounds, after missing a year battling breast cancer, was totally omitted and late Thursday night signed an training camp contract with Phoenix.

Kiana Williams, one of the stars who led Stanford to its first NCAA title in 29 seasons, was predicted high to middle in the first round and ended up landing as the 18th overall pick, sixth in the second round with the defending champion Seattle Storm.

Williams shrugged it off, talking about fit on a team versus the number taken.

“She’s the first person I thought of when I saw Seattle drafted me,” Williams referenced all-timer Sue Bird, the former UConn all-American who is the oldest player in the WNBA. “I get to learn from a legend. I feel like she’s one of the best point guards ever to play the game, and I’m going to go in there and be a sponge, try to soak up as much information, not only from her but from all the other vets.

“I wasn’t really necessarily worried about what number I was going to get drafted or what round. I honestly just wanted — I just prayed to God that I got drafted to a good situation for me, and I feel like Seattle was one of the best situations for me, and I was extremely grateful.”

Ironically, less than 24 hours earlier, Guirantes, Mangakahia, and Williams were on Associated Press national women’s basketball writer Doug Feinberg’s popular conversational zoom interviews eagerly anticipating where they might land per the projections.

Another player landing slightly lower was Louisville’s Dana Evans, the No. 13th pick overall and first in the second round, and she, too, is heading to Dallas.

“It’s a blessing to finally hear my name,” said Evans, a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year. “It’s motivation. Didn’t expect to (fall) this far. I’m ready to take on whatever I’ve got to do.”

And in a league that once had North Philadelphia’s Dawn Staley and now has Saint Joseph’s grad Natasha Cloud out of Broomall in Delaware County on the Washington Mystics, another Philadelphian for the moment in Natalie Kucowski, became just one player above being the equivalent of the NFL pick as Miss Irrelevant, landing in the third round, 35th overall out of 36 at 11th with Seattle to become upstate Lafayette’s first-ever WNBA pick.

Kucowski, who led the nation with a 13.3 rebounding average, is the first former Philadelphia NCAA Women’s Summer Basketball League player since Cloud to be drafted.

She was the Patriot League player and defensive player of the year and isthe all-time Leopards’ rebounder at 1,197 and scorer at 1,415.

Finishing out the first round, after New York, the Sparks of Los Angeles at seventh, took Alabama’s Jasmine Walker.

Chicago at eighth took Australian Shyla Heal while at ninth, the Minnesota Lynx took Tennssee’s  Rennia Davis.

The Sparks came back with North Carolina’s Stephanie Watts at 10th followed by Texas A&M’s Aaliyah Wilson gogng to Seattle.

France’s Iliana Rupert went to the WNBA runner up Las Vegas Aces to round out the 12-team first round.

Second Round

The Aces, also in the second round after Dallas got the first pick, took 14th overall in Arkansas Destiny Slocum, previously with Maryland.

Spain’s Raquel Carrera then went to Atlanta, followed by Oklahoma State defensive star Natasha Mack to Chicago at 16th overall.

After already discussed 17th to New York and 18th to Seattle, Auburn’s Unique Thompson went to Indiana.

The Connecticut Sun, finally getting to pick in this draft, took Baylor’s DiJonnai Carrington.at 20th and Centeal Michigan’s Michaela Kelly at 21st.

Then came the Guirantes move to Los Angeles, followed by. Texcas A&M’s N’dea Jones to Seattle, and Arizona’s Trinity Baptiste rounded out the second round at 24th to Indiana.

Third Round

New York led off the third round with Pacific’s Valerie Higgins at 25th, Indiana then took UT Martin’s Chelsea Perry, Atlanta  took Northwestern’s Lindsey Pulliam, and Los Angeles at 28th and fourth in the round took Wake Forest’s Ivana Raca.

New York at 29th went the international route with France’s Marine Fauthoux, followed by Oregon State’s Aleah Goodman going 30th to the Connecticut Siun.

Another foreigner was picked in Argentina’s Florencia Chagas going 31st and seventh to Indiana, while Phoenix followed taking Texas A&M’s Ciera Johnson.

Georgia’s Maya Caldwell went 33rd and 9th in the third to Indiana, then came Spain’s Aina Ayuso to Los Angeles at 34th and 10th.

The Kucowski pick was next and Las Vegas closed out the night, giving Towson it’s first ever draftee with Kionna Jeter, the second leading scorer in the Colonial Athletic Association. At 36th.

Collier, with her pick at No. 1, reached a goal she targeted five years ago visiting her fatrher, battling cancer, which claimed his life in 2016.

“He’s here with me,” she said of him Thursday night following the selection.

“He’s with me in the moment. My dad is so proud of me. Wish he could see this in real life. Nothing can take this moment away from me.”

Though in an earlier interview last week ahead of the draft Engelbert said expansion could begin to be discussed once the pandemic subsides, for now the hard truth is there are 144 roster openings by the 12-player-per-team allocation, but in reality even less since not all of the 12 franchises career the max limitation.

“It’s really difficult to find a spot in this league and stick,” Los Angeles coach Derek Fisher said on his team’s post-draft call. “Coming off 2020, last year with the draft where players that got drafted didn’t get an opportunity to go to training camp and earn a spot ... it will be difficult for every player who was drafted tonight to stay with the team.”

A year ago, Rider’s Stella Johnson, the nation’s leading scorer, got picked by Phoenix, traded to Chicago, cut on the last day, then later got signed by the then-defending champion Washington Mystics out of necessity due to injuries.

She had one of the all-time debuts when she finally got into a game but then got injured and sat out the rest of the season.

General Manager/Coach Mike Thibault was impressed enough, however, to say, you’re our draft pick, alluding to the Mystics not having a pick Thursday night.

Training camps will begin in two weeks, the season making an early start on May 14 because of the month-long brake for the Olympics. The pause begins July 12 and the season resumes Sunday, August 15, and concludes Sept. 19.

The playoffs begin later that week with two one-and-one done first and second round games, followed by semifinals and finals series of best-of-five games.

The best eight teams regardless of division make the field and the top two teams get two-round byes to the semifinals playing the two survivors of the opening rounds.

And that’s the report. 


Thursday, April 08, 2021

Mike Siroky’s SEC Report: Next Season Will Be A Little Less Whacky With Two New Coaches Aboard

By Mike Siroky


There will be one more season of Covid-affected women’s college basketball.

But the impact will not be as zany in the Southeastern Conference as it could have been.

For instance, South Carolina, the top NCAA finisher in conference, is totally unaffected as it loses no one of significance, returns all starters, including Lisa Leslie award winner (top national center) in Aliyah Boston. 

Everyone else, with additions and subtractions , is playing for second.

The NCAA offered every player who lost a season (2020) to Covid a magic ticket to get a free extra year if they chose to come back.

 The wackiness of that, in theory, is every team could retain every player. If they all duplicated their season, just Xerox the conference and NCAA standings.

But that did not happen as most listed as seniors moved on in life.

Statistically, though, one of the possibilities was a school record-holder who would have had five seasons of accumulated numbers instead of four.

Sports information directors and the NCAA plan to asterisk anyone whose cumulative ends statically higher, though using averages would clarify it. 

For instance, the all-time leading scorers and rebounders at some schools could put the mark out of reach, but not the career average.

But now comes the WNBA and its agreement with the NCAA. 

Any player who declares for the WNBA automatically acknowledges her college eligibility has ended.

Keep in mind that hope springs eternal but reality smacks you in the face. 

A player may get bad advice. 

Last season, for instance, the two-time college player of the year didn’t make the league except as a late-season injury replacement. 

No SEC player is the college player of the year or even close.

Experience has shown you’d better be a first-round draft pick to have any shot at all.

 Players look at A’ja Wilson of SC,  the top draftee in her time, who made and stayed in the WNBA.

No SEC player is thought of that highly. 

It is a safe bet no SEC player will crack the league this season. 

So one train of thought said stay in school and get your Master’s subsidized, as four starters did at Georgia this year, playing on as grad students.

But the other train leaving the career station said, “Hey, you had your four years of your four-year plan.” That is also true.

 The rookie salary in the league tops out at $74,00, fair change for any new graduate. If you make it.

Go overseas where mandates at least some Americans on each team, and you can start a nice run in the $100,00 range, always away from home. If you make it.

The difference between the men’s game and the women’s game still is the payoff, as Texas A&M’s Gary Blair said, “Butts in the seat” generating viewers and attendees wrapped up as revenue. 

The women’s pro game in the States does not have that. 

It is subsidized by the men’s game.

In the toughest  conference of them all – the Southeastern – the effect of players coming back for a fifth season seems to be minimal, just by reviewing who declared for the WNBA draft. 

The declarations cannot be retracted.

Arkansas’ all-time leading scorer and All-America Chelsea Dungee was a key. She declared. Surprisingly so did classmate Destiny Slocum, who is not serious drafted material. 

A third Razorback, leading scorer Amber Ramirez, is coming back, so there is one all-league performer remaining. 

She is the best of the fifth years and will get a second Senior Day honors, a unique experience.

Four Georgia starters -- Maya Caldwell, All-America Gabby Connally, Que Morrison, All-America Jenna Staiti –- declared, so that program is back to being sixth or seventh with fortuitous play.

The Vols had a Tennessee two-step of seniors, including a sturdy  All-America in Rennia Davis, but she is unlikely to stick in the WNBA.

Kasiyahna Kushkituah is gone too, to the relief of spell checkers everywhere.  

The other Lady Vol to declare was a surprise transfer out, freshman Destiny Salary. 

She is the first Kelli Harper player to go. She posted online “it was best” to move on. 

She personally apologized to Davis, her “basketball mentor.” 

She’d be a great catch for homestate Arkansas. She was an All-SEC Freshman, having started 24 of 25 games.

Three seniors moving on from Kentucky are Chasity Patterson (declared for WNBA) and Kameron Roach and KeKe McKinney.

A&M loses its all-time All-America rebounder, N’dea Jones, and another All-SEC player, Aaliyah Wilson. 

The Aggies were already deep without some superlative incoming freshmen. The delightful 6-5 center Anna Dremaine is transferring out, perhaps to open roster space.

 She took the extra year.

Auburn, with a new coach, lost its All-American Unique Thompson , freed at last with no return to no team.

The Tigers obviously knew who they wanted as the next coach.

They waited less than a week to bring in Johnnie Harris, after her previous commitment ended in the NCAAs.

She was a top assistant for Mississippi State until she moved with Vic Schaefer to Texas for a season. 

Harris was highly thought of with him to handle post-game coaches ‘ radio interviews. She was his top recruiter.

One wonders if some of those fleeing other SEC schools might not find  the comforts of her as their next coach.

She upgrades the Tiger tradition immediately. 

Harris is the fourth of five Black coaches to be hired in the league in three seasons, keeping that number at seven, far more  than the rest of the top leagues combined. 

Another historical note is that it gives the SEC six coaches with two years or less. That has never happened and keeps the number of teams coached by men at three.

Harris was with Schaefer since 2012 but also assisted in the league at Texas A&M and Arkansas. Her recruiting is what built State,

It obviously is her third physical move in three season which ought to be enough.

None of the other SEC schools had a senior worth worrying about.

South Carolina and A&M still will be the best-coached league teams, with SC the favorite again, adding the national recruiting class of the year and already returning four starters who will be juniors. 

Tennessee coach  Harper keeps them in third, tussling for the space with Kentucky. 

The two best All-Americas play on, Aliyah Boston at SC and Rhyne Howard at Kentucky, restarting that argument for SEC supremacy.  

The Gamecocks have more thoroughbreds and an edge in coaching.

Jasmine Walker left Alabama. 

After that it is pick-’em with another coach surprisingly released.

Florida ended the season with three starters out injured. 

Three bench players, two freshmen and a reserve, left Mississippi,  5-10 in the league. 

Ole Miss lost its bid to become the 65th best team in America in the WNIT and was eighth overall in the league. They could hold at eighth, behind Alabama.

LSU remains plateaued, with no reason to expect improvement, especially with five nondescript players transferring away. 

This is a fourth season of a death watch for a regime change. There’s still time for a 9-13 team.

Vandy cut its season short, so whatever they did during an extended break brings a possibility of not being the worst team in conference. Auburn and LSU lock that up again. 

Didn’t see this coming: The  Commodores released Stephanie White as coach after she ran a very clean program and survived multiple injuries, not to mention accepting the curtailing of her season due to Covid considerations. 

She will be welcomed back to the WNBA. 

If anyone wondered if a university would avoid firing coaches because of the national medical emergency, the answer was resoundedly delivered twice. 

This is the first major dismissal by the new female athletic director

What might have been the tipping point is within the past week, three starters announced they are transferring, including top scorers Koi Love and Chelsie Hall and three-year starter Autumn Newby.

 Hall and Newby are graduates, Hall transferring to Louisville, Newby staying in conference at LSU. Love will be a major catch for someone.

Then there is Mississippi State, where a coaching change flopped. Hard, 5-7 in conference.

 Even a one-year assistant has already left to coach elsewhere.  

An astonishing seven players are fleeing, a third of the returning scoring average. They are years away from a rebuild.

Three are mostly starters Sidney Cooks, junior forward, junior guard Xaria Wiggins and senior guard Andra Espinosa-Hunter. 

Wiggins’ mom said the player simply didn’t fit in anymore, a true blast at the new coach. 

She had played in 29 and then 32 games before this season. Espinosa-Hunter got to Seton Hall and eligible at midseason to make the Pirates an NCAA tourney contender that fell short of being picked.

 All did damage to competitive SEC teams under former coach Vic Schaefer and bought into the myth the replacement would be swell. 

We told you last season there would be more leaving State, but could not have projected this much irreparable damage.

Cooks played two seasons at Michigan State. Freshman forward McDonald’s All-America Madison Hayes was the last recruit of the former coach. 

She was a SEC All-Freshman.

 Other starters to vacate are 6-6 senior center Yemiyah Morris, to Top 25 West Virginia with the extra season of eligibility; 5-8 sophomore guard JaMya Mingo-Young, a strong bench player when not starting; and 5-7 sophomore scoring guard Aliyah Matharu.

How disillusioning it must be when your beloved coach leaves and your university wrecks your career with a sub-par replacement.

They were a gimme for top four in the SEC for a decade under Schaefer. 

They have two forward line players  left. And there’s still time for them to jump but you will need a scorecard to watch them.

We said all along is it nearly impossible to replace a coaching legend. 

Schaefer revived Texas all the way into the NCAAs. 

The players take some of the blame as they were given a free eligibility  pass to leave but could  not wrap their teenage minds around the lies they were fed. 

Even attendance will fall dramatically.

 Chloe Bibby, the only one to flee before this season, landed as a starter  at Maryland, a Top 15 team and B1G conference winner. She is coming back for the fifth season. 

By the way, Evina Westbrook formerly of Tennessee made the national semifinals with UConn and is coming back as well.

The Hayes sisters scored 41 of 62  in the opening NCAA loss for Middle Tennessee  against the Lady Vols. 

Both transferred out, the elder sister taking a fifth year. That will be a two-fer windfall for someone.

Clemson lost an astonishing eight players to transfer and Duke is among the programs with six. 

So it could  always be worse somewhere else.



Monday, April 05, 2021

Guru’s WBB March Madness: Failed Buzzer-Beater Allows Stanford to Edge PAC-12 Rival Arizona 54-53 For First NCAA Title In 29 Seasons

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

SAN ANTONIO — In the end, the women’s basketball gods had 6.1 seconds to decide a combo cause-and-effect destiny Sunday night between overall top seed Stanford and three-seed Arizona, familiar PAC-12 rivals, that would determine the NCAA women’s basketball championship providing a joyful finish to a compelling saga for one and an agonizing result fpr the other.

The way the fates were set, Arizona, the longest lasting of the Cinderella forces in this Texas locale, had the ball and everyone in the Astrodome restricted crowd size knew the heroine’s role belonged to all-American Aari McDonald.

Drop the shot and the place would explode among the Wildcats faithful over the completion of an improbable journey to the top of the women’s basketball world.

Make the stop, which had already happened two days earlier in the national semifinals when successive attempts at the finish by South Carolina failed to drop, and the COVID-19 wandering journey of five months added to the 29-year pursuit of Stanford’s attempt to claim a closed gap between titles would have been achieved.

And of course in the balance was agony and ecstasy for each side.

As predicted the ball went to McDonald and she drove the basket from the top of the key with a crowd of three Cardinal defenders putting forth a wall. The ball went up and —- no.

Final score: 54-53 and Stanford had joined an elite group with its third NCAA crown, enabling long time coach Tara VanDerveer tie Baylor’s Kim Mulkey for third, exceeded just by two other Hall of Famers in the late Tennessee legend Pat Summitt with eight and the leader Geno Auriemma, whose bid by UConn to add to his 11 again failed for the fifth straight season Friday night at the hands of Arizona.

“I got denied hard,” said a tearful McDonald, the top scorer in the unique marathon three-week bubble environment here who had 22 more points in her last collegiate game. “I tried to turn the corner, they sent three at me. I took a tough contested shot and it didn’t fall.”

The only other double-digit scorer for the Wildcats (21-6) was reserve Shaina Fullington with 15 points.

As for the view and effort from the side of Stanford (31-2), which suffered just a two-game slide in mid-January to remove the Cardinal from the top of the Associated Press weekly women’s poll for the rest of the season, Haley Jones, voted the most outstanding player, said, “Oh, I had no idea (whether it would tickle the nets). I was just like, ‘Oh, please, God, don’t go in.

“We had like three people on her, They were suffocating her. She’s a great player. That had to be done. 

“We knew she would be the one taking the shot,” said Jones, who finished with 17 points and eight rebounds. “Honestly, you never know. She’s made some wild shots because she’s just that great. You hope it doesn’t go in.

“I didn’t really have an idea. When the buzzer went off, I didn’t realize what happened. 

“I think if you go back and watch, I kind of stood there for a second. It hadn’t clicked that we actually just won and the shot didn’t go in. I really had no thoughts. My mind was completely blank when she shot the ball. There’s three people there, that’s all you can do. It is not up to us any more at that point.”

The win extended VanDerveer’s record Division I women’s win total to 1,125, improving to six ahead of Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, who became temporarily frozen at 1,119 with the semifinals loss.

Two other Stanford stars scored in double figures, Lexie Hull with a double double 10 rebounds and 10 losses, and Cameron Brink, with 10 points and three of the Cardinal’s five blocked shots.

Kianna Williams, who was playing in her hometown and venue she had played in high school, had five points and two rebounds, while Anna Wilson, the sister of NFL Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, had four rebounds, while Ashten Prechtel grabbed eight.

Overall, the winners crashed the glass for a 47-29 edge in rebounding, 9-5 on the offensive glass to producing a wipeout of 11-0 in second chance points.

But Stanford committed 21 turnovers, many unforced, enabling Arizona to pull back into competition and also gain the last possession, though the Wildcats could have taken more advantage of the miscues than they did.

The outcome was the third straight in which the fates smiled on VanDerveer and her troops with a huge second-half comeback in the region title game against Louisville, the stop on South Carolina, and then Arizona, whom Stanford defeated easily twice during the regular season in PAC-12 play.

The tournament closed a two-year gap from Baylor’s 2019 title with the event cancelled a year ago at the outset of the pandemic.

“We’re excited to win the COVID championship,” VanDerveer said.

“One thing, I was really excited to have fans at our games. We have missed our fans so much.”

She conceded dodging Louisville, South Carolina, and Arizona in succession.

“We had some special karma going for us,” VanDerveer said. “Had the comeback against Louisville, dodge a bullet against South Carolina, dodge bullet against Arizona. Sometimes you have to be lucky. I’ll admit it, we were very fortunate to win.

 “If you got a faint heart or a weak stomach, then don’t coach.”

At the outset, Stanford got off to a fast 16-5 start but Arizona took advantage of the miscues to get back in it and each side took a run at the other with Arizona coming up with the ball on the last possession.

Stanford, having been forced to go away from campus in northern California to continue its season due to strict COVID-19 protocols from late November through mid-February, didn’t have to make as many adjustments as other schools in the 64-team field to exist in the setup by the NCAA, that did not have anyone during the period come up with a positive test.

The loss left a bit of sour taste to Arizona coach and alum Aida Barnes, one of two Black women in the Final Four with South Carolina’s Dawn Staley, a first in the 39-year history of the event. 

She was one shot away in a five-year building project from winning it all having previously won a WNIT title along the way.

Barnes also created a plug for working mothers having breast fed her relatively newborn in the locker room at halftime.

“Against great teams like Stanford we have to be a little bit bitter at the small things,” Barnes said. “It doesn’t ever come down to the last shot. It comes down to the missed free throws down the stretch, the foul on a three point shot, getting the turnovers and not converting. It’s those things. It’s never the last play. 

“But it obviously stings pretty bad,” she said.

“This team is so special. I am so proud. We fought. We weren’t the best team in the tournament. No one thought we’d be here. We believed in each other. We didn’t play a great game, but we battled. We played our hearts out. We came within one possession of wining a national championship.”

For the last play, Barnes said, “It was going to be Aari or nothing just because if you look at the game, really, Aari was the only one scoring. At that point we’ve been on Aari’s back for the whole tournament.

“She’s got to take the last shot. Unfortunately, it still had a chance going in. 

“But I have to put the ball in her hands in that situation because she’s one of the reasons why we are here,” Barnes said. “The reality with the season, one person is going to walk away happy with the season, and they’re national champions, everyone else us going to walk away disappointed. We got this close, so definitely disappointed. 

“We all wanted to hoist the trophy and make history.  It would have been almost next to a miracle for us to do that. 

“We had an opportunity to do that. That’s all I can ask for. So the bar is high. We want to come back here. 

“I’m trying to build as program like Tara has, build a program like Geno and Dawn, all the other trailblazers in this profession. I don’t want to come here once and be done. I want to be back here. I think in the future, Arizona will be back.”

Besides Stanford’s Jones as the most outstanding player, the all-tournament team for the Women’s Final Four included McDonald, Hull, South Carolina’s Zia Cooke, and Connecticut freshman Paige Bueckers.

Earlier in the day, Bueckers completed the consensus sweep, being the first person as a freshman with national player honors when the United States Basketball Writers Association announced her as their winner of the Ann Meyers Drysdale National Women’s Player of the Year honoree.

And that’s the report.

Saturday, April 03, 2021

Guru’s WBB March Madness — II: The No. 1 Ranked Team Foiled Again by a Feisty Cinderella in Arizona Setting Up An All-Pac-12 Final

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

SAN ANTONIO — In the end it is not going to be the No. 1 ranked for the overall No. 1 seed. 

Nor will it be the that No. 1 ranked team against the No. 1 left 12 months ago without a tournament to complete its business.

Following South Carolina’s inability to put a shot down that would have caused a celebration as regulation time expired, the in-the-bag thoughts by the New Englanders among the limited crowd in the Alamodome Friday night instead saw their team get bagged in a national semifinal again.

This time the damage was done by a three-seed Cinderella and Arizona moves on to an all-PAC-12 final here Sunday night against Stanford in its first-ever national title game appearance, following its demolition in a 69-59 upset of Connecticut.

The outcome leaves the Huskies (28-2) with a now five-year gap since their record NCAA championship trophy collection grew to 11 in 2016.

Arizona (21-5) becomes the storybook finish in waiting obliterating the perceived storybook close to the Cinderella season experienced by UConn freshman Paige Bueckers.

The opponent the Wildcats will face they know too well in overall No. 1 Stanford (30-2) which emerged with a 66-65 win over South Carolina (26-5) and put them twice during the West Coast wars in the conference.

That’s much different than the foe they knew little about Friday night.

Following their only loss of the season at Arkansas in a hastily prepared non-conference tilt, looking to solidify their Net resume for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament committee, Connecticut returned to their newly reacquired wars in the Big East rolling along with the way with their prized rookie Paige Blueckers collecting unprecedented awards to rarely if at all land in the laps of freshman.

She put 18 more points into her season collection while the focus looks at someone heading out the doors in  senior Aari McDonald, who had previously assembled a pair of consecutive 30-point performances and in this one had scored 26 points and collected six rebounds.

While coach and Arizona alum Adia Barnes said the slight of not being in an NCAA highlight video with the other Women’s Final Four squads, her team got fired up.

“I love it,” she said.”I’ve been an underdog my whole life. Too small to do this, too this to do that, too inexperienced to do this. We prove it wrong every time. I don’t care. It just motivates me and my team.”

Barnes also thought that way in citing others evaluating McDonald’s defense.

“I think she’s really underrated on defense,” Barnes said. “I thought in my mind, she should have been the national Defensive Player of the Year. There was no other player thar impacts the game on both ends of the floor more. 

“There is no other player that for the 37 minutes presses full court and gets steals, rebounds, all these things that she does. I feel like she’s a great defender. She’s our catalyst on defense and offense. She didn’t really allow Paige to get into the flow.”

Barnes made tournament with South Carolina’s Dawn Staley making it the first time two Black coaches reached the same Women’s Fnal Four.

“For me to get here one time, it doesn’t really mean a lot,” Barnes said, contrasting herself to Staley, Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, and Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer. “They’ve been here so many times. That’s what I aspire to have my program do one day.”

Answering what element Arizona had that others didn’t notice in sizing up the UConn/Arizona match, McDonald said, “My teammates are dogs. I mean, it starts with me. I think the effect rubbed off on my teammates this last stretch of playing basketball. I’m just proud of them. We wasn’t scared. I mean it showed tonight. I’m just extremely proud of them.”

Since the 2016 championship, completing a run of all four in the Breanna Stewart era in 2016, the Huskies lost in the overtime buzzer-beater to Mississippi State in the national semifinal that ended the 119-game win streak, the buzzer-beater loss to Notre Dame, the follow-up loss to Notre Dame in the 2019 national semifinal by a larger margin, and the cancellation a year ago that just added to the streak of title drive failures.

“First, I want to congratulate Arizona,” Auriemma said. “They played amazing. That first half, it was incredibly difficult for us to get anything done. And I thought the intensity level that they played with and the aggressiveness on the defensive end, we just didn’t respond as I hoped we would.

“That’s two games in a row we faced that kind of pressure,:” he referenced the narrow win over Baylor in the River Walk Region title game. “I think it took its toll. All the credit goes to Arizona.

“Aari McDonald, I said, going into the game, I don’t think we’ve had to play against a guard as good as she is, and she proved it tonight. She just dominated the entire game start to finish.

“We pride ourselves on being pretty good at certain things. We had no answer for her.

“As good as Paige was this year, and she carried our team through most of the season, that’s not how you win championships, with one player having to do everything.

“Paige is another example that you’re only as good as teammates. It’s the bottom line. You’re only as god as the team around you.

“Aari McDonald was amazing tonight. She got a lot of support from every kid on their team. Everybody on their team did their part, made shots when they were open, made plays when they had to make them.

“We’ve talked about what was missing tonight, their defense took us out of our offense,” Auriemma said. “We were in a scramble mode a lot offensively. We got it back, I think, then we just missed shots that you got to make at this level at this point in time,” Auriemma explained.

“You’ve got to make those shots. You got to make those free throws. You got to make those layups that you get. You have to make those open threes that you get. They’re not easy to come by.

“I think the growth of our team is going to be in those areas. You got to be able to play a bunch of high-level games in a row, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, in order to win the whole thing,” Auriemma continued. “And you got to get a little bit of luck. Look at that first game tonight. 

“It could have gone either way. A bounce of the ball there, a bounce on the rim either way. You need to be really good and you need to get a little bit of luck.”

And that’s the report.  


Guru’s WBB March Madness — I: Gamecocks’ Season Throttled in the End

By Mike Siroky

Stanford won by one from wire-to-wire.

The Cardinal took away the rebound advantage and the inside presence of Aliyah Boston for the majority of the game, even though SC had the last two shots under the rim.

Stanford used its better game plan and experience against a SC team with four sophomore starters. 

SC still won rebounds, completing the season statistical sweep, but not until the end. and so lost the game.

The poise of Stanford showed throughout, they never lost confidence and still almost lost.

Zia Cooke made her sophomore season finale end with 25 points, 5-of-8 3s. She had as many in the Regional finale.

But Stanford already has the tournament record 55 2s with a game to go.

No one was better this game than Hailey Jones, 11-of-14 for 24 points despite missing the entire second quarter. 

Whatever the SC game plan was, it did not work. Stanford teammate, 6-0 junior guard Lexie Hull, scored seven above her average with 18, doubling with 13 rebounds. 

Yes ,it took only two double-figure scorers to dismiss South Carolina by winning the war closest to the basket. SC reserve  forward Leticia Amihere was limited to her average of six after doubling that in the tournament. Victaria Saxton was the  more limited, forward, zero points  as Stanford obviously had a better defensive plan. Destinee Henderson scored above her average at 18

As has happened so often which Hall of Fame coach got a game to work in the matchup of  No. 1 seeds, East vs. West, in the National Semifinals won the game.

The Gamecocks coasted the entire way and the Cardinal coasted in the second hald in the Regional Championships. 

Each coach brought in multiple years of recent success.

Dawn Staley had a team without a senior, geared for a long national run but nothing is promised despite the cheerleading for Boston by the ESPN broadcasters. 

Only UConn has a lock on Final Fours. 

It seems more likely Cooke will lead her team back, even if Boston gets the praise. Cooke led SC in scoring in the final two games, but today is back in the southland with the rest of her team.

It must be noted that as soon as the game ended, the SC radio network cut away to a regular season campus baseball game. 

No emotional home connection on death in the national tournament. 

That’s an inequity you cannot blame on the NCAA. 

That would not happen in the men’s game. 

Maybe SC can tactfully clean up its own presentation before trying to run the national tournament.

Cooke said of the game:  “It meant a lot mainly because I know how hard we work. We have to come back harder.

“I definitely thought it was in our hands.

“It is going to stick with us because we were right there. I’ve learned a lot. This season was not normal.

“I was not surprised. It was what we do. It’s a lotta games. We have to do the little things. The turnovers; I missed some box outs.

“I plan on saying something to all my teammates.”

Staley will do the same

“At the point of 13 seconds we went all out,” she said. “We got a pretty decent two looks at it. We got to give God the glory in victory and defeats.

“The margin of error is that small.”

When Boston was foul forced to sit, they were outscored by 14. 

You forget she is a sophomore, still a teenager. She was sobbing uncontrollably when it ended.

“It’s tough. It is real personal (to Boston),” Staley said. “One or two moments like that. They schemed for her. They had a game plan for Aliyah Boston. She had 16 rebounds. With her in there, we had a chance to attempt to win the game.”

“Zia is built for the biggest stage. She created great looks,” Staley said.

“We never  flinched even when they got out to six[MS1] . Hailey Jones threw up a prayer.

“We were inches from playing for a National Championship. I am super proud of our players . Every time we’ve got a setback, we have gotten better. 

“We’ll continue to get better. I told our team hopefully we can be on the other side of his emotion.”

In her first Final Four, Staley finished tied for third in the championship won by UConn.  They get that trophy again. They won it all in 2017. This is her third. 

Every Cardinal has multiple minutes in at least 20 games of the 28-2 season. 

Tara Vanderveer started her basketball life playing at Indiana as a Boston recruit with IU’s first All-America,  

Debbie Oing. The original IU coach, Bea Gorton, just passed this year.  

Vanderveer coached at Ohio State. She came West and dominated the left coast in a legendary career. She has the most wins of any women’s coach ever.

She has two National Championships. 

This is her 13th Final Four. She knows the joy and pain of this level. 

She stepped aside for the 1996 season to coach the Olympic Gold Medal team. 

Imagine if Staley had taken this year and last year off for the Olympic commitment. off. She last won a national title 29 years ago.

One assistant, Kate Paye, not only attended and graduated from Stanford, but was born in the university’s hospital. The way Stanford works is both Paye and Vanderveer’s costs are underwritten by corporate sponsors

 Another, Kate Steding, was Vanderveer’s first Stanford recruit and led the1990 National Champions

Stanford is the national No. 2 in limiting opponent field goal percentage (32.6). SC hit 36 percent. SC is 32nd (36.7), Stanford is No, 13 in national scoring (78.9); SC is two points behind, so those averages were way off

Stanford is No. 4 in scoring margin (25) South Carolina is eighth (17.6). South Carolina has never been outrebounded all season and is third (14.8) in rebound margin  They won those by four. 

Stanford is 13th  (10.5)

“I have total faith in every one of many players,” Vanderveer said.

“We had to get on the boards. We can’t let them run us. They have an inside game and an outside game. We can’t wait until the second half. We have to play the complete game.”

So that part worked.

“This is a low-maintenance team,” she said. Any one can score at any time. Any player can step up at any time. Any one can do a solo. I trust each one of them.”

She coached Staley in the Olympics.

“She was a tremendous leader. Whatever Dawn decided to go into, she was going to be at the top of her career. l cheer for her every game except when they play us.”

Stanford is supremely confident.

Hull is the player she chose to represent the team.

“We had to play 40 minutes, come out ready and come out aggressive,” she said. “They are a very good team.

“I definitely think we learned about ourselves.

“We know we have it in us.”

“It’s win or go home. People are going to punch back. We need to work hard and bring it.”

Staley said: “For all the coaches doing this, like Tara, they’re doing it the right way. I show my appreciation for them.

“What I remember (in 2017) was we weren’t playing our best basketball. I asked our team why we aren’t playing the best. We all huddled together, got it down and won.

“This one feels a lot different, but it felt like a Final Four. I look around and only see three other teams. This is the pinnacle of our game. We practice, we play for, we cry for this.

“Losing is not in our DNA. The light comes on and Ding! Ding! Ding! they’re ready to go. We have to play fast and generate more possessions.

“Let the chips fall where they may. Defensively, we think we have some concepts in the things they like to do. For us, we have to bring it to them.”

The team that started a smidge faster won.

That has been the story of the tournament, with the3s.

Haiey scored nine in the first quarter but acquired two fouls and so played one quarter. After showing her intentions. The depth of Stanford let them not miss a beat.

Boston was deadly contained, only three points until late in the third with a multiplicity of fouls

the Gamecocks hit 5 -f-7 to start then Stanford’s defense locked in and SC was 3-of-22 for the rest of the half and trailed 31-25. 

There was no way of knowing that was  large margin in this tight contest. SC cut it in half in the third,

A Cooke 3 opened the SC scoring in the third. Jumpers by 6-4 freshman Cameron Brink and Jones kept SC at Bay. Brink had tweaked a knew in the Regional final bvut played on.

Cooke hit another 3 to cut it to four then Beal hit a two

Boston picked up her second foul. With more tall players, Stanford was working to get her in foul trouble and it would happen. Five Stanford points were not offset by another Cooke 3.

Working well inside, the Cardinal were not afraid to drive. 

Amihere finally found a field goal at 41-37

SC could not take control. It took another Cooke 3 and then one by Henderson to tie it at 43. That lasted 20 seconds. Stanford was still leading rebounds, the latest in a game that had happened to SC all season.

Beal called a time out while laying on the floor, to preserve possession. Almost as important, it left SC with two timeouts. She also got a scarped left elbow

Two Hull free throws kept Stanford ahead by two entering the final quarter of the season.

As usually happens when she can do it, Staley tried going through Boston

Instead, Amihere drove into her third foul. Then she tied it at 52 with a drive and  free throw. Boston was not being heard from, with a third foul, nor was Saxton evident. Those are minus points.

Cooke was still active, with another 3.

From 8:1iu until 6:14,the jitters arrived and no one scored. SC missed three shots and the four-point deficit held

Boston got a fourth fall. Another minute passed with no points. Cooke hit a layup at 5:18 and was suddenly done soring. The foul and lockdown on Cooke showed Vanderveer’s defensive scheme was working.

Boston was all but done for the season, banished to the bench on defense, back in as soon as possible on offense.

Hull was 8-of-8 from the line. A Henderson 3 made the deficit one at 2:16. Cooke turned over the next possession.

Jones’ 22nd  point came on a back door drive where Boston wasn’t.

Slowly the game had turned back to Stanford’s defe.se. Blood in the water

Beal had a shot blocked  blocked by Brink.

Hall drove for her 18th points, one-on-three

The lead was a deadly six. Cooke scored 25 points inside.

All in, SC went to Boston. Stanford had an 11-point advantage when she sat down. The Cardinal used its tallest lineup.

The clock was on the Pac 12 champ.

The Cardinal launched a 3 for some reason. Downcourt, Henderson made it a one-point game with a 3. She immediately fouled on the other end.

Stanford began to dance in place when they scored on a breakout on an easy layup after a court-length pass after a missed call when Stanford looked to have kicked the ball. Missed calls happen and the NCAA had obviously agreed to not let a call decide an elimination  game. Both coaches knew it, play on.

Henderson took a rebound after. Her  made  free throw put it at 65-62, 1:15left. Vanderveer called time out.

The audience knew it was going to Jones. Both benches stood. Beal had the ball. It was blocked, 65-64, 

Henderson hit a 3 with 39 seconds left. SC amazingly led The 3 was confirmed  the first SC lead since 15-13. Henderson had scored the last nine SC points

In front of their own basket, the ball pinballed around. Jones threw up ab answered prayer.  She scored 11-of-13 from the floor. A one-point lead.

Staley frenetically scribbled  up a play with 32 seconds left.

Henderson threw it away. Boston could not afford to come to the pass.

Cardinal time out

SC slapped away the steal, Boston to Beal. She drove too deep. Boston grabbed the ball facing the basket but another great look failed at the buzzer. Stanford had escaped. Boston was in tears, 

 5-off-14 from the field, fouls eliminating eight minutes. 

Cooke , Beal and Henderson never missed a minute. 

One wonders what steady influence the only senior could have added has she not injured herself out of the tournament.

The experience of Stanford was one of the critical differences. The four-sophomore SC lineup had never been in one NCAA game before this final journey

Of her game-winning shot, Jones said, “We just knew there was no time. I grabbed it and shot. It went in.

"I just saw the ball bouncing around and most of my teammates were hitting some bodies to open it up. I just let it fly and I said, 'Please, Jesus, go in,' and it did. And then we just had to go on to the next play, there's no time to get hyped about, we had to get back on defense."

“They had great shots at the end.

“Me and Aliyah, we are great friends we text every day. I went out,  gave her a hug.

The coaches hugged. Staley hugged Beal, then Boston, then Vanderveer.

It was over in the fifth loss of the season. Maybe it was the road uniforms, SC was the better seed in all games until this one .

It is always frustratingly sad to be sent home, with games still to play.

It seemed as if fate made it happened to 62 teams, after all the Covid considerations, the 21 days in isolated hotel rooms, frantic play.

We have the predicted National Championship representing, Stanford the No. 1 of all No. 1s.  

South Carolina headed home and back to campus, just college kids again, not national TV performers. 

Not the winner after all of this, starkly just another of the 62 losers 

Stanford has only to beat a conference opponent they have dominated, one that was not even in the conference tournament finals. 

At least they know each other.