By Mike Siroky
It may be routine to the Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball to have multiple teams in the Associated Press Top 20 – our barometer of success – but it ain’t easy.
In this modern era of women’s hoops, the SEC regularly qualifies at least a fourth of the Sweet 16.
South Carolina has emerged as the team after UConn by which to measure yourself, nationally as well conference wide.
Nonetheless, all the conference teams fell out before the Final Four once again, an NCAA record of elimination by league teams stretching back to 2009.
The league was without an NCAA finalist only twice before that.
They may smear each other’s makeup for the national presentations in the rough and tumble of the conference headbutts, but, still, nine made the NCAAs last season.
The strength of schedule in winning 20 overall in this league trumps all other conferences. In this last month before the league starts, the focus is still on winning 10 before 2017, because that increases the NCAA chances.
Only Mississippi State won twice and got to eight wins in the ranking week.
The hype for Naismith national Player of the Year has started, obviously based on reputation projecting future success. In other words, pure speculation.
It was very easy in recent seasons to just concede it all to UConn’s Brianna Stewart.
The serious candidates will be IDed in February when the list is pared almost in half.
UConnn has four nominees of course.
But so does South Carolina, led by A’ja Wilson, the defending league MVP and the program’s other returning All-American, Alaina Coates. They are joined by now-eligible transfers Alisha Gray and Kaela Davis.
Other SEC nominees: Morgan William and Victoria Vivians (Mississippi State); Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator (Kentucky); Mercedes Russell and Diamond DeShields (Tennessee); and Sophie Cunningham (Missouri).
The best conference is also well-represented with the usual suspects on the WBCA Wade Trophy watch list of 25 for the coaches’ National Player of the Year.
They are: DeShields, Epps, Vivians, Wilson and Coates. That’s a fifth of the group.
No. 3 South Carolina
The Gamecocks went to No. 14 Texas as the marquee game of the SEC/Big 12 challenge.
Though they hadn’t played in a decade, Texas was 2-0 in the series. That ended with SC’s 76-67 win before 3,330.
It was a sixth straight win.
SC had won all but two quarters this season, but was taken to task in the first.
But Wilson began to connect, 4-of-5 from the field and 2-of-3 from the line in the 16-14 first-quarter deficit.
Each scored nine as the second quarter hit the four-minute mark. Then SC edged ahead by four at the break.
Texas scored four of the first five out of the locker room and it was deadlocked again. Texas was five ahead in rebounds.
Didn’t matter. Texas could not solve SC’s physical game and resorted to grab-a-Gamecock defense.
SC answered with 30-of-40 from the line.
Frontline mate Coates was stuck with foul trouble most of the night, delivering six free throws in 22 minutes.
Wilson finished with a career-best 31 points, with 12 rebounds and four blocks. Davis scored a dozen.
“A’ja Wilson took over,” said SC coach Dawn Staley. “What I saw started pregame because she had two great days of practice. She showed her versatility.
Still, “That’s not the best I have seen her play. Last year at Kentucky, that was the game.”
Texas qualifies as an honorary SEC member, having lost to the top two teams in conference, as will most other league members.
SC is following the Pat Head Summitt toughening plan of taking on all comers, at this point having erased three Top 14 teams.
They next headed to Duke, a staggered program. They had won the last two there.
But Duke is who eliminated Mississippi State last season.
The home team and a crowd of 6,036 was ready in a 74-63 runaway.
Duke won the middle quarters by 15, which is when they won the overall game.
Coates had but eight points in 37 minutes; Wilson 18 in 35. Davis scored 14 but was hassled into 5-of-14 from the field and 2-of-9 from the line. Duke had seen her before in ACC play.
Duke saw its lead sag to five in the final quarter but settled down.
SC takes a week off to refocus.
An interesting stat line: South Carolina leads the nation in free throws made per game (21.2) and free throw attempts per game (30.0) -- the only program to average at least 20 and 30, respectively. They were 6-of-23 this time.
“We were undisciplined. That’s what it’s called,” Staley said. “We knew coming into this season that we would take a hit defensively. And sometimes when you’re winning, and you’re beating top-ranked teams, you can’t give that lesson to your players because they just think, ‘Hey, we’re winning! We’re doing it the right way.’ ”
She took the blame.
“I subbed. I did something that I don’t normally do, so I’m going to take the hit on this,” Staley said. “I went against my normal substitution pattern, because I’m trying to just grow our bench a little bit.
“And that was costly, because they did go on a (26-7) run at that particular time and they got momentum. And we could never get it back.”
Duke scored 19 off 19 takeaways.
“This is a good learning lesson for us,” said Wilson. “I’m not concerned about this team. I think we have a great team.”
Wilson may be the returning conference player of the year, but Coates is already twice player of the week this season.
And here’s what Staley said about Davis: “I’m comfortable. Our assistant coaches aren’t very comfortable. They cringe. It's different. We don’t have Mitchell, we don’t have Dozier. Different isn’t always bad. It’s a different good.”
No. 6 Mississippi State
The Bulldogs are at the program high point.
Surprisingly, they are 12th in field goal defense among conference teams, offset by a 27.4 scoring differential.
That came into play in this week’s game.
They took a vacation from their Hawaii vacation and played but once, at Iowa State.
The Cyclones had won 94 straight non-conference games at home. Coach Bill Fennelly has been there since. He has won more than 600 career games, 443 at home. They have twice made the Elite 8, three times in the Sweet 16.
They have been in the national rankings only in tenure, 18 winning seasons and the third-best draw behind South Carolina and Tennessee, better than 10,000 per.
But they did not qualify for the Field of 64 last season at 13-17 and losing in the first round of the conference tournament.
They had not had a losing season in more than a decade.
He is also fighting a lawsuit by a former star who alleges racism and name-calling. His starting center quit in mid-season.
So the Cyclones needed a marquee win again.
State rallied magnificently from 11 down with four minutes to go, forced overtime, and dominated thereafter, in an 85-81 win.
Schaefer has scheduled eight straight on the road to open the season, another way of toughening a team.
“ We looked like we still had one foot left stuck in Hawaii,” Schaefer said. But offense is seldom the problem.
All five starters hit double figures.
Morgan William hit the final four three throws in 15 seconds as part of her 24. Vivians had 16. Roshunda Johnson's 3 with 11 seconds left in the fourth quarter forced overtime.
“We still have work to do,” William said. “We came out flat, but most important was (that) we fought through adversity.”
“That what great players do. They want to be in that moment and have the opportunity,” Schaefer said. “After that . . . our kids practice really hard.
Anything that goes longer than 40 minutes, we're kind of built for.”
Four Bulldogs played more than 30 minutes each, led by William’s 38.
It helped that Iowa State went to clock management and destroyed their own tempo, allowing the Bulldogs to do what they do. They hit 77 percent in the final quarter of regulation, silencing the crowd of 10,643 that came to see them.
Fennelly said, “We ran out of gas down the stretch.”
Iowa State had closed the first half on a 26-13 run, establishing a 43-26 halftime challenge. “That whole first half, they just stuck it down our throat and made us like it,” Schaefer said
The Bulldogs take another week between games, next appearing at state rival Southern Miss.
No. 17 Kentucky.
In another SEC/Big 12 showdown, UK welcomed previously unbeaten No. 12 Oklahoma and sent them away with a 82-68 win
UK started with a two-point halftime deficit. Epps went off for 18, 7-of-10 from the floor, 4-of-4 from the line with four assists. Akhator had been nullified by foul trouble.
UK went with five guards at time,
including Epps guarding the opposing center. She told her coach if he put her in there, they’d just get it done.
Maci Morris suddenly erupted with a career-high19, 11 in the second half, as UK earned a five-point third-quarter lead.
They won the quarter by a dozen, ending all doubt.
Less than nine months ago, also in Lexington, these teams had played a similar game in the NCAA eliminations, with UK blowing up in the endgame for that win
Backed by a crowd of 4,400 the advantage stretched to 13 in the fourth. Epps finished with 30, five assists. UK hit 17-of-20 from the line, 4-of-4 by Morris and 5-of-5 by Epps.
“They really had to dig deep,” said coach Matthew Mitchell.
“We have had to work so hard just to get our normal rotation down. We had to spend so much time on how to play and what will work and it has not left a lot of time on that five-guard lineup.
“We just have so much work to do,”
Epps said the start, of course, defines her night.
“I can’t predict the future,” she said, “but my main goal is to get started early. If I get started early, that builds my confidence and my momentum.
Coach always tells me when I'm energetic and hype that it’s contagious.
“There were five guards playing in a zone with me in the middle . . . the five guards went out there and got it done. I told Evelyn in the fourth quarter this was her quarter and she went out there and got it done. She’s the only player I’ve seen with three fouls and still going out there and taking charges.”
The Kats headed for No. 7 Louisville and the annual Bluegrass Battle.
Having already lost to another SEC team (South Carolina), Louisville was anxious to reclaim conference pride as well as personal pride in this series, having lost six straight.
They did both, 69-67, in overtime with 12,245 witnesses.
Epps did her best with 22 points and m a career-best16 defensive rebounds.
She was one of four starters to go more than 40 minutes, with 45.
But Akhator had a third straight tough game, fouling out in 19 minutes, with eight points and five rebounds, against an average of 16 points and 11 rebounds,
Epps got off the last two shots of regulation but each rimmed out. It was that close.
Of the one with 18 seconds left, she said, “In the air, I kind of got mixed up between shooting a jumper and shooting a floater.
“Stuff like that happens, but this is a learning moment for me. It hurt, but it’s something I can keep getting in the gym and nine times out of 10, I’m going to make that shot.”
“I thought we showed a little will to win tonight,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz.who last week ripped his team for attitude and playing for “participation trophies.”
“It’s been a very, very intense week.”
“We had to do it for the city, had to do it for the state,” said Louisville guard Briahanna Jackson.
“We looked like our goose was cooked a couple times there and we kept coming back,” Mitchell said.
“Credit Louisville for playing hard, but I’m happy to be driving back to Lexington with this team that I’m fortunate enough to coach. We’ll just get better from here.”
UK plays one game this week after a rest stop.
No. 20 Florida.
The Gators opened the week by whomping Wofford, 75-51, with a 42-21 halftime lead and probably thoughts about the 44-minute bus bus ride back to campus after that.
As their arena continues under construction, they play home dates at College of Central Florida in Ocala,
They drew 783 for this.
Senior Ronni Williams continued to assert herself with a career-high 26 points and 11 rebounds. It is her second consecutive double-double effort.
She hit 12-of-16 from the field, ending six shy of 1,000 career points.
Sophomore Eleanna Christinaki made two 3-pointers and finished with 20 points on 8-of-12 from the field.
“I thought we gave a good, all-around effort,” said coach Amanda Butler. “When we were really looking for our paint touches, that’s when we were dominating the game on the offensive end.
“Defensively, I thought we did a pretty good job. Whenever you can get steals, that’s pretty solid. We had way too many turnovers. We didn't play with as much discipline as we needed to tonight.
“Ronni had a fantastic night, 26 points and 11 rebounds is good against anybody, any day of the week. Eleanna , another 20-point performance, which is fantastic. The goal for us is to be interchangeable. We believe in our depth and we believe in whomever the sixth person and seventh person is coming into the game – we want everything that they have. I think our upperclassmen did a great job of establishing ourselves.
“There’s going to be a lot to learn from this game. It sounds a little ridiculous, but we should have won by a little bit more. We have to take some pride in things that make us really good.
“One of the things our freshmen are learning is not just the speed of the game, but thinking the speed of the game.
“We ask a lot of our guards and I think there were times when they were relying more on their physical selves instead of their mental selves and that’s just something you have to learn. I think there are going to be great lessons for them to see on film.”
“The thing I love about this group, regardless of the lineup that's on the court, is that they play with tremendous effort. They play with tremendous heart. I thought we had some fantastic hustle plays. I also thought we had some really big minute from Elif (Portakal) tonight, which was really important.
“Our goal today, aside from winning the game, was to be our best. In some moments we were, and in some moments we weren’t. Those are the ones we’ll look at on film.”
Next up was Florida State. The film replay must work.
Among Williams' game-high 18 was the 1,000th of her career during the 83-53 wipeout against Long Beach State in the first round of the Arizona State Classic held at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe. They drew better than 1,200.
That set up a back-to-back game, against the host team. The Sun Devils were 3-2. Interestingly, their next game is at Kentucky.
They were a No. 2 home seed in the NCAAs last season and were eliminated in the second round by Tennessee, 26-7, and the highest seed in program history. So they have had enough of the SEC.
First, though, Florida used its height advantage to block a season-high 10 shots – eighth-most in program history – by six different players. They won rebounds by 20 and were dominant inside, scoring 62-12 underneath.
Feeding those monsters were 30 assists on 37 field goals. Eight Gators had at least two assists, second-most in program history and the most in more than a decade. Junior Brooke Copeland's career-best six assists led them.
Early on, Delicia Washington scored the first six points of a 20-5 run. A putback by Williams pushed her past 1,000 career points. They never trailed, leading by a dozen at the half and starting the third 9-0.
Four Gators hit double digits, led by Williams’ 18
Florida limited Long Beach State to 26.6 percent from the floor.
Long Beach State is the preseason favorite to win the Big West Conference, once again demonstrating how the fourth-best SEC team matches the best of a lesser conference.
Butler said, “We beat a very good team. We knew that this was going to be challenging because we have not defended the 3-point line that well this year and I don't know that we did a stellar job of it tonight, but we defended everywhere else.
“You have to credit our defense. The balance that we had today. We had some folks who struggled a bit.
“Eleanna struggled with foul trouble and Dyandria (Anderson) was struggling trying to get back into the groove. But we had people who stepped up in a really big way. Sydney (Searcy), who tied her career-high, Tyshara (Fleming), who had a double-double and Ronni, who was one rebound shy of a double-double. When you outrebound a good team by 20, good things are going to happen. We beat a team that has a chance to win their league and be in the NCAA Tournament.
“The rebounding battle, which ignites our offense, and so many assisted baskets, which shows chemistry and the way that this team cares for each other, will be hard for teams to overcome when they’re playing us.
“Sydney Searcy's play really excited us. The plays that she was making on defense, how aggressive she was. She really made great decisions on offense, really simple decisions but she was very efficient. She was 4-of-6 and anyone will take that field goal percentage.
“I thought the rebounding effort was what separated us. We did a really good job versus a team that doesn’t just shoot a lot of 3s, but tries to force you into a lot of turnovers and to only have 16, while that sounds like a lot, against a team that’s pretty good.
“The team will head back to the hotel, eat and get some rest. This is where the coaches have to decide the two or three things that we can walk through and talk about. The most important thing is for us to get rest. They have a chance to peek at Arizona State a little bit tonight before our game. They understand what this is, though. It’s an NCAA Tournament team on their home floor and we have to bring our best.”
They looked their best in a nine-point defensive stand in the third quarter against Arizona State.
They looked their worst immediately, giving up 30 in the fourth quarter, including the last nine shots and differential points of 69-63 win for the home team.
Florida allowed 13-of-14 field goals that quarter.
Christinaki scored 18, the only Gator in double figures.
So a big win for the leaders of the Pac 12, 4-0 at home.
And the rest.
The league has three of the next five: Tennessee (22) with a lineup change; Auburn (23); and Texas A&M (25). All went 1-1 in the ranking week, the Lady Vols with another blowout loss at home, this time to No. 4 Baylor.
Tennessee has more losses and less wins than any other league team.