Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Tennessee Claims Regular Season Title
The Southeastern Conference women’s basketball champ is . . . Tennessee.
New coach Holly Warlick, maintaining tradition while in transition throttled the conference and eliminated everyone else with one game yet to be played.
Had the Lady Vols lost, the delicious anticipation of needing to win at Kentucky with the ’Cats holding the tiebreaker if they had won, was gone.
As is tradition, it didn’t happen. UT won the league for the 17th time, with its sixth straight win, a big deal in the NCAA seeding process. Warlick has been there, as a player, assistant coach and now coach, for 16 of the 17 titles. She was the captain and point guard on the very first one, in 1980.
Warlick leaps up to the prime contender for league coach of the year in this, her rookie season. UK fails to defend the crown, which would have been historic for that program after winning only its second regular-season title.
Texas A&M fails to win in its inaugural voyage in the league. Warlick will stay classy and not gloat, even though her fellow coaches voted her team fifth in the pre-season league poll.
A&M or UK could still win the conference tournament and gain some semblance of bragging rights plus the automatic NCAA bid and momentum.
But is says here the Lady Vols are a definite No. 2 in the NCAAs and will open with a sub-Regional at home, so the ride continues even as the record book will reflect another title.
In the second-to-last game of the season, even as UK was positioning itself for the final showdown and Georgia was still hanging around, Tennessee took out A&M in person, on Senior Night in Knoxville.
Keeping with tradition, they won on defense and by exploiting A&M for five-point margins in each half. Senior Kamiko Williams scored a career-high 18.
The first half decided it. Tennessee went on an 8-2 run to close it. An absolute dagger was a 3-pointer by Williams with five seconds left.
They held A&M scoreless for mire than 3:50 as the game closed.
The Lady Vols overcame injuries to point guard Ariel Massengale and center Isabelle Harrison, who each appeared to hurt their right knees in the second half.
"Holly deserves all the credit," Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. "She's got the hardest job in America. Remember how many people tried to replace John Wooden? They're still trying to replace him. You've got the right person in Holly. She's doing a great job, because Pat Summitt is our John Wooden."
Not that the title affects the NCAA tournament, as there are already five guaranteed invites to the field of 64.
The best SEC teams will be seeded right into the Sweet 16, starting with Tennessee and Texas A&M at home in sub-Regionals.
The SEC has five 20-game winners, all ranked in the top 25 of the nation. LSU, with six straight wins at the end, is angling for the sixth invite and will get it as they also host a sub-Regional. Winning a game in this week’s SEC tournament won’t hurt and would give them 20 wins, as would a win give Vanderbilt 20.
The SEC gets multiple entrants in the field of 64, more than other conferences, based on the league’s NCAA history. They may get seven again.
THE RANKED SEC TEAMS
•No. 8 Tennessee finally became the highest-ranked team in the league. And then put an exclamation point on that with the win over A&M. Playing a relaxed game at Kentucky was next. Each team had already earned passes into the quarterfinals of the league tournament.
Against Kentucky, the injured point guard Ariel Massengale returned but center Isabelle Harrison did not. Each team finishes 7-3 in the closing 10 games.
Tennessee had the longest winning streak, seven games, ended and a weird six-game final game win by seasons also ended. A sold-out Kentucky home crowd got coach Matt Mitchell the most wins by a Kentucky coach in one fewer season than the previous record-holder.
Seniors A’dia Mathies and Brittany Henderson have only lost three home games in their four-year careers, with 64 wins,
Junior guard Meighan Simmons who averages a league-high 17.8 points per game, including 19.4 ppg in conference play, leads Tennessee. She won the SEC scoring title.
UT’s leading rebounder is freshman forward/center Bashaara Graves with 8.6 rpg. Graves is the player Warlick calls most consistent. She led the halftime scoring with 10. Simmons had five as the UK defense locked on her. On the other Side, Mathies had three and Jennifer O’Neill nine at the break. UK led by as many as nine and by four at the break.
Mathies finished with 16. She was already the second all-time scorer at UK. Simmons had15.
The 13th conference win ties the school record for Kentucky.
•No. 10 Kentucky won at Ole Miss and then waited for Tennessee’s visit in the only meeting between the two this season.
In the final road trip of the season, they bamboozled Ole Miss, a team sure to miss the NCAAs. The blowout included winning the 24th game of the season, tying the school record
•No. 11 Georgia allowed Mississippi State to knock them a tie for third place, at Starkville, which is very Georgia-like at this point every season lately.
Georgia shot .182 (that is not a typo) against a team with a losing record.
They closed against Vanderbilt at home on Senior Night. Georgia again built a first-half lead, lost the second half and survived by five. Georgia closed the season 8-2.
The State game is what cost them a tie for second.
•No. 13 Texas A&M played at Tennessee and ended the season with a sluggish loss at home to surging LSU. They can rekindle themselves in the league tournament. The Bengals proved themselves NCAA worthy with a marquee road win, their 19th of the season.
A&M had a haltime lead which went away in a hurry. LSU’s Daneile Ballard made a three-point play with 18 minutes left and took a one-point lead. Slowly, they built as A&M folded at home. Theresa Plaisance made back-to-back 3s.
It was but a two-point difference with eight minutes left. A minute later it was eight when Ballard hit two free throws. No one seemed to working for A&M except Kelsey Bone. Two more free throws, by Adrienne Webb, made the difference nine at the six-minute mark and the crowd began to murmur.
Bianca Lutley hit two free throws and the difference was double-digits.
Bone did not score for the final 4:51 and with her went the offense. A&M closed 6-4, LSU 7-3 in those crucial final 10 games. A&M is tied for fourth – and the final SEC bye in the season-ending tournament – in its inaugural SEC run.
Bone may yet be the player of the year in conference but also faces the tough dilemma of was this her final home game. A junior in eligibility, but a player four years out of high school (she sat out a transfer season), she is eligible for the WNBA draft and – more importantly – the big money payoff in Europe or Asia as a pro.
•No. 14 South Carolina continued to ride the roller coaster by losing at Missouri, the only SEC team to have beaten Tennessee at that point. This how you play your way to not being a top four seed in the NCAAs or even in the SEC.
The loss to A&M in the regular season breaks the tie and gives A&M an extra day off.
The Tigers outscored the Gamecocks, 34-14, on points inside.
SC finished at home with woeful Florida. A dominant second half, 542-31, let the Gamecocks close the season 7-3. Sydney Moss scored 16.
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