By Mike Siroky
As we are almost done with the regular season, little mystery remains for the Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball.
It seems evident Mississippi State will win the conference regular season title, by staying unbeaten at home, a conference reality for three seasons.
They match South Carolina with only one road loss.
The top four get a double-bye in the conference tournament.
South Carolina started the ratings week by being the designated loser to UConn’s magnificent 100-game winning run.
It makes the conference 144-40 against America leading into the NCAA elimination games. But SC looked baffled at Missouri and also lost the unbeaten on the road thing, falling into second place.
No. 3 Mississippi State
The Bulldogs set their highest ever ranking, all but assured of a top seed in the NCAAs.
The three teams already at 25 wins, with the best chance at chance at 30, lead the Associated Press parade. All the other top teams have at least 20 wins.
State has 51 straight weeks in the AP poll, the seventh-longest active streak in the nation.
The Bulldogs also have a program best 15th consecutive weeks in the Top 20 and 11th in the Top 5. Every win is a school record, overall and in conference.
The final game of the conference tournament will be interesting as either State or South Carolina are likely to lose in that title game for the SEC title recognized by the NCAA seeding committee.
That means the other will be the rare No. 1 seed awarded such as an at-large bid. No other conference has this strength.
It showed in a very competitive game this ratings week.
Mississippi State started so slowly against Georgia, with the almost always deadly first quarter, six points. Thirteen percent from the floor is a program record you don’t want to have. And at home. The 5,431 in attendance were stunned.
They started the second quarter with three straight misses and a turnover. Now shooting 11 percent, the score was an electrifying 17-8. Four State starters combined for zero points.
They dug in and cut the lead to two at halftime. The bench – Teaira McCowan and Katera Chapel -- bailed out the starters with nine and five points. They were 5-of-8 from the floor; the starters were 1-of-17.
There was still no energy in the third quarter. They needed a bailout.
They got it in a 19-7 fourth, returning the single-digit defensive stand and thus avoiding the jinx their ownselves and defending the only undefeated home court.
They were outrebounded and outshot and had 16 turnovers. McCowan and Chapel had a steady 14 each. McCowan had three blocks.
Years from now we will only remember State won by nine, as expected, vs. Georgia, 5-8 in conference.
If there is an eighth SEC team in the eliminations it will be one with a losing conference record.
Georgia, 14-13 overall is playing the best of those.
“God presents challenges for us every day and we will give Him the glory for victory No. 26 and try to grow from it,” coach Vic Schaefer said. “This team is not immune to off games. They have bad days in practice.
“You give credit to Georgia. I am proud of our toughness down the stretch.
“We were fortunate and lucky to win. We allowed seven points in the fourth quarter and that was important. These kids made some real plays down the stretch.”
At newly ranked Texas A&M, the third-place team in conference, it was also a struggle. The home team in this series had won the past four confrontations.
The State coaches had an advantage of knowing South Carolina had already lost before they closed the Sunday games.
McCowan was in early. She had half the points in a 12-11 opening quarter. Vivians was 0-fer. A&M was 31 percent from the floor.
It was 30-30 at half, each side winning a quarter by one. A&M coach Gary Blair puts an emphasis on the endgame, saying every SEC game should come down to the last minute. He was right again.
By the middle of third, Vivians warmed up to 11.
But Okorie, McCowan and point guard William each had three fouls in a one-point game. A&M had three in double figures and no foul trouble.
So here came Blair’s fourth, the home team five up.
“You go in and make the junkyard plays, Blair said. “If you gotta get to the line, do it. If we get to the one and one we’re back in it.
“One play, one stop at a time. No turnovers. You have zero this half.”
It did not work out. For the second straight game, Mississippi State looked like champions and won the fourth quarter, this time 22-12 for a 72-67 win.
Vivians had 25 in the final three quarters, 10-of-11 from the line.
In case anyone doubted, McCowan can play, with the double/double on the road, 16 points and 11 rebounds. No one fouled out.
They were down seven with 8:43 left. After a rebound scramble, William fed Blair Schaefer for a 3.
A&M scored, but Vivians had an answering drive for a layup. The Aggies hit a 3, but Vivians drove and scored again.
Enough of this trading baskets, William stole it back They fouled Vivians and she was automatic.
Another A&M 3 and it was still a six-point edge.
McCowan claimed a defensive rebound. With five minutes left, Vivians rebounded and was fouled. Two more free throws.
William stole another. In the next sequence, Chapel got a rebound. State missed again but caused another turnover and Vivians hit a jumper.
Three minutes to go. McCowan had another defensive board.
Jazzmun Holmes kicked it back to Chapel for a 3 and the visitors were up by one. Chapel had two other 3s all season.
Timeout at the two minute mark.
Khaalia Hillsman made a layup to take back the lead. Holmes fed McCowan for a jumper.
Vivians got the rebound off a miss. Holmes fed McCowan again, her third assist within three minutes and her only assists of the game. The visitors were up by three. Each side used a timeout.
The shortest player on the court, 5-5 William, got the rebound off a miss, got it to Vivians and she was fouled. It was her third feed in the closing minutes.
Vivians’ free throws sealed it. The 5,243 in attendance had seen a wonderful show. The Aggies hit a school record 7-of-7 3s.
“Every time we would make a run tonight they would answer right back,” Blair said.
“Then before the first half ended, we let Danni (Williams) commit a foul on a 3. I put Jasmine (Lumpkin) in to not give up the right-hand drive and Vivians runs right by her. You can’t give them five free points.
“When we got up seven, Vivians wanted the ball down the stretch and Vivians beat us with her right hand in that fourth quarter.
“This was just like guarding (Mercedes) Russell of Tennessee. You have to contest shots and get the rebounds when they miss or at least make it harder on them.”
He took the loss personally.
“I went back and told my kids that effort was great but I’m not in this thing for moral victories. We were up seven and we are supposed to win that game at home. We ran the wrong play on the last two possessions.
“That’s my job in those end of game situations. Mississippi State played with a lot of poise and this was a great game for national TV. We are trying to hold on to our standing in the SEC.
“We are going to have to play better against South Carolina, they are even more polished than Mississippi State.
“I don’t know if South Carolina can play as hard as them, though. You don’t get very many opportunities to play two Top 5 teams at home. Hopefully, the fans will be back Thursday night because this was a hell of an effort.”
Of Vivians, he said, “Great scorers look for their next points, not their next shot. She’s not a shooter, she’s a scorer. She made the baskets that counted and that’s why she’s first team All-SEC.
“She’s just a hard player to defend and we work on taking away the right-hand drive away all week. When you give that up, it makes you think what are we doing as coaches after all we do to prepare for that all week. This was a ballgame we should have won, and that's on me.”
“It was a heck of a basketball game,” Schaefer said. “You hate that someone had to come out on the losing end.
“I'm very proud of my kids. It was a game of runs. There were a lot of runs. We just happened to get the last run. There was no bigger shot in Ketara's career than the one she made in front of our bench.
“We have kids who embrace wanting to be in the moment. Teaira was phenomenal. She has been on a tear here of late.”
At the end . .. “We were switching everything. We went through that play yesterday where the two can’t beat you. I’ve always had a lot of confidence in my half-court defense. Much rather give up the basket and put the faith on my defense. I thought we really contested the shot well.
“Both teams played so hard today and I’m proud of my kids. They‘ve done it all year. It was a great atmosphere for college basketball, it got loud and it got rowdy and I thought the key was we were able to respond to all the runs.”
Vivians said, “We been down in plenty of games. ‘Coach told us to come out there and defend and make shots. We were done, ‘coach said, ‘They can’t guard you, so be more aggressive.’ So I did. They did not want to foul. When I see them on their heels, I go for it.
“Defense is our key. We stop them from scoring and then we go ahead an score.”
They retain their national ranking and prospects for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA eliminations. They can check off the 5-for-5 finish.
They are now favored to take the regular-season title. They can win at not-deep and very tired Kentucky, then launch an unprecedented party in StarkVegas when Tennessee comes to close the season.
They can earn 29 wins before the SEC tournament.
The Bulldogs close as spoilers at Kentucky’s senior night then have their own Senior Day against Tennessee.
Last season, Mississippi State defeated Tennessee for the first time in program history. This season, they have another record opportunity to defeat them twice.
If they win out, Schaefer can gain his 200th as State coach in the quarterfinals of the league tournament.
If not for the Georgia game, this would be heady stuff for the big dogs of the toughest conference in the nation.
No. 6 South Carolina
Will SC fall as a No. 6 losing at No. 1?
Certainly also losing at an unranked team makes their proposed No. 1 seed in the eliminations shaky. They can recover with the automatic bid by winning the league tournament.
The Gamecocks failed to shake off the competitive loss at UConn, losing two of three for the only time this season. That was the immediate challenge for coach Dawn Staley.
Surely women’s college basketball is beyond needing to interrupt conference seasons just for a TV game.
You risk an injury in a game which means nothing in your primary goal of winning your league.
You risk an artificial high if you win and an equally meaningless low when you lose.
OK, so now you know under game conditions what it means to play UConn but you can’t see them again until the fourth game of a five-game title run, if you both survive, to the national semifinals.
So it was back to business, with a terrible Vanderbilt team at home then onto an inspired Missouri team which earned a second straight NCAA bid, fifth in conference and assured of 20 wins.
The Gamecocks ended the Vanderbilt threat early, allowing a six-point first quarter. One again, no competitive SEC team has had a single-digit quarter and survived.
Before the 44-25 half, the guards got a workout as Kaela Davis had 13.
A’ja Wilson was content to rebound, with seven. She and fellow-forward Alaina Coates were each a basket away from 10 points. Vandy was hitting 27 percent from the floor and had 13 turnovers.
This is not what lured Vandy coach Stephanie White from the WNBA, yet the team is still better than last year’s edition and that year’s coach is now director of coaching analytics in Columbia.
It spun into the 31-point win. Four of five starters in double figures.
South Carolina had likely won the conference. Everybody knows their role. All they have to do is hit their averages. No drama.
The best attendance for the women’s game in America hit again, 13,089.
“We have a 24-hour rule,” said Staley. “Twenty-four hour to celebrate or 24 hours to sulk. Either way, we put it behind us.
“If you live in the past, it will come back to bite you where you don’t want to be bitten.”
She said they do not take anyone in the league lightly.
“You get back on the pony and we do what we do,” she said.
“We got up and down the floor, we shared the ball and we just competed. We didn’t do anything different. Our guards attacked well. Kaela Davis just used all of her skills.
“She took it upon herself to impose her will, driving to the basket, taking outside shots. We need more of that. Now we gotta get Allisha Gray going. She has been concentrating too much on defense. I like seeing her process all of this. But I’d like to see her elevate the other areas of her game.
“Everyone wants to feel the ball. Everyone wants to feel like they’re gonna contribute.”
The crush almost continued at Missouri. But they stumbled late.
Wilson tried to carry them. Late in the third quarter Coates had one basket on one shot and Wilson was 6-of-7 from the field, 2-of-3 at the line in a game featuring half of SC’s usual offensive output. Maybe everyone is giving into the grind. Gray took her coach’s advice and had scored 13.
Winning every quarter but hitting 40 percent from the field, they were tied at 44. They fell behind on free throws – and Coates’ fourth foul – with six minutes to go. Coates fouled out.
Mizzou would win the final quarter by six.
It was up to Wilson. She hit two. She scored 23.
Diminutive Sophie Cunningham – Mizzou’s best – grabbed a rebound, laid it in and was fouled.
She missed the crucial free throw. She is an 84 percent free throw shooter.
But Davis steamrolled into a defender with 24 seconds left. Mizzou earned possession and worked for a late shot.
Who else but Cunningham, recovering an errant pass and driving right up the gut for a winning layup, giving her 26 points. SC could not get a shot off.
Missouri won rebounds by six, shattering for the moment the SC title defense. They drew a respectable 5,789.
“They packed it in in us,” said Staley. “If the other team is gonna get calls in the paint then my big girls need some of that too.
“That’s not me calling out officials. I am just calling what I see. My big girls have gotta be as protected as other players.
“We turned the ball over and let them have extra possessions. I think we fouled too much and let them back in.
“They stayed in it. The crowd got them engaged. It was a game of runs.
“This is life in the SEC. It’s what we signed up for. If you can’t get up for the SEC, you are probably playing the wrong sport.”
Amazingly, the Gamecocks are 1-2 to start their final five games.
Missouri used a very weak pre-conference season (though they did lose against a tiny extension school IUPUI) to get 10 wins.
They have two winnable conference games left to get to 21 and reserve a second NCAA invitation at 10-5 in conference, winning the final five games. They are alone in fifth.
SC could punish Texas A&M on the road and then monitor Mississippi State.
This underlines why A&M will not win 20 in the regular season, with both the top teams during the closeout games.
The Gamecock’s emphatic season ends at home against Kentucky. SC does not have to leave the state to win the automatic bid, as the league tournament is at Greenville.
SC will need one conference tournament win to tie last season’s seniors with 121 wins in their four years, with more post-season games left.
Between the end of the season and that series, the league will award its season honors, with SC having two first-teamers.
If transfers qualified for rookie of the year they’d win that too. The first year big impact player is unmistakably Allisha Gray, a junior in class standing.
Alabama’s has had the freshman player of the week more than any other program.
Then again, Evelyn Akhator of UK has won more outright league Player of the Week honors – three --than anyone else and she will not be the Player of the Year. She has faded down the stretch.
The coach of the year should be Schaefer.
All you gotta do is close out road wins.
No. 23 Texas A&M
A&M’s win at Tennessee returned them to the rankings in UT’s place and the inconsistent Lady Vols spun back into the revolving door, out but still getting the next-most votes in the league.
The Aggies spiraled back out with two losses and the league is left with two ranked teams.
Hillsman , who scored the winning points against UT, was selected SEC Player of the Week
Of course, A&M started its ranking week by losing by two at LSU.
The Ben-Gals started their week losing at Vandy, the team with one conference win, cementing the idea no conference team will win three in one week this season.
A&M posted a 16-14 lead after one quarter, which is in itself an accomplishment.
Hillsman already had 10. They were hitting 89 percent from the floor. LSU won the second quarter by seven and had a five-point edge.
Raigyne Moncrief led the upset with 23. They drew 1,926.
“I thought we were doing a good job when we were coming back in the second half, but we made a lot of uncharacteristic bad turnovers,” said Blair.
“We just didn't get the job done. I told the team before the game that this game was going to come down to the last minute, like so many other of our conference games."
The Ben-Gals can still win 20 with two winnable games to close its season 9-7 in the league, a definitive NCAA entrant again.
A&M will not win 20, but are 9-5 in conference, alone in fourth. A&M has the tiebreaker after winning their third conference game of the season on the road
This final week, the Aggies have South Carolina at home on their Senior Night then the closeout at Ole Miss.
They will be 2-3 in the final five which will impact their NCAA seeding.
No longer ranked Tennessee coach Holly Warlick does not have the depth of the top two in conference.
They lost leading scorer and likely All-Conference performer Diamond DeShields to a stretcher removal during first quarter of the loss at woeful Alabama.
The Tide had lost five straight tries at win No. 16, a number they hadn’t seen this century, three coaches ago. They drew 2,221.
Tennessee is no doubt an NCAA entrant. Even if they are sent to UConn’s regional, all it means is it about time for the two pre-eminent programs in the history of women’s NCAA hoops to start playing each other again.
The business at hand was to return home for a third 1-1 week by defeating Arkansas for a 17th win, or just where they were last season, 8-6 in conference, sixth place.
The Lady Vols were seventh in conference last season. They drew the best in the nation 10,613.
They won without DeShields. Even the sports information department was not advised of her status.
She did dress out and participated in shootarounds before each half. Warlick said she is day-to-day.
Their final games are Senior Day vs. long-disappeared Florida and then the nice clash at Mississippi State. This likely means 18 wins once again in the regular season. Two marquee wins are the difference on this plateau.
Losses at Ole Miss, Alabama, Auburn and Georgia are the embarrassments which define this team.
UT has the 14th best RPI in America. SC is No. 3 and Mississippi State No. 4.
The Lady Vols surpass teams ahead of them in league play, Kentucky (15) and A&M (16).
Only LSU (24) is also in the RPI Top 25.
But the best they can hope for is 2-3 in their Final Five, seeded as an also-ran in the NCAA eliminations.
Kentucky won No. 18 at awful Arkansas and 19 at home vs. equally unspectacular Florida.
That leaves Senior Night vs. Mississippi State and then the designated meat grinder at South Carolina’s finale and a 10-6 SEC finish.
They are tied with A&M for fourth.
Their first five games against weak competitors and still the lack of 20 wins is why they are not ranked.
Coach Matthew Mitchell earned his 100th win as an SEC coach. They are likely 3-2 in their final five which will set their NCAA seeding.
If three more conference teams get into the NCAA eliminations, they are truly gift recipients because of the conference reputation.
Alabama and Auburn are arguing with each other about a 10 seed, though neither will have a winning conference record.