Monday, November 28, 2005

Turnover, Boy! Good Dawg!

Coach Dennis Felton and the Georgia Bulldogs visited WKU on Saturday night, and honestly, I gave myself the full day on Sunday to recover before I attempted to write about this one. After a very emotional tribute to fallen Topper Danny Rumph, the Tops broke out in all black uniforms and in place of their individual names, they all had "Rumph" on the back of their jerseys. If that did not put a lump in your throat, then watching Coach Felton walk back into the UGA locker room before the game with tears streaming down his face surely did.

The irony of ironies is that Danny Rumph would have made a HUGE difference in this game. The Tops lacked a steady, level-headed PG, especially in the early going. FR Orlando Mendez-Valdez did an admirable job in his 14 mins (3 assists, 1 turnover), but he fouled out in that short span. Danny's measured passes and careful ball-handling sure would have helped the Tops on Saturday.

Thanks for everything, Danny. We still miss and on the court.

1st Half
15.29: Have I ever witnessed a worse start by a Topper team? Not that I can recall. Well, UGA hit their first four shots and have jumped all over the Tops to the tune of a 10-0 start. Some semblance of order is restored as WKU scored four straight to make it 10-4 at the first media timeout.

11.56: The Tops’ inexperience is being thoroughly exposed by a feisty Georgia defense. It’s 20-6, but it feels even worse. WKU has turned it over on nearly every possession it seems. The SOLD OUT crowd in Diddle Arena has been turned into little lambs in the pasture. There are 7,300+ plus in a small, loud arena and they have nothing to cheer about. That is truly an injustice. Panic is creeping in among the Topper faithful.

7.31: More of the same—our first-year PG Joemal Campbell (JC transfer) has been harassed into numerous turnovers and 5-second calls. Georgia’s stifling halfcourt defense is tremendous. They are making quite difficult for Winchester or Lee to find open space. They are going to force someone else to beat them…and the candidates are few at this point. 28-15, Dawgs.

3.48: Hello! The Topper defense comes alive and has been able to speed up the Dawgs and cause numerous some turnovers of their own. Freshman F Matt Maresca came in and made an immediate impact with a nice turnaround baseline shot and another nice post move resulting in a miss, but a Wilborn tip-dunk. 30-22, UGA. The crowd, and the Tops, are back in it!

Half: UGA closes on an 11-4 spurt to lead 41-26 at the half. Although the Dawgs are a young team, it is apparent that their Sophomores and Juniors are battle-tested from having to play on a very short-handed team last season. This is the first test of high-level Division I hoops for MANY Topper players including two starters (PG Joemal Campbell and F Daniel Emerson) and significant bench players (F Mike Walker, PG Orlando Mendez-Valdez, F Matt Maresca, F/G Butch Jointer). While both teams turned it over a great deal, the Tops made a lot of mental errors through throw-aways, lack of strength with the ball (especially Campbell and Ty Rogers) and blown defensive assignments. Plus, the free throw shooting was horrendous (3-8).

2nd Half
15.33: Now, this is what a coach wants to see from his seniors! Seven straight points from G Anthony Winchester and then three straight from Elgrace Wilborn sandwich a Georgia bucket to pull the Tops within seven at 43-36. The defensive intensity by WKU is on another level out of the locker room. Then, a Wilborn rejection leads to a Three by Winchester to make it 43-39. The Tops have come out breathing brimstone in the second half. The crowd is in full throat for the first time all night.

11.34: Georgia methodically cranks up the D again and forces Campbell into back-to-back turnovers. The Dawgs have responded with a 10-3 spurt of their own. The lack of confidence from the WKU ballhandlers is really thwarting any effort to take full control of this game.

7.33: Wow…the Dawgs are playing STIFLING half-court D. It’s 57-43, and once again, the Tops are on the ropes. A run needs to begin right now.

4.37: And it does. Courtney Lee just made a lay-in to cut it to 61-54. This 11-4 run did not truly seem like a huge burst, but Lee has come alive during the stretch after being silent much of the night.

2.50: Another critical missed FT by Winchester…his fourth miss of the night. He has gone weeks without missing four!

1.19: Unbelievably, WKU is still alive in this game. It’s 65-61 after UGA finally misses a FT and Lee finishes off yet another drive to rack. UGA is coming unraveled a bit on offense. The Tops just need that final push to get over the hump. It’s ripe for the taking!

0.15: A Winchester lay-in cuts the UGA lead to two (65-63), but the Dawgs’ lumbering center, Dave Bliss, somehow gets behind the defense on the press and makes an awkward lay-up and gets fouled by Benson Callier (67-63). He misses the FT and Lee cashes in two FT’s on the other end to make it 67-65. Then, in a move that must have made UGA coach Dennis Felton quake with frustration, FR G Mike Mercer hoisted up an ill-advised shot that was grabbed by WKU…and promptly thrown out directly of bounds by Callier, which in turn probably sent WKU coach Darrin Horn into an apoplectic rage.

0.10: After UGA made 1-2 at the line (68-65), WKU calls timeout and sets up an inbounds play that gets Winchester an open look, but he opts to dribble left to get a cleaner shot. His pocket is picked from behind (his seventh turnover) by UGA G Billy Humphrey, and UGA makes 1-2 FT’s for the final margin of 69-65. I am utterly deflated.

Fifty-eight is numerical theme for this season so far. Last Tuesday vs. IUPUI, there were 58 fouls called during the game. In Saturday’s game vs. UGA, there were 58 turnovers—30 by the Dawgs and 28 by the Tops. WKU’s dynamic duo of Winchester and Lee were responsible for 13 of those WKU turnovers, which is completely out of character for them. Much credit goes to Georgia for their intense, Felton-brand half-court defense. The Topper press was extremely effective in the second half (helping to force 18 Dawg turnovers) and allowed to Tops to outscore the Dawgs 39-28. The Toppers played poorly in many phases of the game, but a lot of that was because of Georgia’s in-your-face, ball-hawking defense. The turnovers were indeed horrendous, but UGA turned it over even more. The keys to the game were free throw shooting (12-25 for WKU) and spotting UGA a 10-0 lead to start the game. Giving a great defensive team a 10 spot to start the game is a tremendous hurdle to overcome. For most of the game, the Tops looked like the better team. But, crawling out of a 20-6 hole was simply too much to overcome, especially for a team still trying to mesh so many new parts.

That is danger for fans of this Topper team. We see the talent and where they are going to be in February and not where they are right now. Horn will have to put on the lab coat and play chemist for awhile with this bunch of horses. They should have his full attention after losing a very winnable game at home—again, no slight intended to UGA. WKU is a very talented team with a lot of rotation issues to figure out.

It does not get any easier as the Tops travel to UAB on Tuesday. I will have a full preview tomorrow and a game log on Wednesday as I will be on hand in Birmingham to take in the game.