Category archive: Connecticut Huskies
A chance to be one of the best players in the nation.
That's how Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell described what the future might hold for A'dia Mathies not long before her sophomore season began. Almost two seasons later, her exact place on such an inexact list remains up for debate, but she is the go-to player on the first Kentucky team to win an SEC regular-season title in her lifetime. It's a pretty good label in its own right.
Mathies didn't turn in a spectacular line in Sunday's 76-40 win at Mississippi State, a victory that clinched Kentucky's first regular-season title since 1982, but the Wildcats didn't need individual brilliance to get by the Bulldogs. With what is essentially an 11-player rotation, the Wildcats rarely turn one player loose on the box score, relying on that depth and collective defensive effort to force nearly 23 turnovers per game. But from her freshman season, when she scored 32 points in her first NCAA tournament game, and added 21 more in a subsequent win against top-seeded Nebraska, Mathies hinted at a knack for knocking out soliloquies, even in a supporting role alongside Victoria Dunlap.
There have been 14 instances of a Kentucky player scoring at least 20 points in a game this season; Mathies is responsible for 10 of them. Sure, a handful of those came against the likes of Northeastern and Southern Miss, but Mathies also put up 20-plus points in victories against Arkansas, Duke, Louisville and South Carolina. She also turned in a performance that ranks near the top of any list of the best singe-game efforts of the season with 34 of her team's 61 points in a one-point victory against Tennessee. Mathies' shooting percentage remains almost unchanged from an inconsistent sophomore effort, but in more than doubling her 3-point output and dramatically improving her long-range accuracy, she has become a much more efficient scorer. She's not a perfect player, nor is a Kentucky team that recently lost three in a row a perfect champion. But only Baylor need worry about perfection right now. For everyone else, it's about being better than those in the other uniform.
It took three decades for Kentucky to get a chance to celebrate a second conference championship. It shouldn't take much more than 24 months for the Wildcats to welcome a second SEC player of the year to program lore.
Making a case for March: Duke. While we're celebrating regular-season conference titles, full credit to Duke for a March-like performance in beating Miami and North Carolina in roughly the span of 72 hours to clinch the ACC regular-season title.
The math seems to add up to Duke earning a No. 2 seed, no matter the weekend results and no matter what happens in the ACC tournament, but the Blue Devils are trying to keep the calculators working right up to the final hour. More importantly, they showed both a toughness and an offensive efficiency in the two victories that they'll need regardless of seeding. As was the case in a loss against Maryland, rebounding remains an issue without injured starter Richa Jackson -- Miami piled up 19 offensive rebounds and North Carolina totaled 15 against a team that entered the weekend allowing just 12.3 offensive rebounds per game. But the champions, bedeviled so often by offensive inconsistency in recent postseasons, shot 49 percent against the Hurricanes and 52 percent against the Tar Heels, with point guard Chelsea Gray putting an exclamation point on things by setting the single-season assists record.
Novosel hit all 12 of her free throw attempts against the Bulls. One of the best at getting into seams around the basket and either finishing or drawing a foul (rivaled by few this side of teammate Skylar Diggins in that regard), she's averaging 4.6 free throw attempts per game this season. That isn't bad by almost any standard, but it is down from 5.9 attempts per game a season ago. She's scoring at almost the same overall rate as a season ago, and her team is winning at an even greater rate than it did last season, so Novosel and the Fighting Irish are still doing just fine. But the more whistles you hear, the more likely it is she's driving opponents to distraction.
Best team weekend performance: Princeton. What did Princeton do to merit this? Did you see any other teams clinching berths in the NCAA tournament over the weekend? Or doing so for the third season in a row, for that matter? The Tigers spent the weekend doing what they have done with impressively numbing regularity in Ivy League play in recent seasons, beating Harvard by 30 points and Dartmouth 37 points to wrap up another conference title. That they did it with three games still to play in a league that doesn't hold a tournament is just Princeton's style. A strong contender for the weekend's top individual honors, Niveen Rasheed put up 24 points, 16 rebounds, five steals and four assists against Dartmouth, but she split the vote with teammate Lauren Edwards, who scored 29 points in the same game, including 7-of-10 from the 3-point line.
Lending a helping hand: Casey Garrison, Missouri State. Injuries took a toll on several potential mid-major powers this season, most notably those that took the likes of Northern Iowa's Jacqui Kalin and Toledo's Naama Shafir off the court. But the small matter of an injury to her shooting hand isn't stopping Garrison from fueling Missouri State's run in the Missouri Valley Conference. As the Springfield News Leader recounts, Garrison (who already donned a mask this season to play through a broken nose) simply started shooting with her left hand when she sprained the thumb on her more familiar shooting hand. Her first game as a southpaw? She scored 20 points. A lefty off the court, shooting with that hand was apparently nonetheless a relatively new experience. With Garrison leading the way, Missouri State owns first place in the league and 10 victories in a row, including Sunday's 80-76 win at second-place Illinois State.
The week ahead (Monday-Friday)
Notre Dame at Connecticut (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET Monday): Are we headed for a season in which neither Connecticut nor Tennessee win regular-season conference titles? Kentucky already locked up the SEC, and Notre Dame, which already clinched a share of the Big East title, can go for its first outright title with a win in Hartford. Of course, it might also be just the first of two games between the team in Hartford in the next eight days, if the conference tournament leaves them opposite each other in the final. Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel combined for 19 free throws when the Fighting Irish won an overtime thriller in South Bend earlier this season. In 15 games since, only one Connecticut opponent -- the entire team -- attempted as many as 19 free throws (Louisville's 21 attempts on Feb. 7).
Baylor at Texas A&M (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET Monday): Forget the 12th man; Texas A&M could use a sixth player. In five meetings between these two since the beginning of last season, Texas A&M's bench scored a total of 21 points (17 from Karla Gilbert). That worked out on the fourth try a season ago, and it's not like the Aggies roll bench points against everyone else. But without Danielle Adams and Sydney Colson around, it's a tough way to go about stopping the nation's No. 1 team.
St. John's at Georgetown (Monday): There are still matters of Big East tournament seeding at stake, in addition to a chance for St. John's to post the program's best league record, but this one is big for momentum alone. St. John's didn't win a true road game until Jan. 11 at Syracuse, but wins at Rutgers and, as you might have heard, Connecticut beefed up that road profile. With Da'Shena Stevens coming off a 21-point effort over the weekend, it's worth noting no St. John's player has hit more than five field goals in a game against Georgetown since the 2007-08 season.
Appalachian State at Chattanooga (ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET Monday): It's a chance for Appalachian State to clinch the outright Southern Conference regular-season title, but only if it can beat third-place Chattanooga on the road. Appalachian State's Anna Freeman is one of those quintessential do-everything mid-major players, averaging 15.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.7 steals, 2.7 assists and 2.1 blocks per game.
Florida Gulf Coast versus East Tennessee State (ESPN3, 12 p.m. ET Wednesday): Get Championship Week started by watching a team that has the potential to do something in the main draw -- if it can take care of business in the Atlantic Sun tournament. Florida Gulf Coast faces East Tennessee State in a quarterfinal. This game comes just four days after the same teams met to end the regular season, a 71-64 win for the Eagles that was one of just four wins by single-digit margins in an unbeaten conference season.
Kansas State at Iowa State (Wednesday): There isn't much doubt Kansas State will be in the NCAA tournament, but an overtime loss at Missouri raised more eyebrows when it comes to a team that already seemed to have an inflated RPI. For a team that has shown an ability to go on the road and win, notably at Marist, South Dakota State, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech, adding a win in Ames, Iowa, would be a boost. On the other side, Iowa State needs a win badly, if not desperately, to shore up its own at-large r´esumé.
Oklahoma State at Kansas (Wednesday): Both teams need victories in the struggle for NCAA tournament at-large consideration. Kansas got a badly needed result with a win at Texas Tech last week, fueled by 20 points and eight assists from Angel Goodrich. But the Jayhawks are just 3-8 in their last 11 and playing without Carolyn Davis, do they need to sweep Oklahoma State and Oklahoma?
Louisiana Tech at Fresno State (Thursday): Such is life for a mid-major like Fresno State, that all of the work of a 12-game winning streak and clinching at least a share of the WAC regular-season title can be partly negated by one tough loss. But a 62-61 loss at mid-table San Jose State does damage Fresno State's NCAA tournament at-large potential. Before they can worry about that, or even the conference tournament, the Bulldogs face the best women's basketball rivalry in the WAC. Ki-Ki Moore scored 20 when Fresno State won 61-59 in Louisiana.
Monday headline: St. John's puts the exclamation point on a wild week
Doubt is a dangerous thing for an athlete. It's a great thing for fans of a sport.
And doubt is suddenly easier to find than discounted Valentine's chocolate.
The truth is we can't know if St. John's 57-56 victory at No. 2 Connecticut on Saturday, which ended the latter's 99-game home winning streak, will leave lingering doubts in the minds of any Huskies. They will say otherwise, regardless of what happens when they next take the court Tuesday at Pittsburgh or a week from now against Notre Dame.
We can't be sure if No. 4 Notre Dame questions its own fallibility after last week's loss at home against West Virginia. After a relatively easy win against Providence on Valentine's Day, the only game the Fighting Irish have played since the loss, Skylar Diggins talked about the importance of her team regaining its "swag and confidence."
Nobody outside of No. 1 Baylor's huddle knows if even a dominant defensive effort in the second half of Saturday's 56-51 win against Texas Tech carries more weight in the Lady Bears' minds than 35 percent shooting or a halftime deficit.
And on and on it goes for what for so long seemed like a race with four favorites, a handful of contenders and a whole mess of pretenders. Is No. 5 Duke damaged goods after losing in the closing seconds at Maryland, the Blue Devils' 16-game ACC winning streak ending in their first game since losing starter Richa Jackson to a season-ending injury? Can No. 8 Kentucky recover after losing its grip on first place in the SEC with a loss at cellar-dwelling Alabama?
What we do know after a nine-day span in which three top-five teams lost, two of them at home against unranked opponents, is that a lot of us don't know quite as much as we thought we did when the month began. If teams like Connecticut can lose at home against unranked St. John's, surely Maryland or Miami can't be counted out on a neutral court in March? There might even be room for a Tennessee surge or a Delaware run on the way to Denver.
For that matter, a St. John's team not deemed one of the best 25 in the nation on Valentine's Day has reason to believe it can get the last laugh by playing games beyond April Fool's Day.
If only because just about every team this side of Stanford was complicit (and the Cardinal had their own eyebrow-raising close calls), there's little reason to think anything other than the favorites are still the favorites. Baylor is still unbeaten and still has Brittney Griner. Connecticut is still limiting opponents to shooter percentages that would rate as barely passable batting averages. Notre Dame's Sklyar Diggins is an increasingly unsolvable puzzle for opponents. Stanford just clinched a conference title. And everyone else still has a question mark for every answer.
But long before St. John's guard Shenneika Smith hit a 3-pointer to silence Gampel Pavilion and give a perpetually plucky Big East overachiever something far sweeter than a moral victory, Geno Auriemma warned of what this season might bring. He was one of the few who never had a doubt that a stretch of days like we just witnessed was possible this season.
"I think history has proven over the past five, six, 10 years, maybe, that the unexpected has been happening," Auriemma said on the eve of the season. "Not necessarily the unexpected in that the unexpected team wins the national championship, but unexpected in terms of who is there at the end. And I think that is going to continue; I really do. I think there are probably teams out there that are going to all of a sudden kind of put it all together in February and make a run. They're being viewed as kind of fringe players in this play [in the preseason], but I think that time has proven there are more of them making an impact at the end than there ever has been before."
Best weekend team performance: St. John's. You were expecting something else? Saturday's win stands alone as a signature moment in program history, but it hardly came out of nowhere. St. John's led Baylor at halftime when the teams met in December in Madison Square Garden, playing without an injured Da'Shena Stevens and losing Nadirah McKenith to injury during that game, and more recently won at home against Louisville and on the road against Rutgers. Healthy again, Stevens was a big part of both last week's victory against the Scarlet Knights and this week's win against the Huskies, while Smith hit the shot heard around Queens with the 3-pointer to put her team ahead for good in Storrs.
But McKenith's performance can't be overlooked, both on the day and the season. The junior fueled a team effort that produced 65 field goal attempts, the third-most against Connecticut this season, and just nine turnovers, the fewest against Connecticut this season. With seven assists and two turnovers, McKenith became the first player this season to have at least five more assists than turnovers against the Huskies. Before Saturday, St. John's seemed like a veteran team capable of overcoming its own liabilities and beating any opponent on a given night, save one of the members of the very top tier. It's tough to keep that caveat in place now.
Department of turning over a new leaf: Connecticut. The end of any streak on the verge of triple digits is a big deal, but the sky is not falling in Connecticut. Heck, Saturday's loss arguably wasn't the most momentous streak snapped in the state over the weekend, given Trinity College falling short of a squash championship for the first time in 14 years. What the basketball loss did reinforce is just how much Connecticut depends on its defense for offense -- and just how good the defense has been for much of this season. After the game, Auriemma lamented the sizable edge St. John's had in field goal attempts. Some of that had to do with 17 offensive rebounds from the Red Storm, who still have fewer rebounds on the season than their opponents, but it also goes back to ball possession. In addition to limiting opponents to 30.8 field goal shooting, the Huskies are forcing 20.6 turnovers per game this season, more than at any time during the Maya Moore era. Without the scoring opportunities those turnovers provide, Connecticut is left to depend on a half-court offense that, for all the potential of its individual parts, is not as great a collective asset as the team's defense.
Best weekend individual performance: Brittany Hrynko, DePaul. It isn't easy to get attention in the Big East these days without beating Note Dame or Connecticut, but No. 20 DePaul continued its impressive run by ending West Virginia's run of three consecutive wins against ranked teams behind 21 points from Hrynko. The Blue Demons could have crumbled after losing All-American Keisha Hampton to a season-ending injury early in the Big East season. That they remain in the Top 25 and the thick of the Big East race has a lot do with Anna Martin (17.5 points per game in Big East games) and Katherine Harry (10 points and 10.5 rebounds in Big East games). But those two needed help on the road against a Mountaineers team that held Louisville, Notre Dame and Rutgers to 50, 63 and 50 points, respectively, in their three most recent games. Enter Hrynko, a freshman guard, who hit 7-of-14 shots, including 4 of 8 from the 3-point line, and added six assists and four steals in a 77-63 win.
Best weekend individual play: Alyssa Thomas, Maryland. With 4.1 seconds left and Maryland leading Duke by two points in Sunday's ACC showdown, the Terrapins star had Blue Devils star Elizabeth Williams' left arm in her face as the two fought for position on the right block. That stalemate down low forced Duke's Chelsea Gray, after a drive to the baseline on that side of the court, to throw the ball back out to Shay Selby at the top of the key. When Selby released a pass to Haley Peters in the left corner with 2.9 seconds left, no Maryland player was even on the same side of the court as Peters. But by the time Peters released a jumper with 1.3 seconds left, an airborne Thomas was close enough to deflect the shot out of bounds for a block as time expired. Two stops on opposite sides of the court in the span of three seconds at the end of the game. That's how a star who suffered through a 2-for-11 shooting day with five turnovers still plays like an All-American.
Auditioning for a new role: Allison Vernerey, Duke. The bad news for Duke in its first game without Jackson, its fourth-leading rebounder and second-leading offensive rebounder, was Maryland winning the battle of the boards by a 45-36 margin. That included nine offensive rebounds from Tianna Hawkins, who scored the winner on a second-chance opportunity, and 30 total rebounds combined from Hawkins, Thomas and Lynetta Kizer. The good is, well, the Blue Devils are done with the Terrapins for the regular season.
But the rebounding numbers aside, and coach Joanne P. McCallie unsurprisingly singled that out as the difference in the game, Duke got good effort from Vernerey in an expanded role. Playing a season-high 32 minutes, she finished with four offensive rebounds and three defensive rebounds and did her part for a defense that was stingy on Maryland's first looks. There's no getting around how big a blow Jackson's injury is to Duke's chances, but Sunday's game might not be quite as much of an indication of impending calamity as the numbers suggest.
Beyond the big six conferences: Shey Peddy, Temple. There might not be a team suffering through a longer season than Rhode Island, which fell to 1-26 after Sunday's 84-41 loss against Temple, but even the Rams don't give up many lines like that put forth by Temple guard Peddy. Keeping her team a game behind unbeaten St. Bonaventure in the Atlantic 10 race, Peddy took the difficult route to a double-double with 22 points and 10 steals in 29 minutes. After a modest start to the season, Peddy is averaging 18.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 3.1 steals per game in conference play.
The week ahead (Monday-Friday)
Notre Dame at Louisville (ESPN/ESPN3, 2 p.m. ET Monday): Facing games this week against Notre Dame and DePaul, Louisville almost put itself in a world of hurt before rallying for an overtime win at Pittsburgh on Valentine's Day. No team held Notre Dame to fewer points in the postseason last season than Louisville, which dropped a 63-53 decision in the Big East tournament. Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel combined to shoot 5 of 15 from the floor with 11 turnovers that day.
Ohio State at Penn State (ESPN2/ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET Monday): The first of two games this week in BCS conferences with first place on the line. For all their history, the Lady Lions are looking to clinch a share of their first Big Ten title since 2004, a drought the Buckeyes have done their fair share to prolong. Already accurate from long range, Maggie Lucas is shooting 56 percent (14 of 25) from the 3-point line in her past five games.
Vanderbilt at Kentucky (ESPN2/ESPN3, 9 p.m. ET Monday): The Wildcats look to snap a three-game losing streak, while the Commodores look to prolong a stretch in which they've won six of seven. Vanderbilt does have two road wins in that run, at Auburn and at Mississippi State, but a win at Tennessee-Martin is its lone road win against a team with a winning conference record. The good news, or bad news, is it gets another shot if Monday doesn't work out, visiting LSU on Thursday.
Texas A&M at Oklahoma (Tuesday): A share of second place is on the line in Norman. The Sooners committed at least 20 turnovers in seven of their first 13 games, a stretch that concluded with 23 turnovers in a 75-58 loss at Texas A&M. They've turned it over 20 times just twice in 13 games since as they look to end a six-game losing streak against the defending national champions.
Nebraska at Michigan State (Thursday): Throw in Purdue visiting Michigan the same night and there will be a lot of jockeying for position as the four teams that begin the week tied for third in the Big Ten look to shore up one of the top four spots and a bye in the first round of the conference tournament. The Cornhuskers close at home against Ohio State and could use another road win here to erase the sting of a three-game losing streak that ended Sunday.
Wichita State at Illinois State (Thursday): The Shockers are tied for first (with Missouri State) in the Missouri Valley and lead the conference in field goal offense and defense, but they face a tough test at third-place Illinois State here. The Redbirds won when these teams met in Wichita, shooting 48 percent against that otherwise-stingy defense.
Miami at Duke (Friday): This is other game for first place this week, and it'll likely be for the regular-season title (although while Miami closes at home against Boston College, Duke still has to visit North Carolina in its final game). Miami got the road win it needed at Maryland last week, but adding a victory in Durham would seem likely to lock up a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. After a huge game earlier in the week against NC State, Pepper Wilson had four fouls in 15 minutes for Miami against Florida State on Sunday. The Hurricanes could use her size against the Blue Devils. Riquna Williams is just 15 of 61 from the floor in three career games against Duke.
Monday morning headline: Tiffany Hayes goes where no Connecticut player had gone before
Precisely where to place Tiffany Hayes in the canon of Connecticut lore has never been an easy question to answer. On at least one count, she just made it simple.
No Connecticut player ever scored more points in back-to-back games than Hayes. Not Kerry Bascom, Rebecca Lobo, Nykesha Sales, Diana Taurasi or Maya Moore.
The senior earned that bit of history with 68 points in the past week, setting a career high with 35 points at Syracuse on Thursday and nearly matching it with 33 points against South Florida on Saturday. The regular season is 2½ months old, yet Hayes was so prolific that 20 percent of her total points came within 48 hours.
It was a great sustained performance from a player who has as much ability to alter the national championship picture as anyone.
We know how much Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims offer. We know what to expect from Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel. We see Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike at their best time and again. What you see is what you get.
David Butler II/US PresswireTiffany Hayes is a guard with the ability to beat anybody off the dribble, shoot from any distance, pass, rebound and ball hawk.
It's never quite clear what we're supposed to see when it comes to Hayes, whether she absorbs unwarranted skepticism because she's held to the impossible standard of the All-Americans who preceded her in a Connecticut uniform or whether she has been the beneficiary of the team for which she plays and the talent that surrounds her.
After the South Florida win, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said there aren't 20 players in the country he would rather have than Hayes, an allusion to the Wooden Award midseason list of 20 players that included Connecticut's Bria Hartley and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis but not Hayes. Auriemma added with whatever degree of hyperbole you choose to ascribe to it that he thought Hayes could average 35 points per game if she played for another, presumably less balanced, team.
The specifics of the past week's scoring surge aside, there's a case there to be made. Hayes is a guard who shoots 56 percent from the floor and 42 percent from the 3-point line and averages 5.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.2 steals per game, one who turns over the ball barely twice per game. Some of those numbers, particularly the shooting percentages, are improvements on her career averages, but the basic picture is what it has been since she arrived four seasons ago. She is a guard with the ability to do everything -- beat anybody off the dribble, shoot from any distance, pass, rebound and ball hawk.
In the aftermath of a horrific shooting night against Stanford early in the season in which Hayes hit just 3 of 15 shots, missing all eight attempts in the first half, Auriemma lauded her rebounding (she led all players in the game with 13 rebounds and with her six assists) as a sign of maturity. The performance seemed to put in deed the words she spoke before the season about inheriting all that came with being a senior and the leading returning scorer.
"My confidence was up and down all the time last year, and that definitely affected my play," Hayes said before this season about a junior campaign in which much was expected after Tina Charles' graduation. "So this year, I'm just looking to stay positive no matter what. If I'm doing something wrong, I can figure out something else out to help with the team. If I'm not making shots, I can set a good screen, I can get steals, anything like that to stay positive, keep a positive attitude no matter what."
But after a 4-of-12 shooting night with no free throw attempts in a loss against Baylor and 2-of-7 shooting with four turnovers in a loss against Notre Dame, Hayes again found herself the subject of negative energy. Hartley played well in both losses, but Connecticut needed someone else to step up on offense (as freshman Mosqueda-Lewis had against Stanford). If Hayes is one of the 20 best players in the country, the thinking goes, she bears the expectation of living up to that in the biggest games.
The actual record Hayes set in the games against Syracuse and South Florida is slightly arbitrary, if impressive nonetheless, given the company it involves. The immediate importance of it is as a reminder that a player who should finish her career in the top 10 in career scoring at Connecticut still has an opportunity to write her own legacy.
Best weekend team performance: Michigan State. Technically, the Spartans could have lost Sunday's game against Penn State and not been asked to turn in their jerseys and skip the remainder of the season. For practical purposes, it was win or fade into irrelevance. Thanks in large part to Porsche Poole, who finished with 32 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals, the Spartans took the only lead that ultimately mattered in a back-and-forth contest and held on for an 83-77 victory. The result leaves Michigan State half a game behind Michigan for fifth in the Big Ten, with a trip to Ann Arbor next on the schedule, and takes at least some of the sting out of an overtime loss at home against Illinois last week (a loss in which Poole scored 28 points, while we're on the subject of back-to-back scoring prowess).
Best weekend individual performance: Jessica Jenkins, St. Bonaventure. Playing without third-leading scorer Armelia Horton on account of illness, St. Bonaventure rolled to a 75-57 win at La Salle on Saturday to improve to 20-2 overall, 7-0 in the Atlantic 10 and 9-0 on the road this season. The Bonnies are off to the best start in program history despite playing without Horton for four games and without second-leading scorer Megan Van Tatenhove for four games. That says a lot about the team's depth. It also says something about its senior star. Jenkins scored 28 points against La Salle, hitting eight 3-pointers and playing 32 minutes without a turnover. Already the A-10's all-time leader in 3-pointers with 303, she is 14 shy of the top 20 in NCAA history.
Best individual weekend performance, off the radar: Megan Herbert, Central Arkansas. This isn't the first mention of the Central Arkansas junior, nor is it likely to be the last with performances like the one she turned in against McNeese State in a battle for first place in the Southland Conference on Saturday. Herbert played all 50 minutes in her team's double-overtime win and finished with 32 points and 15 rebounds. She's averaging 16.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game for a team that is 16-4 overall and moved into a tie with McNeese State at 6-1 in the conference with the win. Oh yes, and the reigning Southland Player of the Year , the one with a career average of 11.7 rebounds per game, is still just 5 feet, 11 inches.
Second-best imitation of someone taller: Callan Taylor, Sacred Heart. Herbert might be among the best inch-for-inch players in the country (the nation's leading rebounder entering the weekend, Morehead State junior Ashar Harris is also just 5-11), but Sacred Heart's Taylor is also in the debate. The 6-foot senior totaled 18 points and 12 rebounds in her team's win against Mount St. Mary's to maintain a one-game lead in the Northeast Conference. Taylor is averaging 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game this season and has 12 double-doubles, including three in a row.
The week ahead
Connecticut at Duke (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET Monday): It can't be a must-win game if it's a nonconference contest in late January, but it's a must-show-something game for Duke if it wants to make a case that the national title race is more than four favorites.
The matchup inside between Elizabeth Williams and Stefanie Dolson will be fun to watch. The overall rebounding battle between two teams that go to the glass at every position on the court should be intense. The possession battle will be fascinating (Connecticut rolled to a 36-point win last season, but it's at least worth noting that it turned over the ball 20 times in the process, something that's easier to ignore when Maya Moore is hitting 11 of 17 shots). But if not quite as prominent as any of those factors, the 3-point line could be important to the Blue Devils. They aren't a prolific team from the arc, but Tricia Liston and Chelsea Gray are efficient long-distance shooters. The only two teams that had much success in that regard against the Huskies this season were Villanova and South Florida, which -- for different reasons (system for the Wildcats and personnel for the Bulls) -- are difficult to imitate. Baylor and Notre Dame beat Connecticut at home without getting much from the 3-point line.
Maybe Duke can do the same, but don't bet on it.
South Dakota State at Oakland (Monday): Currently alone in first place in the Summit League, South Dakota State visits third-place Oakland on Monday and hosts second-place Oral Roberts a week later. For a team that managed just 22 points in a loss earlier this season, South Dakota State has hit a vein of scoring. With Jennie Sunnarborg averaging 19.2 points per game against Summit League competition, the Jackrabbits are second in the conference in scoring at 72.8 points per game, compared with 52.8 out of conference.
Notre Dame at Rutgers (Tuesday): Notre Dame's 71-56 victory at St. John's marked the first time this season that the Fighting Irish failed to beat an unranked opponent by at least 20 points. But playing a ranked Rutgers team on the road might be the biggest hurdle remaining before a rematch against Connecticut at the end of the regular season. The Fighting Irish hold a 16-11 series edge on the Scarlet Knights, but they are just 4-9 in Piscataway, N.J. (granted, one of the four was a 75-63 win with Skylar Diggins, Natalie Novosel and Brittany Mallory in 2010). It will be shame if Khadijah Rushdan is unavailable for Rutgers after suffering a head injury in Sunday's loss at Georgetown.
Oklahoma at Kansas (Tuesday): It was always going to be a race for second in the Big 12 this season, but it wasn't necessarily obvious that this would be a key game in that race. Tied with Oklahoma and Kansas State for second at 5-3, Kansas plays its next four games against Oklahoma and Texas at home and Texas A&M and Kansas State on the road, a 13-day stretch that will reveal something about the team's staying power. The Jayhawks last beat the Sooners in the 1998-99 season, with that result followed by 14 consecutive defeats.
Texas A&M at Texas Tech (Wednesday): Seven Big 12 teams are piled up somewhere between 5-3 and 3-5 behind undefeated Baylor, and this doesn't look like a conference that's going to get eight bids to the NCAA tournament. The Lady Raiders finally snapped the five-game losing streak that followed a 14-0 start with a 75-71 victory against Texas on Saturday, and they did it without leading scorer Kierra Mallard. A 6-4 record the rest of the way would mean .500 in the conference, but Wednesday's game is one of just five at home and Mallard's availability remains uncertain.
Nebraska at Purdue (Thursday): This already shaped up as a fascinating contrast between the Big Ten's third-best scoring team and its stingiest defense, but Purdue's loss against Iowa on Saturday and Ohio State's somewhat stunning loss against Minnesota on Sunday combine to make it a huge game in the championship race. It's the only meeting this season between the two teams, and the Cornhuskers could emerge tied for first with four of their final six games at home, including a season-ender against Ohio State.
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.
HARTFORD, Conn. -- The best player in the Big East -- and the big, wide world of college basketball for that matter -- makes her final appearance in her second home Tuesday at the XL Center. Monday's semifinal nightcap between Notre Dame and DePaul, once Moore was done dismantling Rutgers, determined which team would take the final shot at beating Moore for the first time in Hartford.
Notre Dame earned that privilege with a 71-67 victory against DePaul in a back-and-forth game, the second game in a week between the two to come down to the final minute. But as much as the game sets up the Big East finale this season, it also offered a glimpse of what's to come in the conference, which will apparently not fold up shop once Moore departs.
Someone has to be the best player in the conference next season. And in different ways, Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins and DePaul's Keisha Hampton made sure their names will be near the list.
From the outset, DePaul looked like a team that needed something special to counter the prevailing winds of misfortune. The Blue Demons went more than five minutes without a point to open the game, throwing away a few possessions, to be sure, but also watching plenty of balls explore every part of the rim without falling in. And with the Fighting Irish trio of Devereaux Peters, Becca Bruszewski and Natalie Achonwa playing outstanding interior defense against Felicia Chester, who suffered through a shooting night not far removed from what Jayne Appel endured in the national championship game last season, DePaul's typical inside-outside balance crumbled.
In stepped Hampton, who scored inside, outside and anywhere else she could find enough space to get off a shot.
AP Photo/Fred BeckhamKeisha Hampton scored a career-high 31 points in DePaul's losing effort.
"Hampton, wow. Wow,'" Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw began in an what was entirely accurate summation of the performance. "She can really play. She did an outstanding job. We couldn't stop her."
DePaul's leading scorer this season took that label to a new level with a career-high 31 points on 11-of-22 shooting, including 3-of-6 from the 3-point line and 6-of-8 from the free-throw line. Surely one of a small number of players with 150 3-point attempts and 150 free-throw attempts this season, she is a rare mix of skills on offense, all of which happened to be on display at or near their peak against the Fighting Irish.
"I just tried to do it in various ways," Hampton said. "Trying to get to the lane, shoot the 3, post up -- whatever I could do to help my team win."
But if nobody on the court was quite Hampton's offensive equal for the full 40 minutes, Diggins was there with her in the minutes that mattered most.
With just less than three minutes to play, Hampton converted a three-point play to give DePaul a 63-62 lead. Less than a minute later, Diggins corralled a loose ball at around three-quarters court and weaved her way through the defense before drawing a foul at the basket. She hit both free throws for a 64-63 lead.
Hampton took it from there, scoring at the basket with just more than 90 seconds to play, only to see Diggins hit the lane like a running back spotting a hole and finish with a scooping layup to give the Fighting Irish a 66-65 lead, one it would hold for good, although only after a great defensive play from Brittany Mallory forced a Hampton turnover in the final 30 seconds.
McGraw said it was difficult to pick out a player of the game for her team, and it was on a night when Peters was at times a force, freshman Achonwa played big minutes and Mallory made the key stop. But everything that happened in the closing minutes seemed to stem from the aggressive play of the point guard setting a tone.
"Every time we got the ball in transition, that was what we wanted," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of Diggins. "She's attacking the basket, getting to the foul line -- that's the best shot we're going to get. I was just so happy to have the ball in her hands. I mean, she changes the game at the speed that she plays at, her attack mentality, her competitiveness. She makes a huge difference in our team."
Diggins finished with 19 points, four assists, six rebounds, a block and a steal. Hampton added four rebounds, three assists and two blocks (although she at least altered more shots than that) to her point total. And in the end, Diggins and Notre Dame won this round, just as Hampton and DePaul won the last round.
And for both, it was the kind of performance on a postseason stage required of any contender for Moore's title.
"It's one and out and that's why it's such a great tournament, so this is absolutely practice for that," DePaul coach Doug Bruno said. "And this is the kind of game that you're going to play every game from this point forward. It's going to be this kind of close basketball game, a tough basketball game, a basketball game that's going to come down to a couple of possessions, just like it did eight days ago and we were on top."
Duke at North Carolina (ESPN2/ESPN3.com, 7 p.m. ET): The Blue Devils have won just once in their past six trips to Chapel Hill, so home-court advantage isn't without meaning. In terms of trends that have more to do with the players currently on hand, we might know how things are going to go by the second television break. In North Carolina's three losses, its opponents averaged 52.3 percent in the first half. Only Georgia Tech didn't eclipse 50 percent en route to victory, and it got to the free throw line 20 times before halftime. As for Duke, the less said the better about its first half at Connecticut last week. The Blue Devils attempted just five 3-pointers in Thursday's 82-58 victory against Miami, their fewest all season and the first time in single digits.
Tennessee at Kentucky: It's a road game for Tennessee against perhaps its closest challenger, and it's a game in which Pat Summitt's team is likely to still be without Angie Bjkorklund. In other words, SEC supremacy might not be on the line for Kentucky, but as a representative of the 11 teams chasing Tennessee, SEC self-respect is at stake. Kentucky wins games by dominating the turnover battle and surviving on the boards. That's not a great matchup against a team that can survive a few turnovers, in part by winning the rebounding battle. Kentucky is 10th in the SEC against the 3-pointer. Can the Lady Vols' Taber Spani, coming off back-to-back 18-point performances and a 10-of-17 effort on 3-pointers in the past four games, stay hot?
DePaul at Syracuse: As Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma noted after Saturday's game, DePaul came into Storrs playing like a team that thought it could win in a place the home team rarely loses. The resulting effort, especially during a first half in which the Huskies didn't get separation until late, added to a résumé already suggesting the Blue Demons can fight Notre Dame for second in the Big East and make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. But the second part of the equation comes with a game such as Tuesday's at Syracuse -- a challenging game in a tough place to play, but a game that an elite team should win.
Connecticut at West Virginia: This game isn't as enticing as it might have been a few weeks ago, but a wounded West Virginia team (in Madina Ali's case, a literal description, as she plays through a stress fracture in her leg) could be a dangerous opponent at home. Whether a cause or effect of West Virginia's woes in losing three of four, including Saturday's setback against Pitt, the Mountaineers are losing their edge on the glass. They're still running a substantial surplus on the season, but a one-rebound edge against Providence is the only time in the last four games they weren't beaten soundly in that category. On the other side, Stefanie Dolson isn't Tina Charles at this point, and nobody is asking her to be, but the Huskies' freshman is emerging as a go-to post scorer.
Oklahoma at Texas A&M: For what it's worth, Oklahoma beat Tennessee in its first game after Carlee Roethlisberger's brother last played in a Super Bowl (it also happened to be the game in which Courtney Paris' double-double streak ended). Of more pressing concern for the Sooners might be a second half against Iowa State on Saturday in which Sherri Coale's team nearly squandered a 14-point halftime lead before pulling out a 65-62 victory at home. Danielle Robinson was simply sensational in scoring 33 points when these teams met a little more than two weeks ago in a Texas A&M win, but she did have six turnovers. That's important only because a player who had a 1.78 assist-to-turnover ratio in nonconference play is down to 1.06 in the Big 12.
Xavier at Richmond: The Musketeers must be glad to be done with Dayton, at least until the Atlantic 10 tournament. Xavier is beating the rest of the A-10 by an average of 26.8 points per game, but Saturday's overtime victory at Dayton marked the second time Kevin McGuff's team was pushed to the limit by its in-state rival. Richmond gave Xavier a game in the Atlantic 10 tournament last season, getting 21 points on 10-of-21 shooting from Brittani Shells. Richmond's star hit just 6 of 29 shots in the two games preceding that in the series. Any scenario that involves the Spiders gaining at-large NCAA consideration, and there aren't many, hinges on winning this one.
Michigan State at Penn State: No team in the nation had a better stretch of seven days to open the new month than Penn State. The Lady Lions followed up a home victory against Ohio State last Sunday with road wins at Michigan on Thursday and at Iowa on Sunday. All of a sudden, Thursday's game could be the turning point in the regular-season race in the Big Ten. Penn State freshman Maggie Lucas just keeps knocking down shots, but credit also to Alex Bentley. The sophomore put up 21 points and seven assists against Ohio State and 25 points and five assists against Iowa.
Maryland at Miami: Monday's Tobacco Row game is the ACC headliner, but does it involve the league's best team? Maryland continues making at least a case for that label. Last Thursday's victory at Georgia Tech was the first significant road win in conference play for the Terrapins, and they get another chance at Miami. On the other side, the Hurricanes need some outside cover. When they beat Georgetown early in the season (despite being outrebounded 55-33), Stefanie Yderstrom hit three 3-pointers and players other than stars Shenise Johnson and Riquna Williams hit five. In eight ACC games, with last week's loss at Duke the latest example, players other than Johnson and Williams have hit just 16 3-pointers.
Creighton at Northern Iowa: With its 67-59 victory at Missouri State on Sunday, Northern Iowa improved to 2-1 on the road against its three closest challengers in the Missouri Valley. But far from finding breathing room, the Panthers only guaranteed themselves a continued hold on first place through Thursday, when second-place Creighton visits. Jacqui Kalin scored 29 points in the victory at Missouri State and scored a game-high 19 points when Northern Iowa beat Creighton in Omaha on Jan. 13. This is a matchup of two good passing teams -- they rank first and second in the league in assists, even though no player on either team averages more than 3.2 assists per game.
Montana State at Northern Colorado: An encumbered view at the top of the Big Sky standings will be up for grabs when the Bobcats visit the Bears. Montana State claimed sole possession of first place over the weekend by virtue of a pair of victories and Northern Colorado's loss at Portland State and already owns a win in the first meeting between these two teams on Jan. 8. The regular-season champion hosts the conference tournament in the Big Sky, so there's more than pride at stake for two programs with limited postseason histories.
Oral Roberts at Oakland: With a 76-74 win against IPFW on Saturday, Oral Roberts completed a season sweep of the third-place Mastodons and improved to 10-0 in the Summit League. That leaves Oakland as the biggest obstacle in the way of a conference title. Yet when the teams met in Tulsa on New Year's Eve, Oral Roberts won by 22 points. Kevi Luper is a prolific shoot-first scoring guard who put up 29 in the last meeting, but Jordan Pyle (25 points, 8 rebounds) and Jaci Bigham (18 points, 11 assists) led the way against IPFW. Oakland, which beat Illinois and lost to Penn State in overtime earlier this season, scored 100 points against Centenary on Saturday without a single player attempting more than eight field goals.
Georgetown at Louisville: The Cardinals secured one important victory Saturday against Rutgers; Tuesday brings an opportunity to add a second of supreme postseason importance. Jeff Walz's team wasn't in Charlie Creme's Jan. 18 Bracketology, but the subsequent win against the Scarlet Knights moved the Cardinals to 5-3 in the Big East. And while there are no guarantees in the league, Louisville has three winnable road games remaining at Villanova, South Florida and Providence, as well as a home game against Seton Hall. It's difficult to imagine a team with 10 Big East victories missing the NCAA tournament, and Tuesday's game could end up being No. 10 when all is said and done.
North Carolina at Florida State: The Tar Heels got well after last week's loss against Maryland with predictable victories at home against Virginia and Virginia Tech. The two games produced six double-digit rebound performances for the Tar Heels. That's worth noting because, well, it's a lot of rebounds, but also because Florida State hammered North Carolina on the boards in an 83-72 win in Chapel Hill last season with Jacinta Monroe. For its part, Florida State was outrebounded by both Boston College and NC State last week, despite winning both games. It was a curious week for Alexa Deluzio, who entered with 34 fouls in her team's first 20 games and then picked up nine against the Eagles and Wolfpack.
Oklahoma at Baylor: If you want evidence as to why Sherri Coale might just be the best coach in college basketball, look at Oklahoma's recent victories against Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. In both cases, Coale maneuvered her team to victory despite seeing the Sooners beaten on the boards and struggling to contain opposing offenses. If you want evidence as to why it's still not clear exactly what Oklahoma is this season, well, look at Texas Tech and Oklahoma State beating the Sooners on the boards and shooting 46.8 percent from the field. The Sooners won two of three games against Baylor last season, and hit just seven 3-pointers in 125 minutes in doing it. With Whitney Hand healthy and Aaryn Ellenberg and Morgan Hook around, will they be able to spread Baylor's suffocating defense?
Wyoming at BYU: TCU's penchant for puzzling losses (Air Force joining New Mexico on that list) opens the door for a first-place showdown between two teams that already lost to the Horned Frogs. The Cowgirls still don't have a road win against a team with a winning record, but they're statistically dominant, leading in scoring margin and field goal differential in conference play. Four days should be ample recovery time, but four Wyoming players played at least 38 minutes in Saturday's victory against San Diego State. BYU guard Mindy Bonham is coming off a productive week, totaling 14 points, 9 assists and 8 rebounds in a win at San Diego State and 18 points and 10 assists in a home victory against New Mexico.
Auburn at Kentucky: Nell Fortner's team left itself a lot of work to do after understandable early losses against the likes of Florida State and Duke mushroomed into a funk that included neutral-site losses against South Florida and Sacred Heart, but things seem to quietly be coming together. Sunday's victory against South Carolina made it 6-2 in the SEC for an Auburn squad whose field goal offense and field goal defense are both improving in conference play. And with Kentucky riding a six-game winning streak in advance of Tennessee's visit on Feb. 7, might the Wildcats fall into the proverbial trap game? Kentucky loves to harass guards, so the matchup against Morgan Toles (2.9 assist-to-turnover ratio) should be fun to track.
Penn State at Michigan: Both teams beat preseason conference favorite Ohio State within the past week. The problem for Michigan is that it followed up that performance with a loss at cellar-dwelling Minnesota on Sunday. Penn State beat the Buckeyes by following a familiar script: shoot the ball well enough to offset a propensity for turnovers. Freshman sensation Maggie Lucas hit 6 of 8 3-pointers for Penn State against Ohio State. The Lady Lions are running a turnover deficit in conference play after accumulating a significant surplus early in the season, but as long as they shoot 45.9 percent from the 3-point line, they can get away with it.
California at Arizona: It's too early for an elimination game, but this sure feels like something close as both teams begin the second half of Pac-10 play. The Bears play the league's bottom four teams at home down the stretch, and their five toughest games on the road. The Wildcats face the opposite scenario, making this a hinge game for each side. When these two teams met in the Bay Area, Cal nearly doubled up Arizona on the boards in an 80-60 victory. The Wildcats might be the worst rebounding team not currently running in the red in rebound margin. In addition to that game against Cal, they were outrebounded against USC and UCLA over the weekend by 14 and 24, respectively.
Princeton at Harvard: Few teams were more dominant relative to their conference competition last season than Princeton. Friday night will reveal whether a repeat is in order. The Tigers improved to 3-0 in Ivy play with a victory at Yale on Saturday. All three wins came by double digits and all came without star forward Niveen Rasheed, out for the season with a knee injury. Without Rasheed, Addie Micir and Lauren Edwards have taken the scoring lead, and with the exception of the Yale victory, Princeton has relied more heavily on 3-pointers. Harvard point guard (and phenomenally named) Brogan Berry has 14 assists and just two turnovers during Harvard's 3-0 Ivy start.
Iowa at Ohio State: The schedules are favorable for both of these Big Ten preseason favorites after this week, which also includes Iowa hosting Michigan State on Thursday, but that will be small comfort for Monday's loser. Iowa is both a dangerous and prolific 3-point shooting team, but it is not an efficient 3-point shooting team, hitting just 29.2 percent of its shots behind the arc. That makes it all the more important for the Hawkeyes to value possession and give shooters maximum opportunities -- in four losses, Iowa averaged 16.5 turnovers, compared to 14.3 in 15 wins. Considering all four games were in play late, those possessions mattered. In the wake of Sarah Schulze's unfortunate knee injury for Ohio State, Ashley Adams becomes one of the most intriguing names in the conference after the 6-foot-5 freshman put up 13 points, nine rebounds, five blocks and four assists in Thursday's win at Illinois.
Miami at Florida State: The polls differ on which team should be favored, but Miami seems to have the most to gain in this ACC clash. The Hurricanes can validate a 4-0 conference start lacking in marquee wins by earning their biggest road result of the season (granted, it would top a short list). Both teams live at the free-throw line, even if they sometimes look like strangers in a strange land at the charity stripe (both shoot 67 percent from the line). Riquna Williams and Shenise Johnson weren't the problem in Miami's only loss this season at Nebraska; it was the rest of the team shooting 10 of 29 from the floor. So who steps up alongside the Miami stars?
West Virginia at Georgetown: It promises to be a telling week for West Virginia, which also travels to DePaul on Saturday, as Mike Carey's team looks to win on the road against ranked competition. This will be the fourth game in 11 days for the Mountaineers, but easy wins against Marshall on Jan. 19 and South Florida on Jan. 22 allowed Carey to rest key players, including Madina Ali, playing with a stress fracture in her right leg.
Connecticut at Rutgers: With due respect to Pittsburgh, which trailed by just six points at halftime of its game at Connecticut last week, this shapes up as a better game by which to gauge the Huskies without Samarie Walker, if only because it's in Piscataway and the Huskies and Scarlet Knights don't always play nice by the banks of the Raritan River. Two seasons ago, the game at Rutgers featured 32 fouls. Three seasons ago, the last time the Huskies lost a Big East regular-season game, two Huskies finished with four fouls and two more had three fouls. Without Walker, Geno Auriemma is going to have to get creative if his team -- and particularly freshman post Stefanie Dolson -- runs into foul trouble.
Texas A&M at Oklahoma: Texas A&M took 11 more shots than Iowa State in Saturday's 60-51 win, the first for the Aggies in Ames and the first home loss for the Cyclones in their past 20 games. That shouldn't be a surprise; entering play on Saturday, Gary Blair's team averaged 16.2 more field goal attempts per game than its opponents, easily the best such mark among teams in the top 20. Danielle Adams had been shooting just 41.7 percent from the floor in conference play before hitting 10 of 19 shots against the Cyclones.
Charlotte at Richmond: In doesn't get any easier for Richmond, which experienced A-10 life to the fullest last week with a big victory at Duquesne and a tough loss at home against Dayton, its first in conference play. The Spiders held the Flyers to three assists and forced 22 turnovers on Saturday but couldn't overcome the visitors collecting 51 rebounds and going to the free-throw line 31 times. That doesn't bode well against a Charlotte team that, despite being beaten soundly on the boards in Saturday's loss against Xavier, is tied for the conference lead in rebounding margin and leads the league in free-throw attempts. Neither team can afford to let Temple pull too far ahead in what might still be a race for second behind Xavier.
Green Bay at Butler: Is it the game of the year in the Horizon? Both teams will be perfect at 7-0 in league play entering the night. Last season's game in Indianapolis was a three-point contest inside the final minute before the Phoenix held on for the season sweep. The senior trio of Brittany Bowen, Chloe Hamilton and Alyssa Pittman leads the Bulldogs, while sophomore Lydia Bauer and junior Hannah Quilling are emerging as ever more consistent complementary options for the Phoenix with backcourt starter Adrian Ritchie still sidelined by a sprained MCL. Quilling totaled five points, six rebounds, three steals and 11 assists, and Bauer scored a career-high 20 points in Green Bay's 85-39 demolition of Wisconsin-Milwaukee over the weekend.
"Lydia is as good a shooter as anybody in our league," Green Bay coach Mat Bollant said after the Milwaukee win. "It's exciting to see her taking steps. She was out for a long time with the shoulder injury, so it's taken her a little while to get back in great shape and to get her legs underneath her."
Gonzaga at Saint Mary's: It's another mid-major with a national profile going on the road to face its primary conference challenger. Blowout victories against Santa Clara and San Francisco over the weekend allowed Gonzaga to make ample use of its bench, and Meghan Winters seized the opportunity by hitting 6-of-13 3-point attempts. But it's Saint Mary's most likely to make use of the long-distance shot in this game, with Kate Gaze, Jasmine Smith and Suzie Davis all shooting better than 40 percent. The game also pits the conference's two top shot blockers, although national leader Louella Tomlinson has more than a bit of a cushion on Kayla Standish.
Arizona at USC: The Wildcats are 4-3 in the league at the moment, but as their place on the outside in Charlie Creme's most recent Bracketology suggests, they could use a road win -- preferably against a team other than the Pacific Northwest quartet at the bottom of the conference standings. The Women of Troy simply aren't shooting well enough to consistently beat quality competition, but Briana Gilbreath knocked down 14-of-30 shots against California and Stanford over the weekend, albeit both times in losses.
Wake Forest at Maryland: There aren't any truly compelling matchups to close the work week, but after Maryland needed overtime to escape with a victory at Virginia on Friday and then cruised past North Carolina by 23 points on Sunday, it might at least be interesting to see if the Terrapins come out focused for a weekend that also includes a low-profile game against Longwood. Maryland didn't have the same leading scorer in back-to-back games until freshman standout Alyssa Thomas made it two in a row at Virginia and then three in a row against North Carolina.
Connecticut at North Carolina (ESPN2/ESPN3.com, 7 p.m. ET): The Huskies picked apart the Tar Heels the past two seasons, showing what happens when a team that relies on size, speed and forcing mistakes meets a team with equal size and speed that doesn't get flustered.
The Tar Heels still aren't going to run away from the Huskies, and Geno Auriemma's young team has shown it isn't easily flustered, but the size could be a factor with Tina Charles out of the mix -- assuming the ACC side holds onto the ball long enough to get it into the post or get shots up to allow for offensive rebounding opportunities. One positive for North Carolina is that these Tar Heels value possession far better than recent vintages. Led by point guard Cetera DeGraffenreid, who has just 24 turnovers in 466 minutes, North Carolina is averaging only 16 turnovers per game. No Tar Heels team has averaged fewer than 19 turnovers per game since the 2005-06 season. The bad news is that as the competition level has increased, so have the Tar Heels' turnovers in the past three games -- 18 against Georgia Tech in a loss, 20 against Boston College in a win and 22 in Friday's win against NC State. That's music to Connecticut's transition-minded ears.
North Carolina A&T at Hampton: It's a showdown for first place in the MEAC, although North Carolina A&T's loss at Howard on Saturday means it's not a meeting of conference unbeatens. WIth a road win at James Madison and a win at home against Florida already to its credit, Hampton has shown it can play at a high level. The Pirates have also won all four of their MEAC games by at least 16 points, including the last three by more than 20 points. As a team, they don't value the ball particularly well (260 turnovers in 16 games), but point guard Jericka Jenkins ranks among national leaders with a 3.12 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Georgetown at Notre Dame: Sugar Rodgers scored at least 19 points in each of Georgetown's first three Big East games and at least 24 points in each of the team's past three games against Clemson, Syracuse and Marquette, but those streaks came to crashing halts Saturday in the Hoyas' 49-45 win at Providence. Rodgers hit 1-of-8 shots in 27 minutes, just the second time in her career she has finished with a single field goal. For its part, Notre Dame showed no ill effects from a tough loss against Connecticut, routing Louisville by 20 points and Pitt by 32 points last week. The Fighting Irish have been outrebounded just three times this season, so it's difficult to imagine Georgetown duplicating that feat it accomplished in beating the Irish last season.
Texas at Texas A&M: Was Sunday's memorable game against Oklahoma that included a lost lead, a frantic comeback and an eventual overtime loss a step in the right direction, another disappointment, or both for Texas? We can debate that; the Longhorns have to turn around and play another rival in Texas A&M. The bad news is the Longhorns are 0-3 in the Big 12 this season, 7-16 against Baylor, Oklahoma and Texas A&M under Gail Goestenkors and shot 30 percent with 23 turnovers against the Sooners. The good news is despite all of that, they didn't quit and got big shot after big shot from Chassidy Fussell down the stretch to force overtime.
Texas Tech at Oklahoma: The other half of one of the past weekend's most exciting games heads home to play the only one-loss unranked team in a BCS conference. That's the price the Lady Raiders play for a soft schedule and three modest victories to open Big 12 play, but win in Norman and everything changes. Chynna Brown has been a key to the team's early conference success, averaging 14.3 points and 29 minutes in Big 12 play, compared to 5.4 points and 14.9 minutes out of conference (although she really began to heat up after the Christmas break).
Danielle Robinson, Whitney Hand and Aaryn Ellenberg combined to take 62 of Oklahoma's 77 shots against Texas and took 70 percent of the team's shots in Hand's first four games back. By way of comparison, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh account for 62 percent of the Miami Heat's field goal attempts.
Saint Joseph's at Temple: After a strong start this season, Saint Joseph's dropped back-to-back home games against Xavier and Charlotte last week to fall to 1-2 in the Atlantic 10. Rebounding is unlikely to become a statistic the Hawks dominate, but double-digit deficits like the ones against the Musketeers and 49ers are tough to overcome. For Temple, unbeaten in its first three A-10 games, Kristen McCarthy sizzles. She opened with 22 points and nine rebounds in a win at Charlotte and is shooting 51 percent, including 43 percent from the 3-point line, in A-10 play.
BYU at TCU: It's a clash of unbeatens atop the Mountain West standings in Fort Worth. Stuck in neutral at 6-6 after a home loss against Georgia just before Christmas, TCU is now 12-6 overall and 4-0 in conference play, including a big 68-47 road win at Wyoming last Wednesday. Helena Sverrisdottir had just six more assists than turnovers in 14 games out of conference but is already nine ahead in four MWC games. BYU's only true road win this season came against BYU-Hawaii, Utah Valley and Air Force, leaving plenty for the Cougars to prove in Texas.
UCLA at Stanford: In UCLA's only loss, LSU got to the free-throw line 22 times and beat the Bruins on the boards in Westwood. In 15 wins, the Bruins averaged 21.5 free-throw attempts to 14.8 for their opponents, and 38.5 rebounds to 30.1 for their opponents, including edges in both categories in wins against Notre Dame and Temple. For all its ample size and toughness, Stanford gets to the free-throw line surprisingly infrequently -- it's one of just two top-10 teams, along with Michigan State, that has more 3-point attempts than free-throw attempts.
Michigan at Northwestern: It might not have looked like a big game when the schedules came out, but there is potentially a lot riding on Thursday's contest in Evanston. Michigan is 3-1 against ranked teams in the past month and could conceivably move into a tie atop the Big Ten with a win. Northwestern got its first win against Ohio State since 1999 last week but is 1-2 on the road in conference play after Sunday's loss at Purdue. The program's NCAA tournament hopes (it hasn't been since 1997) might ride on defending their home turf.
Georgia Tech at Duke: For Georgia Tech, the best ACC start in program history hinges on Monday's game at Wake Forest, but Friday's game at Cameron Indoor Stadium will tell a lot about whether this is a Yellow Jackets team with any chance to produce the best ending in program history. Georgia Tech hasn't come within 10 points of Duke since the 2006-07 season and hasn't beaten Duke since the 1993-94 season. Brilliant but not always economical in her shooting, Jasmine Thomas hit 14-of-23 shots in a pair of wins last season.
Florida Gulf Coast at USC Upstate: An otherwise light schedule just means more of the spotlight is available for an Atlantic Sun showdown between teams focused on regular-season glory. Florida Gulf Coast knocked off NCAA tournament regular East Tennessee State on Saturday in conference play and looks to secure another big road win here. USC Upstate dropped to 4-1 in conference play with a loss against Stetson on Saturday but has the league's leading scorer and rebounder in Chelsea McMillan (16.4 ppg, 10.2 rpg). Kelsey Jacobson needed just 10 shots to lead Florida Gulf Coast with 21 points Saturday, hitting five of 10 3-pointers and all six of her free throws.
West Virginia at Marquette: With apologies to St. Bonaventure, a good team with a distinctive style, this is the biggest true road test to date for No. 7 West Virginia. Before games against Seton Hall and Cincinnati last week, coach Mike Carey said the team was still adjusting to having Sarah Miles back. And while the Mountaineers didn't need anything close to perfection to rout both foes, 40 turnovers, including seven from Miles, suggests the adjustment continues. For Marquette, having the Angel Robinson who helped spark Saturday's double-overtime upset at Georgetown (18 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, three turnovers) will be critical. She's just 8-of-34 from the field with 10 turnovers in three career games against the Mountaineers.
Illinois State at Missouri State: With Creighton off to a 3-0 start in Missouri Valley play and looking strong, neither of these teams wants to be saddled so early with a second league loss. Sophomore forward Christina Shorter, last season's MVC Freshman of the Year, led the Bears in each of their first two conference wins, scoring a total of 40 points in those games. But she attempted just seven shots to go with four fouls in 22 minutes in an 80-69 loss at Northern Iowa last week.
TCU at Wyoming: The Cowgirls effectively put all their eggs in the conference basket by playing a weak early schedule, but the strategy seems to be working thus far. Wyoming's Aubrey Vandiver put up 24 points in Saturday's win at New Mexico, and a win in Albuquerque is worth something, no matter what kind of season the Lobos are having. TCU has four wins in a row since a heartbreaking last-second loss against Georgia, including a 49-47 road win at San Diego State on Wednesday. Helena Sverrisdottir became TCU's all-time assists leader in Saturday's win over UNLV, totaling 24 points, seven rebounds and seven steals to go with her six assists.
Texas A&M at Oklahoma State: Has reality set in for No. 25 Oklahoma State, which opened Big 12 play Sunday with a 63-45 loss at Kansas State? The Cowgirls head to Baylor after Wednesday's game against the Aggies, so it's going to take some work to avoid an 0-3 league start after cracking the Top 25 with a 12-1 start to the season. No. 5 Texas A&M, on the other hand, hasn't won by fewer than 25 points since a loss at Duke early in December. During that seven-game stretch, point guard Sydney Colson has 52 assists against just 12 turnovers.
Louisville at Notre Dame: Louisville plays at No. 12 Notre Dame on Wednesday and at No. 2 Connecticut on Saturday, a road trip that could only be less appealing if it came with a layover in Vladivostok. But the game in South Bend is big, both as a test of where the Cardinals fit in the Big East table after a 3-0 league start and whether Notre Dame builds off or wallows in Saturday's heartbreaker against Connecticut. Monique Reid has been on fire of late for the Cardinals, scoring 20 or more in three consecutive games, including 24 points in a win over St. John's on Tuesday and 29 points against Pitt on Sunday.
Iowa at Michigan State: It's the second week of January, and only three Big Ten teams own winning records in conference play, so 3-0 versus 2-2 qualifies as a big deal, especially when it's No. 13 Michigan State and No. 22 Iowa in possession of those records. The Spartans obliterated Wisconsin and Michigan on the boards in wins last week and lead the Big Ten in rebounding margin, but the Hawkeyes are second in the category. In two games against Iowa last season, Michigan State totaled just nine second-chance points and was outrebounded by 17. The Hawkeyes won both games.
Oregon at USC: The Ducks bounced back from a rough opening weekend of conference play with wins at home against Washington and Washington State, but Paul Westhead's team wasn't exactly dominant on the stat sheet in either victory. If Oregon is going to be any sort of factor in the league, it needs to win on the road outside the Pacific Northwest -- and USC is at least a better bet for that than Stanford or UCLA. On the flip side, if USC's Briana Gilbreath, Ashley Corral and Jacki Gemelos can't get their shot back on track against a defense allowing 48.5 percent shooting in four Pac-10 games, the Women of Troy might have reason to worry.
Tennessee at Florida: Is this a potential game or a potential rout? It depends on which Florida you believe is the real deal. The Gators are 8-0 at home, including noteworthy victories against Charlotte, Old Dominion and Arkansas. They're just 1-5 in true road games, although the one came in Sunday's win at South Carolina, in which the Gators shot 56.5 percent. One thing that should worry Florida fans is that their team has more turnovers than the opponent in all three SEC games thus far. If No. 6 Tennessee has a weakness, it might be its propensity for turnovers (see: Georgetown). But 20 turnovers won't hurt the Lady Vols if they force 30.
Duke at Florida State: No. 3 Duke had plenty of headline performances last week, including Chelsea Gray's fortunate "shot" to beat Kentucky, and a pair of big scoring nights from Jasmine Thomas against the Wildcats and Maryland. But don't overlook Tricia Liston's seemingly small supporting role. Liston hit three of seven 3-point attempts in the wins, one more than the total long-distance contributions of every other Duke player not named Jasmine Thomas. While the 3-point line was largely a barren wasteland for the Blue Devils last season, it's now home to a number of role players -- including Liston, Gray, Shay Selby and Kathleen Scheer -- who can play the role of X factor on a given day.