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.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Mike Siroky's SEC Note Book: Ranked SEC Teams Are 68-7 Against the Nation.

By Mike Siroky

So it’s time for the real games. 

The conference’s Select Six, those ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 are ready to rumble with each other, along with four unranked league teams with at least 10 wins.

The Select Six, with three undefeateds, are 68-7 against America; the next four in conference, all unranked, are 45-6.

Throw out the six combined losses by the two of the lowest-ranked teams and it is even more impressive. 

At least a quarter of the teams with first-round NCAA hosting assignments, meaning automatic Sweet 16 berths, will come from the league. There are likely two more at that level of achievement. The SEC could get 10 in the national tournament again.

The final game of the preseason ended in a conference controversy that elicited some anger from a top coach. Read on.

We will start posting SEC updates to include the games that start the week on Sundays through to the Final Four in Indy.

*Undefeated No. 7 Kentucky won its 12th to open the season, eight at home, against Tennessee State 81-39. 

It is the best start in program history. 

State had also lost, 83-54 against Mississippi State. 

A 27-9 opening quarter settled it early as 5,586 in attendance approved. 

Reserve guard Taylor Murray and starting guard Maci Morris dominated the direction of the game.

 State had three single-digit quarters. Murray and Morris were backed inside by center Evelyn Akhator. 
She had six points and nine rebounds (five defensive) in the 38-17 half. It stayed the same after the break. 

The lead kept growing without impediment and reached 30 when Morris hit a 3 by the end and Murray did the same with two minutes left in the quarter. 

The lead was 37 entering the final quarter.

The Kats kept their momentum. All five starters plus Murray hit double figures, Akhator scored 14 with 13 rebounds, her fourth double-double.

Coach Matt Mitchell said all the right things, offering a fantasy view that the opponent – now 0-11 against the program -- really was a challenge, despite the final score.

He said: “We wanted to limit their scoring and have our team focused and take pride in limiting them to the fewest possible points that we could. We were battling there at the end. We were really battling at the end to get stops because we wanted to play as good of a game as we could.”

Morris said all the players are contributors.

“We just play our game and do whatever we can do. Helping the team is what we do. 

“We know what we have to do and we know we have to contribute to the team when we’re low in numbers. But, I think we’re great in numbers actually because we get to play more and it keeps everyone in a rhythm throughout the game.”

She and Taylor Murray talked about defense.

“Especially in the beginning, we would talk about defense and who we were guarding off the court, yeah because Taylor is such a great defender and I was struggling in the beginning. She would always give me pointers and help me out with how to guard people using my strengths instead of maybe what her strengths are.”

The Kats start the conference year with three winnable games before No. 2 South Carolina visits on Jan. 14.

No surprise Makayla Epps leads scoring at 17 per. The league now gets a look at Akhator, the fast-growing legend of the latest junior College Player of the Year, now the UK center. 

She averages a double-double: 11 points and 10 rebounds. How she is dealt with will determine UK’s league fate. 

It is never all about stopping as much as offering speed bumps against a team’s best player.

*No. 8 Mississippi State stayed unbested at home. 

The eighth victim was  Southeastern Louisiana, 81-41 The Bulldogs then went to South Florida and won by 10. State was the only of the SEC elite teams to play twice in the week before conference competition.

Against one-win SE La., a  balanced 20-9 run established dominance. It was 27-12 at the first stop. 

Guard Morgan Williams was 4-of-4 from the field (including a 3) and 5-of-5 from the line to lead them.

The lead grew to 20 in the second quarter. Coach Vic Schaefer emptied his bench and used six reserves before halftime, to the delight of the 3,409 in attendance.

 It was a 15-point advantage. 

The defense threw up one-digit third and fourth quarters, holding them to 25 percent from the field. 

Victoria Vivians (a shooter must shoot) took 12 shots in 17 minutes to get 13 points, 5-of-7 3s. Chimwe Okorie also scored 13, and took 14 shots. 

So there is work to be done on efficiency. Okorie had nine rebounds (five defensive) and reserve Breanna Richardson had eight as the ‘Dogs dominated the backboards, 60-37.

“We looked flat,” Schaefer said. “It’s hard to look flat coming off Christmas break. Right now, we don’t have those one or two people who grab everyone else and tell them that we need to get it together.

“We did a better job of executing on offense in the fourth quarter,” he said. “If you have 30 offensive rebounds, you have to score more points than we did.”

Morgan William and Blair Schaefer each had 12 points. 

“We have to find a way to play better,” William said. “We need to have better intensity. It needs to start right now because we have to all pick our game up.”

 The second game was against a Top 20 team, South Florida, whose women carry the improbable nickname The Bulls.

Schaefer said this was the kind of balanced performance he wanted just before conference play starts.

Vivians had 13 at the break, double figures for the 13th straight game.  They established a smooth nine-point margin at the end of the first quarter that allowed them to play their game throughout.

A 16-6 endgame cut the lead to 10. But there was less than a minute left and, naturally, State looked to Vivians for the basket that kept it at double figures. 

It gave her 23 points.

 Williams scored 15 7-of-8 from the line as the Bulls fouled in an attempt to make it competitive. State crucially has 13 wins, undeniably already going to the NCAAs if they just maintain.

Their new center in a league suddenly blessed with centers is Texas import 6-7 Teaira McCowan.

She is second to Vivians in scoring, leading the team and already near 100 rebounds.

"It's a good way to finish off our non-conference season because the gauntlet is here, starting Sunday," Schaefer said, referring to Southeastern Conference play. "The nightmare starts.

"I think better teams, obviously, pique the interest of our players," Schaefer said. "That's a part of growing up a little bit. I want everybody to pique their interest."

Of Vivians, he said: "She hit some big buckets there in the fourth period, when we kind of dying on the vine."

This was part of something called the SEC/American Athletic Conference Challenge, which had 12-1 Florida playing Central Florida in the second game.

Ah, controversy.

Gator coaches were courtside scouting Mississippi State during the game, something that didn't sit well with Schaefer. They open SEC play against each other Sunday in Gainesville.

"There's an NCAA rule in place that prohibits scouting unless you're in a tournament setting," Schaefer said. "This is not a tournament. But they were given the approval to scout today by our conference office, so I'll leave it at that.

"I didn't play this game so I could scout Florida against Central Florida. To me, we're dancing around a rule that was put in place to not allow in-person scouting."

For the season, State has an average +31.3 scoring edge. Vivians is averaging 18.3, despite several games well under that right before the year ended. State starts with six winnable conference games until they meet the challenge of South Carolina in a national game on Jan. 24. 

*No. 13 Tennessee hit nine wins, playing Stetson at home. 

With three losses, they tie A&M with the most defeats of the conference leaders. Stetson had already lost by 11 to Georgia.

But they closed with only the first back-to-back wins all month.

Diamond DeShields said hello to the conference anticipators with 30 points in 23 minutes. She was given most of the fourth quarter off. Holly Warlick had her back as a starter. 

"It's definitely a huge confidence booster for me,” DesShields said. “Personally, I've been pretty up and down this season, I'll have a great game and then a not so great game. 

"So I think I'm really feeling out the game, and feeling out what I can do with the players that are out on the floor, and the spacing that I'm getting from them.

"So yeah it was just a huge confidence booster, hopefully I can carry it on to the rest of the season, not just next game. My teammates will continue to get me the ball and trust me to knock down the shots.
"I feel a lot better, I do,” DeShields said. 

“ I was definitely elevated a lot better than I have been all season. I give a lot of credit to our trainer and strength coach for helping me get through my injuries. So yeah, I feel better, but I'm still trying to work out some kinks. But I do feel a lot better.

"Like Holly said, we did a lot of great things, but we also have a lot of things to work on, our one on one defense being one of them. 

"We had a hard time keeping our man in front of us. So we're definitely not satisfied, but very pleased with the win. You can't really discredit what we did out there tonight. We played team basketball. But we know we still have a lot to work on. So we're just going to come in and practice and get ready for Missouri."

Warlick also had 10 healthy players for the first time since the start of the season.

That was because guard Alexa Middleton was back from an ankle twist.

Butt the Lady Vols also made it 8-0 when allowing 70 points or less. That’s another advantage of having fresh players with a real bench. It is this kind of variable which make makes them hard to scout. 

This is likely the best lineup. 

"Well I think I found one,” Warlick said.

“I think Mercedes and Bashaara [Graves] are solid. I think Andraya Carter has been solid. Kortney Dunbar has just been reliable in practice. I preach a lot of `If you practice hard, you're going to get the opportunity.' She's started for us. She's gotten herself to a good start. I just thought she deserved to start. 

“Last year, she was learning to play defense, and this year she has not been a liability for us. She's rebounding, and we know what she can do on the 3.

“Our defense is solid,” Warlick said.

“Our goal was to disrupt. Disrupt, make them uncomfortable, take them out of their offense, I think for the most part we did. They scored a lot by just putting their head down and going to the basket. We've got to get a lot better of defending one-on-one when people just go hard to the basket. 

"I thought we challenged the ball. We got up and denied the passing lanes. Mercedes Russell was huge inside. I've asked her so many times to just be a presence inside, and I thought she was tonight.

"I thought we played hard. I was pleased with our effort. That was one of our better games here. We're getting there. We are making great strides. I'm just proud of our effort."

Rising rookie guard Te'a Cooper got some starts in the flux. She scored 13, with seven rebounds. 

"We're all getting used to playing with each other with all the injuries we've had, but I think we've done a better job of playing with each other," Cooper said.

"Holly just said we had to separate ourselves and dominate, so that's what we went out there and did."

Jaime Nared had 12 and Mercedes Russell 11, with eight rebounds.

 Tennessee shot 53 percent from the floor in their highest point total since a season-opening blowout of Central Arkansas. The Lady Vols are trying to develop a 3-point presence but went 5-of-21. They made two-thirds of their shots from inside the arc.

"Well, I think Stetson started off in a man-to-man and we got great looks, and then they went to zone,” Warlick said. “We've really worked hard on our zone and moving the ball and getting inside. 

"We get a little happy with the 3. I think we made five of them, so that kind of sucks us in a little bit. We attacked the basket. We moved the ball. I thought our passing today was really, really good. When you move the ball and cut, you get open looks, and I think that’s what we did. We've really committed a lot of time to our offensive play.”

Tennessee maintained control.

DeShields had 18 points in the first 13:40. UT started the second half just as strongly. 

The Lady Vols broke it with an 11-2 rush to start the third quarter. The 10,705 loyalists reward the team most every game.

This is a team with only two seniors, but all are post-Pat Head Summitt era recruits.

 The key for Warlick has been injuries, including recurring shin splints for DeShields.

 She now gets to prove her impact on her new league after dominating her previous one, the ACC. She is averaging 18 points per game, a starter in five. Then, it was a few minutes each game. She has grown into 22.6 per minutes now.

Surprising for a team led by a former All-American point guard, that position’s play has haunted Warlick. More specifically, it is the loss of Jasmine Jones, out once again with concussion symptoms after bonking heads with a teammate.

She played but six games last season before a concussion. She had proven her worth as a steadying influence in points steals, assists and blocks but may as well be written off as undependable. 

Cooper needs to continue to mature quickly even as Warlick, a guards’ coach on the international level, makes her assignments basic.

"I've watched Diamond,” said Warlick. “I've said earlier that she was thrown in early without a lot of practice. Everybody's expectations of Diamond was for her to take up where she left off.

" She was out a year, and she's had problems with her shins. I've been really encouraged. She's practicing hard, but she's getting to stay in practice. She doesn't have to sit out of practice now. I think you're seeing the results of her getting a chance to play with the team, getting up shots, and just practicing a full practice.

"You know, I feel great about us. I really do. I keep saying I think the Oregon State game was a great turnaround game for us. We identified what we thought our weaknesses were. We've really worked on them. The players have bought into what we want, what we need. When your players buy into a system or game plan, it's powerful.

"I feel good going into the SEC now. Missouri is a tough opponent. Missouri isn't your typical SEC team. They spread the floor. They have three-point shooters. They penetrate. They're hard to guard. 

"They've got a freshman right now who's been phenomenal. We've got our hands full. I like our chances because of how we're playing and how together we're playing."

The Lady Vols can start the SEC correctly with six league wins before closing the month at Kentucky. 

There is also the incomprehensible scheduling of at Notre Dame on Jan. 18, a hangover from the Summit scheduling theories. 

It is a series likely to not be renewed but likely to be replaced by renewal of the UConn happy fun times.

*No. 16 Texas A&M joined the 10-win club against Prairie View A&M.

A four-point quarter. That’s the national defensive marker of the season and A&M slung it on Prairie View to start the 88-30 devastation.

Sophomore center Khaalia Hillsman hit 10 of 13 shots for a career-high 22. Freshman reserve Anriel Howard came off the bench to score a career-high 14,  5-of-6 from the field. The second quarter points allowed was six.

The Aggies scored 37 points off 26 Prairie View turnovers, had a 40-31 rebounding advantage and had 22 assists on 34 baskets. They have these afternoon games where the top admission price is $4; that explains the 4,124 in attendance.

It was a nice way to end the year after a week off. The Aggies had just played seven games of 10 against  teams in the 2015 NCAA tournament.

“We knew we were going to take some bumps,” A&M coach Gary Blair said. “But they were three losses against pretty darn good teams.

”Our schedule has paid off. Before the season started, I was hoping to be 10-3 but as the season went on I thought we could have been 12-1 which we should’ve been and could’ve been but we didn’t get it done.”

This game was the kind of game in which the starters fed the non-starters in celebration of team play.

Blair said his best player emphasized that.

“I thought it was a very unselfish game, particularly for Courtney Williams,” he said. “She was distributing the ball, she wasn’t worried about how many points she scored but when she turned it on.

"… She only had two at half, came on and hit a couple 3-pointers, and played well.

”We’re going to take the game, I’m sure Prairie View has played a lot better games besides tonight but our defense was pretty good.”

Howard is happy to be in the performance mix.

“It’s certain things we know we have to do, even though we know we come in knowing we’re supposed to beat the team, there’s certain things we know we have to execute as well,” she said. “We have goals and I believe we met those goals, exceeded those goals, both on defense and offense.”

Hillsman agrees it is all about the team.

“It was the passes to be perfectly honest. I wasn’t doing anything by myself. I wasn’t catching any terrible passes and making a great move. 

"It was just great passes from people willing to share the ball and I think Courtney and everybody who came passing the ball, they threw some really good passes so I give it up to them because anybody could make the shots that I made.”

Now she focuses on all those centers to come in conference.

“I’m excited,” she said of the immediate challenge.

“ There’s no more winning by 50, there’s no more of that because everybody in our league is good. You have to prepare for everybody. Even teams from last year, the ones that we blew out, they’re better this year. It’s exciting to know you’re in the best conference in the nation and every game is going to be a big one.”

If A&M gets past 12-1 Georgia to open the SEC season, it can start 4-0 before meeting the challenge of South Carolina’s 44-game home win streak on Jan. 17. They will rematch two weeks later at College Station.

The magic of A&M has been the two Courtneys, Williams and Walker, now senior leaders, both at 16 point per game. Yet it was the injury loss of classmate Jordan Jones, the feeder, that sank the previous season. Jones has 66 assists so far.

A&M has been exciting, with the lowest points differential, +11, of any of the conference ranked teams.

*No. 23 Missouri enjoyed its longest streak of ranked days moved up two spots and hit 13-0 by edging visiting Charlotte, 88-71.

Just as the fan following is arriving – the 6,154 is the sixth-best in program history – so does the best shot from everyone come with the rakings. Missouri hasn’t been this validated since more than a decade before these players were born:1984. 

Junior Jordan Frericks had her 20th career double-double with 16 points and a career-high 15 rebounds, nine defensive. Mizzou won the backboards, 42-31. 

Mizzou hit 51 percent from the field. Adding significant points was freshman Cierra Porter with a career-high nine rebounds.

Missouri lost the first quarter by one then glided through the second by 15 to seie control.
Porter said the team played through that opening quarter.

"I don't think it was rust,” she said.

“Sometimes you come out hot and sometimes you come out cold. We have to get our energy from our defense if our shots aren't falling. I think we all did a good job of picking that up."

The rebounds helped.

"Coach Pingeton talked to us before the game on how we should always be relentless on the offensive boards,” Porter said. “It’s something we've tried to focus on this year. Jordan has taught me a little something about offensive rebounding and I think we did a good job with that tonight.

"We're really excited to have not lost in nonconference play. At the same time though we know those games are all done now. We want to focus on the next game. While we love the strong start we know that can't be our focus."

Frericks said she tries to come out angry every game.

"I try to every game. I think our whole team tries to play that way as well and we want to show what we have."

Leading scorer, freshman Sophie Cunningham, was in foul trouble, so . . .

“I think Juanita (Robinson) did a great job stepping up. I think she had a great game. She knocked down some really important shots.”

She was 5-of-8 from the field, 2-of-3 from the line, 12 points in 19 minutes.

“That's what our team is all about,” Frericks said. “If Sophie's in foul trouble then we have another player right behind her to step up. Juanita did a great job with that tonight.

"As a team we talked at halftime about winning the third quarter. We wanted to throw the first punch and get back in the game. We wanted to go out there and be the aggressor on the court."

"I think there's so many areas where we have improved. They might be small areas and they might be big areas. Our confidence has been growing drastically. 

"Each player has gotten more experience on the court. Collectively, we have worked together and improved a lot. People have been working on their shots, their defense and other things.

"We're pumped. We're so excited. How our nonconference schedule went, we know what we're capable of. We're excited to have our next opponent in Tennessee next week."

"I'm appreciative of all the fans that showed up tonight. It was an incredible atmosphere," coach Robin Pingeton said. "I'm really happy for our players to finish the non-conference schedule 13-0. It's really exciting for us. I can assure you that we're nowhere near satisfied with the big picture this season.

“We're pleased with the growth we've seen. I thought at times we looked sharp and other times we didn't look quite as good. 

"Overall, I was really proud with how we came back after Christmas break. We're really looking forward to conference play beginning next week."

She said Frericks' performance is indicative of the team’s play.

"I think we have such an unselfish team. Our scoring is so much more balanced then it has ever been in the past. I think we also have more depth.

" When I think about Jordan, she's just so much more explosive than she was a year ago. She's finishing so well at the rim. She's relentless going to the boards.

“She's doing a lot of things really well for us. You expect that out of an upperclassman. She got a lot of minutes and experience last year under her belt. What she particularly does well is not forcing the issue. She takes what's available. She has such a well-rounded game right now and she's a heck of an athlete."

She wants her team to maintain energy in every game.

“We take a lot of pride in that,” Pingeton said. “That's something we talk about before every game. 

"We've been dominating and creating those 50-50 plays. It's all about that extra effort. I know it's important for all of us on how we play for the full 40 minutes. What we can control is how hard we play.

" We owe that to our fans who have been so great with coming out and supporting our team."

So now there is anticipation in the Columbia community, It’s fun to witness a first growth spurt.

South Carolina did it a few seasons ago and now is a national contender. Mississippi State did it the past season and is a solid Top 10.

Is it now Missouri’s time? They had 19 wins last season and a late-season upset of then-ranked Texas A&M. They had a four-game win streak headed into the conference tournament.

They had seven league wins, a program best in any conference since, yep, 1984-85.

If they just match that, they get to 20 and an NCAA berth. If they get eight, Pingeton gets her hundredth win at Mizzou in a magical season.

"I think it definitely has a different feel out there,” said Pingeton, who as head coach of Illinois State led the squad to a one-time ranking during her run at the school.

“There's a buzz and I think a part of it is because of having so many local kids on the team that are really talented. We've got a pretty darn good group of girls that suit up and put that Mizzou jersey on. 

"I think we play a fun and exciting style. Our fans have been great about coming out and supporting us. I can't tell you what a difference that makes."

Of course now it is the challenge of the conference opener against the league’s icon, Tennessee.

"I don't think I have to do much at all,” said Pingeton.  “That's just the kind of group we have this year. 

"We understand what's in front of us with Tennessee and SEC play beginning next week. Our first handful of games in the SEC are against pretty much all the ranked teams in the conference.

" From a mentality standpoint they know what's in front of them and they're excited about the next step."

So she will rely as good teams do, on the point guard. In this case, redshirt junior  Lindsey Cunningham.

"I think she has really evolved into one heck of a point guard. She's so steady for us, said Pingeton.

“She's got a great calming effect on her teammates. She does a great job of pushing the ball in transition. She's gotten so much better with her ball-handling and decision-making. 

"She's also done a great job from a leadership standpoint. It has been fun to watch the growth and progression for her at the point guard position."

The Tigers are no fluke, with four players in double figures. Then again, they have yet to play another ranked team and will have plenty of chances in league play.

Cunningham is the rookie of the year in the league so far at 16 points per game averaging 27 minutes and hitting 60 percent from the field.

Now the fun begins. Conference challenges open with a statement game for each participant  when Tennessee comes in first. Then the Tigers are at 12-1 Georgia, at  South Carolina, has Mississippi State visit and also goes to A&M in the opening month. Woo.

*No. 2 South Carolina took a deserved week off, allowing us to focus on the other ranked teams. 

They’ll get plenty of space from now on. They have become the Big Game for every conference opponent. No one else carries that karma.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Mike Siroky's SEC Notebook: Holidays Bring Easy Wins for Ranked Conference Teams

By Mike Siroky

As the first half of the season ends, those of the Select Six in the Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball – the teams rated in the Associated Press national poll – began the occasional one game per team holiday weeks.

All won of course, setting up the start of the toughest conference races in America as 2016 dawns. 

The six are almost all halfway to the magic 20-win mark; no conference team with 20 wins has ever been left out of the NCAA tournament.

But so are some others, unranked in conference but each of who would be competitive in any other conference in the land.

And that’s what puts the SEC ahead of all other leagues; the second set of teams is also better than most everyone else.

Alabama and Auburn each has 10 wins and Florida has 11.

First-year coach Joni Taylor at Georgia also has her ‘Dawgs at 11-1, with a split of the two ranked teams she has played. She is the early leader for league coach of the year, with trepidation as the real competition starts. 

They open the league with a reality check of three nationally ranked teams.

Of course, if South Carolina does what South Carolina has done recently and takes the top seed of the Lexington Regional, you cannot discount Dawn Staley, who will spin immediately into assisting at the Rio Games. This is simply her time.

SC also will avoid the messy boycott when it earns a Sweet 16 first and second-round hosting gig again as the state this year eliminated displays of the Confederate flag, which was a disqualifier until last season when SC earned a hosting site.

The NCAA may have parsed the letter of its own law by allowing them to host, but Mississippi State was obviously penalized quietly, for the same cultural indiscretion. That university has now banned the flag, but it is the campus not the state that banned the flag, so we shall see.

In this conference season, the Select 6 are playing for those earned first-round games; four would get one right now but the first five should in March.
The newcomer player of the year  is Evelyn Akhator. She has solidified Kentucky as its center. The Junior College player of the year has kept the Kats relevant, after four other players left the program, including a potential All-America.

But if she has kept Kentucky relevant another first-year player in conference has kept the league’s legendary program alive/ Diamond DeShields is leading Tennessee after transferring from North Carolina with All-America credentials.

There will be a new league MVP, because two-time All-Conference leader Tiffany Mitchell is not even her team’s best player. That’s A’ja Wilson, a for-sure All-America as a sophomore and hard to discount as the league’s best if she stays healthy; an annual battle with shin splints is the only thing that can derail her. Mitchell has been recovering from minor foot surgery.

As for other teams anxious to keep rolling, Missouri is 12-0, in the Top 25 and has its own freshman high scorer awaiting the challenge of real defenses. 

So let the battle royale begin. We’ll be here all season and through the NCAA finals at Indy.

The latest results:

*No. 2 South Carolina finished its pre-conference season first and took most of two weeks off.

The Gamecock's one opponent, Elon, took most of the game off in a Carolinas battle that has become one-sided, 78-63, as Staley continued to shuffle her own lineup against future necessities.

 Elon has not won in the series since 1975.

A reason they play on: Staley and Elon coach Charlotte Smith, the former UNC great, played together for the Charlotte Sting of the WNBA for six years.

Mitchell scored 18 and was even told to play on with two early fouls when Elon peskily hung around and even led by seven, the furthest SC has been behind. 

Her presence led to a 27–2 run.

"I didn't think twice about it," Staley said.

Twice, Mitchell hit 3s that not only settled her side down but also interrupted Elon’s flow.

"Really good players have a sense when they need to make shots and stop a run," Staley said of her senior guard.

Alaina Coates scored 16 with eight rebounds, and Wilson had 12 with eight rebounds for the Gamecocks.

"You hold them to 34 rebounds, that's a pretty good job," Elon coach  Smith said. "But there were times we just couldn't stop second-chance opportunities."

South Carolina had 11 of its 15 offensive rebounds in the second half of the 10th straight home win this season.

The Gamecocks won their 40th game in a row at home, the second-longest home winning streak in the nation.

Mitchell wants to continue as a success enabler and stop inconsistency. "You can't do that going into SEC play," she said.

Staley thinks this team takes a more deliberate approach than last year's Final Four squad.

"They just take things in at the beginning of the game," Staley said. "I don't think a slow start is intentional."

*No. 8 Mississippi State went first in the work week and almost blew it. Here was State at the Puerto Rico tournament and in its third game in three days. 

Southern Methodist was also in its third in three, but was 5-5 after also winning two, after three losses.

The Bulldogs won the first quarter by 10 and here we go again.


It was still an eight-point halftime advantage and State extended the lead in the third. 

Then came a boom! in the endgame. State only scored seven and all those early points were needed for a 72-70 escape.

Luckily, Victoria Vivians broke the shackles of a few bad games and the league’s premier points machine hit for 18, but 16 in the first half, 4-of-7 on 3s.

 New running mate Ketara Chapel had figured prominently as the scorer in Vivians’ time on the struggle bus. She had 13 this time.

“We just had a lot of things go wrong that could have spelled defeat, but it didn’t,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. “We found a way to get a stop late.”

Vivians started the game on a roll with 16 points in the first half, 4-of-7 from 3-point range. But she was just 1-of-10 from the field in the second half, as her team dropped its shooting by 10 percentage points, but still earned a warm feeling for the holiday break.

“It wasn’t pretty,” Schaefer said. “They had 13 more makes at the free throw line than we did. We shot 33 percent in the second half (of course the 12-of-13 from the field in the opening quarter could not last). We had a lot of things go wrong that could spell defeat, but we found a way to get a couple of stops late.

“We found a way to win. That’s three wins in three days. SMU played really well. That is a smart basketball team. We need to get back into the gym and practice, but we are glad to be 11-1.”

“My goal has been to be more aggressive,” Chapel said. “Coach showed me the film of some of my games from last season. The biggest thing is having more confidence and believing in my teammates.”

Schaefer said more confidence on the offensive end of the floor has done it.

“Ketara had a great tournament,” Schaefer said. “I called her in two weeks ago and showed her some stats from a year ago. She really responded. She has always been a great defender, but right now she plays with some great confidence on offense.”

*No. 16 Texas A&M has the potential to climb back into NCAA hosting potential. It had the same most of last season before it flatlined at the end and left the party early. 

The team which ended the previous season was Arkansas-Little Rock, not even the main campus program, in the very first NCAA game. 

Joy of Joys for A&M was this scheduled rematch wit a familiar regional foe..

Courtney Walker had a personal avenging with a career-high 29 points (more than 10 above her average) in a 69-39 beatdown.

She was 10-of-11 from the field and 9-of-10 from the line. She hit 12 of the Aggies’ first 15, then led the defense which threw an six-point first and eight-point third quarter at the Trojans. 

“I was just able to relax and find my shots today,” Walker said.

“At Oklahoma (the previous game loss) I was a little but nervous. But back home in College Station I was relaxed all the way. I had some good cuts and let the shots come off easy. A lot of defensive momentum led into the offense. We weren’t really complicating things today. We played mostly bread-and-butter sets.”

So well did A&M defend that Little Rock never earned a free an obvious school and NCAA record, of which the 3,852 present approved.

“The loss last year was the one thing that kept us focused ,” Walker said. “ I think it was up to the seniors to keep the team’s minds here just for a couple of more hours (efofe Christmas break) because, we were facing a good team. Little Rock has played a lot of teams close like Oklahoma. We knew it was going to be a big challenge and we couldn’t come out lackadaisical.”

A&M coach Gary Blair never misses a chance to enhance the living history of the women's game.

This is one of a few games in which each coach has at least 700 career wins.

“Little Rock coach Joe Foley is an institution over there in Arkansas,” Blair said. “I think he’s the best coach, men’s or women’s, in the state. He just does a tremendous job, but Little Rock was short-handed today. Their best player hasn’t played the past two games and I think that hurt them in scoring. That’s what let them play so well against LSU, Texas and Oklahoma because of his coaching and how they run motion.”

He praised the play play of his own point  guard, Jordan Jones.

“I thought Jordan came out well in the second half after she was committing too many fouls in the last two first halves of each game. It shows you how deep we are that we can overcome that. It scared us that Little Rock outscored us in the second half when Jordan wasn’t on the floor. Our offense doesn’t flow as well as it should we she isn’t in there. My backups are getting better out there.”

Then, of course, was Walker’s show.

“I’m really happy for Walker,” he said. “I’m that glad people can see that you don’t have to get to the rim a lot or shoot 3s all the time. 

"You can have a mid-range game and I don’t think there’s a player in the country that has a better mid-range game than her. I’d like to take credit for that it but she was shooting that well when she got out of High school. So, give the credit to her high school coaches and her parents.  She was just on fire individually against a pretty good defensive team. No one has been able to light up Little Rock like Walker did today.”

*No. 25 Missouri earned the positioning with a 12-0 start. Looming big is the Jan. 4 SEC opener with stumbling Tennessee; it is big for both programs. Then it is on to Georgia and South Carolina. So we will know all about them early.

So far, these Tigers have not played a ranked team.

The latest win was, for example, 82-56, at home over 5-5 Texas State. 

They have three seniors and none of them score much or even start.

  Freshman Sophie Cunningham leads the scorers at 16.6. The McDonald’s All-American is legit, with USA basketball age-group experience. She has been SEC rookie of the week three times already.

The coach is Robin Pingeton, in her sixth season there. She is so ready for an NCAA invite. They take nothing for granted. The big win last year was a February upset at A&M. But they stopped at 19 wins.

In the 12th win of this season, they won every quarter and even threw an eight-point defensive stand in the last one. It is the best start in program history.

Cunningham had 21 points with 14 assists and nine rebounds. They drew 3,884.

“I thought our kids played with toughness and resiliency,” Pingeton said. 

*No. 14 Tennessee knocked former No. 7 Oregon State out of the Top 10 and took the week off. No. 7 Kentucky also had a week’s break.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Mike Siroky's SEC Notebook: League's Best Prevail

By Mike Siroky

As the teams in the toughest women’s basketball conference in America – the Southeastern – prepared to celebrate the season with friends and family, the Big 5 – those still ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 – had one of the chosen split on the left coast road but the rest prevailed.

*No. 2 South Carolina let its premier player, Aja Wilson, sit out for a second straight game, protecting her statistical averages while missing meaningless games against outclassed foes. She also was resting shin splints.

SC had two of those non-competition games, the first being a home win, 86-48, over Hampton, another school that used to fill the schedule well before the Gamecocks ascended. 

An example of a not-qualified team: This is the second straight foe visiting to score less than 10 in the opening quarter.

Once the idea of which team would win was settled early, coach Dawn Staley went back to the coaching lab and tried new potentially potent mixtures.

The frontcourt was featured, junior Alaina Coates and senior Sarah Imovbioh. Coates scored 22 and got the double-double with 12 rebounds, her fourth double in the 10-0 start. Yes they are already halfway to 20. Imovbioh was allowed a career high 19 points on 6-of-8 from the floor.

The team was fouled a lot and hit their free throws a lot, 23-of-30. Apparently the focus was to be on rebounding drills, which SC won, 52-19, 34 defensive.

“Rebounding puts you in a position to win every night,” Staley observed. “Whether it’s offensive or defensive rebounding, it means you’re diminishing the amount of times an opponent can score. For us, it’s always a point of emphasis to outrebound our opponent and box out. That’s something we’re going to have to continue to do.”

The problem, which most coaches would welcome, is no challenge so far in the recent games and unbeaten through 11 by Christmas, 6-0 at home. They are on their way to 30 again after the 88-57 runaway against East Carolina.

EC has been another traditional rival, if not a competitive one. SC threw a nine-points-allowed final quarter at them, as an example.

A’ja Wilson returned from her break as one of five in double figures, 15 with 10 rebounds. Tiffany Mitchell scored 16.The team had 54 rebounds, 39 defensive.

Maybe they need to work on free throws after going 5-of-18.

Mitchell had foot surgery in August.

“I have given myself until January to kind of get things going, but I’m starting to feel a lot better,” she said.

“Tiffany Mitchell looked like Tiffany Mitchell on both sides of the ball,” Staley said.

The trip to the tournament in Myrtle Beach is associated with a state high scooll tournament for which SC is an annual attention-getter. Gamecocks fans had two busloads in attendance.

“It’s impressive when you look out into the stands and all you see is Garnet and Black,” Staley said.

*No.8 Kentucky celebrated Makayla Epps, the team leader who plays more minutes (34 per) than anyone else in conference as she was selected as player of the week in the league which caused another national web site to name her its national player of the week. 

UK is also just whomping less-than-challenging teams while building to a prime time matchup against No. 14 Duke. It was at Rupp Arena and drew 17,150, the fourth-best in program history. 

UK started ahead and stayed ahead in the 71-61 win.

“I think we battled in a lot of ways,” said UK coach Matt Mitchell. “I wish we had rebounded better but I think our defensive  intensity wore down Duke a little bit.

“We have got to get better.”

He did give this effort an “A” grade. “Because we beat a good team.”

Evelyn Akhator had 12 of the first 14 Kat points, 5-of-5 from the field and 2-of-2 at the line. Duke had 13 at the first break, but UK had 22.

UK played steady on in the second quarter. Duke was only a point closer with 7:45 until break. The Devils cut it to one but UK struck again and had a 38-30 halftime advantage. Duke did adjust inside when Ekhator sat with two fouls after her hot start.

But it never changed in the second half. Ekhator finished with 18. Epps and Janee Thompson had 17 points apiece, Epps 11 after halftime. She had eight assists.

“The atmosphere here is crazy and it’s a big help,” said Thompson. “We got the momentum going from our crowd.”

Epps said: “I wasn’t about to rush anything. I let the game come to me.”

Former UK starter and international-level player Linnae Harper has opted for building powerhouse Ohio State. She did not play at all for UK this season. Tennessee was interested but lost out.

Harper is already enrolled at OSU which means she can become a practice player when they return to campus after break. She will be eligible after the end of the fall term, so basically will have a year and a half. 

Think dominoes. Her arrival meant freshman Kaylan Pugh bolted,

Pugh is a native of Collierville, Tenn., so she may be headed to the Lady Vols.

She would have the second half of this season wherever she lands plus three more years. She had 18 points and 12 rebounds in her last Buckeye experience. She was a four-star Top 100 recruit. She also considered Ole Miss

*No. 9 Mississippi State will finish in the Top 3 in conference and will be among the16 teams ready to host first and second-round NCAA games of the NCAAs, if the conference’s leading scorer, sophomore Victoria Vivians at 20.1, stays healthy.

They took out state opponent Southern Miss, 78-65, as all starters hit double figures.

Vivians had a rare off night, with 10, 4-of-14 from the floor, 2-of-10 from the line. So junior guards Dominique Dillingham, 15 points, and Chinwe Okorie, 13, led the backcourt charge and the Bulldogs to 8-1. They won each of the first three quarters, built a 20-point edge and closed it out. It was good enough for the home crowd of 3,505.

Junior forward Ketara Chapel scored 17, 6-of-8 from the field with seven rebounds and seven steals.
“I was just being aggressive,” Chapel said. “Coach has been on me about being aggressive, going to the basket and finishing.”

“I knew they’d come in and compete,” Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer said. “I was proud of our team coming out of the locker room (in the second half) and getting up 20. It was a hard fought, tough game.”

The Bulldogs converted 17 turnovers into 28 points.

“I’m really proud of Ketara. She came to play tonight,” Schaefer said. “Tonight was her night and she really played well. I was proud of her aggressiveness. She’s really played well.”

The Bulldogs had won 41 of their past 43 regular-season nonconference games. 

Naturally, they went all the way to Puerto Rico for a holiday “classic” and drew a team from Florida.

The ninth win (fourth straight) came with a balanced attack led by Vivians’ 12 points and 14 from Morgan William, in the 65-60 final.

Seldom-ranked Florida Gulf Coast cut what had been a 12-point lead to a basket late, but State bailed itself out at the line, 14-of-17.  That balanced the woeful shooting from the field, 6-of-13, in the second half. The Bulldogs won three of four quarters, including the last one.

Breanna Richardson had 11, eight in the closing quarter.

William has bought into Schaefer’s “keep trying” manta.

“We found a way,” she said. “On a neutral floor like this, you’ve just got to come together, fight and get the win.” She hit all four free throws she was awarded down the stretch.

Schaefer said he was pleased with another hang-tough win.

“We answered the bell down the stretch,” Schaefer said. “Morgan iced the game at the free-throw line on back-to-back possessions and then we got some defensive stops.”

They made the threepeat against Western Michigan.

As usual, the Bulldogs won every quarter, which makes cruise control easy on the coach. State knew it had won its 10th by Christmas by the end of the third, with a 67-49 lead. The final was 90-68, which means they only needed one basket in the fourth to surpass what SMU eventually got.

They are a solid Top 10 national team. Vivians is in a shooting slump but still managed 15. She is, after all, a known quantity and the defensive focus of every opponent.

Freshman Teaira McCowan scored 24, with 13 rebounds, 6-of-8 from the line off the bench. State had 22 second-chance points after turnovers and 32 points from the reserves, who all saw additional action with the blowout and fifth straight win. Chapel, a starter, had her third straight good effort, with 12, 5-of-6 from the field.

“You just have to take advantage of it, produce and do as much as you can when you’re in,” McCowan said. 

“When we can get her to play hard every possession and establish her presence inside it’s just hard to get around her,” Schaefer said. You can make two left turns and you’re still only halfway there. She’s really coming along.

“We came out in the second half and played much, much better,” Schaefer said. “We probably played our worst half of the year and we were still up two.”

*No. 14 Tennessee was projected by us to possibly lose at both its Pac 12 opponents. We were only half right: They lost to the team ranked below them at the time, at  No. 15 Stanford and won to the team ranked ahead of them, at No. 9 Oregon.

Fans of women’s college hoops know that OSU had seldom been significant in the national sense but they are now.

At home, the Lady Vols lead the attendance game at 8,802, better than 1,100 ahead of, say, South Carolina. So they still have yet to lose their fan base. They remain a premier team because of that.

But they are now cast in the situation of asking how winning at a significantly higher-ranked team will affect their national poll standings. 

Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, so the answer is in discussion.

They will at least still be in the Top 15 at Christmas break. All coach Holly Warlick wants for Christmas is all more injured players back. We do not count on the return of she-who-will-not-be-mentioned by the university (but we will say it is fragile senior point guard Jasmine Jones). 

A single-digit second quarter had them behind the Cardinal by 15 at half and that was about all they could do in the 69-55 loss. Stanford had 32 defensive rebounds.

Diamond DeShields scored a dozen but took 16 shots to do it and only hit four points after the opening quarter. Only 3,768 bothered to show for two of the legendary teams in the game. It is the first time in the 33-game series neither is in the Top 10 nor the leading program in their own conferences.

Tennessee, 7-3, has lost all three in the past five and now five straight at Stanford in the series. 

Warlick had coached up Stanford’s Erica McCall as the guards coach at the World University Games this summer and at least she got some enjoyment from seeing her former pupil still playing well, with 14 points and 10 rebounds.

“She’s a special kid,” Warlick said. “She goes all out. She plays with a desire. She’s hungry.” 

The Stanford football team attended and was introduced to the crowd at halftime. The Pac-12 championship trophy was on display.

 Cardinal players heckled DeShields for an early first-quarter airball and when DeShields sank another shot, she turned to them and gave them a “bring it on” wave. “I was excited the football team was here,”  Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “They bring great energy to the gym.

“Any time you beat Tennessee, it’s a great night. We had to battle. It’s a huge win.”

Sophomore Lady Vol Jaime Nared made her season debut after recovering from a broken left hand.

 She also scored 12. She is a native of Oregon, so maybe the air our there made her comfortable. She played in all 36 games last season.

“Offensively we couldn’t shoot the ball,” Warlick said. “We got away from our game plan and that was disruptive. Nine points in a quarter is . . . it’s just ridiculous.”

Then, in the last quarter, “We laid it all out and played like we should have all four quarters,” Warlick said. “To say we need a sense of urgency is an understatement.”

Oregon State had started 8-0, half of those at home. The Beavers led the nation in rebound margin +22.6 and are third nationally in field goal percentage, 53.1.

So here was the chance for all the work to come together. UT had a 35-18 halftime edge and needed every bit of it in a 53-50 win that made Christmas that much more bright. 

They had held the home team to a season-low seven in the second quarter then only scored eight their ownselves in the final quarter. They have gone W-L, W-L, W-L and now another W most recently. They might not lose again until the silly scheduling of Jan. 18 at Notre Dame, the annual interruption of the conference focus that means nothing to the league quest.

In this one, DeShields had 14 points and a team-high nine rebounds. She was once again a reserve as junior Oregon native Jordan Reynolds got a classy – by Warlick — start  in her final in-state appearance. 

DeShields made it a five-point lead with eight minutes to go. UT had never been topped after that first-half surge.

Tennessee missed everything in the next few minutes and the Beavers were not much better, but did score four. Mercedes Russell (also from Oregon) made a layup – her 12th point -- and the home team answered. Andraya Carter hit a jumper and the home team answered with three minutes to go.

UT missed three, but DeShields did power up for a block. The home team missed five shots.

Now there were 34 seconds left and UT was closing it out with the defensive urgency Warlick has sought. DeShields hit two free throws (of three made by the team in the game), fouled on the rebound of her own miss. Oregon State missed a jumper, but Tennessee had a foul to waste and used it. State took a 3 for the win, missed it, and Tennessee could exhale gratefully as 8,223 fans were stunned into silence.

“I think it was a huge win for us. It’s no secret we’ve been struggling the past couple of games,” Russell said.

On offense, Warlick said: “I want to run a million things, but our kids don’t understand it at times.”

They had played smart, allowing only a seven-point rebound difference. Nared (also from Oregon), starting again, had six by herself, four defensive, showing how much she had been missed. It is the statement win of this season. It is the first road win against a higher-ranked opponent since 2007.These players were not even in high school then.

“I think we came in here with something to prove, but more than that, our goal was to play hard. We hadn’t done that,” Warlick said. “We talk a lot about relentless effort. I thought our defense set the tone.”

*Then again, No. 18 Texas A&M tried one game in a week against a higher-ranked rival, No. 17 Oklahoma. They also won, 75-65.

It also matched two of the most enigmatic coaches in the game, A&M’s Gary Blair and Oklahoma’s Sherri Coale. She has had her teams in the NCAA tournament every season this century, twice in the Final Four and won of the victims of UConn in its decade of dominance. 

This was Oklahoma’s first game against a ranked team in a 9-1 run.

The Aggies used a very balanced offensive spread, but they allowed the final four points of the opening quarter to be scored by the Okies and it was 17-17.

Then Oklahoma took off just before half. From 28-all with 4:28 before intermission, it was a 9-2 sprint interrupted only by Courtney Williams hitting a jumper with 28 seconds left. She had 10. No one on the home team was yet in double figures but four 3s to none from A&M was the difference. 

A&M responded with a 26-10 third, the only quarter it won, Williams had 16 points by then, the team was nine rebounds ahead.

A&M found itself stuck on 60 after Chelsea Jennings hit a layup at 8:13 to go until Rachel Mitchell made a layup at 3:59. Fortunately, the defense was working and Oklahoma only pulled to 54 then Courtney Walker hit a jumper and it was a 10-point edge at 3:18.

A&M had a steal, a miss, a rebound, a turnover and a block while Oklahoma had a turnover, rebound, miss, foul, steal, miss, rebound, miss and another foul in the same time frame. With two minutes left, 
Jordan Jones fed a Walker layup.

Oklahoma hit the desperation deadline, two fouls surrounding a turnover and Williams hit two free throws.

Oklahoma cut the deficit to a dozen by finally hitting a layup, their first in five minutes. Time out home team, with 87 seconds left. Williams made one free throw. A home 3 cut it to 72-65, but there were only 17 seconds left.

A&M regained possession and Oklahoma native Taylor Cooper hit a 3 (A&M’s only one) for the final margin. The 2,403 in attendance were stunned.
Williams and Walker 18. 

Walker, an Oklahoma high school legend, drew friends and family to see her once again in state. 
“I think it was just a blessing,” Walker. “I'm just so happy to be able to come back and play. For my family to come see me was a great experience.

“I'm glad we won.”

They won the backboards by 10, with 33 defensive.

Despite some stumbles, A&M has eight wins with two winnable games before year’s end. They had been W-L, W-L, W-L in the previous six and now have another W.

 All the losses have been at home.

Coale knows exacty what happened.

We missed a bunch at the rim,” Coale said. “Right at the rim. I just thought we let that carry over into the way we defended and we lost our focus defensively.

“We've made it through poor shooting performances before. You can't let it affect everything else you do.”

“Sherri Coale's got a very good ball club,” said Blair. “I think she's going to give Texas and Baylor a lot of problems in the Big 12.”

Senior A&M point guard Jones graduated at mid-term and celebrated the weekend with this upset win.