On more occasions than one, I've mentioned the parity level of women's basketball being at an all-time high. New kids on the block like Oregon State and Princeton find themselves in the conversation weekly. Meanwhile, old faithful programs like UConn and Tennessee continue to be measuring sticks for programs around the country. The middle used to be filled with mediocre teams that tended to follow a specific pattern: beat the teams you're supposed to beat while succumbing to those at the next level, with a shocker either way sprinkled in. That narrative is still relevant in the scheme of things but it's definitely been a season to behold. Monday proved no different.
UCONN MAKES STATEMENT, HANDS GAMECOCKS FIRST LOSS
Heading into Monday's game, there were only two possible outcomes in my mind. South Carolina would shock the world and pull out a tough, hard-fought victory over the UConn Huskies. OR.... UConn would continue to demolish teams that built up season-long storylines for Geno to talk about in the confines of his locker room. Unfortunately for some, it happened to be the latter.
Three things are going to happen when you face this year's UConn team:
- Breanna Stewart isolations
- Morgan Tuck/Moriah Jefferson attacking off the bounce
- Concerted efforts to find Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis in transition
TENNESSEE WOMEN'S BASKETBALL: BUSINESS AS USUAL
There's a commotion involving an SEC team at the top of women's basketball and it doesn't involve the team that calls Thompson-Boling area home. And they likely wouldn't have it any other way. As Dawn Staley's crew grabs the headlines and the attention of America as the top-ranked team in the nation, Holly Warlick is busy hammering away. Trying to rebuild a program and re-establish a level of expectation that seems to have left the room in Pat Summit's gym bag. The Lady Vols have emerged from the early SEC schedule unscathed, including a stretch of three straight ranked teams-- dropping Georgia, Kentucky and Mississippi State in succession.
What might be most interesting about this is who's not playing. On the sideline sit the number one overall recruit from 2013 in Mercedes Russell. Beside her? The number 3 recruit from the same class in North Carolina transfer Diamond DeShields. Further down? The number 8 player in that class in Jannah Tucker, who has yet to really make a dent this season after a rough stretch the last few years. That not enough? Warlick is adding two of the top guards in the country next year in Tea Cooper and MeMe Jackson.
I still think there's a ceiling for this team that, at best, ends in the Elite Eight but one cannot deny what Warlick has accomplished in not allowing this team to settle for a struggle while transitioning. There's a chance to state otherwise for the Lady Vols as we approach the end of the season. In their final five games, Warlick and crew will welcome ranked team Kentucky to town before going to South Carolina and Georgia. It'll be interesting to see how things turn out in this solid conference battle.
SEMINOLES CRASHING BOARDS, ACC PARTY AT SAME TIME
Florida State, on paper, doesn't really have room to feel slighted. One of their best player's wasn't supposed to take the court until next year. They lost a program cornerstone to the WNBA and replaced her with a junior college All-American and their backcourt is littered with transfers. All things considered, 5th place preseason is probably just about right for a team that had a lot more questions than answers to start the season.
Fast forward to February and you're looking at the number 7 team in the nation. Sue Semrau has this team clicking in every facet even prior to Leticia Romero's release and now, a fully healthy team has taken it to the next level. Semrau has more talent than she's ever had. She's got a McDonald's All-American freshman coming off the bench, taking minutes from a McDonald's All-American sophomore who has yet to put it together. Shakena Richardson left Rutgers in search of more minutes and now is battling with players of her level or better to break double digit minutes.
Even with all things considered, the backboards are where FSU is winning games. 24 games? 24 outrebounded opponents. The Seminoles are grabbing 13 more boards than their opponents each game, ranking 4th in the country. Take it a step further and the reason there's so many boards to grab is because they're only allowing 57.1 points per game. Add in four double figure scorers (five if you count Romero's 9.7 points.) and you've got the equation to your 22-2 record.
TEAM OF THE WEEK:
After months and months of endless chatter of the 1 v 2 matchup in Storrs, Geno's squad took a valiant effort from Dawn Staley's crew and effortlessly pulled away. Don't let the score fool you, Staley had her crew ready. Usually, the pressure of the moment has gotten to teams and by the second media timeout, UConn has blown things open. At the under-16 timeout, the game was knotted at 18-apiece. UConn just methodically pieced together another masterpiece.
I mentioned above how Geno keeps it simple. Case in point: Tiffany Mitchell scored 8 quick points early on. He doesn't go zone. He doesn't go to a gimmick box-and-1. He challenges his players, including Saniya Chong who's been in the doghouse for her defense this season, to get in a stance and face guard the reigning SEC player of the year. And they did just that. In the only game that actually stood the chance of being a game for the Huskies, they blew the lid off the place and rewarded the students and fans that braved heavy snow and low temps to fill the stands.
GAME OF THE WEEK
GONZAGA DEFEATS SAN FRANCISCO 91-84
Cal beat Arizona State to shake up the standings out West. UConn dominated out East. All the while? Lisa Fortier has Gonzaga at a place it's quite familiar being. The top. 12-0 is the mark for the Bulldogs atop the West Coast Conference and they had to battle to make it that way.
USF came into the game at 5-7 in conference play but put a scare in Fortier's team in the first matchup before falling by 8 at home. Being on the road seemed to motivate Jennifer Azzi's squad and they put up a valiant fight. After four extra sessions, the victor emerged in home uniforms, thanks to 20 points from Keani Albanez. Elle Tinkle, the honorable committee of one's pick for most improved player in the country added 17 and 10 rebounds. Sunny Greinacher had 19 and Emma Stach added 11 off the bench.
USF was led by Taylor Proctor's 19. Michaela Rakova added 17 and 8 rebounds off the bench. 12 apiece for Paige Spietz and Taj Winston. Zhane Dikes added 10, 5, and 5 before fouling out to round out the players in double figures for the Dons.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK:
Lexi Eaton, G BYU
Lexi Eaton has gotten a chance to play in the spotlight after leading the BYU women's run to the Elite Eight last season alongside 6'7" Jennifer Hamson. The second act has been just as good. Scoring 20.7 points and shooting 44% from distance is no small task, but Eaton showed us she had another level this week.
In what turned out to be victory number 300 for her head coach, Eaton took over the game against Pepperdine and finished with career-highs of 37 points and 14 rebounds in a 77-58 victory. As if this weren't enough, she tallied 24 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists in a 74-59 over Loyola Marymount.
The stage may not be as big, nor the ceiling as high but Lexi Eaton has made it clear that she likes the big lights and continues to produce like it. BYU is a team that knows what it's like to win big games after returning 3 of the 5 players to start at least 28 games a season ago. March could be special for Jeff Judkins squad again and if so, it'll be Eaton 'eating' this time around.
WNBA PROSPECT OF THE WEEK:
Brittany Hrynko G Depaul
This has been one of my favorite players to watch play and grow the last four seasons. She came into Chicago a gunner who had never met a shot she didn't think she could make and there were some growing pains. Struggles against the top teams. Finishing an otherwise strong freshman season with more turnovers than assists or made field goals. It even got as bad as ten turnovers in one game vs Louisville that freshman year. But turn it around, she did.
In 25 games this season, Hrynko has more than 50 more assists than turnovers. Add-in 36% shooting from deep and a team-leading 70 steals, Drake's most recent crush seems to have finally grasped what Doug Bruno was looking to instill in her. And there's likely a professional career to follow now. Hrynko brings all the flash and confidence of a point guard from Philly (see Dion Waiters) but in a body that also digs in defensively and takes what the defense gives her now. She's still a bit small for the WNBA but the opportunity is there. Considering the recent success of players like Jameirra Faulkner and Riquna Williams, Hrynko should go into camp and just do what she does better than anyone else.