Commentary

Michigan, LSU get much-needed wins

Originally Published: February 10, 2013
By Graham Hays | espnW

We might be in the midst of the shortest month, but February has a knack for setting up long summers.

There is always another game and another opportunity at this point in the season, which is one reason why it can feel a little like these weeks are the equivalent of running in wet sand. The real drama of the postseason is visible on the horizon, but still far enough away that staring at it can mean running smack into what's more immediately proximal. Immediacy is still hard to find.

On the other hand, if there is no such thing as a must-win game in early February, there are wins that make it considerably more likely a team will have a chance to play some real must-win games a month or so from now.

[+] EnlargeKate Thompson
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsMichigan upset No. 13 Purdue while Kate Thompson set the Wolverines' single-season mark for 3-pointers (she has 91).

And for Michigan and LSU, Sunday was the biggest day of the season.

Behind 22 points from senior Kate Thompson, Michigan beat Purdue on the road for the first time since the 1997-98 season. The upset also followed a win four days earlier against resurgent Illinois. Those results came on the heels of four losses in five games for the Wolverines, a slump that knocked them out of the Top 25 with such ferocity that it left them within shouting distance of uncomfortable RPI real estate in the NCAA tournament at-large conversation. (Editor's note: Charlie Creme has Michigan as a No. 8 seed in his latest Bracketology, which will be updated Monday.)

Instead of a season gone suddenly and almost irreversibly awry, the win in West Lafayette produced this sentiment.

"To pull off a win there, I think that's really a signature win for us moving forward," Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico told mgoblue.com.

There will be more to come in the ensuing weeks on these pages about Thompson, an academic superstar with a good story, but it doesn't spoil the ending to say she's a good shooter. It's also not a coincidence that with four minutes left in the Illinois game and her team trailing by a point, Thompson had hit just 17 of her last 59 3-point attempts, a shooting slump that dated back to the loss against Penn State that started the team's slide. She hit two 3-pointers in the final minutes against the Illini, then six more in Sunday's game at Purdue, and look where we are.

Thompson never started a game until this season, but she was ready for the role. And a player who still ranks in the top 20 nationally in 3-point field goal percentage was able to provide a lift when her team needed one.

"Kate's always been a great shooter," fellow Michigan senior Jenny Ryan said in January. "She never will boast about it, but you know when she has the ball in her hands at the [3-point line] that there's this inner confidence in her -- 'This is what I do, and this is the player I am.' I think from a shooting standpoint, she always had that confidence. I think as she's gotten older and found her role on this team and where she belongs, the rest of the basketball skills have grown."

The story is not much different at LSU; it's just told closer to the hoop. The Lady Tigers seemingly missed their opportunity for the kind of win that solidifies a season's worth of work. They had Tennessee on the ropes Thursday when Theresa Plaisance's basket with 63 seconds remaining gave them a 62-59 lead, but five points in the final 15 seconds sent the visitors back to Knoxville with a win. LSU wouldn't have been in position to win without Plaisance's 20 points and nine rebounds, but her missed free throw in the final minute was one of several team miscues that allowed Tennessee to rally.

How did she respond? In her team's third game in seven days, Plaisance produced 13 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in Sunday's 62-54 victory against Georgia, including the basket with 1:33 to play that pushed the lead to three points and started a 7-0 run that sealed the win.

LSU has more work to do than Michigan, but it needed at least one win out of a week that included Texas A&M, in addition to Tennessee and Georgia. It got it. Similarly, if Arkansas spends March somewhere other than the NCAA tournament, it will look back at a game this week against Kentucky and rue the win A'dia Mathies and the Wildcats rescued.

Because in the shortest month, there isn't much time to get the wins you need.

She also starred

[+] EnlargeCarly Thibault
Mark Dolejs/USA TODAY SportsCarly Thibault -- yes, she's Mike's daughter -- averages 10.5 points on 47 percent 3-point shooting in NEC play.

Carly Thibault, Monmouth: You know a coach's daughter is going to be able to shoot free throws. Thibault scored a career-best 21 points to help fuel a 69-63 win against Central Connecticut State this past week. Daughter of Washington Mystics coach Mike Thibault, Carly hit all nine of her attempts from the free throw line, naturally, but she also hit all four attempts from the 3-point line. A reserve early in the season, the senior has started all 11 conference games and averages 10.5 points on 47 percent 3-point shooting in NEC play. Perhaps not coincidentally, Monmouth is 7-4 in the league after a 3-8 start to the season. Her dad is one of the good guys in the sport, and it's nice to see Carly get a chance to make the most of her final months of college basketball.

Louisiana Tech split a pair of road games in Texas over the weekend, leaving unchanged the reality that it's going to take an automatic bid out of the WAC to avoid a second consecutive season without NCAA tournament basketball for one of the grand old programs in the sport. But Kelia Shelton did everything she could to forestall the inevitable, and turned in the kind of performances sure to gain the approval of any generation of Lady Techsters. The week's win came at Texas-San Antonio and came in large part because Shelton scored 45 points on 16-of-22 shooting. She followed that two days later with 22 points and 11 rebounds at Texas State, but it wasn't enough to avoid defeat.

There are people and teams it's tricky to avoid writing about every week, and Meighan Simmons is making her way onto the list. Coming off her team's surprising (stunning?) loss at Missouri last week, Simmons was what we've come to expect her to be in wins against LSU and Mississippi. She played all 40 minutes at LSU, and Tennessee needed every one of them on her way to a team-high 18 points on 8-of-15 shooting. The margin was considerably more comfortable Sunday against Mississippi, but she wasn't wasteful in totaling 24 points on 10-of-18 shooting. She shot 40.8 percent out of conference; she's currently fifth in the SEC at 46.9 percent in conference play.

Team of the week

Charlotte: The 49ers jumped 11 places in the RPI rankings last week, from No. 84 to No. 73, and another jump could be ahead after victories against Temple and Saint Joseph's. While Dayton continues to set the pace in the Atlantic 10, the race for second place is where the drama can be found, thanks recently to one team. It was Charlotte that handed Duquesne its lone conference loss on Feb. 3, and it repeated the effort by beating previously unbeaten Saint Jospeph's on the road a week later. Jennifer Hailey and Amanda Dowe, one of only two sets of teammates each averaging double-digit rebounds, combined for 30 points and 28 rebounds against the Hawks. The 49ers are shooting 43.4 percent from the floor this season, compared to opponents who are shooting 36.7 percent. And yet, it's a team that has almost 100 more offensive rebounds than its opponents, thanks to Hailey and Dowe.

An RPI favorite, Saint Mary's was close on Charlotte's heels in this category. The Gaels beat Portland and BYU, the latter reversing an outcome from a week earlier in Provo. Those results give Saint Mary's sole possession of second place in the West Coast Conference in advance of Thursday's trip to first-place Gonzaga. It was Saint Mary's that handed Gonzaga its lone loss in conference play a month ago. Since Louella Tomlinson departed following the 2010-11 season, Saint Mary's has understandably tailed off noticeably in blocked shots. But at the same time, it has also become a far more dominant rebounding team (No. 13 nationally entering the weekend). That fueled the wins against both the Pilots and Cougars this past week, with the Gaels holding an 86-56 combined rebound advantage.

Upset of the week

Troy over Middle Tennessee: With apologies to Michigan, LSU and other upset-minded teams in big conferences, Troy pulled off the week's real stunner with a 74-70 win at Middle Tennessee State on Sunday. That's the same Troy that entered the game with an 1-12 record in the Sun Belt and 4-18 record overall. And that's the same Middle Tennessee that was a perfect 16-0 against Troy and that had never lost more than one conference game at home in a season. Neither of those hold true any longer. Joanna Harden played all 45 minutes and led the Trojans with 27 points. It's a nice win to build on in a long season for Troy first-year coach Chanda Rigby.

Honorable mention goes to Saint Peters, for which, unfortunately, any win qualifies as an upset. Behind 29 points from Aziza May -- the most any player on the team scored all season -- the Peacocks beat MAAC foe Canisius on Thursday for just their second win this season.

Delaware's helping hand

It's time for what presumably feels like the weekly check-in with the weekly wrap's Delaware bureau. Becoming the all-time scoring leader in one of the best non-BCS conferences in the country is a major accomplishment, all the more so considering Elena Delle Donne already missed more games in her time with the Blue Hens than a player can typically afford in pursuit of such a scoring record. Delle Donne broke the record with 20 points on the road in a win against James Madison, the school for which Dawn Evans had previously set the record with 2,667 points.

[+] EnlargeLauren Carra
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsLauren Carra ranks second at Delaware in scoring with 11.4 ppg.

And as might be expected, the final field goal in the performance was the All-American's stock-in-trade. Her team up four points with a little more than 30 seconds to play, Delle Donne dribbled from one side of the court to the other on the perimeter, contacting or contacted by three defenders en route. Then she split two of said defenders and hit a leaner from just inside the 3-point line. Game, set and match.

Already in possession of a win at Drexel, the win in Harrisonburg, Va., clears the path for Delaware to run the table in the regular season. Home games against both Drexel ad James Madison aren't guaranteed wins, but the more difficult half of the battle is done.

For all of that, what stood out in the win was the help Delle Donne got from Lauren Carra. Since Delle Donne scored 54 points in an overtime loss at James Madison in her first season playing for Delaware, she has endured some long afternoons and evenings, and a lot of trips to the free throw line, against tough, well-coached Dukes teams. But both last season and this season, Carra answered the call for another scorer. Although a hand injury limited her in recent weeks to the point she wasn't allowed to shoot in practice, she appears on the mend after hitting 8-of-11 shots for 19 points Sunday.

Before next weekend

Maryland at Duke (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET Monday): This should be about as good as the ACC has offered since the heyday of Marissa Coleman, Kristi Toliver and Crystal Langhorne against Lindsey Harding, Alison Bales and Abby Waner. It's hardly surprising that as went the rebounding battle last season, so went the outcome as the teams traded wins at home. One thing to watch is Maryland's 3-point shooting. Laurin Mincy hurt Duke from behind the arc in Maryland's win last season. Obviously, she isn't available this time, but can Katie Rutan and Chloe Pavlech find open looks against a Duke perimeter defense that only Connecticut has really exposed?

Louisville at Notre Dame (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET Monday): Louisville's Shoni Schimmel remains one of the most uniquely enjoyable players to watch in the country. She is also putting up some of the best numbers of her career thus far in Big East basketball (shooting 41 percent from the 3-point line and 45 percent overall). And in Antonita Slaughter (14.3 points per game in the Big East), perhaps she has found a running mate. But just like Skylar Diggins once needed a win against Tennessee in the Elite Eight to fully cement her place as a big-game closer, Schimmel needs a signature win as she nears the end of her junior season.

Sam Houston State at Oral Roberts (Thursday): It's strange to say someone averaging 18.4 points per game isn't having a banner scoring season, but Kevi Luper is scoring fewer than 20 points per game for the first time in her career. That said, she had 30 points in Sunday's win against Stephen F. Austin, setting up this showdown between third-place Oral Roberts and Southland leader Sam Houston State.

California at UCLA (Friday): After this game it's USC and the Washington and Oregon schools for Cal. A regular-season finale in Seattle against the Huskies could be tricky, but UCLA is close to the last hurdle. While noting she has also been on the winning end in two of three past meetings, this has been a tricky game for Brittany Boyd. Cal's point guard has been charged with 23 turnovers in three career starts against the Bruins.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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