Category archive: Saint Mary's Gaels
Monday morning headline: Big Ten basketball is fun again.
As drama goes, the weekend in women's college basketball would merit at least a passing grade on Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps the schedule didn't offer anything on the Oscar-worthy scale of Notre Dame beating Connecticut in overtime last weekend, or Kentucky edging Tennessee during the week, but thrills and spills were abundant.
On the heels of a big win at home against Maryland on Thursday, Miami earned a 60-57 victory at Florida State on Sunday when Stefanie Yderstrom hit a 3-pointer in the waning seconds to support Shenise Johnson's 24 points, six rebounds, four assists and four steals. Yderstrom hit 7 of 13 shots from behind the arc in the two wins.
AP Photo/Al GoldisPurdue is unbeaten in Big Ten play, but Ohio State, Michigan State and Nebraska are right behind with 4-1 marks.
Rutgers rallied from a nine-point halftime deficit and held off Louisville in an overtime thriller, easily the biggest win of the season for a team that found itself in the top 10 with just one victory against a ranked team before Saturday's game.
Baylor needed only a half to dismantle Texas behind 32 points and 13 rebounds from Brittney Griner.
But for collective entertainment value, nothing topped the Big Ten. And that sentence has been a long time coming.
As painful as it is to write for someone who is at heart a Midwesterner, the Big Ten has been both boring and bad in recent seasons. At various times since Michigan State last represented the league in the Final Four, the Mountain West, Atlantic 10 or Colonial Athletic Association surpassed it in entertainment value -- and quite possibly in quality.
We won't really know about the quality part until March, when a league with two regional finals appearances and a 26-26 record in the past six NCAA tournaments tries to do something about those numbers. But Sunday offered hope that the race to be the best of whatever the Big Ten is will be worth watching in the weeks ahead.
Purdue, the league's stingiest defense, was at it again against Iowa. The Boilermakers (5-0) claimed sole possession of first place with a 57-53 win in which the Hawkeyes -- inconsistent but far from short on offense this season -- shot just 36 percent from the field. Only one team has reached 70 points against the Boilermakers this season (and curiously, for a team that played Duke, Notre Dame and Texas A&M, among others, it was Central Michigan).
At the other end of the pace spectrum in a game between teams in the top 25 nationally in scoring offense, Penn State evened the season series against Nebraska with a 93-73 road win in Lincoln that bunched up the standings with the Lady Lions at 3-2 and the Cornhuskers at 4-1. In two games, the teams combined for 300 points.
Right there with Nebraska in the one-loss club are Ohio State and Michigan State after the Buckeyes beat the Spartans 64-56 in East Lansing. As poorly as the Spartans played early -- and coach Suzy Merchant pulled out the word "soft" to describe her team's start -- they cut the lead to three points with a little more than five minutes to play. That's when Tayler Hill hit a momentum-crushing 3-pointer en route to 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting, the kind of shot All-Americans make on the road when games start to slip away.
And not too far off the radar, quirky Michigan overcame 28 points from Minnesota freshman Rachel Banham -- who looks at times like the next coming of a familiar Big Ten face, Katie Douglas -- to earn a 61-57 win behind 20 points from Rachel Sheffer and more turnover-free basketball from Jenny Ryan.
Contrasting styles, close games and emerging stars. The weekend didn't prove the Big Ten is ready to win a title again, but it showed it's worth the price of admission.
Best individual performance, below the radar: Lauren Lenhardt, Boise State. Three days after scoring 23 points to lead Boise State to a 65-46 victory against New Mexico, the first game in the Mountain West Conference for the Broncos, Lenhardt topped that effort with 29 points in an 81-75 win at Air Force, her team's first conference road game. The Broncos won a total of three conference games last season in the Western Athletic Conference, but they lead the MWC in scoring by more than six points per game this season behind Lenhardt, a 6-foot-3 junior averaging 13.8 points per game, and senior guard Kati Isham, averaging 15.6 points per game.
Best streak: Courtney Hurt, VCU. Hurt totaled 28 points and 15 rebounds in Virginia Commonwealth's 83-80 win against William and Mary. That's six games in a row for Hurt with at least 15 rebounds and 11 of 12 games with double-digit rebounds, propelling her to the national lead at 12.7 boards per game.
Best team performance: Saint Mary's (Calif.). The Gaels staked themselves to at least a share of West Coast Conference frontrunner status with a 66-63 road win against No. 23 Gonzaga, getting 18 points from Alex Carbonel, almost eight better than her season average. The result marked the first conference loss for Gonzaga since the 2008-09 season, ending the team's 34-game conference winning streak. Saint Mary's now owns wins against both Gonzaga and BYU this season and has lost just once in its past 10 games.
Best team not enough people are paying attention to: St. Bonaventure. More on the Bonnies in the days to come, but a 64-52 win against St. Louis moved them to 3-0 in the Atlantic 10 for the first time in program history, and 16-2 overall. With wins against Marist, Duquesne, St. John's, Temple and West Virginia, and losses against only Delaware and Villanova (the latter without second-leading scorer Megan Van Tatenhove, because of injury), St. Bonaventure has earned more support in the polls than it's getting at the moment. Seven days ago, before a midweek win at Temple and the weekend win against St. Louis, it received just one vote in the AP poll and none in the coaches' poll -- in which St. John's and West Virginia each received votes.
The week ahead
North Carolina at Connecticut (ESPN2, 7 ET Monday): The margin of victory for Connecticut in recent seasons makes it easy to forget that the Huskies claimed the all-time series lead for the first time last season. Despite a soft schedule, North Carolina turns over the ball 19.3 times per game. That's less of a problem when foes like USC-Upstate or Savannah State turn it over 20-plus times, but it is a big problem against teams that aren't physically overmatched, as in blowout losses against Penn State and South Carolina earlier this season. There aren't many imposing post players left on Connecticut's schedule, so a matchup against Clay Shegog is an important test for Stefanie Dolson. Of course, the same is true in reverse for Shegog, who has hit just 4 of 19 shots in three career games against the Huskies.
Rutgers at St. John's (Tuesday): Rutgers kicked off a potentially season-defining three-week stretch with an overtime win against Louisville on Saturday. Games loom against Connecticut, DePaul, Georgetown and Notre Dame before the Super Bowl. But St. John's had quietly been building up a head of steam of its own, including a win against Louisville on Jan. 8 and a win at Syracuse last week, before a setback against Marquette on Sunday. Neither team can afford to lose this one.
Duquesne at Temple (Wednesday): There's quite a crowd forming in the Atlantic 10 when it comes to NCAA tournament positioning. Five A-10 teams were ranked between Nos. 38-54 in last week's RPI, not including Temple at No. 66 or current league co-leaders Charlotte and La Salle. It's difficult to see the league getting more than one or perhaps two at-large bids (Charlie Creme had St. Bonaventure as the only at-large pick in his most recent Bracketology), so every game between contenders takes on the feel of something close to a playoff.
Baylor at Texas Tech (Wednesday): Baylor has lost two regular-season games since the start of last season. One defeat came in Hartford against Connecticut. The other came against Texas Tech in Lubbock on Feb. 19, 2011, a 56-45 setback in which the Lady Bears shot just 26 percent and were beaten on the boards. So far this season, only Tennessee beat Baylor on the boards in a game, and only Iowa State held the Lady Bears to anything less than 40 percent shooting. And yes, it's the last meeting in Lubbock between Griner and Lady Raiders senior Jordan Barncastle.
LSU at Tennessee (Thursday): Kentucky's trip to Georgia the same night might arguably be the bigger game in the SEC, especially after LSU's loss at Florida and Kentucky's win against South Carolina on Sunday, but Nikki Caldwell's first trip to Knoxville as an SEC coach stands out as a must-see game.
Loyola at Marist (Friday): Is this on the list because it's on ESPNU at 6 p.m. ET? Well, yes, now that you mention it. But the combination of a typically light schedule and television provides an opportunity to check in on one of the more familiar mid-major names. It's a longer list than the Red Foxes are used to, but there isn't a bad loss among setbacks against Villanova, Princeton, Boston University, Hofstra, St. Bonaventure and Kansas State. So push back the dinner reservation an hour and watch Red Foxes star Corielle Yarde.
Monday morning headline: Nebraska makes itself at home in Big Ten. Coaches love to caution after early wins that conference play is a long road, but the Big Ten's newest team isn't likely to need the reminder.
Nebraska's first three nonconference road trips of the season took it to Flagstaff, Ariz., Tallahassee, Fla., and Atlanta, all of which are roughly the same distance from Lincoln as State College, Pa., where the Cornhuskers opened their first season of Big Ten competition Friday night with a 71-63 win against No. 17 Penn State.
Welcome to the Big Ten. Don't forget to pack an extra magazine or two for those flights.
The curious geography of conference realignment aside, the win lends credence to the notion that the arrival of the Cornhuskers could further shake up a race that has more often than not come down to some combination of Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue in recent seasons. And in an entirely non-coincidental development, it's possible that the Big Ten's best player by the end of the season will turn out to have been absent from the preseason all-conference teams selected by coaches and media.
Jordan Hooper still has plenty of competition for Big Ten individual bragging rights from the likes of Ohio State's Tayler Hill and Samantha Prahalis, Penn State's Alex Bentley and Iowa's Jaime Printy, if not also from teammate Lindsey Moore. But Hooper made an opening statement that ought to resonate for some time. The Nebraska sophomore totaled 31 points and 12 rebounds against the Lady Lions. The only other player to collect at least 30 points and 10 rebounds against Penn State this season was Elena Delle Donne, good company to keep.
With an emerging star in Hooper (21.2 points, 9.2 rebounds per game on the season) and one of the nation's best point guards in Moore (16.2 points per game, 5.8 assists per game, 1.6 assist-to-turnover ratio and 41.5 percent shooting from the 3-point line, compared to 34 percent last season and 29 percent as a freshman), the Cornhuskers have the top-line talent to go to places like State College, Columbus, Iowa City and East Lansing and win.
But it doesn't stop there for a team that, as someone pointed out to me earlier this season, is getting one last push from former All-American Kelsey Griffin. One of two freshmen to start the game against the Lady Lions, Emily Cady totaled 10 rebounds and two blocks. And at various times, Cady, Hailie Sample and Brandi Jeffery have all shown the ability to contribute in big ways. The connection to Griffin? This is the class that signed after watching her lead Nebraska to a 32-2 record and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Best individual weekend performance: Sugar Rodgers, Georgetown. Granted, the stakes weren't as high as when Rodgers scored 24 points to help Georgetown rout Miami a week earlier, but she didn't show any holiday rust against Vermont and Dartmouth in the latter's Blue Sky Classic. Rodgers scored 34 points in 32 minutes in an opening victory against Vermont, and then went out the next day and made that look workmanlike by comparison, scoring a career-high 39 points in 26 minutes against host Dartmouth. That's 97 points in the final 10 days of 2011, and she didn't even play the University of Washington football team.
Best team weekend performance: Middle Tennessee. This is playing fast and loose with the notion of the weekend, since Middle Tennessee's victory Saturday against South Alabama wasn't the stuff of legend, but stretching it to an extended holiday timeline hauls in a big upset win against Kentucky last Wednesday. Despite playing heavy minutes against a Wildcats defense with no shortage of fresh bodies, Icelyn Elie and Ebony Rowe combined to hit 16-of-21 shots from the floor and 12-of-14 shots from the free-throw line. Kortni Jones finished with 10 turnovers but committed just three in 20 minutes in the second half, as the Blue Raiders withstood Kentucky's inevitable charge. When you play the kind of schedule Rick Insell does, you're going to take some lumps (a 6-5 record to start the season) if you don't have an Alysha Clark or Chrissy Givens, former MTSU superstars. You're also going to be prepared for games like the one against Kentucky.
Mid-major watch: West Coast Conference surprise. So perhaps BYU, sixth in last week's mid-major rankings, isn't the team No. 24 Gonzaga needs to worry about in the West Coast Conference. Or at the very least, perhaps it isn't the only team to worry about. BYU's WCC debut ended with a thud in a 54-48 loss at Saint Mary's. The Gaels shot 29 percent and turned over the ball 20 times, but they bludgeoned the Cougars 43-31 on the glass, including 17 offensive rebounds, and got to the free-throw line 28 times. Saint Mary's used 30 points and 12 rebounds from Maryland transfer Jackie Nared and Jasmine Smith, the key components of a résumé that includes victories against Virginia Tech, Oregon and Oregon State (Smith scored 35 at Oregon on Dec. 21, two days after Nared scored 26 at Oregon State).
The week ahead (Monday-Friday)
Miami at North Carolina (Monday): If both teams enter with something to prove, does it negate the possibility of either proving anything? Final Four teams don't lose the way Miami lost at Georgetown before Christmas, failing to break 50 points in a 71-46 drubbing, leaving a team with two road wins, one of which was against Alaska-Anchorage, with questions to answer as it hits the road in ACC play. The Hurricanes scored their biggest road victory last season in Chapel Hill, but they might not want to duplicate a formula that saw Riquna Williams take 31 shots while Shenise Johnson took just nine (admittedly in 27 foul-plagued minutes).
DePaul at Georgetown (Tuesday): It's a matchup of two of the Big East's top three scorers, and Keisha Hampton isn't even in that mix (at least she's back on the court). As mentioned above, Rodgers enters the second conference game for both teams on a tear, but she isn't the only one. DePaul's Anna Martin scored 30 points against Northern Illinois on Dec. 31 to ensure Doug Bruno earned career win No. 500 before the calendar turned to 2012. Martin has scored at least 20 points in three consecutive games and is third in the conference at 19 points per game.
West Virginia at Connecticut (Wednesday): Connecticut doesn't fall for trap games, but there isn't anything appealing about facing West Virginia three days before a big game against Notre Dame in South Bend. The Huskies are 23-1 in the all-time series against the Mountaineers, but Mike Carey's teams have given them some fights in recent seasons, including last season's 57-51 Connecticut win in Morgantown. West Virginia turns over the ball too much for its own good in this kind of game, but the Mountaineers also play Carey's typically suffocating, physical defense.
Michigan at Michigan State (Wednesday): Speaking of series domination, Michigan State has treated its supposed in-state rival like one of the state's MAC directional schools in recent seasons. And by recent, I mean since the turn of the century. The Wolverines haven't won in East Lansing since 2001 and are 1-17 overall in the past 18 meetings. But Kevin Borseth's team enters this game with a 12-2 record after crushing Illinois 70-50 in its Big Ten opener. Michigan's Jenny Ryan has 18 assists and one turnover in her last 107 minutes on the court.
Iowa State at Oklahoma (Wednesday): Another midweek game that is far more intriguing than the lack of rankings might suggest. The Sooners have won five in a row since falling to .500 with three consecutive losses against Vanderbilt, Ohio State and Fresno State, with a different leading scorer in each of the past four victories. Iowa State's opponents in the Cyclone Challenge last week, Buffalo and New Hampshire, aren't Big 12 quality, but it's still worth noting that Chelsea Poppens piled up 33 points and 29 rebounds in the team's two easy wins.
Georgia at Tennessee (Thursday): Without being dismissive of a 12-2 team, there isn't anything Georgia does demonstrably better than Tennessee. The Bulldogs force more turnovers, but they also did much of that damage against the kind of teams they should turn over 25-plus times per game. The Lady Vols have the rebounding and shooting (although they are 3-of-21 on 3-pointers in the past three halves of basketball) to win even if they get a little sloppy with the ball. But if the Bulldogs can't force those miscues, it's tough to envision any path to victory.