Mike Siroky's SEC Report: South Carolina Makes It Over Before It's Over
Just like last season, when Tennessee defused the chase in the regular-season race for the title in Southeastern Conference women’s basketball, it’s over before it’s over.
South Carolina has won its first-ever SEC regular-season title. Yes, they had the trophy on hand Thursday for Senior Night.
The last game of the season, Sunday at Tennessee, is only for mind games and perhaps national seeding for the home team. The Lady Vols are not favored.
Kentucky had its second Big Sunday in row, knocking off a ranked team on the road, this time at Texas A&M. That put the Aggies two back in the conference race. A&M and SC each won on Thursday and that left the Gamecocks two ahead with one to go.
SC won all its home games. A&M lost to Tennessee and Kentucky at theirs and that decided the conference race. Tennessee lost at home to Kentucky and LSU and they are tied for second with one to go.
A&M and South Carolina were picked tied for fifth by the coaches to start the season.
The conference tournament starts March 5 and concludes a week and one day before Selection Monday.
The top four teams get to skip the first two games, so SC, UT and A&M are assured of the break. UK and Florida are tied for fourth. SC has never been the top seed in the tournament. A&M won the tournament last season.
The SEC tournament titlist wins the automatic NCAA bid. If SC also wins the league tournament, the national reverberation will not be as severe.
They will claim a top seed, most likely at Lincoln, Neb., but perhaps at Stanford.
Conference tournament champs have been seeded lower in the NCAAs than regular-season champs in the SEC. And the SEC regularly gets seven or eight teams in the bigger tournament.
It is not like other conferences, where only the conference tournament champ goes, hence the automatic part of the bid.
As an example, the old Big East had two great guaranteed teams in Notre Dame and UConn and both have been regular NCAA participants.
That conference may only have one participant this season as the Irish and the Huskies remain top seeds anyway. Notre Dame even has a final Regional at home. The Big East leader is not even in the Top 25 nationally.
Among other smaller conferences, Delaware is another example.
With Elena Della Donne they were rightfully ranked nationally and a shoo-in for the NCAAs. The Blue Hens are a distant second in a weak Colonial athletic Conference now and not likely in the NCAAs a year later.
Texas A&M, Tennessee. LSU and Kentucky all host NCAA sub-Regionals, so all are already in the NCAA bracket someplace. Three of them plus SC are likely penciled in to the Sweet 16 and, as in seasons past, that is one-fourth of that field.
South Carolina is 9-0 in the Final 10 games, (an NCAA point of emphasis in seeding). They finished the undefeated home season with two wins. Their farewell to Columbia for the season was magical.
UT is 8-1 and exorcised some demons from Holly Warlick’s first “official” season as coach by winning at Missouri and LSU this week. She already has 50 coaching wins in less than two seasons.
Texas A&M is 6-3 in the final 10; Kentucky is also 6-3 which shows how that little litmus test proves out.
Unranked LSU has 18 wins. It closes with Alabama on the road.
Like Kentucky, LSU is likely looking at a middling seed in its own sub-Regional.
Unranked Georgia has 18 wins. Georgia has the added bulk of tradition, having missed just one NCAA tournament. They close with Mississippi State.
Unranked Vanderbilt has 18 wins and closes at UK.
Unranked Arkansas has 18 wins, 13 of those before the league season.
Unranked Florida has 18 wins and closes with A&M.
Unranked Mississippi State has 18 wins.
At least two of the unranked teams will get in, one of them LSU. The first four we listed have all been in the national Top 25 at some point this season, before the league meat grinder. No SEC team with 20 wins has ever missed an NCAA tournament, even when the 20th came in the conference tournament.
That’s life in the toughest league in America, with four teams ranked in the Top 20 of the Associated Press poll.
Here’s how the week went for the Fab Four:
•No. 4 South Carolina: The second-largest home crowd ever at SC, 10,547, came out for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was a celebration following the 69-54 win over Florida, coupled with A&M’s loss the same day.
It made SC coach Dawn Staley the first to 26 wins this season; the-now 14 conference wins bests last season’s record. They won at least 25 for three seasons in succession.
“It feels great to do what most people thought we could never get done here at South Carolina,” Staley said.
She allowed her players to enjoy the moment, but is confident they understand there’s more left to achieve over the next few weeks. “We want to be greedy at this point,” she said. “We want to win it all, as much as we can win.”
“This is exciting,” forward Aleighsa Welch said. “Now, we’ve got to take care of business.” Tiffany Mitchell scored 20 with seven rebounds, Alaina Coates 16 – 5-of-5 from the field -- with 12 rebounds.
Mitchell took a knee to the thigh in the opening period and looked barely able to move before trainers helped her off the court. While the injury was not serious, Mitchell clearly looked out of synch early on against Florida’s swarming pressure: She was only 2 of 5 from the floor for six points and had six of the Gamecocks’ 13 turnovers in the first half.
But she turned things around after the break with 14 points.
“Tiff’s a player,” Staley said. “She’s not going to play perfect basketball every time out. When you can handle adversity like she did in the first half and play like she did in the second, that’s when you know she knows how to turn the page and put us on her back.”
“I just tried to settle down. I was playing too fast early on with a lot of unnecessary turnovers,” said Mitchell, who afterwards wore ice bags around both knees. “I just had to stay in it and get myself going.”
The arena was decorated in pink as South Carolina honored those who’ve survived or are batting breast cancer. Gamecock assistant Nikki McCray was diagnosed with the disease in November and the former Tennessee and Olympic star is undergoing treatment. She has not missed a game with the team due to her illness.
SC closed their fabulous home season without a league loss, against unranked Georgia. The 67-56 win was paced by Mitchell, with 25 points (10-of-10 from the line) and Coates off the bench with 18 and eight rebounds.
SC scored a dozen of the game’s first 16 points and the pattern was set, as Georgia basically played them even the rest of the game and never really gained momentum.
The season-high crowd of 12,458 was appreciative.
“Tiffany Mitchell has been a player who, anytime we needed a basket or a stop, she has come through for us,” Staley said.
“I thought she took advantage of what the defense gave her. Her ability to drive to the basket allowed her to get some easy buckets and put Georgia back on their heels a little bit and then kind of gave us a lead in the first half. In the second half, she hit a big three to keep us up by 13 when Georgia was making their run. She’s done it all season long.
“To be able to go undefeated in the league like we have (at home), the best league in the country, for our players to be able to do that is quite amazing,” Staley said. “I think winning the SEC is an amazing thing, but you never think of it taking 14 games to win it and you have an opportunity to do it at home.
“Kudos to them. They worked hard, both on and off the floor. ‘Why not us?’ It is something I said six years ago, ‘Why not South Carolina?’ And we made it happen.”
•No. 12 Kentucky Is anything an upset among the SEC elite?
Technically, Kentucky was ranked a national spot ahead of the Aggies and, realistically, the game was at Aggieland. Plus, Kentucky had lost six times in conference and A&M but twice.
The best sixth man in the league, Jennifer O’Neill scored 17 points and freshman Linnae Harper 16. Kentucky won 83-74 for its fifth 20-win season in a row, a school record.
Kentucky led the entire second half but closed on an 8-2 run at the end anyway. Closing has not been a hallmark of this year’s Wildcats.
The Aggies missed their last five field goals.
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell used his almost-new 2/3 zone.
“The players worked really hard on the 2/3 zone for the past two days,” he said. “We had not played a lot of that and it and it paid off for us today.”
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair took the blame for the loss.
“Throw the errors at me,” he said. “I’ve got to do a better job at coaching. We worked hard to set ourselves up to have a chance to win this thing.
"Now what we’ve got to do is throw this game aside, learn from it, try to win our last two, get to the SEC Tournament and hopefully get hot and hopefully get smarter.”
Samarie Walker had 14 rebounds and DeNesha Stallworth had 11 points and 12 rebounds for Kentucky.
Courtney Walker tied her career high with 26 points for A&M. It was her seventh 20-point scoring game of the season and the 11th of her career.
Courtney Williams added 16 points with 14 coming in the second half.
Walker also had 10 rebounds, but was frustrated with the overall effort that led to Texas A&M getting out-rebounded 25-12 in the first half and 47-32 overall.
“They were just a little bit faster out of it,” she said. “They rebounded well out of it.”
The win moved Kentucky up four spots to No. 12 nationally.
At Mississippi State, the Wildcats could only manage a 38-35 halftime edge.
No one hit double figures and even O’Neill, off the bench, had but two free throws. State trimmed six points off he lead in the closing seven minutes before the break.
State kept the edge at just three early in the second half, thanks to five points by Kendra Grant and a Savannah Carter layin in a nice little run at the 7:48 mark.
Kentucky did not score a basket in the final three minutes. They held the lead by one at that point.
SEC Player of the Week Martha Alwal made a layup and Jessica James a 3-pointer and time was running out on the visitors. They missed three shots in the final minutes, but State made a fatal foul with one second left. Walker hit a free throw and it was tied.
At first, it was ruled the game ended with a State win as time had expired. The foul was called after that.
But a tape review showed the horn sounded 1.2 seconds early – imagine that.
It favored the home team -- and Walker was allowed the free throw that tied it.
In overtime, UK won the battle, 15-8, and the game, 81-74. Kentucky scored six of its final eight at the line including another fracturing foul on State, Bria
Goss hitting three straight after a far out foul. She is the league’s best free-throw shooter, at better than 91 percent.
State only managed one basket in the final four minutes.
Goss finished with 20 which more than offset O’Neill’s very subpar six, eight below her average.
This means State can not get to 20 wins in the regular season, if at all, which would open the door for a rare NCAA bid.
“I am disappointed,” State coach Vic Schaefer said. “I am proud of them. We have lost three games in overtime and that is nobody’s fault other than mine. I loved our passion, our heart and our competitiveness. It came down to a rebound there with 1.2 seconds left.
“To play that hard and that long at home against a team that good, it is disappointing. We know how far we have come. We have come a long way since losing by 50-plus points at their place last year. You really wanted to get them back at home.
“We have competed all year in the biggest, baddest conference in the land,” Schaefer said. “Other than a half against Texas A&M, we have played well and it is disappointing that we can’t get these games home. These kids deserve to reap the reward of winning.”
Kentucky closes out its pre-NCAA home season against Vanderbilt, a team that, after all, beat Tennessee this season. If the league is to get seven teams in the NCAA again, Vanderbilt is among those vying for the last spot.
Mitchell had said it is all about consistency now, as they are at the point where “winning one and then losing one” will not cut it any longer.
•No. 10 Tennessee: Suddenly secure in second place in the league (they have the tiebreaker against A&M) the Lady Vols won two Tiger tussles on the road, at Missouri and LSU.
They are using true freshmen point guards Jordan Reynolds and Darius Thompson as they await the return of the injured senior starter, Ariel Massengale, MIA for morre than a month.
When Missouri beat them last season, 80-63, also at Missouri, it was and is the statement game in the league for the Tigers. Why the league had them back to back there is another discussion.
What is not in flux is the way Tennessee took the 56-50 win.
They won each half, the rebounds by 13 and held Missouri to 29 percent from the field. Five more 3s by the home team only kept them close. Against a tough defense, Missouri only got to the line six times. Only four players scored all night for Mizzou. A nice crowd of 5,037 came to see it.
And, down the stretch, the visitors kept calm.
“No, I don’t think we were nervous,” said UT’s Andraya Carter. “We actually just kept telling each other to stay composed. Just play our game, slow down, relax. We were going to be fine.”
A 16-point lead with 11 minutes left was down to three with 1:22 left. It came down to UT hitting free throws after that.
Izzy Harrison hit a pair at :34 to provide a lead of 52-47, then another pair to make the lead 54-47 with nine seconds left. Meighan Simmons added a pair with one second left and that completed scoring.
“We knew it was huge,” Carter said. “We knew it was going to be a long night. It was already a long night in itself.”
“We talked about that before the game, really having an attack mentality,”
Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. “But you’re not going to get a lot of free throws when you shoot as many 3s as we did tonight.”
“She’s drawing a lot of attention and she’s learning to pass the ball a lot better now as well,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said of Simmons, the Lady Vols’ only regular scoring machine. “I think Meighan is playing a complete game and it’s fun to watch.
“Obviously, I’m proud of our team. Missouri’s team is never out of the game and they’re very well-coached. I’m just glad for the win. It’s a good win for us on the road.”
She said defense is always a point of emphasis at Tennessee.
“We worked a lot on not allowing 3-point looks and they shoot a lot of 3s,” Warlick said.
“But we wanted to make sure that they shot contested 3s. I think, for the most part, we did that and that’s tough for us because we’re a team that gives up a lot of 3s.
"To hold them to seven 3s, for us, is awesome. We worked a lot, over the last two days, on defending their concepts; defending their players. I thought today they carried out our game plan very well.”
In the end, “We got stops. They came down and hit two 3s in a row and then we turned it over twice in a row. It boils down to stops and rebounds. I thought that we came up with some big rebounds toward the end. We came up on the good end of shooting free throws. We made the game interesting.”
The Bayou Ben-Gals won by three at Tennessee to start the league season. but this collapsed team is not the same as then. UT started out 20-6. Burdick had 11 and Simmons eight. LSU was hitting just 25 percent from the floor.
Simmons scored 23 in the second half, for 31, including five 3s. Burdick finished with 22 and UT won, 72-67.
LSU closes its home season with a fifth straight loss. They had the lead down to two with two minutes to go but Tennessee did not wilt, even thought it was outscored by 16 after halftime.
Simmons scored five straight and it was free throws after that as the trailing Tigers fouled. It was a sad Senior Night in Baton Rouge.
“If you said that we were going to play this game of basketball for 30 minutes, we’d probably be undefeated,” said LSU coach Nikki Caldwell of the inability to close.
“We’re going to focus in on that.”
Still, at the end . . .
“I thought we had some good defensive stops, and I thought we had some play calls that could have went our way. You can dissect the game, but it’s tough to come back from 20. We’re going to turn the corner. I saw a different team tonight. Although we were down 20 in the first half, I saw a different team tonight.”
Warlick was glad of the team she saw on her bench.
“I thought everyone came in and contributed,” Warlick said. “We did – we had three of our post players who had two fouls early. I thought everybody came in.
“I just thought we hung tough. I thought our press was very, very good. It slowed them up. They turned it over. We got great looks. We played hard. Our defense was so solid. It was solid, and it was a quality first half for us.
“Then we had some mental breakdowns; I don’t know if we got a little satisfied that we were up. This team is really a tough team to hold a lead. We get a lead, and we get relaxed. I thought we needed to get busy, and we didn’t.”
But she had Simmons and Simmons was up to the challenge.
“The coaches just told us to attack and, really, I wasn’t thinking anything,” Simmons said of all those points.
“I was just thinking about scoring. Our coaches wanted us to score and get a stop. They were big shots, but I thank the coaches for just being confident in me. I just hit those shots.
“She just told us not let up, and keep the intensity going. Cierra, who was leading us the whole game, was just telling us that we need to stick together – to get stops. We knew we needed to get to the free throw line, and we knew we had to make free throws. So, it was really just keeping our intensity up.”
And so it is onto their own Senior Night and closing the home season against the visiting SEC champs.
“It would be huge for us,” Warlick said. “I mean, we’re looking at an NCAA seeding. That’s our goal right now. We didn’t win the regular season so nothing we can do about that.
“I tell you – we talked a lot about that today. It’s all about how you’re going to get seeded in the NCAA, and that’s what we’re playing for. That’s why we came out, and that’s what we’re going to do when we play South Carolina on Sunday. It’s all about seeding, and we have to take care of business.”
•No. 17 Texas A&M: The loss to Kentucky, a team they are well ahead of in conference, dropped the Aggies to No. 17 and, despite being tied for second in conference, they are fourth in the line of ranked conference teams.
Against visiting Arkansas, a 43-32 halftime edge propelled by a 13-0 start was enough to keep Arkansas from 20 wins, despite having 13 before the conference started. For A&M, Courtney Williams already had a dozen points before the break.
But it was Jordan Jones’ night. She scored 19 , with 10 rebounds and 10 assists, giving her the third triple double in A&M history, in the 77-54 win. The points and rebounds are career highs.
The Aggies sprinted away in the second half. A 12-0 run pushed the lead to 61-38 and A&M cruised. Williams finished with 18 points and eight rebounds.
A&M finished the regular season 13-2 at home.
The Aggies can match the best conference record in school history, set in 2006-07 and 2010-11, with a win at Florida on Sunday.
Coach Gary Blair gave all the credit to the game plan.
“ We decided to go with a small line-up and start a 5-8 kid on a 6-3 kid, and it worked,” Blair said.
“They didn’t score on Tori Scott. Sometimes you change things up, you go with a little speed, so give my assistants a lot of credit for going with that strategy.
"I was proud of my seniors. I think they all played well. This game meant a whole lot to them. I hope it meant a lot to the fans to understand what senior year is all about. Whether you’re a student athlete, a high school senior, or an Aggie getting your ring, it’s special being a Senior and playing in front of your family and friends.”
As for Jones…
“We had to have a few meetings with our team this year on getting them up from the Kentucky game, and getting over the drama girls have over the season. We had to do a little bit of soul-searching, but this team goes as Jordan Jones goes.
“She’s your leader, she’s your captain, and she has to be your catalyst. She distributed the ball. She recognized what they were in.
"They kept saying, Jordan looked like she was dead tired, but all of a sudden at half she had seven rebounds.
"I said ‘Hey, we don’t have a chance too many times. You can rest tomorrow.
"So I put her on the free throw line, when she had nine rebounds. They missed the shot, and she got in there to get that rebound. That was just very special for the young lady.”
He knew what Jones was going for, even if she didn’t and he knows the importance of a classy Senior Night
“We had the pictures of the four seniors from last year up on our board today,” he said, “along with our three seniors here.
"Like I said sometimes, you have to have a few heart-to-heart talks. Your leaders, your captains have to take charge of the basketball team. You have to have leadership from within, and I’m not from within. ‘Within’ means the team. We had leadership tonight. “
Jones said it was all for the seniors and the 6,631 in attendance.
”Just before the game, we knew coming into this game, we were playing for our seniors,” she said. “Last year, our four seniors, didn’t go out the way they wanted. We lost to LSU. The look on their faces wasn’t a good feeling for anybody in the locker room. We felt like we let them down.
“Coming into this game, Coach had that ‘Over my dead body’ mentality. I felt like that performance, I owed them. It wasn’t anything special on my part. It was what they deserved. It’s just up to us to give it back to them. I just thank them for everything that they’ve done. I feel like this was a special victory for them and hopefully we can build off of this going into the SEC Tournament and Florida.”
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