Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Championship Race Still Undecided
The Southeastern Conference women’s basketball championship is still unsettled with two weeks to go. The league is trying once again to place six in the NCAA draw. The top four – the nationally ranked teams -- are locked in. Maybe the post-season conference tournament, starting on March 6, will ID the other ones, which have surely been beaten up by most of the conference leaders.
LSU, which hosts a sub-Regional, has the inside shot.
Kentucky and Texas A&M staged one of the league’s declarative games on Monday, at Aggieland, in a matchup of two national Top 10 teams. Kentucky had handed A&M its only conference loss. They made it a sweep at A&M, by four points. Maybe that is the difference between being ranked No. 8 (UK) and No. 10 (A&M).
So matched are these two that even with Kentucky scoring seven points below its season league average and allowing 11 more than their defense had been allowing, they won by four in hostile territory, 18 below their usual margin of difference, with better than 6,200 fans howling. A&M missed its season average by five and allowed 15 more than they had been averaging. Defense won and lost this one.
Gone is the league’s best active win streak, eight. UK has its only road win against a ranked team of the season. Both now have two league losses, chasing Tennessee with its one.
A&M goes to Knoxville in the second-to-last game of the season and Tennessee comes to Lexington to close the regular season. The Lady Vols will have to earn a title. UK is in a position to defend its regular-season title, which would be a first.
Georgia has three league losses but can win out.
Texas A&M seeks to be the first team to win conference in its first year of competition since the NCAA sanctioned the league. The UT game is its last tough matchup.
Kelsey Bone, pushing for Player-of-the-year honors, is third (by .7) in scoring (17.1), first in shooting percentage (.592) and second in rebounding (9.7). Tiffany Clarke of Vanderbilt is the only other player also in the top five of those conference categories.
Bone was the conference player of the week entering this one. She was throttled by UK’s defense, with just nine points with 10 rebounds.
"We just tried to swarm her and get as many help defenders as we could," Kentucky's A'dia Mathies said. Mathies, Kentucky’s best, was scoreless in the first half and responded with 13 after that.
A&M freshman guard Courtney Walker scored 20, twice her average, with all the attention on Bone, but it was not enough. The UK bench outscored the A&M reserves, 15-6, with former starter Brian Goss scoring seven. A&M won the second half by two, overcoming a 12-point deficit. A flurry of 3-point attempts in the final minute, none of which connected, ended the game in a slump.
Both coaches raved about the 10 blocks by UK’s DeNesha Stallworth, six above her average. UK’s lead soared to 14 but A&M could not come all the way back.
You have to complete the marathon that is the regular season to in anything in this league. With four games left, there are three teams still in contention.
THE RANKED SEC TEAMS
•No. 11 Tennessee started a stream of three winnable games before the final two against A&M and UK.
The Lady Vols finally hit 20 wins by completing the sweep against in-state rival Vanderbilt, this time at home. They are the fifth and final league team with that traditional NCAA marker. Vanderbilt is actually next in line, with 16. The Commodores still have Georgia and A&M left in the regular season, though.
Tennessee used its lone game of the week to tune up, winning the first half by 10 and the second by nine. They are still tied with A&M with one loss, with two more to go before A&M and UK to close the season.
•Kentucky tuned up for A&M at home against South Carolina, which had been leading the league in defense by allowing only 48 per game. UK scored 30 more and needed them all.
The Wildcats turned up the second-half heat after trailing at home by 14 at intermission, the biggest deficit of the season. It is also the only time in 19 games SC has lost when leading at halftime. Jennifer O’Neill scored 19 for UK, including two free throws in the closing minutes as UK won by four.
With four losses, SC cannot win the regular season title, causing coach Dawn Staley to all but shut down in the post-game press conference, saying it was frustrating to lose a game they were capable of winning.
Six of the past eight Kentucky matchups with South Carolina have now been decided by eight points or less, including five in a row. The ’Cats are 3-3 in those games. The next two UK games are winnable, setting up the season finale at home against Tennessee.
•Georgia, out of the Top 10 once again after stumbling at aforementioned LSU the previous week, started a string of season-ending winnable games at No. 13.
They pounced at fading Florida in their only game of the week and won by just five. Jasmine Hassell had a double-double, points and rebounds 16 each. They actually spotted Florida a lead of a dozen points but recovered by halftime.
The Gators need a mammoth showing in the league tournament to regain consideration as the sixth SEC team in the big show. Georgia is likely to win out and maintain the No. 3 spot in the league as the season ends.
•Texas A&M had to use Florida, now sub-.500 in the league – as its tuneup for Kentucky.
A&M won the first half by seven and only had to play the fading Gators even in the second half for the win, their eighth straight. It assured a 20-win season as well. Coach Gary Blair has 22 20-win seasons as a coach and should be the league’s coach of the year this season. Bone had 31 points and 10 rebounds. It evened A&M with Tennessee at 10-1 in the league
•No. 15 South Carolina followed its game at Kentucky with one at Ole Miss and got back on track. The defense was back against a non-competitive opponent, hitting the average by holding the Rebels to 47. Ashley Bruner scored 15 with 13 rebounds and Tiffany Mitchell, banished to the bench for the first time, scored 13 in the opening half. SC can win out, but four league losses means they are just angling for NCAA seeding now.
Alphabetically, A&M, Georgia and Kentucky have the top three seeds in the league tournament. Then comes SC and maybe LSU. Finding a sixth NCAA team may depend on what happens in the conference tournament.
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