Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Guru’s WBB Report: Lehigh Upsets Boston U. And Claims Patriot League Bid; Big 12 Titles Keep Coming for Baylor; VCU Takes A-10 at Home

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

After more than a month of focusing on the mean stepsisters of the NCAA women’s tournament through two committee reveals of the Top 16 seeds, especially picks for the for No. 1s, the Cinderella brigade continued to show up at the finish of conference competition and kick its way into the overall field of 64 through the automatic qualifying route.

Leading the way to the final available slots Sunday was Lehigh, coming out of a Patriot League format that was one of more the differentiating responses to dealing with the coronavirus threat all winter.

After playing just three games over the last month that included their own shutdown, the fourth-seeded Mountain Hawks hit the Patriot League trail stunning top-seed Bucknell in Lewisburg to end a two-year, 18-game unbeaten streak on Thursday, and then followed by knocking out second-seed Boston U. 64-54 at the Terriers’ Case Gym.

The trip was the first time all-season, which did not begin till right after the New Year, that Lehigh (10-5) travelled outside Pennsylvania, where four of the five losses had been playing Bucknell.

Boston U. and the Mountain Hawks did not meet during the season, a consequence of the league setting up mini-group sections to hold travel risks down.

“We reviewed a lot of film over the last few days,” said Sue Troyan, who has guided the program in Bethlehem for 26 seasons. “We only had two days, but we put in basically a whole new defensive scheme.”

It’s not the first time Troyan reversed field, both with satisfying results, considering there was a point she contemplated joining those who had shut down for the season like Duke, Virginia, and Vanderbilt. The Ivy League decided against winter competition in all it’s sports.

“There have been a ups and downs, highs and lows this season, and their resiliency through it all has been unbelievable,” Troyan said. “There were times in the season when we really questioned if we should be doing this.

“But it always came back to what they wanted and they always said they wanted to play and wanted to compete for a championship.”

It’s Lehigh’s first appearance in 11 seasons since 2010 and marred what have been icing on the cake for the rebuilding job Marisa Moseley had done in Beantown since taking the job after having been previously part of Hall of Fame UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s staff.

“It obviously wasn’t the outcome we wanted,” Moseley said, “but (the team) left everything they had on the floor, and that’s all I ever wanted from them.

Sophomore Frannie Hottinger scored 21 points for Lehigh, shooting 9-for-14 from the field, while Emma Grothaus, named the tournament MVP, scored 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds.

Grothaus’ achievement had a bittersweet attachment considering her mom, Erica, passed away just as the delayed season was getting under way.

“It feels surreal right now,” said Grothaus. “I don’t even know if it’s happened yet, but it’s crazy and I feel so happy.”

Sydney Johnson scored 16 points for Boston U. (12-3), whose Moseley played for on the lone Terriers’ NCAA participant as America East champions in 2003.

The complete 64-team field and draw will be presented on ESPN’s women’s selection show Monday night at 7 followed at 8 by a dissection of the draw on ESPNU.

In normal times, teams earning automatic bids had the comfort of already owning a berth as opposed to the other end of the selection spectrum with bubble teams anxiously awaiting to see if they were the final chosen ones.

“Yeah, normally we’d be wondering where are we going and who are we playing and who’s in our region,” Troyan said. “Well, we all know where we’re going — Texas. In fact, Laura Kurz, who is with Drexel, was on my staff, I have someone else at Marist, and a few others elsewhere. We’re like, it’s going to be one big reunion — except from what we know of the set-up, it won’t.” 

As the NCAA men’s tournament is operating with the entire field competing in the Indianapolis area to minimize the effects of the coronavirus, with limited fan appearance and live media access, so, too, are the women doing likewise in the San Antonio area, though the the first weekend will stretch a little to the north with some games being played up I-35 in Texas’ Frank Ervin Center in Austin.

The host Longhorns, however, likely to be one of the at-large picks, won’t be in their own arena in the opening weekend in the interest of fairness. 

The teams in Texas, as in Indianapolis, are under strict COVID-19 protocol regulations, devoid of the state recently re-opening to pre-pandemic living.

Attendance in early rounds will be limited to a specific number of family and friends of the Tier-1 traveling party, opening up more access for the Sweet 16 and Final Four, though media will not have live direct in-person access to the participants.

“We got 22 teams in our hotel,” Auriemma quipped recently on Associated Press national women’s basketball writer Doug Feinberg’s conversation series. “Think about that. It’s going to be like a big AAU tournament. We can get this over quick. Put up a bunch of courts in the Alamodome. You win, ok you’re going over there in two hours to play the next game.”

As the committee was finalizing its blueprint for the rest of the month, a source familiar with the deliberations said the bracketing was the easiest ever because there were no geographical issues, just the pure S curve. However, selection of the final at-large teams, still ongoing, was problematical because of the large number of “likes.”

Feeding that situation was the uneven number of games throughout Division I through shutdowns, postponements, and cancellations and the far reduced number of non-conference matchups as teams sought to limit travel, especially at a time when the vaccines had either not yet arrived or were attainable.

Back in Boston, as Lehigh was closing in on the conference title, the Terriers erupted with an 8-0 run and moved within a tying shot from beyond the arc at 54-51. But then following a timeout, the Mountain Hawks answered with a 10-0 burst to complete the mission.

Ironically, the two teams were readying to play in the semifinals at Boston U. a year ago when the game was cancelled during the Terriers’ shoot-around along with virtually everything else in the sports world as the pandemic took hold.

Though many thought conditions would ease by the time the new season would approach, it became apparent late in the summer and early fall such was not the case.

“We knew things were going to change,” Troyan said. “When things change, we knew we had to be resilient to come through it.”

Though Moseley’s previous seasons ended with a defeat, closing this one, barring a bid from the WNIT, was a challenge in the locker room after the final score became official.

“They don’t have a book for that,” she said. “For what you’re supposed to say. I felt a bit stunned, I think. Not stunned like I didn’t think we could lose, but, I think this has been such an incredibly challenging year.”

VCU Captures A-10 Crown: Even sweeter than becoming an unlikely Cinderella conference winner, is having the distinction occur in your own arena.

VCU had that honor in its own Siegel Center in Richmond, which had been the pre-determined site of the Atlantic 10 women’s tournament.

Having shocked top-seeded and seemingly invincible Dayton 56-50 in the semifinals on Saturday, the fifth-seeded Rams followed up on Sunday beating seventh-seeded UMass 81-69 for their first conference crown in the league or previously in the CAA, though they have a previous at-large bid in their history in 2009.

Background-wise, this was a game of dueling Cinderellas, considering the Minutewomen could dress only seven players and made it through four straight days to the championship, especially after escaping Saint Joseph’s in overtime on Thursday.

For VCU coach Beth O’Boyle, it was poignant having seen two former freshmen in Taya Robinson and Tera Reed on a Rams squad that won just seven games rise to be part of A-10 champs as senior guards.

“It would have been easy for them to give up and leave,” O’Boyle said. “But they didn’t. But they didn’t. To see them cut down the nets today ... I’m just so very proud of them and their commitment to VCU. I have no words, really, for what they’ve meant to this team.”

The third time was the charm for the Rams (16-10), who were endanger of being tagged the Buffalo Bills of the A-10, had they come up empty in their third straight conference championship game appearance. 

This is O’Boyle’s seventh season at the helm of the program, being hired from Stony Brook, ironically creating a vacancy filled by Caroline McCombs, who at the same time has led the Seawolves to their first America East crown and NCAA berth. O’Boyle was also head coach at Division III-Montclair State, the alma mater of Hall of Fame scoring great Carol Blazejowski, the former front-office head of the WNBA New York Liberty.

“One person rose above everyone else in the search,” VCU athletics director Ed McLaughlin, said at the time of O’Boyle’s hire. “Not only because of what she has done as a coach, but what she has done as a person and where we think she can take us in our women’s basketball program.”

Robinson, named the tournament’s most outstanding player, had 19 points, propelled by five of VCU’s 10 from deep, while Reed, in limited time Sunday, still scored 12 with five rebounds, and made the all-tournament squad.

Looking back, Robinson said of the outset of her senior season, “‘We’ve worked so hard. We can’t leave here without a championship.’”

VCU got hit in the preseason with a 17-day quarantine under the virus protocols.

But the eyes on the prize of March remained.

“I feel like we’re closer and better now than we were even a week ago at the end of the regular season,” Reed said.

Sarah Te-Biasu scored 19, while the bench for VCU offered a combined 15 points and nine rebounds from Janika Griffith-Wallace and Madison Hattix-Covington.

UMass (14-7) did not go quietly, wiping out an eight-point hole to move in front by a point with 7:25 left in regulation.

The. Minutewomen got a career-high 19 points, 17 in the first half, from Angelique Ngalakulondi, while Sydney Taylor scored 23, and Sam Breen scored 12.

VCU answered the brief lead shift with an 8-0 run though UMass got to within a basket with 4:12 left before the Rams then yielded just a mere putback before time expired.

“The thing we’ve stressed all year is getting stops,” O’Boyle said. “Stops create momentum, and a game like this, a championship game, is all about momentum.”

On the other side, a title would have been the pinnacle of a turnaround since Tory Verdi was named head coach in April, 2016, after having been at such previous stops as Eastern Michigan, the top aide at Kansas, as well as on the staff of Nebraska and at the WNBA Connecticut Sun (2003-05).

Baylor Downs West Virginia for B-12 Crown: It was 1 vs. 2 by seeding, but the final result didn’t even make it that close as sixth-ranked Baylor cruised past 17th-ranked and second-seeded West Virginia 76-50 to actually begin the defense of the existing national championship as the Big 12’s automatic entry.

With the cancellation of the NCAA men’s and women’s tourney a year ago because of the pandemic outbreak, the Lady Bears (25-2) off their 2019 slim triumph over Notre Dame are still the defending champs.

Hall of Fame coach Kim Mulkey, now set to receive her delayed Springfield (Mass.) in May at the Mohegan Sun, picked up her 11th tournament crown and 23rd combined in the former Louisiana Tech’s star’s 21 seasons with the program.

Queen Egbo ruled this one over the Mountaineers (21-6), with 18 points, 11 rebounds, and five blocks. Her play was helpful when tournament most outstanding player NaLyssa Smith got into early foul trouble.

Across the three games, Egbo had 41 rebounds and 14 blocks.

“Queen Egbo now has her own identity,” Mulkey said. “She is not living in someone else’s shadow. She’s not trying to do what previous players have done. When you find your niche, then do it to the best of your abilities, and she really is. We knew it was in her. We just kept trying to get it out of her quicker than she could get it out.

“Now, she’s at the point where, when she doesn’t do those things, we’re frustrated at her, because now we expect it every game.”

West Virginia was limited to 27 percent overall for the game as Kirsten Deans and Kysre Gondrezick scored 15 points and 13 points respectively, though they combined for just 7-for-28 from the field.

“Needless to say, we didn’t shoot the ball well,” said veteran West Virginia coach Mike Carey. “I thought we took a lot of tough shots, and bad shots lead to easy shots at the other end.”

Baylor’s Moon Ursin had 12 points and 10 rebounds.

With the inability to defend their NCAA title last year, Mulkey said, the present edition are playing for the four former seniors, “Lauren Cox, Te’a Cooper, Juicy Landrum, and Erin DeGrate.

“Those four seniors didn’t get to do this, and they would have had an opportunity to cut down another net, maybe a national championship,” Mulkey said. “Because we felt like we had a team last year that could get to a Final Four in New Orleans. I just couldn’t get those four seniors out of my mind when we were out there celebrating today.”

First Title for High Point: One can’t call High Point a Cinderella brigade member when they were the dominant team in the Big South. But following a 62-46 win over Campbell, salute them for the long hall, earning a first-ever NCAA bid out of the Big South conference tourney played  at home.

High Point’s Jenson Edwards scored 19 points, had six rebounds, and dealt five assists, while Skyler Curran, the Big South’s player of the year, added 14 points, grabbed seven rebounds, and connected with four from deep for the Panthers (22-6), who reached the promised land in Chelsea Banbury’s second year with the program. 

Having the old Villanova Harry Perretta approach about living by the three ball, the 10 from deep Sunday set a conference championship game record. The 22 wins are also a program record, while the 917 attempted treys on the season are third in Division I and the 305 made are fifth.

The Fighting Camels (16-7), who were the second seed, created a stir moving within five early in the final period but High Point snuffed the rally with an 11-0 answer.

Campbell’s Lauren McNamara-Clement scored 12, but the defensive effort from the opposition limited a trio of Taya Bolden, Shy Tuelle, and Luana Serranho, who average 33.9 to just 12 points.

The Mount Ends a Drought: Likewise in the Cinderella brigade qualifier concerning Mount St. Mary’s (17-6). Hosting the Northeast Conference title game Sunday in Emmitsburg, Md., they were the top dog in the conference and made it stand with a 70-38 win over Wagner. However, it’s been a long, long time, gaining their third NCAA bid, but first in 26 seasons since 1995.

Ladyjacks Still Relevant: Stephen F. Austin (24-2) is a grand old name from the early days of the Associated Press Women’s Poll as a Top 10 power with coaches such as Hall of Famers, the late Sue Gunter, and Gary Blair, now at Texas A&M, spending time in the Texas institution. On one hand, they’re back for the first time in 15 years, but they were no surprise Sunday, winning the Southland 56-45 over Sam Houston State.

The UConn of the ASUN: That’s what the Eagles of Florida Gulf Coast (26-2) has been and a week after squeezing into the last AP Poll before Monday’s final ranking for this season they claimed another conference crown, beating Liberty 84-62. 

Bradley Debut: Earned somewhat dubiously, a full Cinderella credit to the Braves (17-11) for topping favorite Drake 78-70 to take the Missouri Valley, which was the final conference tourney event of the last two weeks. Bradley, thus gets to make an NCAA debut. 

However, a benefit here is the pseudo elephant who left the room Saturday in top-seeded and nationally-ranked Missouri State, pulling out of the semifinals because, virtually assured of at-worst an at-large bid if failing to win the conference, a coronavirus threat that could shatter the larger picture caused the program to hit the eject button and hopefully parachute to safety. Some unknown, out there, is going to experience collateral damage because the MVC was a one-bid situation, so a bubble that might have made the NCAA field should be thankful if landing in the WNIT and making a long run to wag their finger at the committee.

And with that said, and the Guru thrilled that a printer was acquired for the apartment and is operational, since watch parties live are a no-no to non-Tier 1 individuals, we say for the moment before shifting to final poll stuff and selection night coverage, for now, that’s the report.



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