- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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All is right on Rocky Top, or at least the sky is no longer falling, after Tennessee bounced back from a stunning season-opening loss against in-state Chattanooga to beat Georgia Tech 71-54 in Atlanta on Sunday.
Tennessee freshman Bashaara Graves put up 18 points, 12 rebounds and 4 steals after fouling out in the opener, the Lady Vols pulled down 20 offensive rebounds and limited the Yellow Jackets to 33 percent shooting. Tennessee generally looked like a Top 25 team, regardless of whether it sticks around when the new polls come out this week.
The loss to Chattanooga, the first in 19 games between the two as NCAA Division I opponents, was stunning. That it came in Holly Warlick's first official game as head coach makes it that much more notable and perhaps that much more uncomfortable for her, but there is way too much basketball left for it to be any kind of definitive statement on this particular Tennessee team. What does seem fair to ponder, particularly with another in-state game looming Nov. 28 at home against Middle Tennessee State, is the identity of the best team in Tennessee. With the possible exception of its neighbor to the north, there might not be a better race for bragging rights than the one in Tennessee.
For quite a few years now, surely in no small part because of the culture Pat Summitt built, the state of Tennessee has been home to a bunch of good programs, often lost in the shadow of the Lady Vols but successful nonetheless. That's true of Chattanooga, an NCAA tournament regular under coach Wes Moore, and it's true of Middle Tennessee State under Rick Insell, a legendary prep coach in the state before taking over the Blue Raiders. Insell's team, which got 30 points from a player nominally its third option, Icelyn Elie, in Sunday's win against Memphis to reach the WNIT semifinals, is already Top 25 material. Chattanooga, which got 24 points from Taylor Hall in the historic win against the Lady Vols, proved it has staying power. And despite a 79-69 loss at Northwestern, Tennessee-Martin might just have the best backcourt of the bunch in Heather Butler and Jasmine Newsome, who combined for 50 points in Evanston.
And we haven't even gotten to Vanderbilt, which suffered a major blow when it lost center Stephanie Holzer to a season-ending injury last week but is the state's highest ranked team at the moment.
Are better days ahead for the Lady Vols? Sure, even if that is faint praise after Friday. They will be much better than that result by the time March rolls around -- they were much better by Sunday. The best team in the state? We'll see.
New coach, same Sugar?
After listening to an ebullient Sugar Rodgers breeze through an interview in a hallway at the University of Delaware's Bob Carpenter Center, at one point noting she is used to physical play because she never really gets any calls in the Big East, first-year coach Keith Brown rolled his eyes as she walked away and joked, "She's a mess."
Only, for a second, I misunderstood and thought he said, "She's the best." I repeated it and tacked on a question mark to see if that was the case.
"Well, she's that, too," Brown acknowledged.
Georgetown undeniably caught a break by playing No. 11 Delaware when that team was without All-American Elena Delle Donne, who was in street clothes while still recuperating while dealing with the effects of Lyme disease. But the Hoyas won't apologize for the win after Rodgers did to Delaware what Delle Donne has done to so many opponents, scoring 35 points in a 62-56 victory that featured more personal fouls (38) than field goals (37).
This was Rodgers at her best. Delaware rotated several players to guard her and, truth be told, all did a creditable job, occasionally getting hung up on a screen and leaving her with too much room but generally making her work. She hit shots anyway, some from a step or two deeper than anyone else would take them, others one-handed, off-balance falling across the lane. She hit 11-of-21 shots from the field, marking the first time since the middle of January last season that she hit at least half her shots in a game in which she attempted double-digit field goals.
A season ago, Rodgers shot just 34 percent from the field and 29 percent from the 3-point line, inefficiency that at least partially diminished the value of her 18.5 points per game for a senior-laden team that lost in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament and the second round of the NCAA tournament. But as good as Sunday's line looked, Brown isn't trying to transform Rodgers into a new player, mostly because he already has enough of those on his hands.
"Her shooting percentage was a big deal when we had seven seniors last year," Brown said. "Her shooting percentage doesn't mean anything to me this year because sometimes we're going to need her to score 35. Last game we played, she only scored [22 points], so some nights we're going to need her. But Sugar's always been efficient; for the most part, she takes good shots and she hits them. Her shooting percentage is really not a big deal for me. it's the opponent's field goal percentage that's my biggest concern."
Even without Delle Donne, Delaware had opportunities to win Sunday's game, throwing away perhaps its best chance by shooting 14-of-25 from the free throw line. But with just enough defense and just enough Rodgers, Georgetown came away with a significant result for a team with only two players who averaged even double-digit minutes last season and a coach adjusting to the head role after years as an assistant.
Rodgers might shoot the Hoyas out of some games. She might win them more games like this one. What's clear is this particular Georgetown team is fortunate to have her.
"Sugar is one of those kids who work extremely hard on the court, but her maturity off the court is really becoming evident," Brown said. "We have so many young players, and she's been patient while they're going through this learning curve."
Player of the weekend
Chiney Ogwumike, Stanford. Games early in the season are often an opportunity for players to pad their stat lines. Maybe college basketball's lone remaining Ogwumike did some of that with 22 points, 7 rebounds and 4 steals in 25 minutes against Santa Clara on Sunday, but her opening performance was both stellar and needed. With Fresno State lurking a little too close for comfort, down four midway through the second half and seven with five minutes to play, Ogwumike poured in 23 points on 10-of-14 shooting, and added 17 rebounds, 4 blocks and 2 steals in 40 minutes. She had some help from Joslyn Tinkle, who finished with 20 points, but it was an All-American effort from an obvious All-American.
Maryland's Tianna Hawkins and Louisville's Sara Hammond. Hawkins finished with 33 points and 13 rebounds in a win against Loyola. The Terrapins weren't in any danger in the game, but it's a reminder of just how good Maryland's "other" forward can be. She also had a double-double (18 points, 10 rebounds) in an opening win against Mount St. Mary's. Hammond's numbers matter more, the sophomore's 20 points and 13 rebounds one of the aesthetic bright spots in Louisville's 46-45 win against Texas A&M.
Team of the weekend
Dayton. It is never wise to put much stock in exhibition results, but that's usually because they over-inflate a team's value. In Dayton's case, a 79-77 exhibition loss against Division II Ashland -- admittedly, a Division II team led by former Dayton sniper Kari Daugherty that finished second in the nation last season and is probably better than a bunch of Division I teams -- didn't spell doom.
The Flyers remain unbeaten in games that count after beating DePaul on that team's court to win the Maggie Dixon Classic. The star in the final was freshman Amber Deane, who outshot Anna Martin and anyone else the Blue Demons had to offer. Deane scored 27 points on 10-of-14 shooting (she also hit 6-of-7 shots in an opening win against Mississippi Valley State in Chicago). With a roster that includes eight freshmen and sophomores among 12 total players, including key figures Deane, Andrea Hoover and Ally Malott, Dayton might have a few more outings like the Ashland game. But now we know what the other end of the spectrum looks like, too.
Did you miss them?
Not enough people knew them beforehand, so it's entirely possible their absences went unnoticed, but two of better guards in the nation made impressive returns over the weekend from injuries that derailed their 2011-12 seasons.
Toledo opened the new season with a 56-34 win against Arkansas State on Friday, getting 12 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 steals from redshirt senior Naama Shafir. Two seasons ago, Shafir averaged 15.3 points and 5.1 assists per game for a Toledo team that went 29-8 and won the postseason WNIT behind a 40-point effort from its star guard in the final against Southern California. But Shafir played just four games last season before she was sidelined by injury.
As good as Shafir was for Toledo two seasons ago, she ceded conference player of the year honors to Buffalo's Kourtney Brown. But nobody in the Missouri Valley Conference finished ahead of Northern Iowa's Jacqui Kalin when that league handed out the player of the year award named for former Missouri State star Jackie Stiles. Kalin averaged 15.3 points per game that season and Northern Iowa swept the league regular-season and conference tournament titles on its way to an NCAA tournament appearance (the Panthers lost by three points to Michigan State in the first round, but not before Kalin scored 21 points in the near-upset). An injury cost her the entire 2011-12 season, but she returned with 17 points and seven assists in Saturday's nip-and-tuck loss to Green Bay.
Before next weekend
Miami at Richmond (Monday): The Hurricanes made easy work of North Florida open the regular season with a 77-24 rout, but Monday's game should be a better measure of whether they deserve their ranking without Shenise Johnson and Riquna Williams. Still with Stefanie Yderstrom, Morgan Stroman and Michelle Woods, talent remains. Richmond returns much of the team that went 13-3 at home last season. The Spiders have rebounding depth with Genevieve Okoro, Becca Wann (who won a championship as a member of the United States soccer team that competed in the FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup this fall) and center Liz Brown. Redshirt senior Rachel Bilney is the sniper.
Kentucky at Baylor (Tuesday): The intriguing thing about this game is that Kentucky is either the perfect team to challenge Baylor's unbeaten streak or the perfectly wrong team. On one hand, the Wildcats turn over the ball a lot -- they even turned it over 23 times in an opening 43-point win against Delaware State -- and such largess is usually fatal against Baylor's relentless defense. On the other hand, Kentucky might be the only team that can match Baylor transition sprint for transition sprint, and with DeNesha Stallworth in the lineup, they finally have some size as well.
Marist at Hartford (Tuesday): Perennial NCAA tournament overachiever Marist will play Connecticut later this month, but the annual border game against Jennifer Rizzotti's Hartford team is a staple of the mid-major scene. Ten players managed double-digit minutes for the Red Foxes in an opening win, with only captains Elizabeth Beynnon, Casey Dulin and Leanne Ockenden playing more than 20 minutes, suggesting Brian Giorgis' rotation remains a work in progress, but Vanderbilt transfer Tori Jarosz managed 14 points and three blocks in 18 minutes off the bench. Hartford returns five players who started at least 26 games last season and opened with a win against Loyola.
Penn State at Texas A&M (Wednesday): Because apparently his team needed something to do between games at Louisville and against Connecticut, Texas A&M coach Gary Blair welcomes Penn State to town for a big midweek game. Louisville Shoni Schimmel never got much going against the Aggies, but they won't face a demonstrably better backcourt this week or any other week than Alex Bentley and Maggie Lucas. One key matchup will be Kelsey Bone against Nikki Greene, Penn State's defensively capable post who played just 17 minutes with foul trouble in the opener against Howard.
UCLA at Oklahoma (Wednesday): Give Sherri Coale credit; few coaches put together more interesting schedules. That's true whether it's taking her team to gyms other major programs rarely tread, as in a season-opening win at sneaky difficult Creighton, or mixing in new power programs, as in playing UCLA for just the fourth time and first since 2006. The Bruins passed one test against San Diego State on Friday, but who can they count on for points after Markel Walker?
Michigan at Utah (Friday): As long as the Utes have the Canadian connection of 6-foot-3 Taryn Wicijowski and 6-4 Michelle Plouffe, they're going to be a team to watch in the Pac-12. Those two combined for 45 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists in an opening win against Denver. That's the challenge for Michigan, which beat Detroit to give Kim Barnes Arico a win in her first game at the helm but also lost the battle of the boards in that game. Michigan's Jenny Ryan did well under former coach Kevin Borseth, but she could be poised for a special senior season in Barnes Arico's system.
Baylor vs. Stanford (Friday): If you don't think everyone involved with the sport tried to talk their way into a trip to Hawaii for this one, you don't know sportswriters. Some of that even has to do with the potential for a great game. Coming off its track meet against Kentucky, and facing longer travel, might Baylor be vulnerable? It can't be a "break" game for Amber Orrange, but it could be a "make" game for the sophomore guard against Odyssey Sims.
As the curtain closed on the opening weekend of games, it's clear that there might not be a better race for bragging rights than the one in the state of Tennessee.