After his team took it on the chin in a nationally televised game against Baylor during the season's opening week, Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell made the point that he didn't think his team "got any less talented" that night.
In other words, one bad game against one very good team in November should not a season define. Easier said than done, given the game, but maybe there is reason to take heed.
Kentucky wrapped up a challenging eight-day stretch with Sunday's 68-46 victory against a Middle Tennessee team relying on largely the same players that beat the Wildcats 12 months ago. Sunday's game came on the heels of a 96-64 win against DePaul on Friday and last weekend's harrowing 48-47 victory on the road against Louisville. Three wins against NCAA tournament-type teams. Three wins that on their own don't erase the sting of Baylor.
The truth of the matter is there is little Kentucky can do between now and March to answer the only remaining question about its place in the basketball landscape. That's in large part a tribute to what Mitchell has constructed in Lexington, a program that drew more than 23,000 fans to its two games this past weekend (the DePaul game was played in Rupp Arena, rather than the team's standard cozier confines in Memorial Coliseum).
By beating three teams with distinctive styles and standout individuals in recent days, the Wildcats have proved they will be successful this season. We know they are good enough to get to a regional final because we saw them do it last season. The only thing we don't know is whether they can beat a team like Baylor, Connecticut, Notre Dame or Stanford when the bright lights are on.
Which is where DeNesha Stallworth makes things interesting. There were times early in Sunday's game when Kentucky looked like its former self, trailing Middle Tennessee 18-5 in rebounds at one point. That's the Kentucky that, among other problems, couldn't deal with Brittney Griner or Destiny Williams last month and was hammered on the boards by a small Connecticut team in the Elite Eight last season. Kentucky never did reclaim the rebounding edge against the Blue Raiders, but the Wildcats narrowed the deficit and got game-defining performances out of both Stallworth and Samarie Walker inside on a day A'dia Mathies struggled outside.
Stallworth played just 13 minutes against Baylor, her second game for Kentucky after sitting out last season following a transfer from Cal. In the three most recent games, she averaged 15.7 points. 7.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists.
"There is nothing like being able to get that game experience and figure out how you are going to react to different things and kind of figure out where your place is to make an impact on the team," Mitchell was quoted as after Sunday's game about Stallworth's sitting out 2011-12 and playing a bigger and bigger role this season. "We knew we had gotten a very talented player, and it is just coming to life now. Every game she is more comfortable, and I think she can continue to get better, I really do."
Mitchell was right that Kentucky didn't get less talented in its loss to Baylor. Is his team getting more talented as Stallworth settles in?
We'll have to wait to March to know for sure. But with Stallworth in tow, maybe this team is ready to pull an Andy Murray.
Dispatches from Poughkeepsie
According to NASA, there have been 13 total lunar eclipses since 2000. Until Saturday night, that was the same number of times Marist lost a basketball game at home during the past 10 seasons.
Beating the Red Foxes in Poughkeepsie might not be rocket science, but it isn't easy.
Boston University's 62-56 overtime win allowed it entry into the small club of teams to beat Marist in the gym it made a fortress (a 105-14 record since 2003-04), but that bit of history is less significant than the present the win prolongs. Few mid-major teams accomplished more in the season's first month. In addition to Marist, the Terriers also beat Boston College, Richmond and St. John's, the last the highest-ranked team ever defeated by the program.
Even in the case of losses, a three-point setback against West Virginia and a nine-point road loss at Michigan can be considered proof of a certain level of competitiveness.
Credit much of that to seniors Chantell Alford and Mo Moran, a backcourt that combined for 27 points, nine assists and five steals Saturday. Both struggled at times against a defense familiar with them from past games in the rivalry, but whether it was Moran in a key second-half run or Alford's backbreaking baskets in overtime, they made big plays at big moments. It's kind of their thing.
"I think they mean everything to them," Marist coach Brian Giorgis said. "Without those two, it's a good program, but it's not the program it is. I mean, they're very, very difficult to guard. … Every time we didn't do something according to the [scouting report], the way we were supposed to, we got burnt."
Alford is easy to pick off the stat sheet. She averages a team-best 18.5 points, in addition to 5.3 rebounds and 2.0 steals. She was the player of the year in the America East in each of the past two seasons and her current pace suggests she will have a strong case to be the first player to win the award three times in a row. But Moran has been there with her from the start. Fifth in the NCAA in assists per game this season when last week began, she has started all but five games in her career and collected 452 assists, or 4.4 per game for her career.
"I think people who really know the game of basketball know that Mo is our best player," Boston University coach Kelly Greenberg said. "Chantel has been Mo's counterpart for four years as well, as a four-year starter, and is the scorer and the rebounder. But Mo is our rock. … Defensively, she just does everything, all the little things that no one sees."
There is an understandable sense of urgency for the team, partly because its two stars will move on after this season, a familiar fear for smaller programs, but also because the program itself will move without them. Boston University will leave the America East after this season for the Patriot League, at best a lateral move for women's basketball.
"These two players we have right now have been very special, starting for four years, and we've been able to hang with the big boys, I guess you could say, for a number of years," Greenberg said. "It's going to be an interesting transition. … It's going to be different because now our recruiting is going to change, and we just don't know how much or how it's going to change, but we know it will."
Given the timing of her arrival in Lincoln and her position, Jordan Hooper was always going to be burdened by comparisons to former All-American Kelsey Griffin. But at the risk of adding to the problem, well, that sure seemed like a Griffin-esque performance from Hooper against Florida State on Saturday. The junior finished with a career-best 36 points and 12 rebounds, and the Huskers needed all of them in a 78-77 win against the Seminoles that came on the heels of a surprise loss at Creighton earlier in the week.
Hooper played 35 minutes in that midweek loss but missed all seven of her shots and totaled just four rebounds. Three days later, she hit 12-of-20 shots, including 6-of-11 from the 3-point line, and committed just three turnovers in 35 minutes.
The top-scoring game for Griffin during her sensational 2009-10 season in which Nebraska earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament? You guessed it, 36 points. It just goes to show Hooper is a star in her own right.
She also starred
Tianna Hawkins, Maryland: Hawkins matched or exceeded her scoring average of 20 points per game in two of Maryland's three games last week, but the one outing in which she came in under that mark will be among the more impressive performances she turns in all season. Hawkins was instrumental in victories against Virginia to open ACC play, totaling 20 points and 12 rebounds, and a weekend breeze against George Mason, adding 27 points and seven rebounds.
Still, she was as good as any player on the court in putting up 14 points and 10 rebounds in a 63-48 loss at Connecticut to begin the week. And that was a court with a heck of a lot of future WNBA talent on it. Between her development as a legitimate offensive asset and freshman point guard Chloe Pavlech's good moments, there is reason for optimism amidst injury in College Park.
Honorable mention to Delaware's Lauren Carra, who hit the game-winning shot against Princeton on Sunday. Sometimes it's simply nice to see a kid rewarded for caring. After a loss against Georgetown in the WNIT, Carra sounded genuinely aggrieved at the 3-pointers she missed, as if she had let down everyone, including the people asking her questions.
Delaware needed better 3-point shooting this season beyond Elena Delle Donne, Carra was the only one likely capable of providing it, and she spent the summer shooting a volume of jumpers that suggested she knew it. And still the shots wouldn't fall when the season started. The winner with 2.1 seconds left Sunday was a banked runner and not a 3-pointer, but as was also true of the Georgetown game, there are a lot of ways Carra helps her team. This was a legitimately big win for a team still without Delle Donne, and it came by Carra's hand. Good for her.
Team of the weekend
Creighton: A weekend win against Houston was actually the lesser part of the résumé for the week, but consider this a nod to the full body of work. The Bluejays proved inhospitable hosts to in-state foe Nebraska this past Wednesday, pulling off a 66-57 win. Marissa Janning led the scoring with 19 points in 25 minutes, including 4-of-6 shooting from the 3-point line, but Creighton's balance stood out.
The home team had 22 assists on 27 field goals, including at least one assist from eight of the nine players who earned minutes. They were at it again against Houston, recording assists on 22 of 26 field goals, with Janning again shooting well from long range and McKenzie Fujan scoring 20 points.
Upset of the week
Kent State: Creighton's win against Nebraska is in the running, but we've covered the Bluejays (and perhaps the week's results suggest it wasn't that much of an upset in the first place). Temple isn't quite as strong this season as the past few seasons, but it was 5-2 and coming off a win against Syracuse when it visited winless Kent State this past Thursday.
Instead of a quick win before a tough stretch of games against Auburn, Villanova, Michigan State and Georgetown, Temple left Ohio with a 71-62 loss. All four Kent State starters played at least 32 minutes, and senior point guard Tamzin Barroilhet played all 40 minutes to finish with 17 points, nine assists and just two turnovers.
Honorable mention to NAIA Division II Reinhardt University. The Georgia school knocked off Jacksonville State 65-60 last week in its first game against a Division I program. An Australian in her first season with Reinhardt after three at Southern Polytechnic State University, Tara Hay led the way in the upset with 25 points. Hay, who played high school basketball in Iowa, hit just 10-of-47 shots in four games preceding the victory against Jacksonville State.
Before next weekend
It's a rough week for everyone. Fans get a mere six games involving ranked teams between Monday and Friday, while players across the country get the misery of final exams. But there are still a few interesting matchups out there.
Harvard at Boston University (Monday): Their start aside, Boston University's seniors have yet to beat Harvard in three tries. This might be the best Harvard team of the bunch. In her first season, McDonald's All-American Temi Fagbenle is averaging 10.5 points per game, but Christine Clark leads the way (17.6 ppg) despite a recent slump.
Milwaukee at DePaul (Tuesday): Could this be an interesting game? Sure, Milwaukee shoots a lot of 3-pointers and shoots them at a good clip (38 percent). Is this mostly a chance to mention the Panthers' 116-112 double-overtime win last week against Bradley? Yes, yes it is. Milwaukee set a school record with 91 field goal attempts in that game, yet still managed to shoot 50.5 percent from the field. It also recorded 31 assists on 46 field goals. Sophomore Ashley Green led the Panthers with 33 points, and deservedly so, considering her 3-pointer at the buzzer in regulation tied the score.
Auburn at George Washington (Wednesday): It's a return to the nation's capital for first-year Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy, but it's also a Big East reunion as the former head coach at Georgetown visits former Notre Dame associate head coach Jonathan Tsipis. Auburn is forcing turnovers at a tremendous rate for its new tempo-conscious coach (21.4 turnovers per game), but it actually trails George Washington, which is forcing 25 turnovers per game to date, including 27 against Rutgers and 25 against Georgetown.
Oral Roberts at Baylor (Wednesday): It's likely the more competitive game for Oral Robers will be Friday's visit to Louisiana Tech, but a trip to Waco is always going to earn the spotlight. Kevi Luper will have a tough time scoring as efficiently in this game as she does the rest of the time (she's shooting 50.9 percent from the field and 42.1 percent from the 3-point line this season), but she did score 32 points on 12-of-25 shooting against Baylor as a freshman.
Oregon at Illinois (Wednesday): This will be a measuring stick for first-year Illinois coach Matt Bollant. It's a game the Illini should win against a team that dropped to 0-7 Sunday, but it isn't a game they can sleepwalk through. Or walk through in any form. Oregon's style grants opponents better than 70 field goal attempts per game, a tempo that will test an Illinois team that played five players at least 32 minutes in Sunday's win against Memphis.
Princeton at Villanova (Wednesday): It's not out of the ordinary to see Villanova start strong before running into trouble in conference play, but the strong 3-point shooting fueling the current 7-1 start is notable. The Wildcats struggled to reach 30 percent in some recent seasons, negating one of their staples, but they are shooting 36 percent from behind the arc at the moment, with six players averaging at least two attempts per game. They hit 3-of-21 attempts from long range last season in a loss against Princeton.
San Diego at Arizona State (Wednesday): Weekend road wins at Providence and Boston College moved the Sun Devils above .500 and showcased a team playing a familiar brand of basketball -- only one player reached double digit field goal attempts in either game. For its part, San Diego had just six assists on 22 field goals in squandering a halftime lead and losing to city rival San Diego State last week.
Louisville at Colorado (Friday): The Cardinals will ease into Big East play as the new year nears (home games against Washington State, Wagner and Tennessee State follow), but this is a very tricky trip to Boulder. The Cardinals bounced back from a tough loss against Kentucky by completely reversing course in two problem areas in a 96-40 win against Valparaiso, committing just nine turnovers and shooting 90 percent from the free throw line. But the Crusaders weren't undefeated, a status Colorado maintains behind standout redshirt freshman Arielle Roberson (17.3 ppg).