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.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Mike Siroky’s SEC Report: Gamecocks Complete the Plan

By Mike Siroky

No. 7 South Carolina successfully defended its tournament title in the toughest conference in America – the Southeastern – with an edgy win over No. 17 Georgia.

It solidifies a top seed in the next tournament, the NCAA eliminations.

Last season, SC was favored to win a second national title before everyone was eliminated by Covid on the same day.

If you had started this season by projecting SC as a top post-season seed, an SEC champ and favored in the NCAAs then skipped to today, you’d of been proven correct. You likely would not have seen Georgia as the final conference foe.


South Carolina 67, Georgia 62

The unstoppable Gamecocks defended their title with the best player on the best team and  a dominant third quarter. That’s seven of the past eight tournament title.

Prior results do not guarantee future earnings. South Carolina won the regular-season matchup by a dozen. No guarantee but it did establish a path.

Georgia is senior-dominated, propelled by  backcourt Gabby Connally  (12 points per game) and Que Morrison (14). Jen Staiti (14.8, 8 rebounds)  is the middle anchor to battle Aliyah Boston, (13.2) double figures for 29 times in the past 34 games. They won seven of  the past eight games.

The contrast is the energetic youth of South Carolina which starts three sophomores and will stay young with the best recruiting class in the nation.

This means SC’s best have never before been in an SEC tournament.

Yet they were favored, the No. 2 seed vs. the No. 4.

Coaches Joni Taylor vs. Dawn Staley looks unbalanced statistically. 

Staley is a national figure, coach of all-star teams and soon an Olympic team. 

Taylor did not make the previous NCAA event with basically this same team.

The Gamecocks have been a commanding rebounding force, second in the nation in rebounds per game (48.7) and third in rebounding margin (plus 15.6).  South Carolina has not been out-rebounded this season.

South Carolina has long built its offense inside. 

This season the Gamecocks average 43.7 points in the paint. They have scored at least 60.0 percent of their points from the paint in seven games this season, including four against ranked opponents. The paint points are coming from both the forwards (20.2 ) and the guards (23.5).

It is no mystery that the Gamecocks want to play fast, and they are at their best when dominating the transition game. They started their two wins here in a hurry, blastingly beneficial first quarters.

On the season, South Carolina averages 16.9 fast-break points per game while holding opponents to  7.4 per game.

Aliyah Boston (13.2 points per game) may well be the best player in conference, certainly the best in this game. She had a triple-double in the first encounter.

South Carolina had won five of the past six tournament titles.

South Carolina is 7-2 in SEC Tournament games played in Greenville, having won two of their five titles there, (2017, 2020).

The Gamecocks are 6-2 all-time when playing the tournament as the No. 2 seed, including three wins en route to the 2018 title. They were also seeded second in 2002 and 2019.

Boston’s rebounding dominance in the SEC Tournament has her at 11.8 rebounds per career game at the event, 52.9 percent from the field. She has doubled in three of her five career SEC tournament games.

Zia Cooke, one of those sophomores,  has a team-high six 20-point games this season, averaging 18.9. She has scored 22 and 20 in her first SEC tournament. Destanni Henderson, a junior, is the team's most accurate 3-point shooter at 44.3 percent. She hit seven in the opening tournament game.

You can’t blink on the Gamecocks.

The coaches had physical preparation plans in place.

Staley. for example, said, “It’s out of my hands at this point. It is our medical staff and our conditioning coach. They take over from after the game until we get ready to warm up on the floor. 

“A lot of rest, a lot of cold baths, refueling. Get back to the hotel (after the semifinal) and get some dinner in. 

“We'll just get back with our players in the morning to talk about how we want -- the game plan for beating Georgia.”

Her confidence radiates to the players who have bought in to the legend.

Boston said, “Oh, absolutely. We just have to stay locked in. It's another game. We have some time off just to kind of recover, then we just got to be ready for them.”

This started as charted, Boston taking a rebound off a miss and feeding Henderson, fouled by Connlly. She hit one free throw. Morrison hit  a jumper and Connally  3. Cooke and Victari Saxton each scored.

Staiti made a layup and it was 7-5. No runaway yet.

Henderson tied it.

Maya Caldwell was double-teamed so she shot over it.

Unlike previous games in this tournament, officials were calling the inside tight. Boston and Staiti each had a  foul. Staley put in LeLe Grisset so Boston could chill. Grissett She later injured her left foot and missed the end of the game with a boot on it. She is the only SC senior.

Gorgia edged ahead by four, six straight points without Boston to oppose them. They were stifling SC from getting a breakout. This is about the time SC turned it on in its first two games.

Not today.

Laeticia Amihere came in for South Carolina, drawing Staiti out.

Boston came back in. Amihere partially blocked a shot. SC blew a possession and Georgia came right back.

Staiti got her second foul and left. Boston immediately scored twice. The quarter ended 23-17 when Morrison knocked a 3 down at the buzzer.

Morrison, Caldwell and Connally each had five. Each had a 3. Boston scored six with three rebounds.

If nothing else, Georgia broke the SC streak of winning the first quarters by 19, averaging 26.

The second quarter opened with a Cooke jumper. Caldwell answered and then stole the ball.

SC rushed out on a 5-0 run with a 3 by Henderson and  a basket by Amihere. She has ditched the knee brace from  an ACL rebuild.

SC is hitting less than half its layups, which is bothersome. For two minutes, it stayed 27-26, Georgia.  SC missed three layups in the sequence.

Boston hit a design 3. She stole the next one. She hit a layup and a foul shot for 14 points.

Boston got a piece of a pass as the Georgia shot clock expired.

Without Staiti, limited to eight minutes, Boston was winning in the paint. Georgia forced a shot clock violation but Georgia had its eighth turnover.

But Boston charged into Caldwell for her  second foul and she had to exit inside of a minute with 14 points.

SC missed two layups. Cooke hit her only  3 at the buzzer. SC won the quarter by six, 35-35. Morrison, Caldwell and Connally each scored one basket in the second.

One half to a championship for somebody. SC looked angrier but neither side looked in control.

The third quarter showed tense play, 17-8 South Carolina after a 5-0 sprint which meant Georgia had a puncher’s chance.

That quarter won the title and SC’s 22nd win. Georgia stops at 20.

Boston showed why she may be the best player on the best team, 6-of-8 from the field, 6-of-8 from the line for 19 points and seven rebounds. Brea Bel scored the final five.

Caldwell and Connally were shut out in the fourth quarter. Connally fouled out. The Bulldogs did not score until Morrison hit a 3 for  the 13th of 22 points in the second half.

Inside of the final minute of the fourth, Georgia had valiantly trimmed it to four with a 13-8 quarter. Georgia made the error of  an intentional foul.

Henderson made both free throws. Georgia threw it away under their basket under defensive pressure by Beal.

Staley called time out to advance the ball to midcourt.

Boston scored 27. She missed a double with nine rebounds. She was 10-for-12 from the line, missing her final two after an intentional foul. Henderson scored 18, also with nine rebounds.

Stiati landed hard on her butt attempting a  rebound. She had nine points, five rebounds. Connally fouled out with no points in the quarter two in the second half. Morrison scored 17.

In the final 90 seconds, the only basket by anyone was by Boston when Georgia could not stop an inbounds. Staiti fouled out, an intentional to stop the clock.

SC won rebounds by nine but had 20 turnovers with only five steals. Georgia had 15 turnovers. Their fouls at the end led to 12 more made free throws for South Carolina.

“It shows this leadership we have, our former players leaving the legacy,” said Staley. “You are fortunate if you do not go through some losing. We do not want to lose.

“Happy birthday to Joni.”

ESPN blurted several times this was the first tournament title game with each team coached by a Black woman. What they didn’t say is this is the league with five Black women coaches, increasing the odds somewhat.

Staley spun it a little. “It is not  racial thing.” she said. “It is an opportunity thing.”

Taylor said, “The last two games, our conversations have been to stay present. Stay present in the moment, next-play mentality, don’t live in the past of what happened the quarter before or even the play before and don’t look ahead. 

“What happened late in the game was definitely something we couldn’t control. Put everything on the board that you can’t control -- the rest, the fans, shooting slump, things that you can’t control. 

“Then in this little box is everything you can control. That’s your energy, your effort, your focus, your determination. 

“It served us well. There were a lot of moments today that were up and down. South Carolina came out and made a heck of a run. We came back out at them, I think because we focused on what it is we can control, having the next-play mentality.

“Obviously we fell short. It stings. It hurts really bad. But we’re not done playing basketball. We grew up a lot this weekend. We proved to everyone what we already knew, which is that we can play with the best of the best. 

“Fortunately for us, we have another opportunity to go play in the tournament coming up in a week. “Dawn said it best yesterday, right? It shows what we’re capable of. Everybody won today. 

Everybody won today. It was a huge moment to be able to showcase what we were able to do, our two teams.

 Dawn has been the leader of that in the SEC. She’s the one who came in and got South Carolina to where it is now. 

“The buy-in was already there. The buy-in has always been there about this group we had. We just had more help. 

“They're older, more experienced. Our newcomers that came and joined us really helped us out to complement our starters. The buy-in has always been there as part of our team. 

“Last year we played Jenna, Gabby, Maya and Que to death. They played for 38, 40 minutes, just ran out of gas. 

“With our bench being a year older, with Sarah Ashlee Barker coming in, Mikayla transferring and just the experience we have coming off the bench, and the depth we have, we’ve been able to do some better things. More talent, more depth, in able to really, truly play our style. 

“Jenna picking up two fouls. She sat for a huge portion of the first half. But we let it get away from us in the third quarter. 

“South Carolina is tremendous coming out of the locker room at halftime. I thought they pressured us a little bit, forced us to run our offense further away from the scoring line that we wanted to. Had some live-ball turnovers that allowed them to get out and run and score in transition. 

“When we were able to settle that down, force them into a halfcourt game again, we were able to get ourselves back in it. But it was just too much of a margin to overcome. 

“ Well, it’s tough. It stings. It hurts. A lot of people would say nobody thought we would be here. 

“So it’s not a moral victory. But I think as a team, we always knew what we were capable of. 

“It showed South Carolina has been here before. They’re experienced. Their experience showed up in terms of the championship game. 

“This is our first time here. Yeah, that locker room is sad right now. I’m sad right now. I’m sad for them. It’s tough. We’re competitors. We want to win. We know we were in a close ballgame with a really, really, really good team, one of the best teams in the country, and we had a chance to win it. 

“With that being said, again, our season’s not over. We’ve got to sit in today because we don’t want to just -- I don’t want to say not let it hurt, but we had a chance to win the game and fell short; that’s going to sting. 

“We've got next week to look at what we accomplished, go back and watch some stuff on film, get ready to go in with a great head of steam like we have. 

“We’re playing really well. We’re peaking at the right time. Again, I think this weekend shows what we’re capable of. 

“We’ve been in a lot of really close ballgames. We won two games in overtime. Two buzzer-beaters, one on of the offensive end, two on the defensive end. We’ve won tough games in a lot of different ways, up, down, overtime twice. All those moments give us great confidence in certain situations. 

“That’s what the NCAA tournament is going to be, you’re going to play against the best 64 teams in the country, it’s going to take everybody, the same toughness and grit that we've had and played with. I think our schedule, non-conference and obviously when you get to the SEC, prepares you for the NCAA tournament.

“Today shows us how close we are. A couple balls bounce a different way, a couple calls go a different way, who knows what could have happened.

 Obviously we know the outcome of the game. I’m not going to say if things went differently, it would be different. We have to do that. We knew we had to take that game from them today, and we didn’t.

“What we were able to do today tells us that we’re right there, we're right there. 

“ I'm so proud of them. I say it all the time, but four seniors, I’m going to throw Malury Bates in that number as well. She's a redshirt junior, but a senior in the classroom.

“Malury Bates, Que Morrison, Gabby Connally, Maya Caldwell, all signed in our 2017 class. We put an extreme amount of pressure, responsibility, expectation on them. 

“Then Jenna Staiti transfers from Maryland and joins that group. That’s a really special group. The four seniors that are on the floor now have all graduated, three of them in three years. That is unheard of. They’re all into grad school. 

“It speaks to their commitment on the basketball floor, it speaks to their commitment academically and in the community. I think it also speaks to the culture of our program. How often can you pinpoint any freshman class, then look at seniors and they’re all still there at the same program. 

“Not only that, the easiest way to transfer and play immediately is to graduate. We graduate all of our seniors. They all make the decision to come back. So I think it speaks to the culture that we have, what it is we're trying to do, how we're trying to build it.”

A team and a sure All-American. 

“My teammates did a great job of finding me the ball,” she said. “I just had to be strong with my finishes and be strong with kind of catching the ball. At the beginning it was kind of hard because they were really expecting it to go inside. But as the game went on, it just got easier. I mean, I missed the first two free throws (laughter). 

“It was sitting on my head. All of a sudden there I was again back to the free-throw line. I was like, ‘OK, you got to make these, can't miss these.’’

“I would say it's one of (the toughest games of the year). I definitely think it is because Georgia, I mean, they fought the whole way. Even when there was just 40 seconds left, they’re trying to get steals, trying to press. It definitely showed, especially in the kind of ending to it, too. 

“Feels great to be named MVP. I was really excited about that. But my teammates really just did a great job of putting me in the positions to be able to score and get blocks and stuff like that. The last possession, I mean, she drew it up on the sideline. We were kind of just getting it in, waiting for them to foul. But then I saw the lane. I was like, ‘I’m just going to go ahead.’

“After this weekend it just shows what our team can accomplish, how we can accomplish it when we really work together. I think that’s definitely something we can look at. Going into the NCAA tournament, I mean, we’re really excited for it. I think this kind of helped us be prepared. “

Yeah, in the Alabama game I would say coach, she told us nice teams cannot win championships. They can’t even win SEC championships. I think that right there kind of set it off a little bit. We said, 

‘You know what, guys, we need to bring this energy the entire game. Teams are going to be physical. We know they're going to be coming after us. We just have to stand our ground and be ready for it.’

 “It feels great. I mean, not winning the regular season championship hurt us a lot, but we knew we had to be prepared because the tournament was right behind it. 

“I’m really excited. I know our team is really excited. Last year got so close for us to get our first experience with it. But now I think we're definitely ready and just excited for the challenge. 

“ I mean, we knew we didn't want to lose. We knew we did not want to lose this game. We knew it was a big game, especially for going into the tournament, just winning this tournament was definitely going to help us there. We just had to push through. I mean, we talked to each other: ‘The six minutes, all right, guys, three minutes, 40 seconds. We have to push through, lock in, no 3s, make sure we get stops.”

Dawn Staley showed her Hall of Fames presence in this tournament. 

“I'm tired, honestly (smiling). This one was kind of draining because, I mean, we had to really fight,” she said. “You got to fight for all of them. This was a little bit different in bringing a young team in here that was trying to find its identity to play a certain way, grittiness that you need to have to win three games in a row, then do it again against incredible competition. 

“But the SEC prepares you for this grueling weekend. I’m happy that we've found our way on top.”

“ I haven’t talked to LeLe or the doctors yet. Zia, she went back in the game. She says she pulled a cramp in her leg. Tough weekend. She doesn’t drink enough water (smiling). 

“Super challenging. If you look and you see some of our players, they’re limping out of here. They were exhausted. We called timeout. You look at them, they’re sitting in front of you, standing in front of you, their mouths hanging open. But they’re shaking their heads in affirmation to say, ‘Yes, I hear you, I hear you.’ They did the best they could. I know Georgia’s going to feel the same way our kids are feeling tomorrow because it was a hard-fought victory for us. That’s what you expect from being an SEC tournament champion. 

“It's huge. Any time you can win this tournament, it gives you an extra boost. I’m proud of our team for being able to fight through a stretch in the season in which it was a crossroads. It could have gone either way. We could have came into this tournament, lost very easily to a very good Alabama team, limped into the NCAA tournament. But when you beat a team like Alabama, when you beat a team like Tennessee, then you win your conference tournament championship against a team like Georgia, you got to feel good about it. You're going to need some recovery days to get back to normal, get back to your equilibrium. But it’s well worth it when you're hoisting a trophy. 

“This is special because there were a lot of unknowns. For our team there were a lot of unknowns externally. There were a lot of scares. Having to shut down because contact tracing or actually someone came up positive. So it was a lot of uncertainty. But this one feels good. We earned it on the court and we earned it off the court in that none of our players was impacted very seriously, and they did everything they needed to do to put themselves in this situation. It was a win all the way around. 

Staiti vs. Boston, “It was a tough matchup. That’s a lot of mass, mass on mass with Aliyah and Jenna Staiti. They‘re super competitive. They’re highly skilled. They shoot 3s. They can shoot the midrange. They got great footwork in the paint. It was just who was going to gain an advantage. I thought for the time that Aliyah was out there, we really concentrated on getting her the ball. Georgia really concentrated on getting Staiti the ball. Their guards were efficient in hitting outside shots. So it put them in a position to be very balanced. 

“For us, we couldn't hit a whole lot of outside shots, but we hit some when they counted. We wanted to work through Aliyah Boston today because we felt like only something good could happen out of that, whether that's scoring or whether that's putting Jenna Staiti in a position where she could foul. It worked out for us today. 

“ I’ll address Henderson. The reason she didn’t play those other 31 minutes was 31 minutes. She played all but 11? She played all but 11? Well, I mean, those 11 minutes we felt like had to be spread out between the quarterfinals and the semifinals. 

“I just didn't feel comfortable with anybody else on the floor today because she was working so well. I knew she was tired, but I brought her over to the side, I like, ‘You got to finish it, you got to finish it. You got to suck it up, you got to finish it. We can't afford to take you off the floor.’ She shook her head and she made plays. Aliyah Boston was huge today. She has to be that dominant for us in order for us to win these type of basketball games. So I was happy for her. She saw the ball go in. She didn’t have double-coverage night in and night out, possession in and possession out. They single-covered her. We’ve been chomping at the bit for her to get single coverage. She made them pay for it. 

“ I mean, you just don’t get rid of niceness over a weekend (smiling). Nastiness is a lifestyle really. Nice, nasty, that balance of doing it that way. I’m just happy to see that it’s in there, like it’s in our players. As coaches, we have to pull that out of them or else they’re just going to be comfortably in their skin. That’s not the way the world works because more times than not nice people finish maybe not last place but surely not first place. 

“I’m super proud. One, the transformation had to happen because of losing. I don’t know of I harped on as much as what I harped on at the end of this season. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I didn’t do a great job of coaching up front. But with young people, it’s really hard to ask them to do things that they can't see while things are going great for them. 

“There are, unfortunately, visuals. Those visuals came in the form of losses. Then they pay attention a lot more in those situations. But they’re young and they really haven't experienced a whole lot of losing on this level. They really haven't experienced kind of really play. 

“We had senior leadership last year, but LeLe was our lone senior. It’s hard for one person to take on that responsibility. Unfortunately, again, losing does that for you. It’s a wake-up call. They’re highly competitive, they’re highly motivated. They only want to win. So when they’re not winning, they’ll tune in a little bit better to make sure that that losing feeling escapes them a lot more than presents itself. 

“The top of our to-do list is make layups. If we can make layups, we wouldn’t have to cat and mouse the game at the end of the game. If we just made layups we'd be undefeated, to be quite honest. That is it. We'll continue to work that in hopes we put that part of the game together for us. 

“Rest  (now) is equally as important as practice is. We’re going to take a good portion of this week off and just let our kids heal up. It’s tough. I mean, it’s probably tougher this year than any other year. 

“I think just because of the mental drain that COVID has had on our season, on our young players. 

“We’re going to rest up. We’ll probably get back going at the end of the week and see where our fate lies on Monday, next Monday

The league says good-bye to Greenville. Next season’s tournament is at Nashville. South Carolina will be there as the favorite. The other three quarterfinalists will be rebuilding after an all-in NCAA experience. So maybe a new face will rise.

With six ranked teams, they all are home waiting the NCAA assignment Monday next with possibly two top seeds and the others in the top 16. At least one unranked team played its way to an invitation. If there are more, it will be blessed by the Selection Committee based on strength of schedule.

In the interim, treatments will begiven for small injuries. Workouts will gradually accelerate. Seniors will realize these are the last workouts ever in the home gym.


SEC All-Tournament

MVP Aliyah Boston (South Carolina); Zia Cooke (South Carolina); Destanni Henderson (South Carolina); Maya Caldwell  (Georgia): Jenna Staiti  G(eorgia): Rhyne Howard (Kentucky).



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