- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Only one game that took place Sunday settled anything, and it didn't involve either Duke or Kentucky.
All the same, while the world focused on the NFL finishing a season in New Orleans, two teams that hope to break up the usual cast of characters when women's basketball gathers there for the Final Four had very different days.
Playing its biggest rival on the road, Duke routed North Carolina about as thoroughly and clinically as a rout can be administered. The 84-63 final score didn't paint the picture of a classic, but even it overstated the competitiveness of a game Duke led by scores of 28-6, 40-10 and, eventually, 50-19 at halftime. It took Alicia Keys longer to sing the national anthem before the Super Bowl than it took the Blue Devils to effectively end this one.
In fact, Duke's early domination made it easier to juggle the crowded afternoon schedule and flip over to the start of Kentucky and Georgia. It appeared for a time that, too, would fail to present much drama. Playing at home, Kentucky took a 17-6 lead in the first eight minutes, almost the same lead Duke held against North Carolina at a similar juncture. But instead of pulling away, the Wildcats were pulled back into a fight by the Lady Dogs (who elected to not follow the North Carolina model of expending energy wrestling opponents and officials for jump balls long after the whistle had blown).
The final possession encapsulated a frustrating second half for Kentucky, which had the ball trailing by three points with 20 seconds to play and didn't get a shot of any kind on its way to a 75-71 defeat.
Duke came up lacking in a multitude of areas during the second half of its loss at Connecticut, but with Tricia Liston unable to get looks and Chelsea Gray locked down by Kelly Faris, another set of hands and an additional relief valve at the 3-point line wouldn't have hurt. The Blue Devils got a glimpse of that from Chloe Wells, who hit two 3-pointers in that game, but she has taken on an expanded role since. That led to Sunday, when she paced Duke with 18 points, hitting six of seven attempts from beyond the arc. In four games since Connecticut, she averaged almost 27 minutes and hit 10 of 15 3-point attempts.
For the second time in little more than a week, Kentucky struggled when an opponent failed to fold under pressure. South Carolina and Georgia both committed their share of turnovers against Kentucky, but both came back more composed in the second half than in the first half. When Georgia stopped turning it over every other possession and started finding Khaalidah Miller (25 points) for open looks of her own in transition, the Wildcats were suddenly the ones who bogged down. Jennifer O'Neill had more to do with why Kentucky had a chance to win than why it lost, but her eight turnovers were still indicative of an offense that looked out of control at times (and a team that is turning over the ball 18.6 times a game in conference play, compared to 14.6 times per game out of conference).
California has to be included in the discussion, but Duke and Kentucky are, at the very least, two of the three teams most likely to keep one or more of Baylor, Connecticut, Notre Dame and Stanford out of New Orleans. Both looked nothing like it in their biggest tests of the season, Kentucky early against Baylor and Duke more recently against Connecticut, and will suffer skepticism for it.
In smaller tests Sunday, one looked like it might have learned a painful lesson and found a piece that made it better. The other looked like it had work to do.
Fire up the brats on State Street
Along with Kim Barnes Arico, Matt Bollant, Joe McKeown and Curt Miller, Wisconsin's Bobbie Kelsey is part of an influx of new coaches who have made the Big Ten as entertaining as any league in the country. Sure, Iowa, Michigan State, Purdue and Penn State (and until this season, Ohio State) remain the teams to beat, but there are increasingly few uninteresting or uncompetitive games. Eight teams had a scoring advantage or scoring deficit of at least five points per game in conference play last season. As of Sunday, only six teams were either that dominant or that inferior this season, meaning half the teams in the league play two-possession games as often as not.
That said, the most uncompetitive game to this point in league play came when Wisconsin traveled to Penn State on Jan. 17 and lost 84-40. So the rematch seemed an unlikely place for Kelsey to get her biggest win.
Cue Morgan Paige. The junior guard scored a career-best 33 points on 11 of 19 shooting, including five of 10 from the 3-point line, in Wisconsin's 63-61 win against No. 7 Penn State on Thursday. For added drama, her long 3-pointer as the shot clock expired with 58 seconds remaining in the game gave the Badgers a 61-59 lead. It was Wisconsin's first win against a ranked team since Kelsey took over (and the first since the 2009-10 season).
"It means a lot for us," Kelsey has said about the victory. "I'm not going to downplay it, it's huge for our team. It's huge for our confidence, it's huge for our program. To beat a ranked team, a very highly ranked team, it shows our kids that -- a lot of people say that 'you don't have anything' -- no, we have plenty."
Paige came back with 23 points in Sunday's game against Illinois, but it wasn't enough to make it back-to-back wins. Which leads us to
Team of the week
Illinois: The Illini had a terrific stretch after Christmas, beating Georgia, taking Purdue to overtime and beating Ohio State on the road, but as the past week began, it was starting to look like a short bench was catching up with first-year coach Matt Bollant's team. Then, Illinois went out and beat Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin in a stretch of seven days, the wins against the Gophers and Badgers coming on the road. Game on. With six conference wins, Illinois has already exceeded last season's total (one more win would match the past two seasons combined).
The game against Wisconsin sums up the source of success. When Kelsey's team played Bollant's Green Bay team a season ago, the Badgers committed 25 turnovers and lost 65-49. Sunday? The Badgers committed 27 turnovers in a 64-56 loss. For the season, the Illini have forced 499 turnovers, 87 more than any other Big Ten team. And despite missing the first 11 games of the season, Adrienne GodBold is closing in on the top 10 in steals in the Big Ten (a list that already includes teammates Karisma Penn, Ivory Crawford and Alexis Smith). With six more Sunday, Godbold has 36 in 10 games.
She also starred
Shante Evans, Hofstra: The Colonial Athletic Association has turned out its share of special players recently, and Hofstra's Shante Evans belongs in the company of former James Madison star Dawn Evans, former Drexel standout Gabriela Marginean and a certain current All-American at Delaware. Elena Delle Donne, espnW's player of the week, and the Blue Hens got the best of the Pride on Sunday, but Evans made sure her team finished the week with a split. The senior put up 33 points and 23 rebounds in Thursday's overtime win against George Mason.
That was Evans' 60th career double-double, tying her for 21st all time (more on that later). And it isn't bad company. She moved out of a tie with Lisa Leslie, Tina Thompson and Amber Harris and into a tie with Rebecca Lobo when she got No. 60. Up next? Baylor's Sophia Young, Harvard's Allison Feaster and Penn State's Suzie McConnell (also tied for the all-time lead in career triple-doubles) are one ahead.
A nod also to Georgia Tech's Tyaunna Marshall. Coming off six losses in a row, a stretch that included road games at North Carolina, Miami and Florida State and a home game against Maryland, Marshall stopped the slide just shy of the point of no return. The junior had 28 points, 17 rebounds, seven assists and four steals in an overtime win against Wake Forest, then turned around and put up 25 points and 10 rebounds in Sunday's win against Virginia.
A transfer from Kansas after the fall semester last season, Keena Mays had to wait until Dec. 17 to make her SMU debut this season. She scored 23 points and has been making up for lost time ever since. Mays finished with 26 points, seven assists and five steals in Sunday's 82-73 win at UTEP. The win not only strengthened SMU's grip on first place in Conference USA but handed the Miners just their second home loss this season.
Double-double, toil and trouble
It was a rough week for Central Arkansas, which fell off the pace in the Southland after losses at home against Southeastern Louisiana and Nicholls State, but familiar name Megan Herbert did her part. Herbert finished with 32 points and six rebounds against Southeastern Louisiana and 19 points and 19 rebounds against Nicholls State. The latter marked her 77th career double-double, tied with Jantel Lavender and Ta'Shia Phillips for the third-most in NCAA history, one shy of second place except that she isn't.
Central Arkansas was technically still reclassifying to Divsion I in Herbert's freshman season (it still played a regular Division I schedule and competed in the Southland; it just wasn't eligible for postseason play). Therefore, she is officially credited with 50 career double-doubles, her current total minus the 27 she had as a freshman (23 against Division I opponents). This means, as was pointed out to me by the school when I sought to clarify her totals, that when she had 36 points and 18 rebounds in a win against Tulsa that season, it didn't count as a double-double. But the 11 points and 15 rebounds Tulsa's Tiffani Cousinard had in defeat did count. The NCAA strikes again.
Still seeking a first win
Futility in professional sports can be amusing -- and I say that as someone who sat through a 6-3 game between replacement Colts and Jets during the 1987 NFL labor strife. But outright futility in college sports induces only cringes. So here's hoping Jacksonville State finds a win. The (other) Gamecocks dropped home games against Austin Peay and Morehead State last week to fall to 0-23 this season. There have been a few close losses in there, but there have also been a lot of not-so-close ones, in addition to the loss at home against NAIA Reinhardt. And it doesn't get easier. Of its five remaining games, Jacksonville State plays four on the road, including trips to the three teams with winning records in its division of the Ohio Valley Conference.
One-win teams are plentiful in recent history, including three just last season, but only three teams since the 2004-05 season completed their schedules without a win: Tennessee State in 2005-06, Fordham in 2007-08 and Youngstown State in 2009-10. Here's hoping Jacksonville State, which actually ranks fourth in the OVC in rebounding margin, finds a way to sneak out a win in the next few weeks and avoid joining that list.
About those winless teams
Perhaps Jacksonville State can take some solace in the seasons being turned in by two of the three most recent winless teams. Youngstown State, led by Brandi Brown as the lone senior who played in that miserable season as a freshman, remains squarely in the Horizon League race after beating Illinois-Chicago and Wright State to improve to 15-5 this season. And while Fordham suffered its first Atlantic 10 loss last week against Duquesne, a team led by former Maryland and South Carolina player Marah Strickland and New Zealand native Erin Rooney bounced back to crush VCU by 30 points on Saturday and improve to 15-6.
Before next weekend
Purdue at Penn State (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET Monday): To avoid a losing streak after their 11-game winning streak ended, the Lady Lions must find a way to beat Purdue for the first time in six meetings at Penn State. It's also a meeting between the Big Ten's stingiest defense and one of its most efficient offenses, although it's a little out of stereotype to find it's Penn State that led the league in field goal defense entering Sunday and Purdue that was fourth in field goal offense.
The last encounter was a good one, Purdue winning late in the Big Ten tournament in a game in which Courtney Moses led the Boilermakers with 21 points. It's worth mentioning Moses because while she's still draining 3-pointers, KK Houser has gone cold from deep since conference play began. On the other hand, as she prepares to square off against Alex Bentley, Purdue's point guard has piled up assists and rebounds at an ever increasing rate in the league. The Boilermakers have more to work with in a frontcourt that includes rebounding machine Sam Ostarello and Drey Mingo, but it could be checkmate if their backcourt plays Bentley and Maggie Lucas to a standstill.
Texas A&M at LSU (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET Monday): Talk about a rough week. LSU plays Texas A&M on Monday, Tennessee on Thursday and Georgia on Sunday. At least all three are in Baton Rouge. Realistically, hopes of making the NCAA tournament, with first- and second-round games scheduled for Baton Rouge, probably begin with winning at least one game this week. That's going to require something big from Theresa Plaisance, the 6-foot-5 junior who has to be on any list of the most improved players this season. In the past three games, wins against Vanderbilt and Auburn and a competitive loss at Kentucky, she averaged 20.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game.
Michigan at Michigan State (Monday): Speaking of rough weeks. After a loss at home against Penn State on Jan. 21 dented its Big Ten momentum, Michigan dropped games this past week at home against Iowa and at Minnesota. That puts the Wolverines in the unenviable position of needing a win at their in-state rival to avoid a full-fledged slide. How tough will that be? Michigan has lost 11 in a row against Michigan State, but that's nothing compared to a 12-year drought since it last won in East Lansing.
Notre Dame at Villanova (Tuesday): If St. John's has become a trip wire for Connecticut, Villanova has long played the role for Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are just 7-6 in the all-time series at Villanova, and not all of that is ancient history. Villanova is 2-2 at home against Notre Dame since the 2004-05 season. The Wildcats aren't constructed to win many rebounding battles, but they were too generous even by their standards in recent losses at Providence and Rutgers (in addition to the expected loss at Connecticut) that dulled a strong start to the season.
Montana at Northern Colorado (Thursday): Alone in first place in the Big Sky, Montana already has more conference wins (10) than it did last season (nine). But Northern Colorado would be just a win behind with a game in hand if it wins at home in this one. Montana's Katie Baker is trying to lead her team in scoring and rebounding for the third consecutive season, but she's getting a fight from classmate Kenzie De Boer. Through 21 games, Baker trails De Boer by just a single point, 292-291.
Both hope to end the season in New Orleans, but on Sunday, Duke dominated while Kentucky couldn't keep up with its opponent.