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Tennessee hands Oregon State first loss, Conference play begins

Happy Holidays everyone! This was a bit of a short week for the women's hoops world with schools being on break to allow students to head home for winter break but that still doesn't mean that nothing happened. With conference play beginning across the country within the next 7 days, teams should be ready to buckle down and battle over the course of the next couple months.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

In this week's recap, I introduce a new format for you. After two weeks of the player of the year rankings, I decided to scrap them for more individual weekly recognition. We'll now have a team of the week, performance of the week, game of the week and a WNBA draft prospect of the week. Feel free to provide feedback and chime in!

B1G OPENS CONFERENCE PLAY

Most teams are finishing up the non-conference slate within the next few days but the Big 10 has already gotten into the swing of things. Sunday kicked off the second half of the schedule for 10 teams, including a few of my personal favorite teams to watch. 17th-ranked Rutgers won its first B1G conference game, knocking off a young, talented Indiana team 66-51. Betnijah Laney led the Scarlet Knights with 20 points and 10 boards while Tyler Scaife finished with 16. IU was led by sophomore guard Larryn Brooks' 13.

We'll likely see another B1G team enter the rankings next week as Joe McKeown's Northwestern Wildcats moved to 11-1, 1-0 with a road victory over 20th-ranked Michigan State. Sophomore forward Nia Coffey led her team with 15 points and 6 boards.Christen Inman also added 13 and 8. Becca Mills led the way for the Spartans with 21 points and 16 rebounds.

Penn State continues to struggle after seeing Maggie Lucas and Ariel Edwards collegiate careers end. The Nittany Lions fell 77-52 to 23rd-ranked Iowa. Melissa Dixon, who hit 10 threes in a game last week, added 5 more en route to 21 points to lead the Hawkeyes. Redshirt freshman guard Lindsey Spann led the charge for Penn State with with 22 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists.

Other Scores:

Purdue 62 Illinois 55

Wisconsin 63 Michigan 53

AMERICAN OPENS CONFERENCE SLATE ALSO

Over the course of two days, the American Athletic Conference kicked-off its conference season as well. Starting with defending national champion UConn crushing SMU 96-45. Moriah Jefferson scored a career-high 24 points and Kaleena Mosqueeda-Lewis added 19 points and 6 assists. No one scored more than seven points for SMU as three players tied for the team lead. Jose Fernandez's South Florida squad hopes to carry it's solid start into conference play and they started out on the right foot with a 69-62 win over East Carolina. The Bulls put five players into double figures, led by Courtney Williams 18 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists. Meanwhile, Alisia Jenkins dominated the paint to the tune of 12 points, 13 rebounds, and 8 blocks. Jada Payne and Jasmine Phillips led the Pirates with 14 apiece.

Other Scores

Tulane 60 Cincinnati 50

Temple 58 Memphis 57

UCF 64 Houston 50

SYRACUSE WELCOMES SYKES BACK INTO THE FOLD

Quentin Hillsman had to be happy with his team's 8-3 start but I'm sure he's much more excited about what's to come after he welcomed back Preseason All-ACC honoree Brittney Sykes. The 5'9" guard from Newark,  New Jersey missed the first 11 games of the season after tearing her ACL in her team's first round matchup with Chattanooga last season. The Orange have four players averaging double figures but Sykes gives them another player that can create her own shot and make the defense pay. Sykes, along with fellow junior wing Brianna Butler, were the third and fourth MCDonald's All-Americans in Syracuse women's basketball lore.

Sykes won't have much time to get her bearings together though, after one final non-conference matchup with Central Connecticut State on December 30th, ACC play opens for the Orange with a visit from Muffet McGraw's Fighting Irish before traveling to Cameron Indoor to take on a highly confident Duke Blue Devil team. Sykes' first game back finished relatively quiet as she garnered 2 points (1-4) and 7 rebounds.

PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK

The first performance of the week recognition goes to a rookie that's been lighting up scoreboards across the country from the time she stepped onto the floor in Columbus, Ohio. Last season, Ameryst Alston was the leading scorer and the player that usually had the big games for the Buckeyes. She's still around and wasn't too shabby in her own right in scoring 26 points but freshman Kelsey Mitchell was a sight to see. The guard from nearby Cincinnati lit up Mike Carey's 21st-ranked Mountaineers for a freshman record 39 points.

What might be most impressive about the performance is how she went about it. Carey's teams are perenially among the best defensively but Mitchell hit 12-18 shots, including 8-10 from distance, and hit 7-11 free throws in just 27 minutes. The Buckeyes have suffered major losses to a really good freshman class but the gem of the class is making her presence known.

GAME OF THE WEEK

In what was otherwise a dull week, the top ten matchup in Knoxville whetted our appetites after holiday meals started to settle. Scott Rueck's Oregon State Beavers were off to the best start and in turn, garnered the program's highest ranking heading into this battle on Sunday. Meanwhile, Holly Warlick's crew has picked up its play of late. After dropping back-to-back road games to Chattanooga and Texas, the Lady Vols have cranked it up a notch and Sunday was no different. This matchup was intriguing because of the major contrast in styles.

Coming in as the 11th-best shooting team from three, Oregon State is a team known for it's ball movement and efficiency from the perimeter. On the opposite end, you have a Tennessee team that is extremely physical and really uses it's athleticism to their advantage, to the tune of a +12.5 rebounding margin, good for 7th in the country, so far. A back-and-forth first half ended with a Jordan Reynolds floater putting Warlick's squad ahead by one. Oregon State was able to keep the game close by shooting a blistering 6-9 from three and they needed it as 6'6" center Ruth Hamblin struggled, missing a few chippies and finishing with 2 points.

The second half was much different as Tennessee controlled the pace and took away those threes in the half, forcing the Beavers into 0-7 from deep. Combine that with the Lady Vols 26-6 edge in points off turnovers and you have your story of the game. Isabelle Harrison dominated the inside for the duration of the game, finishing with 20 points, 12 boards and 5 blocks. Freshman Alexa Middleton provided a spark off the bench on both ends of the floor and finished with 12 points. Ariel Massengale and Cierra Burdick finished with 11 apiece as four players finished in double figures for UT. Sydney Wiese led the Beavers with 19 points and 6 assists but after just having 19 in her first ten games, she finished with 7 turnovers.

Ali Gibson added 14 for Rueck's crew and Gabby Hanson added 10 before fouling out. The 6'6" Hamblin filled the stat sheet with 8 points, 12 boards, 4 assists, 2 blocks and 1 steal but she fouled out late in the second half without ever really seeming comfortable.

TEAM OF THE WEEK

Without hesitation, the team of the week is Joe McKeown's Northwestern Wildcats. After struggling to a 17-16 record and bowing out in the round of 16 in the WNIT to end last season,  this team came into this season ready to make some noise. Well, they've done just that. After starting the season 10-0, including wins over DePaul and Gonzaga, the women of the NW program lost their first game of the season in Tempe, Arizona to a talented, and now ranked, Arizona State team. But boy, did they bounce back strong.

The road battle against Charli Turner-Thorne's squad lit a fire under this team as they went and took a win in East Lansing, Michigan. We'll likely see this team in the Top 25 and it's definitely warranted. And with only 2 seniors on the roster, the future is bright for this team. If you haven't had a chance to watch them, I'd definitely recommend taking the time to do so. I watched this team several times last season and I'm not surprised at all.

WNBA PROSPECT OF THE WEEK

This week's prospect of the is a 6'3" forward from Wake Forest:

Dearica Hamby put together one of the best seasons in recent memory in 2013-14, leading the ACC in both scoring (22.0) and rebounding (11.0). Here's a few more key numbers for Hamby:

  • Set seven single season school records: points (683), rebounds (340). double-doubles (22), scoring average (22.0), field goals made (265), free throws made (142) and attempted (210)
  • fourth-best shooting percentage in the ACC last season (55%)
  • saved her best for the big stage, almost garnering the first triple-double in school history in the ACC tournament: finishing with 25 points, 16 rebounds, and a career-high 8 assists against Pitt

This season hasn't been much different, for the 2014-15 season, Hamby is averaging 21.5 points (2nd in the ACC), 10.6 boards (3rd), in about 34 minutes per night (3rd.) She also leads the ACC in defensive rebounds per game (8.0) and is hitting 43% from three. In what seems to be a weak draft, Hamby's versatility could be key and at 6'3" she's got the size to be able to play inside and be effective.