Women's Basketball: St. Mary's Gaels

Keke StewartAP Photo/Mark ZaleskiKeKe Stewart averages 10.2 points for Middle Tennessee (13-3).

Sensing uncertainty on the other end of the phone call as to his mental state the day after a loss against Saint Mary's that featured one of the stranger endings this season will produce, Kelly Graves just chuckled.

"It's just a game," he said.

As in, it's not life or death, and the gregarious coach who built Gonzaga into a program that isn't expected to lose conference games wasn't going to let the result alter that. But the game is also his profession, and Graves can shift from zen to flinty in the blink of an eye, or perhaps the bounce of a basketball, when it comes to it.

And so he did when he started to speak about preparations for a game against Pacific the following day.

"Today was more of a focus, if you want to know the truth, on toughness and rebounding and those kind of things," Graves said at the time of the off-day practice between games. The way he said it left little doubt it wasn't a fun practice.

Gonzaga went out the next day and beat Pacific by 15 points. It didn't finish with an advantage on the boards, but to be fair, it didn't have many opportunities for offensive rebounds when it shot 57 percent from the floor.

It was a good answer, but it wasn't the full answer.

Five days later, Gonzaga limited Portland to 15 points in the first half. Not stingy enough? It held the Pilots to nine points in the second half. It piled up 17 more rebounds than a team that would soon thereafter upset San Diego.

Next time out, Gonzaga held BYU to 42 points, 30 below the Cougars' average. It pounded BYU on the boards.

San Diego followed and fell just as meekly, 79-50 on the scoreboard and 49-40 on the boards.

Three games, two against fellow WCC title contenders, and Gonzaga allowed just 116 points.

"I'm interested to see how we respond," Graves said after the Saint Mary's loss and before the recent run. "Let’s see if we're tough. We've got talent. Let's see how tough we are. We've shown it this year at times. I'm not down on my team. We lost last year at Saint Mary's and then won [15] in a row against the others. So it's not the fact that we lost there that concerns me, it's kind of how we did it.

"We'll see what we're made of. We'll see if we’re tough enough to get back up."

This isn't the perch he was concerned about, but Gonzaga is back up to the No. 1 spot it technically never lost.

1. Gonzaga (14-3, 4-1 WCC; Charlie Creme’s projected NCAA seed: No. 8)

After a brief stay in Spokane for the games against BYU and San Diego, Gonzaga returns to the road. Its next four games are all on the road, just as four of the past six were.

2. Bowling Green (13-2, 3-0 MAC; Creme’s projected seed: No. 11)

Bowling Green keeps quietly rolling along. The Falcons eased to four wins since the last rankings, all by relatively comfortable double-digit margins. One possible concern is some carelessness with the ball early in conference play. They are seven turnovers in the red through three games, essentially the same as they were through 12 games out of conference. Why bring that up? Because Saturday’s game at fellow MAC unbeaten Central Michigan comes against a team that loves nothing more than ratcheting up the pace of play. On the plus side, always a good rebounder and opportunistic defender, post player Jill Stein has also contributed double-digit points per game of late.

3. Middle Tennessee (13-3, 2-0 Conference USA; Creme’s projected seed: No. 10)

[+] EnlargeKirby Burkholder
Rafael Suanes/USA TODAY SportsKirby Burkholder dropped 37 points to help James Madison end Delawares 44-game CAA winning streak.

As always seems to be the case, we arrive in the middle of January, look around and realize Middle Tennessee has built itself a pretty good résumé. The Blue Raiders make the big move in the rankings, but they will be pressed to live up to it right away. Wins against North Texas and Louisiana Tech opened the ledger for the first season in a new conference, but Wednesday’s home game against UTEP could be decisive (there is no return leg in El Paso, unless the teams meet there in the final of the conference tournament). KeKe Stewart’s recent shooting exploits aside, it’s about turnovers and defense. Ebony Rowe is shooting 56 percent on offense; the rest of the team is at 35 percent.

4. James Madison (11-4, 1-0 CAA; Creme’s projected seed: N/A)

The idea that there is no such thing as a good loss is completely hogwash. Maybe there’s no such thing if you’re looking from the inside out. But for the rest of us looking in from the outside, a 74-71 loss on the road against then-No. 10 North Carolina on Jan. 2 was absolutely a positive marker (as was an overtime loss at home against Vanderbilt a few weeks earlier). In both of those games, James Madison finished with decisive edges on the boards. Meanwhile, was there some pent up frustration from the Elena Delle Donne years in the CAA opener against Delaware? Kirby Burkholder went for 37 points in an 87-51 win that ended Delaware’s 44-game conference winning streak.

5. Dayton (9-4, 2-0 Atlantic 10; Creme’s projected seed: No. 10)

It’s time to bring the Flyers back from purgatory. Since a brutal loss at Vanderbilt and another at Central Michigan in back-to-back games around Thanksgiving, Dayton has started to roll. A December win against Washington State looks better by the day, the Flyers won a rematch against Central Michigan on Dec. 30 and rolled to wins in their first two A-10 games. In fact, each of an active streak of seven consecutive wins came by double-digit margins. But like Middle Tennessee, there is no time to rest. George Washington visits Thursday and suddenly looks like a serious contender in the A-10, and Fordham arrives Sunday as another upper echelon team in the league.

6. Marist (11-5, 5-1 MAAC; Creme’s projected seed: No. 9)

Marist isn’t in first place in the MAAC, which is news all on its own. A 73-71 loss at home against Iona on Monday gave the Gaels sole possession of first place and snapped that program’s 29-game losing streak against the Red Foxes. That probably leaves Iona fans wondering just why we’re still talking about Marist in this space. But for the time being, the overall résumé (wins against Oklahoma, Bowling Green and St. Bonaventure, a game given away at Ohio State and a reasonable showing shorthanded against Kentucky) still hold sway. In the most recent rankings, this was mentioned as possibly Marist’s best shooting team. Well, the 3-point shot has gone missing in MAAC play. But more important is a defense allowing opponents to shoot 40 percent on the season. That isn’t Marist basketball.

7. Chattanooga (14-3, 6-0 Southern; Creme’s projected seed: No. 12)

It is said every year in this space, so why break tradition. The Southern Conference might be more low-major than mid-major, but it’s marathon of a conference season makes it almost impossible to emerge unscathed. Chattanooga nearly stumbled Sunday, needing overtime to come away from Appalachian State with a win. In fact, three of four conference games played this month were decided by single digits (although its scoring margin in SoCon games is still nearly double that of any other team). In conference play, Taylor Hall ranks sixth in the league in points per game, fifth in rebounds per game, second in assists per game, second in steals per game and 10th in blocks per game.

8. San Diego (15-2, 4-2 WCC; Creme’s projected seed: No. 10)

The West Coast Conference always had the potential to cannibalize itself, and while Gonzaga holds down the top spot, we’re starting to see the effects of the strife as San Diego and others slip. Playing on the road for the first time in nearly a month, San Diego lost at Gonzaga by 29 points and, perhaps even more surprisingly, by 21 points at Portland two days earlier this past week. Of course, this rankings period also includes home wins against Saint Mary’s and Pacific, so it wasn’t all bad for the Toreros. The problem in both losses was getting beaten soundly on the boards, the first instances all season in which San Diego lost the rebounding battle. A home game against BYU awaits this week.

9. BYU (14-3, 4-2 WCC; Creme’s projected seed: N/A)

Like San Diego, BYU lost without putting up much of a fight at Gonzaga and likewise lost another game somewhat surprisingly, if only because it came at home against what is admittedly a good Pacific team. But, a word which seems to be the theme of the moment for the WCC, the Cougars also produced a win against Saint Mary’s in the ranking period. Turnovers have been a bugaboo. BYU has more assists than turnovers on the season, but that number is reversed in WCC play. After averaging 15.9 turnovers per game out of conference, BYU averaged 19.3 in its first six league games. That includes Jennifer Hamson and Lexi Eaton, outstanding players who are otherwise carrying the load offensively but who also have 48 turnovers between them in WCC play.

10. Saint Mary’s (14-3, 4-2 WCC; Creme’s projected seed: N/A)

There are host of teams knocking at the door -- beating on it, really -- but Saint Mary’s adds to the WCC’s continued hold on places. At least for now. By now, we’ve gotten to the losses the Gaels suffered against BYU and San Diego, but there is also that win against Gonzaga that came since the most recent rankings. This team still has Jackie Nared and Danielle Mauldin, and it still has return games at BYU and San Diego in which it can even those scores. Now here’s the problem. Opponents are shooting 46 percent against Saint Mary’s in conference play. It’s a small sample size, but that’s still a big problem. Good news comes with five of the next six games at home.

Next five: No. 11 George Washington (12-4), No. 12 Iona (13-2), No. 13 UTEP (13-2), No. 14 Fordham (14-3), No. 15 Saint Joseph’s (12-4).

Dec. 27 rankings

HamsonCourtesy of BYU Athletics Jennifer Hamson and BYU are 10-1. The Cougars play at Gonzaga on Jan. 9.

'Tis the season for end-of-year lists. And while the end of the basketball year technically comes not with a ball dropping in Times Square but confetti on a court in Nashville, starting a new calendar signals a shift of sorts in the start of conference play across much of the country. So to match the reflective spirit of the week, and before we get to the top 10, what would an all-mid-major team for the first half of the season look like?

Shereesha Richards, F, Albany: She put up 20 points and seven rebounds against Duke -- in the first half. No wonder Blue Devils coach Joanne P. McCallie said the 6-foot-1 forward was better than her league (and as a former America East coach, McCallie ought to know). Richards is averaging 22.9 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game. She is fifth in the nation in field goal percentage but has taken nearly 50 more shots than those ahead of her.

Ebony Rowe, F, Middle Tennessee: With three more points she will join Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike as the only active players with career totals of at least 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. But she's not here as a career achievement honoree; she's doing just fine on the strength of her 2013-14 numbers. Despite a typically tough schedule and losing any proven help around her, she's averaging 23.2 points (on 53.9 percent shooting) and 11.6 rebounds per game.

Amanda Hyde, G, IPFW: One coach of a more prominent Midwestern program just sighed when Hyde's name came up, still lamenting a player who went overlooked coming out of high school. A combo guard-forward who averages 21.3 points per game and leads her team in assists, she is nonetheless in amongst power forwards and centers at No. 23 nationally in field goal percentage (58.7 percent). She also shoots 52.9 percent on nearly three 3-point attempts per game and 85 percent on more than seven free throw attempts per game.

Jennifer Schlott, G, Utah State: The senior is seventh in the nation in scoring at 24.7 points per game, which includes 37 points in a win against Utah and 44 points in a win against UCSB, but she also leads the Mountain West by a wide margin at 6.2 assists per game. In fact, she is the only player in the nation ranked in the top 20 in both points and assists per game.

Jennifer Hamson, C, BYU: Forget mid-major; Hamson should be right there with Stefanie Dolson and Elizabeth Williams in the All-America conversation. She's averaging 18.5 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.0 blocks in 30.1 minutes per game, staying on the court and out of foul trouble to change games on both ends. Standing 6 feet, 7 inches is an asset, but there is a lot more to her game than merely being tall.

Now on to the rankings. (Note: Due to some holiday shuffling, the next rankings will appear on Wednesday, Jan. 15.)

1. Gonzaga (10-2)

Gonzaga wasn't up to the task over 40 minutes at Stanford on Dec. 14 , but that's typically true for most of the country, including most of the Pac-12. Sunny Greinacher hit 9-of-16 shots against the Cardinal, while the rest of the team shot 27 percent, including misses on all 14 attempts from the 3-point line. The Bulldogs don't live by the 3-pointer, but they hit at least six in wins against Wisconsin, Ohio State and Washington State, as well as in a close loss at Oklahoma. Conference play offers few early breaks. This weekend's difficult road trip to Saint Mary's and West Coast Conference newcomer Pacific begin a stretch in which Gonzaga plays seven of its first nine WCC games on the road.

2. Saint Mary's (10-1)

The Gaels capped a nearly perfect run out of conference by beating USC and Cal State Northridge on the road before Christmas. The win against USC improved Saint Mary's to 2-0 against the Pac-12, paired with a season-opening win against Washington at home. The team's top four scorers -- Jackie Nared, Danielle Mauldin, Lauren Nicholson and Kate Gaze -- average better than 68 points per game between them, more than Saint Mary's as a whole averaged a season ago. A win against Gonzaga early in conference play a season ago didn't catapult the Gaels to a conference title, but a win Saturday would be a good start this time around.

3. Bowling Green (9-2)

There isn't any shame in losing at Purdue, but Bowling Green will likely feel it let one get away in a 58-47 loss against the Boilermakers this past weekend. As they did in wins against Michigan and Ohio State, the Falcons finished with an advantage on the boards against Purdue, but they couldn't make up for 26 percent shooting, including 2-of-19 attempts from the 3-point line. A good bit of credit should go to a Purdue defense which did the same thing to Green Bay days earlier, but if you told Bowling Green it would finish with 39 rebounds and eight turnovers on the road against a ranked them, it would expect to return home with a win.

4. Marist (7-4)

This is an admittedly big splash for Marist in its return to the top 10. Part of that is the residue of the win against then-No. 20 Oklahoma this past weekend, the program's first home win against a ranked team. But it's also about the numbers and news beyond that result. This might be the best shooting team in quite some time in Poughkeepsie. Its three leading scorers -- Madeline Blais, Leanne Ockenden and Emma O'Connor -- are all shooting at least 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from the 3-point line. That doesn't include Sydney Coffey, the scoring standout against the Sooners who also leads the team in assists. On top of that, Marist just reclaimed senior Casey Dulin from injury and might soon do the same with Tori Jarosz, a potential frontcourt cornerstone.

5. Saint Joseph's (9-2)

The ancient rules of rankings decree a team drop when it loses, but the Hawks hold at No. 5 after a 64-62 loss at then-No. 23 Syracuse. As did LSU earlier this season, Syracuse claimed a commanding advantage on the boards (fueled in large part by a 23-1 edge in bench rebounds). That might just be a fact of life for Saint Joseph's, but it shoots and takes care of the bell well enough to survive it. That said, another shooter or two from 3-point range in support of Erin Shields couldn't hurt, so it bears watching whether senior Kelsey Berger's three 3-pointers against Syracuse are the start of something. Atlantic 10 play begins next week, but a trip to Florida Gulf Coast this weekend can't be overlooked.

6. San Diego (11-0)

San Diego cruised to wins against Long Beach State and UC Irvine, both of which entered those games with winning records, to remain unbeaten entering WCC play. The Toreros piled up a 100-44 rebounding advantage in those two most recent wins. So all is good, right? Well, they also turned over the ball 54 times in those games, including 31 turnovers in the victory against Long Beach State. Of all the teams in the top 10, San Diego has played the weakest schedule. If they are big enough and athletic enough to keep dominating better competition in conference, more power to them. But all those turnovers could be warning bells.

7. BYU (10-1)

BYU had a chance to reach Christmas unbeaten, but it gave away a win against rival Utah (or had it taken away by Utes star Michelle Plouffe, depending on your point of view and rooting interest in the Beehive State). After a week to recuperate, the Cougars did at least maintain some in-state bragging rights with a victory against Utah State. Hamson is fantastic, but BYU's ceiling might ultimately depend on Lexi Eaton. She has already done remarkably well in coming back from an ACL injury last season, playing every game this season and averaging more than 28 minutes per game, but her shooting consistency in conference could be the difference between a title and a third- or fourth-place finish in an ultra-competitive WCC.

8. Middle Tennessee (9-3)

Middle Tennessee has just one player averaging double-digit points per game. But when that player is Rowe, how many more do you need? Behind typically prolific performances from their star, the Blue Raiders closed the pre-Christmas portion of their schedule with three good results in a row, winning at UCF, South Florida and at home against otherwise red-hot South Dakota State. Middle Tennessee isn't a statistical marvel, but it plays defense, forces turnovers and has Rowe. Its three losses this season came against Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee, teams with a combined 33-2 record.

9. James Madison (8-3)

Diabolical isn't necessarily the adjective you want to describe your schedule, but James Madison coach Kenny Brooks will certainly have his team ready for conference play. Coming off a win at St. John's and an overtime loss at home against Vanderbilt, the Dukes get a rare breather by hosting a tournament this weekend that includes Ohio, UMBC and Norfolk State, but it then turns around and travels to North Carolina for its final nonconference game. Toia Giggetts twice turned in would-be career nights in December, going for 23 points and six rebounds in a victory at Pitt and 25 points and 14 rebounds in the loss against Vanderbilt.

10. Chattanooga (10-3)

No team was busier in the days before Christmas. Chattanooga played four road games in eight days between Dec. 14 and Dec. 21 and won all four, opening Southern Conference play with victories at UNCG and Elon and then stepping back out of conference for wins at in-state foes Austin Peay and East Tennessee State. That is more a test of stamina than anything, but the Lady Mocs took care of the ball, took care of the boards and took care of business.

Next five: South Dakota State (9-5), Dayton (5-4), UTEP (10-1), Sacramento State (7-1), Fordham (9-2)

Dec. 11 rankings