Friday, February 20, 2009
Back on January 11, Tennessee's women's basketball team went to Nashville and Vanderbilt's Memorial Gynasium. At halftime, the Vols trailed by eight points. They came out in the second half and gave up 43 points to the 'Dores, and lost by 16. A little more than week ago, Florida also entered Memorial, this time toting a top-10 rating and looking to keep pace with Auburn atop the SEC standings. They also fell behind by eight at halftime. They came out in the second half and gave up 47 points. They lost by 16.
Last night Auburn went to Nashville, entered Memorial, faced those same 'Dores on their Senior Night. They looked even more lost in the first half than the Vols or Gators, giving up layup after layup to the supposedly perimeter-oriented home team and trailing by 16, 40-24, at the break.
In the second half they played like their hair was on fire. They cut the lead to 12. Then, eventually, to 7. They almost refused to miss. They turned the ball over a total of three times (after doing so nine times in the first half). They watched as Vandy hit circus lay-ups, turnaround J's with a hand in their face. Still, they cut the lead to 3. Then, finally, to 1, and with 11 seconds left they had the chance to tie the game with one shot.
So the shot didn't go in. You ask me, they'd already proven who the best team in this league is this year. Forgive my rampant homerism, but if this game's in Beard-Eaves on the Tigers' Senior Night, I think Auburn wins by double digits. Even in Memorial, three points is nothing: one three-pointer that goes in or doesn't, one ref's whistle that blows for the visitors instead of the home team, one bounce of the ball off the rim.
I'm not suggesting the loss isn't painful, not suggesting there wasn't an awful lot at stake and that there's reason to feel hurt and disappointed. But after that second half, if you think this team isn't something special, if you think that their coach isn't one of the best in the business, if you think anything of their effort other than that they spent that last 20 minutes doing everything they possibly could ... well, why would you think that?
Winning would have been better. But I don't think I'd have been too much happier with them. Keep fighting, ladies. You'll see them again, and this time they won't have the Gym From Another Dimension to help them out.
--Yes, if you can't tell, I got to watch this game. Pretty sweet.
--All that optimism is not to say Auburn played a perfect game or anything. Looked to me like they expected Vandy to stick to the outside and launch away, and when the 'Dores decided "Screw that" and started driving into the lane at every possible opportunity, Auburn just wasn't ready. Fortner got them adjusted in the second half, but by then, of course, they were down 16.
--That said, I wouldn't say the game was lost in those first 20 minutes. The game really got away from Auburn between the 16:52 and 10:26 marks of the second half. In that timespan Auburn scored 13 points and connected for a field goal on six of their eight possessions--an average of 1.625 points a trip. That's phenomenal offense. But at the end of it Auburn had actually lost ground, going from down 42-33 to 58-46. Why? Vandy scored on eight of their nine possessions. To go on the kind of scoring run the Tigers put together in that stretch (and basically throughout the entire second half) and still wind up down 12 at the end of it, with only 10 minutes to play, meant that Auburn would need something really incredible to pull out the win. They almost came up with it, but it's this six-minute stretch--where the defense and defensive rebounding in particular could have been better, sure, but where Vandy also connected on a couple of tough shots--that meant something incredible would be necessary.
--You could make the argument Auburn lost the game on two specific, easy second half plays while Vandy was shooting free throws. On one, the 'Dores missed (which didn't happen too often) and Auburn got caught in a lane violation; Vandy hit the second. On the other, the 'Dores missed, and what looked like an easy board got snatched away for a putback. There's your three points right there.
--Then again, part of the reason we're talking about Vandy free throws is because they shot twice as many as Auburn did, 20-to-10. Some of that can be attributed to their aggressiveness in getting to the rim (and the two Auburn had to donate at the end of the game), but more than one trip to the line came virtue of bailouts in which a Vandy player dribbled into a stationary Auburn post player, fell down, and got the call. Not unusual on the road (especially in a game called as tightly as this one), but still worth noting.
--Hard to second guess Fortner, but with Vandy's defense clearly happy to pack the lane and wait for Auburn to try their luck with their jumpshot, I wonder if it wouldn't have been better to bring Alli Smalley back into the game to finish the first half even with the two fouls. She should have been able to avoid her third and it would have (hopefully) given Boddie, Bonner, and Hobbs a little bit more room to operate inside (as Smalley's shooting demonstrated in the second half).
--Speaking of Boddie and Bonner, I thought the former was excellent--there wasn't a whole lot more she could do with Vandy so determined to keep her out of the lane and transition opportunities few and far between. The ones she got, though, she executed. Bonner ... well, it's hard for me to really think of any specific problems other than the couple of long jumpers that probably came a bit too early in the shot clock. But a 13-point, seven rebound, four turnover performance just doesn't seem quite good enough in a game of this magnitude. She wasn't bad--6-for-12 from the field's kinda good, actually--but by this point we're kind of used to outstanding.
--OK, the ramifications: first, even with Vandy holding the tiebreaker, Auburn's hardly out of the SEC regular season title hunt just yet. The 'Dores get their own "Senior Night on the road" treatment when they go to Knoxville on the final day of the regular season. Even with the Vols obviously a little down this year, they haven't lost a home game to an SEC team or anyone besides Duke since the second game of the season. That game will be the very furthest thing from easy for Vandy. Meanwhile, Auburn's closing with much, much easier home dates against Georgia and Arkansas. I'd say the chances of Auburn winning the title outright and grabbing the top seed in the SEC tourney are still better than 50-50.
As for that NCAA No. 1 seed, well, it hurts, no doubt about it. With Auburn currently sharing the SEC title, I would guess that Duke (hot off that win in Knoxville) would move up to the top line with Auburn once again mixed in with the Pac-10 powers and Louisville on the No. 2 line. A loss in the SEC tourney would now likely end any shot at a top seed. However, an outright title combined with a tourney championship would still seem to make a No. 1 very likely, just as before. And even the shared crown with Vandy plus a tourney title might be enough depending on results elsewhere. If the loss makes some possibilities less likely, it hasn't actually cost Auburn a thing yet.
--Did you know Nell Fortner has her own website? It kind of kicks ass.