Sunday, January 17, 2021
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Surprising losses

I listened to the last part of the audio feed, and I hated to hear Cal lose. They had been undefeated before going down to TCU at home tonight, and it had been fun riding the Cal train. I hope they’ll use this as motivation for future games, and I hope they don’t fall too far down in the rankings.

Maryland also bit it again, getting blown out by Pittsburgh 86-57. They sure are inconsistent this year – and quiet. You don’t hear much from them. What happened to the spirit of the 2006 championship team? Like the Seattle Storm, it makes you wonder if it was just a mistake.

The last upset tonight was Bonaventure’s victory over Michigan State, who had been ranked 24.

Tomorrow both Baylor and Rutgers play, but I will be on the road, as my schedule is busy this week.

Monday I’m heading to the Redondo Union tournament to check out Washington Prep and whomever else I want to see; Tuesday I’m catching the Southwest CC-Pasadena CC game; Wednesday it’s the View Prep game; Thursday no live action, but Tennessee action; Friday it’s Dorsey-Crenshaw day. If Prep makes it to the championship game, I’ll have to go back to Redondo Saturday.

I wore my Santa hat that’s orange with black lines like a basketball to the UCLA game today. One of my daughters from another mother said I think basketball 24/7.

Maybe.

UCLA 62, Nevada, 47

The Bruins finally played an athletic, solid team who beat a ranked opponent last week – and beat them. So that might shut up some of the naysayers for 45 seconds.

But I’m hung up on the number 54 right now. Because today, for the third game in a row, UCLA pulled down 54 rebounds.

I’m like my role model Pat Summitt; I understand why she reached down into that toilet a decade ago to pull out the lucky penny. So I wonder what is up with the number 54 – que significa? I’m sure we’ll find out eventually.

Nevada played the Bruins tough today: they were physical, and played some serious defense. In fact, they shut down all UCLA post play early in the game by keeping them from getting inside. Coach Nikki Caldwell acknowledged that in her post-game interview.

“I challenged them at halftime to get the ball inside, and they responded,” she said.

Despite the difficulties, UCLA lead comfortably throughout the first half, but in the second half, Nevada went on a mini-run and closed the gap 33-27. Thanks to sophomores Darxia Morris and Christina Nzekwe, however, the Bruins went on their own run.

Morris, who ended the day with 10 points and six assists, unleashed some jumpers. Nzekwe, who posted four steals, six rebounds, five points and one block she wasn’t credited for, played some amazing defense. At times she completely shut down her opponent. The Bruins, who had been turnover-happy in the first half, cut them down to almost nothing. Forward Chinyere Ibekwe also pitched in 12 boards and eight points on the day.

“They don’t start slow anymore,” my seatmate Daniel said.

Nope, and it’s nice to see. This team is growing extremely fast.

The only fault I’d find with them today was their shooting percentage: 29.7 for the first half and 48.1 for the second for a total average of 37.5. Their free throw shooting also still needs work. Caldwell noted some things too at a first-half timeout. From my seat, I could hear her tell the team, “Offensively, we’re better than them, but we’re bailing them out. Quit fouling!”

They have an entire week before their next game, so I’m sure Caldwell has several things in mind for practice this week.

Other notes:

Every game, the crowd gets bigger and bigger. Daniel and I are very encouraged. And Caldwell took the time to thank the band, the cheer squad and the fans during her post-game time at the mic. Daniel also noticed that the coaches seem to recognize some of the regular fans now; relationships are being built!

Tennessee fans will appreciate that Caldwell has a small stool to sit on during timeouts that looks a lot like Summitt’s special stool, except that it’s blue. I wonder if she’ll take it on the road with her the way her mentor does.

Below are some photos from an earlier game this season. I thought non-LA residents might appreciate seeing what the team huddle and the Caldwell post-game interview look like from my point of view.

PS – Happy birthday, Briana Bass!

UCLA leads, USC falters, and Vanderbilt!

In each of their first six counting games this year, UCLA has outrebounded their opponents by an average of 49.7 to 29.5. The Bruins have garnered 50 or more rebounds in four games: CSU Bakersfield, Cal State Northridge and Cal State Fullerton, all 54, and 50 vs. Pepperdine. Senior Chinyere Ibekwe has led UCLA in rebounding in five games, posting two double-digit totals (14 vs. CSUF and a career-high 15 vs. CSUN). As of Dec. 1, UCLA has the best rebounding margin in the nation at 18.4 and the best in the Pac-10 at 48.8. UCLA is also the conference leader in offensive rebounding at 20.8 per contest. Ibekwe ranks second in the conference in rebounding with an average of 10.8. The Bruins dominated the boards against CSU Bakersfield, outrebounding the Roadrunners 54-25, including 29-3 on the offensive end.

USC, on the other hand, posted a surprising loss last night to Utah Valley State at the Hukilau Invitational in Hawaii. They repeated their misfortunte tonight with a one-point loss to BYU. What the heck is going on? True the team has been plagues with injuries the last few years, but they’ve also been consistent underachievers. Some on the message boards are saying Coach Mark Trakh is not cut out for the job. I guess time will tell, but in the meantime it’s unfortunate that the Trojans again seem headed toward a disappointing season in the senior years of three good players.

Cal beat Princeton handily tonight, and Arizona State did the same with UC Irvine. Washington State beat Long Beach State last night. All of this has resulted in the following current Pac-10 standings:

2008-09 WOMEN’s BASKETBALL

Team Conf. Pct. Overall Pct.
California 0-0 – 7-0 1.000
Stanford 0-0 – 6-1 .857
UCLA 0-0 – 5-1 .833
Oregon State 0-0 – 4-1 .800
Arizona State 0-0 – 5-2 .714
Washington State 0-0 – 4-2 .667
USC 0-0 – 4-3 .571
Oregon 0-0 – 3-3 .500
Washington 0-0 – 3-3 .500
Arizona 0-0 – 3-4 .429

I anticipated all of those placings at this point in the season except Oregon State. I admit they have surprised me, and pleasantly so.

UCLA plays Nevada tomorrow, and I’m not scurred.

UC Riverside beat Vanderbilt tonight, 50-47. I can’t say I’m surprised. They struggled so hard to beat Fullerton the other night, and I agreed with the first pack of people who said they were overrated. They’re a very good team, but I don’t necessarily see them as SEC champs. That position is currently wide open for hire.

The other upset tonight was Arkansas-Little Rock over #17 Oklahoma State.

Sagittarians

Jasmine

I’d like to say happy birthday to two of my favorite basketball players. Both of these young women have given me much basketball joy the last few years. Have a great day, ladies.

SB in the day

Shannon Bobbitt

Vanderbilt 83, Cal State Fullerton 67

When Vanderbilt almost got beat by Love and Basketball in a pre-season exhibition game, there was talk that the Commodores had been overrated in polls that predicted they’d win the SEC Conference. When Michigan beat Vanderbilt almost two weeks ago, that talk surfaced again.

Last night was my first time seeing the Commodores play in person, so I’m not an expert on the team. And having seen Fullerton play already this season (against UCLA), I noticed they put on an unusually good show. So I’m not sure what the truth is.

What I do know is that it took Vandy, currently ranked 16th, until late in the second half to establish a solid run that put Fullerton away. And this was despite stellar performances by three of their starters.

Vanderbilt came out pressing, but Fullerton responded with their own press and a quick three by junior guard Jasmine Scott, who proved to have the hot hand of the night.

Commodore forward Hannah Tuomi scored her team’s first bucket, and proved to be instrumental as she was so effective in the paint. On a team that lists no centers, Tuomi fills that role, and Vanderbilt’s performance began to decline in the first half when Coach Melanie Balcomb took Tuomi out. With 12:55 to go, Fullerton was up 18-12.

Fortunately for Vandy, Christina Wirth jumped in and hit her first of six three-pointers (she was 6-6 for the night) from deep in the left corner. She nailed another one a few minutes later from the top of the key, but Fullerton seemed like they couldn’t miss a shot. At 8:47, the Titans were still up 24-22.

Then Tuomi came back in. She blocked a shot and scored inside. Senior guard Jennifer Risper, whose huge family from nearby Moreno Valley was sitting right behind me (we were all behind the Vandy bench) screaming, stole the ball and went coast to coast for the score. Vanderbilt was up 26-24 at the 7:21 mark. The teams traded baskets before the Commodores went on a small run. Then Fullerton crawled back, scoring 6 in the last few minutes to Vandy’s 2. It was 38-34 Commodores at the half.

My favorite play came early in the second half on a transition. Wirth was already on the right high block and received a quick pass. She held it and held still for about 1.5 seconds – so that a streaking Tuomi could place her body perfectly right in front of the ball. Pass, swish.

But again, the Titans wouldn’t go away. Besides Scott, sophomore guard Lauren Chow was going off. She hit a few baskets, and the score was knotted at 49 with 15:04 to go. Then Vanderbilt went on a run to put them up 56-49 at 12:32. A Risper steal and layup made her family go nuts, but the Titans’ Scott hit another three. It was 62-56 Vandy with about 10 to go. That’s when the Commodores finally started their run. They got it up to 67-58 with 7:25 to go, and despite some mistakes, they were able to hold the lead and build it. At 3:59, it was Vandy 73, Fullerton 62. They never looked back from there.

For whatever reason, Fullerton felt the need to do a weird back court press on their opponents in the last 10 seconds. Maybe it was just to prove a point, but they didn’t need to do that. They played Vanderbilt tough, and I was impressed.

Tuomi scored 17 points in 20 minutes of play. Wirth had a career high 27 points that included her six three-pointers. And Risper scored a season-high 14 points. For the Titans, Chow ended with 20 and Scott had 19. I was very impressed with all of their performances, but especially Tuomi’s; she’s only a sophomore.

Side notes:

– Vanderbilt travels with a huge entourage. When I first walked in, I saw all these people sitting on their bench and wondered why they let fans sit there before the game. It turns out that besides Balcomb and three assistant coaches, there were five other people. That’s a lot.

– One of those people was a 40-ish water girl. She insisted on having the water cart directly in back of the bench, which would block the view for me, so I moved to the right. It’s a good thing they didn’t care where you sat at Fullerton.

– It was kind of annoying not to be able to keep track of player points, but Fullerton has a pretty small gym and facility, so I guess that precludes a good scoreboard.

– Vanderbilt players and coaches are real big on leaning on one another and putting a hand on a teammate’s shoulder or waist.

Final thought: both teams are better than they played. If Fullerton had played like that against UCLA, they would have given the Bruins a better run. Vanderbilt has a ton of skill, and it shouldn’t have taken them that long to dominate the Titans.

Win, Lose, Repeat

All my adult life I’ve felt that life here on Earth is really just a movie. That fiction is pretty much unnecessary for all the crazy, insane crap that goes down. And that also includes so-called “coincidences” and “deja vus,” which I believe are only metaphors for the Universal law that cycles repeat themselves. Fewer places is that more apparent than in basketball.

Yesterday I visited Washington Prep High School to talk with the women’s basketball coach and check out what they’re up to, for a story I’m writing. While Coach Ricky Blackmon and I were talking, the infamous semi-final game of Feb. 23, 2007 against Dorsey came up. Dig this: Blackmon used to play for Dorsey High School. When he was a junior (like Mykiea) in 1993, Dorsey beat Washington in the semi-final for the city championship by three points, due to a last-second shot.

Too freaky for words. But there are other instances like that.

On April 6, 2008, Tennessee and LSU were battling in the NCAA semi-finals, with the winner to go to the championship. Alexis Hornbuckle made an incredible put-back shot at the buzzer for the one-point win.

Fast forward to Sept. 27, 2008 and the LA Sparks and the San Antonio Silver Stars are battling in the semi-finals of the Western Conference championships. The Sparks, which include two Tennessee players who played in the LSU semis last year, lose because of a crazy last-second shot at the buzzer. I’m sure most basketball fans can think of a similar “deja vu” or two.

A wise woman told me once, “remember, we’re all just down here wearing a clown suit.”

Indeed.

UCLA 104, Cal State Bakersfield, 57

And I thought the Northridge game was a blowout.

The Bruins put such a whoop on CSB last night that it was hard to believe. Before the Roadrunners (great name, huh?) made their last basket, UCLA was up by 50 points.

The Bruins are starting to look consistent, which is what every coach strives for.

Like Sunday, the Bruins shot about 46 percent for the game last night, including 45 percent for both halves instead of just one. And once again, strangely, they grabbed 54 boards and saw four players in double figures. All 12 players scored for the second game in a row, and the scoring was so balanced that no player scored more than 13 points last night. (Christina Nzekwe was one of those players, bettering the career-high she pulled down last weekend). Not coincidentally, no player was in the game for more than 22 minutes.

UCLA set or tied season-highs in points scored (104), rebounds (54), three-pointers made (seven), blocks (five) and assists (23). This is the Bruins’ best start since the 2004-05 season. Color me very impressed.

Coach Nikki Caldwell looked like a model last night in her scoop-neck sweater and large gold necklace. Bakersfield is to be commended for bringing a large contingent of fans and cheerleaders.

Sitting in front of us were three little girls. During a timeout, Chinyere Ibekwe was making faces at one of them. The kid said her auntie, Noelle Quinn, used to play for the Bruins. That said a lot about the closeness of the team that players would still know the relatives of former players.

There aren’t as many details to report of late because blowouts tend to go smoothly. But Sunday’s game against Nevada might pose a challenge for UCLA, as that team beat Louisville recently. I actually would like some kind of a game, because while I’m very happy the Bruins are gelling, blowouts are kind of boring.

UCLA 96, Northridge, 53

By now everybody knows that yesterday the Bruins won by their largest margin in six years, that they had 22 steals, forced 32 turnovers, had 54 rebounds and had a shooting percentage of over 40 percent for both halves, and not just one. That Erica Tukianien and my girl Christina Nzekwe each had career-high point totals. That four players scored in double figures and two had eight rebounds each, and that all 12 players scored.

So I’ll provide the between-the-lines stuff.

The Bruins look better with each game, and yesterday they were a 35-minute team. They would have been 40 if there wasn’t a little lapse in the very first part of the game, where they’d built a lead and then let Northridge catch up. But once UCLA made a run, there was no looking back.

Their defense was excellent throughout the game. For example, in the first half Doreena Campbell and Allison Taka trapped a player right in front of their bench, forcing a turnover.

The boxing out clicked with a few minutes to go in the first half, and stayed solid throughout most of the rest of the game. Players were also scoring that don’t usually, like Taka. Looking at the box score (http://uclabruins.cstv.com/sports/w-baskbl/stats/2008-2009/csunucla.html) there’s a lot of balance in the scoring, and that’s such a good sign.

The Bruins had good ball movement, too. Gone was any sluggishness Coach Nikki Caldwell had been after them for in previous games; they were passing, dishing and running that ball along. They were also getting it into the paint to score and not settling for dumb outside shots. I think that made me the happiest of all.

It’s a pleasure to see Darxia Morris back, and she is apparently happy to be there too. She got hot late in the second half, reeling off two shots in a row. With 3:40 to go, she drove into the key, and when a defender started to lunge for her, she did a neat head fake and took one more step to put the jumper in clean. She backed away and stood by herself at half court for a moment, grinning. It was funny.

After the game, Caldwell said the team “makes it a point to generate their own energy,” and that they do that with defensive play. (Ah, I hear “Rocky Top” in the background). Caldwell said the Bruins have to play with intensity no matter who they’re playing.

“We want to be a part of March Madness,” she said.

I want them to be in there, too, and they have a good chance. I predict they’ll finish no lower than fourth in the Pac-10, and maybe as high as third behind Cal and Stanford.

I see the Bruins like a car that finally got to get out of the garage at the beginning of the season. They spent some time driving down the road towards the interstate. Now they’ve turned onto the on-ramp and are just about ready to blast down the freeway.

The future is bright.

Another bright spot yesterday was the attendence, which was up. Caldwell has been getting out and hustling to get people to come to games. How great is that? I love her even more now.

_____________________________________

AP’s new rankings came out today:

http://sports.espn.go.com/ncw/rankings?pollId=1&seasonYear=2009&weekNumber=4&seasonType=2

I’m still pondering it, but I don’t understand how Rutgers didn’t play last week at all. That’s weird to me.

And Texas in the top 10? Wow. Coach G is on fire.

But like I said, still pondering.

_____________________________________

On the sad side, the Houston Comets folded today. One of the league’s pioneers, and its champions for the first four years of its existance.

I know another team will eventually rise again, but it’s disheartening to see one of the originals go. I hope Tina Thompson finds a team that’s good for her.

College games and a little girl

Perhaps the biggest upset of the season so far was Wisconsin’s win last night over seventh-ranked Baylor, 59-58. What happened? Baylor’s been steamrolling, and Wisconsin isn’t supposed to be a very good team.

In other upsets, Nevada defeated eighth-ranked Louisville, and nineteenth-ranked Arizona State fell to Florida. That parity thing is just spreading like a virus.

As for Pac-10 teams Saturday night, California stayed unbeaten in their defeat of Iowa, and Oregon State continued to surprise. They beat Arkansas Friday night, and came very close to defeating North Carolina the next night, 78-82. Could the Beavers finally be for real? Daniel and I think they are. I’ve been wanting the Oregon schools to show up for a while, so this is good news to me.

And speaking of Oregon, I’m happy to say that the Ducks beat Wyoming tonight, 51-45. Let’s go, Bev Smith!

One of the five Pac-10 teams that wasn’t in some kind of holiday classic this weekend was UCLA. They beat Cal Poly Wednesday, and must have chilled and gone shopping because their first game back is today, against Cal State Northridge. Game report later, of course.

Changing gears, by now many have seen the video of the five-year-old girl from Northern California dribbling two and then three basketballs at once. She is both skilled and adorable:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dEmzewBMaaE

Milan Simone Tuttle has been getting tons of press for this video, which originally appeared on pro baller Rod Benson’s blog. Here’s one feature:

http://www.insidebayarea.com/search/ci_11083726?IADID=Search-www.insidebayarea.com-www.insidebayarea.com

She’s also been on TV:

http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=news/local/east_bay&id=6527524

The day before Thanksgiving, Milan was a guest on the Ellen DeGeneres show, which is now on youtube.

I’m writing a story on her and on the place where she got the training, Triple Threat Academy of San Leandro, CA, for fullcourt. Today I talked to Milan’s mother, Renee Tuttle, and I was as impressed with this woman as I was with her daughter.

Renee and her husband Jon encourage their kids to do what they want instead of pushing them into sports and other activities. They are being incredible sticklers about completing school work before anything else, and it’s already instilled in their kindergartener. They also insist she remain humble, because “we still have to go home, and I have to go to work and you have to go to school,” Jon Tuttle said.

Could we just get these people to parent all the young ballers of America? Life for us teachers and coaches would be so very much more simple.

Mykiea Russell: Don’t Believe the Height (Part 3)

Mykiea Russell is the new point guard for the Umpqua Community College women’s basketball team. She began showing what she was made of the moment she got there.

In a scrimmage against Linn-Benton CC a couple months ago, Mykiea scored 19 points and collected nine steals. As the team has begun their regular season, she has usually been the second-leading scorer.

Her coach, Dave Stricklin, wrote in her team profile that at 5’0″, Mykiea is the shortest player to ever don a Riverhawks uniform, but she might also be the quickest. He predicted she is “destined to be a UCC fan favorite.” Similarly, a reporter for the Roseburg News-Review noted her “knack for getting to the basket” in a recent story.

But why is Mykiea there? Because some coaches believed the height.

“As we talked to (college) coaches last year, some had an issue with my height,” Mykiea said. “They were worried about me getting posted up on defense.”

Her longtime club ball coach Michael Brox called up a well-respected coach he knew – Stricklin – and told him about Mykiea. Stricklin came to Los Angeles last March for a ceremony inducting him into the California JCC hall of fame (he coached there before going to Umpqua). During that trip, he paid Mykiea a visit at her home.

“We just hit it off right away,” Stricklin explained.

Right after Labor Day, Stricklin got a call from Mykiea.

“‘I’m coming up,'” Stricklin recalled her saying. “I said, ‘for a visit?’ and she said ‘no, I’m coming up to stay.'”

Mykiea arrived the first weekend in September, about three weeks before school was to start, and before any of her teammates. Stricklin did the only thing a coach could do: he put her up at his house with his family. And it wasn’t long before she “became part of the family.”

In fact, Mykiea fit in so well with Stricklin’s teenaged children that when he took her along when registering one for school, the secretary thought he was also enrolling Mykiea.

All last-minute notifications aside, to understand the sheer bravery involved in Mykiea’s move, first consider that the population of Roseburg is 20,117, and the number of people in Los Angeles is 9,948,081. Then, realize that the area where Mykiea went to high school is virtually all African-American and Hispanic, while Roseburg is 93.56 percent white and .3 percent African-American.

Unsurprisingly, Mykiea discounts those differences, and scoffs at the notion the she is brave.

“I don’t see it like that,” she said.

Indeed, Stricklin told her what to expect on his visit.

“I told Mykiea about the non-racial diversity, and she said ‘I don’t care,'” he said. “I also told her that Roseburg is not a party house. That if you’re looking for a wild atmosphere, this isn’t the place.”

Mykiea has adjusted the way any evolved inner-city kid would: she is jonesing for her Christmas visit home, but she likes where she is going to school, likes her team, and is cool with where she is right now.

“Roseburg is the most boring place on Earth, but on the other hand I don’t have to worry about what I’m wearing, and there are no distractions,” she said.

Culturally, though, Mykiea has had to make some adjustments. Roseburg is populated with older people – many of whom are lifelong Roseburg residents. Mykiea said she has felt, at times, that some residents “have never seen a black girl in their lives.”

“I’ve had to answer questions – a lot of questions,” she said.

For her fortitude, Mykiea finds herself in one of the most successful junior college programs in the Northwest. Stricklin, with a 586-112 record in 21 years, has produced 12 regional championship teams. Every year the goal is the same: win another championship.

“Practice is so hard – oh my goodness,” Mykiea said. “The first practice he told us we were going to go as hard as Tennessee.

“He wants 100 percent the whole three hours, and nothing less. Even if you mess up, you have to mess up going hard.”

Stricklin said he and assistant coach Linda Stricklin – his wife – also keep player’s futures in mind.

“We work so hard to get them to the next level,” he said.

Mykiea said she might not have ever thought of a junior college as a possibility if it weren’t for one of the most famous graduates from JC ranks – Tennessee’s Shannon Bobbitt. Mykiea called Bobbitt, who is also infamously short, “my inspiration.”

While playing ball, Mykiea is taking a full class load and majoring in film – the other love of her life. Stricklen also set her up with a work-study job, so she has some extra money in her pocket. Life is good, although the weather is a little colder in Oregon than what the young baller is used to.

Mykiea doesn’t consider herself brave, but I am old enough to be her mother, and I know better. I teach high school in South Central Los Angeles, and not many kids there would pick up and go to a place they’ve never been to, that is so different from what they’ve known. Indeed, most only go as far as Southwest Community College, just down the road from Mykiea’s alma mater, Washington Prep High School.

And most kids with Mykiea’s skill level – who had made the LA All-City first team two years in a row – that couldn’t get to a D1 school simply because of their height, would be at least a little depressed or bitter.

Not Mykiea. She is positive, optimistic, hopeful. She laughs a lot. And she is working hard.

“I just finally, really got in shape,” she said last week. “So I’m going to stay in shape.”

I know she will. And I have no doubt that she is kicking ass at the Clackamas Tournament in Portland this weekend. I just wish JCCs got more love and it was easier to get scores and stats from up there.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep being a Mykiea fan. Stricklin said he’ll send me an Umpqua CC women’s basketball T-shirt and team poster when they’re ready, and I’ll happily wear the shirt around Los Angeles.

Go on with your bad self, young lady. You remind me why I’m a women’s basketball fan in the first place.