Mike Siroky's SEC Report: May the Best Man Win
By Mike Siroky
The Southeastern Conference women’s basketball tournament produced no real upsets as the top four seeds made the semifinals. Texas A&M eventually outlasted everyone else.
Texas A&M crashed the finals in its first year in conference. Both are coached by males, which once upon a time was important. In winning, A&M is ahead of Kentucky and six other league teams in tournament titles. That says as much of the dominance by Tennessee as anything else, but still.
After all, it is only a tuneup for the national competition.
The Aggies strung together three good games, probably earning a No. 2 NCAA seed in the NCAA field of 64 as the league’s endorsed bid. But they will not go alone.
The SEC had five teams – the ranked ones – already preparing for the NCAA and the draw is not until March 11. All those teams need to do is wash the uniforms and let the NCAA make arrangements. Three of them do not even need travel plans.
There will be another No. 2 and maybe a No. 3. The others – and there could be as many as seven league teams in – will be scattered across America.
LSU, likely to be a low seed at home for a sub-Regional having attained its 20-win season by winning seven straight. Vanderbilt also won its 20th and would be the last SEC team in.
If the Commodores do get placed, it means all teams with conference winning percentages get invited. LSU, at home for the sub-Regional will see one or more higher seeds in Baton Rouge.
But seven teams would reflect the obvious RPI of the league.
The league’s select six are in the top 30 RPI nationally (or better than half the NCAA draw), led by Tennessee (seventh), then Kentucky (ninth), South Carolina (12th), Texas A&M (16 th);Georgia (19th) and Vanderbilt (30th). LSU is 34th, then Arkansas (62nd), Florida (69 th) and Auburn (90th) are all in the top 100.
Another NCAA predictor, the final 10 games of a season, had Georgia on an 8-2 run. South Carolina, LSU, Tennessee and Kentucky all went 7-3. Texas A&M and Vanderbilt were 6-4. A&M obviously has the best active streak in conference at three.
This league is so strong it stays off-campus for the conference tournament.
Duluth, Ga., has also hosted in 2007 and 2010. Tennessee had already won more than half of these sorority gatherings, 16 of 31. Georgia has seven.
Texas A&M and Tennessee are both ranked below Kentucky’s No. 7, yet they are the regular season and tournament titlists.
A&M can step on the gas now as it will host host two games before the Sweet 16, as will LSU and Tennessee, A&M and UT likely the highest seed at their home gyms.
No one wants to be in Baylor’s bracket, so a chance to go West is realistic and the usual suspect for the weakest Regional. UConn and Notre Dame are likely No. 1 seeds – with UConn not leaving the state before the final Four --
in the East and South. Someone from the Big Three of the conference will have to take them on before the Final Four as well.
But, if you earn a No. 2 seed now, there is the chance another team can at least rough them up if not eliminate them before the Final Four qualifier.
Here are the tournament results:
•Alabama 66, Mississippi State 36.
Two teams going nowhere, except perhaps to peruse resumes for new coaches. The winner got a grand exit prize of meeting South Carolina in Round 2. The Crimson Tide (13-17) won its first SEC tournament game since 2005.
Meghan Perkins scored 17, Daisha Simmons 13 and no one on State hit double figures.
•Florida 64, Arkansas 59
The opener was two teams either of which could be the answer to: “Whatever happened to . . .” this season.
Jaterra Bonds scored 17, including a jumper with 51 seconds remaining that gave Florida the lead. The Gators had trailed by as many as 11.
Bonds' jumper gave Florida a 60-59 lead. She added two free throws with 30 seconds remaining as the Gators scored the final six points. Bonds made 10 of 12 free throws.
January Miller had 14 points and Sydney Moss had 13 for Florida. The winners were awarded another exit prize: A date with No. 1 seed and angry, Tennessee. Arkansas finishes 18-12, a likely NWIT entrant.
Lady Vol fans, loyal as ever, arrived early and made made up about half of the crowd even without their team present.
•South Carolina 77, Alabama 35
The No. 5 seed Gamecocks were a bit miffed at playing an extra game because they stumbled late against Mississippi State and worked themselves out of an extra day off.
They were the only guaranteed NCAA celebrant in this round. The reserves had their day, especially in the 49-17 second half.
Elem Ibiam scored 19 and All-SEC Second Team Ashley Bruner pulled down 14 rebounds. The defense matched the record low for the tournament. It is their eighth straight over Alabama under fifth-year coach Dawn Staley.
Alabama (13-18) ends the season by losing 11 of its last 12 games.
• Vanderbilt 52, Missouri 40.
No. 10 seed Missouri can post the win over Tennessee as the highlight of the home season. But No. 7 seed Vanderbilt was playing for a 20th win and to qualify as that elusive No. 7 team in the NCAAs from the conference.
With sevens wild, Vanderbilt moved into the quarterfinals. Tiffany Clarke, Vanderbilt’s All-SEC First Teamer, scored 14.
Missouri ends its first SEC season 17-14.
• LSU 65, Auburn 62
Sixth-seeded LSU also won its 20th and barely kept its seven-game win streak intact.
Adrienne Webb, LSU¸ All-SEC Second Team, scored 18 and Theresa Plaisance, All-SEC First Team, scored 15, with 14 rebounds.
Auburn won the second half by 12, but obviously failed at the start.
No. 11 seed Auburn (16-14) ended a dismal first season in conference for coach Terri Williams-Flournoy.
The thing about quarterfinals in good conferences is if there are no upsets, you have done as well as you can as a league and everything else is just extra. All the top four seeds slipped right into the Semifinals
• Arkansas vs. Tennessee
The lights came on for top-seeded Tennessee. They had already beaten Arkansas in the regular season and were in the right frame of mind.
Coach Holly Warlick has them believing they have been dissed by other top-flight conference members, starting with a pre-season pick as the fifth-best team, All season (save for one week), though leading the league, they somehow have been ranked lower than another team in conference. They still are, after folding in the semifinals.
With Warlick as Coach of the Year and Freshman of the Year Bashaara Graves joining one of the co-Players of the Year, Meighan Simmons, on the First team all-SEC, they were angry and motivated.
Warlick was not at all satisfied with this effort. She ran the Gators to distraction, breaking out on every play and the result was a lot of sloppy fouls by a young chasing team.
Tennessee had a 24-6 free throws made advantage.
They took the Gators apart on the first half, winning by 11, then exhaled and coasted into their reserved spot in the semifinals. Simmons was reinserted for the final minute as a precaution. Warlick only used two reserves and one of them, Cierra Burdick, scored 14 with eight rebounds. Simmons scored 20 and Graves 10 with six rebounds.
Still missing in action – and under a cloud of no mention by UT – is the tallest player on the team, 6-3 center Isabelle Harrison, who looks to be through with a banged-up knee. They were 1-1 without her at this point in the starting lineup.
Florida closes 18-14, but four games under in the league, never quite living up to expectations despite being ranked for part of the season. Freshman Sydney Moss, a star to be, scored 22. Another rookie, Carlie Needles, hit four 3s.
• Texas A&M 61, South Carolina 52
South Carolina had lost to No. 4 seed Texas A&M in the regular season and that’s why they had to play before the quarterfinals in the first matchup of two teams already headed to the NCAAs,
A&M won again to reserve a rematch with Tennessee. UT had beaten them in Knoxville just a week earlier. In fact, this ended a three-game end-of-season losing streak.
Senior forward Kris Bellock scored 17 -- 6-of-8 from the field -- for A&M’s opening conference playoff game. A&M won both halves, the second by 16.
Ashley Bruner of SC scored 19 with 11 rebounds. The Gamecocks (22-9) await a middling seed in the NCAAs, fifth best in conference coming in, fifth best in conference going out.
• Kentucky 76, Vanderbilt 65
No. 2 seed Kentucky, off a disappointing non-defense of its league title seeks solace here and welcomed Vanderbilt in the second matchup of two likely NCAA qualifiers. UK had won at Vanderbilt by plenty in the regular season.
The Wildcats forced 23 turnovers, the 146th consecutive game UK has forced double-digit turnovers
A’dia Mathies, Kentucky and DeNesha Stallworth, Kentucky, all-SEC First Team. Mathies, also co-Player of the Year, led them. Mathies scored 16 and Stallworth 14. The ’Cats are in the semifinals for the fourth straight season, an indicator of the superlative senior class.
Vanderbilt finishes 20-11. Senior forward Tiffany Clarke recorded her 10th double-double of the season and 22nd of her career with a team-leading 24 points and 12 rebounds in her SEC finale.
• Georgia 71, LSU 53
No. 3 seed Georgia showed why they are a usual suspect for the Sweet 16 against LSU, the third matchup of two NCAA qualifiers. Coach Andy Landers has now coached in more SEC tournaments than any other coach.
Jasmine Hassell, All-SEC First Team, led the five Bulldogs in double-figures, Jasmine James, All-SEC Second Team, scored 10 with four assists
Georgia lost by eight to LSU during the Bengals’ league-best stretch run.
LSU (20-11) was led by Adrienne Webb’s team-high 16 points one of three Bengals in double-digits.
Guaranteed: No other conference has such highly-ranked national teams in semifinals. No. 7 Kentucky vs. No. 12 Georgia and No. 9 Tennessee vs. No. 19 Texas A&M.
• Texas A&M 66, Tennessee 62
The lack of size did show up as A&M rattled the Lady Vols. Uncharacteristically, the league’s top-scoring team simply stopped scoring in the second half.
A pair of Courtney freshmen, Walker and Williams, led the surge, overcoming a 10-point deficit as A&M eventually won both halves by two.
“How about those young Aggies?” declared Texas A&M coach Gary Blair. “We keep finding a way.”
Usual leader Kelsey Bone had a quiet 15. Walker led with 18.
Taber Spani had a career-high 33 for top-seeded Tennessee (24-7), the SEC's regular-season champion. The defense of reserve Tori Scott haunted her the most.
Spani’s season scoring average was 10. She hit 11-of-13 in this one from the field, including 5-of-6 3s. Co-Player of the year Meighan Simmons scored but 10. Dead is the 10-game conference tournament winning streak.
Their true center, 6-3 rookie Isabelle Harrison, was again not mentioned. She has an “issue” with her medial collateral ligament in her right knee. She had surgery on her left knee meniscus in February. They are 1-2 without her in the starting lineup. A&M had 18 offensive rebounds.
• Kentucky 60, Georgia 38
What A&M’s win assured was a team coached by a male would win conference. UK UK and Georgia are both coached by men.
The Bulldogs playing their usual “don’t count on us” card, big time. Jasmine Hassell scored 17 and that was about it for 25-6 Georgia.
Given the opening to win the conference tournament by Tennessee’s loss, the Wildcats romped in search of more Big Blue History
Trailing by five, the Wildcats took the lead with a 15-0 run early in the second half and closed with 13 unanswered points.
Jennifer O'Neill sank 3-pointers on each end of the big run and DeNesha Stallworth had 18 points for Kentucky, who lost to Tennessee in the 2010 and 2011 championship games, winning their only tournament championship in 1982.
This more than made up for the four-point loss late in the season to Georgia, which cost the ’Cats a tie (they would have owned the tiebreaker) for the regular-season title. Kentucky was 1-2 in SEC tournament finals, all previous games against Tennessee.
• Texas A&M 75, Kentucky 67
Maybe Kelsey Bone, Texas A&M’s All-SEC First Teamer, was just playing possum.
The league scoring leader all season at better than 17 per game and second-best rebounder (almost 10), scored but seven in the quarterfinal and did not lead the team in the semifinal.
She had just four at the break if this one, called for her second foul and banished to the bench the final 8:54 of the half. So, naturally, she exploded with a dominant second half and has now bested the co-players of the year in back-to-back games.
She finished with 18 points and 15 rebounds.
After No. 7 Kentucky led only 36-34 at halftime, Bone said she saw an opportunity to make up for two regular-season losses to the Wildcats.
“It was a two-fold thing for me,” Bone said. “Both times we've played Kentucky previously I've had terrible cramps going into the second half. I'm sitting on the bench and played only eight minutes in the first half. I’ve still got 20 minutes in my tank. It was probably a blessing in disguise.
“We were only down two points. I felt like we had taken their best shot and we had not thrown our best punch yet.”
She is the tournament MVP and gladly helped cut down the nets. She tied a string from the net to the back of her white SEC Champions cap.
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said one of his pregame challenges was directed to Bone, who played in the SEC as a freshman with South Carolina before transferring to Texas A&M.
“I said give me 15 boards, give me 10 defensive ones, five offensive ones, give me five assists and play great defense,” Blair said. “Look at what their post players did. She and (Kristi) Bellock shut them down.
“She got me 10 defensive rebounds and five offensive rebounds. She owes me an assist and I'll ask for it next time because she only got four.”
Kentucky center DeNesh Stallworth made only four of 12 shots for 10 points. Power forward Samarie Walker made only one of five shots.
Bellock had 15 points and eight rebounds. Freshman Courtney Walker, in a second straight strong game, scored 14 for the Aggies.
Texas A&M took the lead with an 11-0 run early in the second half and then stretched the advantage to 11 with an 8-0 run midway through the half.
The Aggies took their big lead of 15 points at 63-48 when Kentucky tried to rally. Bria Goss sank a 3-pointer and Jennifer O'Neill followed with a three-point play, pulling the Wildcats to within nine points.
A basket by Mathies with 3:12 remaining cut the Aggies' lead to 70-63, but Bone answered by scoring for the Aggies.
Kentucky swept two regular-season games against Texas A&M, but the combined margin of victory in the two games was only seven points.
“It’s hard to beat us three times,” Blair said.
Even with Bone sitting out most of the half, the Wildcats' biggest lead was two points. Kentucky, which trailed by six at 23-17 midway through the half, led 36-34 at halftime as O'Neill closed the half with two straight baskets.
Stallworth scored to open the second half, stretching Kentucky's lead to four points. The No. 19 Aggies scored the next 11 to take a 45-38 lead they would not lose.
Classy as always, UK coach Matt Mitchell said all the right things.
“We were very disappointed that we lost, but we were beaten by a very good basketball team, a very hungry basketball team,” he said. “Texas A&M had a very strong desire to be the champions and that's why they're cutting down the nets.”
Something had to give and it was for once the not-so-exuberant Wildcats.
A&M was allowing 57.4 points per game, while scoring an average 70.3; UK was allowing 56.9 while scoring 77.3.
UK has made an almost mythological statement on defense most of the season, but then they hit four of the first 23 in the second half, meaning A&M (24-9) held them to Kentucky to 17.4 percent then.
“That is coaching,” Mitchell said. “There’s no other way around it. We could not get a bucket. "Our post players are not at a point where they can get on the post and score.
"That is a credit to Texas A&M’s defense, but I should have done a better job at this point in the season of being better able to manufacture some offense. I feel really bad about that.”
A’dia Mathies led Kentucky (27-5) with 19 points. O’Neill had 17. The Wildcats shot 35.5 percent from the field for the game.
Now comes the big draw. See you after Selection Monday.
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