Mike Siroky's SEC Notebook: Three Upsets Highlight Conference Openers
The Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball had its league openers as the league with six ranked teams, more than any other conference and assuring itself of the best competition anywhere.
In this season, hearts will be broken, all teams -- with one exception -- will surge and sag and, at the end, the rest of America will complain when 10 league teams reach the payoff of the national playoffs.
The league started its conference season with a matchup fueled by indiscretions against the home team.
The upset loss of the week also saw one of two undefeated streaks end, there were reality checks for teams which had won at least a dozen straight, the expected wins by the best team in the conference and a continued up-and-down reality show of a traditional national powerhouse.
*No. 12 Tennessee at No. 20 Missouri: The matchup game of the openers was the Lady Vols comng to an undefeated foe in the only meeting of two Top 20 teams.
The Lady Vols eased to an important road win, 71-55, and is the last of ranked teams to hit 10 wins.
Trying to build a bench with nine players available, Holly Warlick put Jamie Nared at starting guard with Andraya Carter and kept rookie T’ea Cooper in reserve with Jordan Reynolds. All got plenty of playing time in the rotation.
UT took a 33-26 halftime edge and expanded it with a 7-0 run to start the third quarter. Diamond DeShields had seven rebounds at intermission to give UT an edge there as well. Mizzou had accumulated a plus-13 rebounding edge in its 13-0 season start (eight at home) against unranked opponents.
Rookie phenom Sophie Cunningham was almost silent early on, trying to max out her team best 15.7 scoring average.
It was 53-37 after three and center Mercedes Russell had announced her presence with 11 points, matching DeShields. Cunningham had but six points.
“Our press helped us out a lot," DeShields said. "Keeping them in the front court for so long, when they did cross half court they didn't have a lot of time to set up their offense. The shots they did get off, they were quick, they were off balance a lot of times and they were contested."
Her coach agrees.
"I thought it was important," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said of the full-court press. "Whether we got a steal or not, a lot of times they were getting across and starting their offense with 20 seconds. I thought that was huge for us."
"It was a tough game for us," Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. “they came out as the aggressors. They kind of threw the first punch and we took it. I felt like we got outplayed in pretty much every phase of the game.
The Vols went home for Florida
*No. 8 Mississippi State at Florida: This was another SEC Network game. State coach Vic Schaefer had made the observation Florida danced around the agreed scouting rules when Florida coaches were courtside at a shared holiday event.
The silly gamesmanship continued when Florida told its visitors the only shoot-around time on the game court was Saturday was 6:30 a.m.
The league imposed no sanctions, but it has to be addressed, if not publicly, for future applications.
Whatever the scouts saw and the early Saturday wakeup didn’t help at first.
State survived, 76-70. They held Florida’s league-best scoring average to minus 16.
Morgan William scored a season-high 21 and the Bulldogs had their ninth straight win and are the first in the basketball sorority to 14 wins.
With William proving Schaefer has options, he said: “We’re not one-dimensional. (Victoria Vivians), that’s our best player and she has a bad night and we still put 76 points on the board. It speaks volumes about our team.”
“Coach tells me how it is,” William said. “Don’t take it personal. Just got to do it. That’s what I’ve been doing: stepping up for my teammates. I’ve got to play my role and that’s to be another scorer.” She had none of her side’s final 10.
Breanna Richardson with 11, and Dominique Dillingham, 10, showed the scoring balance.
And the defense forced 32 turnovers, 20 in the opening half when State took control.
As for the shenanigans and drama from Florida, Schaefer said: ”Our kids are tough,” he observed. “It’s just what they gave us. Home-court advantage? No big deal. I’m so dang proud of them and how hard they played and their mentality and their approach and them being a pro.”
*No. 2 South Carolina vs. Arkansas: The league’s best so far dominated its homecourt for the 41st straight as the paper lion from last season showed up and got waxed for the Gamecocks’ 13-0 start.
A new name on the leaderboard is senior guard Tina Roy.
Coach Dawn Staley has been cheerleading her for a practice ethic. She said,
“I told her, `I can’t wait for Sunday’.”
Roy responded with career highs in points, 21, and 3s, seven. Roy had back-to-back 3s as South Carolina made 14-of-19 field goals in the second quarter to lead 44-18 at intermission.
“It felt so good,” Roy said. “We needed that.”
Inside, 6- 5 A’ja Wilson and 6-4 Alaina Coates both had double doubles: Wilson 14 points and 10 rebounds, Coates 11 points and 10 defensive rebounds. Cotes was 4-of-4 from the field, 3-of-3 from the line. The defense held Arkansas to 24 percent from the field. They had 13,407 in attendance.
*No. 16 Texas A&M vs. Georgia: The Aggies have opened conference play with a win in each of their four years in the SEC, and have won 24 of the past 26 home games. The 5,023 in attendance approved of the 73-62 triumph.
Georgia started confidently and had a nine-point lead.
But A&M responded with a 23-4 run that put them ahead by 10 with 4:52 left in the half by eventually six at the break.
Georgia had been allowing a league-best less than 50 before this, the Lady ‘Dawgs losing for the second time in 14 tries.
“I think we just relaxed a little bit. We came out and we were pretty aggressive and our shot was falling,” she said.
“I think they were a little confused because we came out in our zone. It’s a zone that’s done a little differently than what we’ve done in the past.
“They adjusted to it and we didn’t. That’s 3s and didn’t know where she was. In this league there are good shooters every night pretty much when they went on their run.
“So we allowed them to do what they do well. Give them credit: They are a really good team with really good players, so you got to pick your poison at times too. We can’t give shooters wide open shots.”
Three Aggies reached double figures, led by Courtney Walker, whose 20 moved her to fourth in the program’s career scoring list with 1,635. She had more than 20 for the fifth time this season.
“We got off to a slow start,” said A&M coach Gary Blair.
“But in the middle part of the game we were as good as we have been in a long time, especially defensively. As usual, I thought our shot selection was pretty good the majority of the game, but the disappointing part was the 19 turnovers, especially at the end of the game. We were just lucky they didn’t hit a few shots in a row to get back into the game. But we’ll learn from that.
“This was a huge game for both us and Georgia because we both wanted to get off to a strong start after we had good non-conference seasons, Blair observed. “When you hold a team to 30 percent from the field and 22 percent from the 3, you’re doing your job. Along with winning the board battle, our bench was the difference in this game. We outscored them 28-13 and we’ll take that as a ‘W’ and move on to Arkansas.”
He agreed Williams was the right shooter at the right time.
“Dani’s 3 might have been the difference in the first half because we were not getting much until then. She’s is a pure shooter. Sometimes she struggles getting the percentage shot up so she needed that.
Among the seniors, A&M point guard Jordan Jones wants to see the mission through. Her injury elimination at the end of last season sunk that team.
“It’s the last go-round in the SEC, and everybody by this time has bumps and bruises and everyone is going to be beat up. But it’s about who wants to be the toughest and who is going to be the last man standing at the end of SEC play.
“I realize my team needs me and it was minor and nothing major so I just had to put the injuries behind me and go out there and compete.
”We struggled with execution and making shots early on. We struggled with this last year also. But, we settled in and after the first quarter everybody was a little more relaxed and we started hitting our shots.”
*No. 7 Kentucky vs. Auburn: No matter its own standing, UK loses to an unranked team every conference season at least once. This gift happened early, Auburn’s first win over a ranked team in half a decade, 66-51.
UK’s rising star, center Evelyn Akhafor, was limited to 20 minutes with four fouls, but had 11 rebounds and 12 points. That still exceeds her league-best rebounds average by one.
The 2,677 in attendance approved of the Tiger effort as they moved to 11 wins.
“I don’t think any word describes our team this afternoon except effort,” Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said. “Every possession, offensively, defensively, I thought we just played with a great effort.”
Kentucky started business as usual with a 10-2 run and led by 10 at the end of the first quarter, Auburn to 2-of-15 from the field. Kentucky had a 13-0 run in the second quarter, but Auburn closed the first half on a 6-0 run.
Auburn carried its enthusiasm into the second half, a 17-11 third quarter. The comeback was complete in the fourth. With 7:19 left, they pulled ahead by four.
Janiah McKay missed two free throws with 13 seconds remaining, but Brandy Montgomery had the offensive rebound and made two free throws to stretch the lead to three. Another miss and Montgomery grabbed another rebound and made two free throws with six seconds left to ice it.
“Coaches kept telling us to attack them, attack them,” said Montgomery. “That’s what we did and it worked.”
“To get this first SEC win is huge,” Williams-Flournoy said. “We weren’t given any great choices on who we play early on, so to get this first win underneath our belt was great.”
Epps said the Auburn defense knocked the swagger out of her Kats.
“We haven’t seen a press all year and had some freshmen out there and it was a different look for them, made them play more timid,” Epps said. “Not going to lie, I was timid at times.”
“We played with tremendous lack of focus, did not follow the game plan as far as breaking the press,” UK coach Matt Mitchell said. “We got real lackadaisical and I thought that really fueled Auburn’s confidence.
“I did not do a very good job helping them through the adversity,” Mitchell said. “We could never get their minds back and their spirit back. Once it started rolling downhill on us, we just didn’t bounce back.”
Senior center Tra’Cee Tanner of Auburn earned league player of the week honors with her second double-double, 17 points and 10 assists.
All six ranked teams played in the second round of the conference season as defense of the home court became paramount. Two ranked teams lost to unranked teams, one of them at home.
*No. 2 South Carolina at Vanderbilt: The Gamecocks let the Commodores hang around at 31-all through two quarters. Then Tiffany Mitchell, the two-time league player of the year, settled it.
She scored a season-high 22 points and SC won by 10 to stay unbeaten through 14.
"It boiled down to our most experienced players making big plays,’ South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. ‘And (Mitchell) hasn't been our conference player of the year the last two years for nothing. She put us on her back."
A'ja Wilson, the Gamecocks' leading scorer and fourth in the SEC averaging 17.1 points per game, had a season-low four points. Mitchell bailed her out with three 3s, five assists and two steals. Alaina Coates scored 11 and had 10 rebounds.
The Gamecocks are among a trio of unbeatens left in America. Bulldozer UConn and No. 4 Texas are the others.
"It's always a barn-burner when we play Vanderbilt here, and we came into the game knowing it would take this kind of effort," Staley said.
The Gamecocks finished on a 14-5 run and Vanderbilt did not score in the closing 2:22.
The Gamecocks welcome in No. 20 Missouri next.
As happens at top programs, SC had a freshman walk away.
Shay Colley, a Canadian national player, wanted to go back to Canada. She had played in 11 of the opening 12 games.
*Alabama at No. 10 Kentucky: In the feel-good confines of Memorial Coliseum, with 4,792 fans backing them, the Kats downed the other Cotton State school, Alabama. The loss to unranked Auburn slid them three poll spots.
The Tide rolled in with 12 wins already and washed out with same as the Kats hit No. 12 their own selves. Alabama played with confidence early but UK rallied big, won every quarter and squashed the visitors, 73-48.
Center Evelyn Akhator showed her pre-conference dominance is no fluke, with a career-best 21 points, eight rebounds and three blocks.
The Wildcats won the rebounds by 15.
By the close of the third quarter, three Kats had double-digit scoring, Akhator, Alexis Jennings and Maci Morris. Jennings had her fourth career double-double, 12 points, 6-of-6 from the line, and 10 rebounds. Morris and two others each finished with 10.
UK ended on a 16-3 run, conceding just one field goal in the final 6:50.
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said, “I’m really proud of the team for bouncing back from our disappointment from Sunday. We really focused on two things only getting ready for this game. That was defense intensity and rebound tenacity. We did not work a lot on our offense. I think you can really see what we worked on.
“Trying to make sure Alabama didn’t score in the paint. They are really athletic and tough players and well-coached. If you let them score in the paint they are really hard to beat. I was proud of the team limiting them to 10 points in the paint and winning the boards by 15 was fantastic.
“That’s what we were really trying to get across to them. That if you do those things I feel like we can work everything else out. We just have to be a tough blue-collar team. We rebounded the ball on the offensive glass tonight better than we ever have before.
“We have had bigger numbers but I thought we were really flying to the glass and that was good. It’s going to be a long SEC season. We just have to get the mindset we are going to have to grind every single practice and fight for improvement. I’m very happy for them tonight they fought hard to get this victory.
“I thought (the opening loss) Sunday really affected our confidence in a major way. You could even see it in our practice. We were really shaken by that.
“In the first half we kind of panicked and played with no flow. I just told them, ‘Let’s get back to being a really good offensive team. Let’s get in the paint and kick it out. Let’s shoot some 3s. Let’s turn it loose and get some stops and get in transition.
“Transition was really good to us. I simply thought some shots started to fall for us that didn’t fall on Sunday. It’s a great lesson for us and me as a coach, we were a lot more fragile mentally than I thought we were. I thought we lost a lot of confidence form Sunday and I told them we couldn’t let one bad performance carry on.
“We needed this victory very badly and we trained hard for it.”
Point guard Janee Thompson also liked the quick response to a loss.
“Well, I think we just lost our composure in every way in Auburn. And I don’t think we were worried about the score. I think we were more worried about the way we played and trying to correct some of the mistakes we made in Auburn.
The addition of Akhator continues to be a boost.
“Evelyn did a really good job of making herself present on offense,” Thompson said.
“I think a lot of times when we were struggling to score, she would pop open in the paint and get some layups or get fouled. And she did a really good job of making her free throws today.” Akhator was 5-of-7 from the line.
Akhator backs her guard.
“I think, like Janee said, we weren’t worried about the points,” Akhator said. “We were more worried about getting better and getting our footwork right, especially on defense. We really weren’t worried about the points, we were just worried about the effort.”
Kentucky goes next to Georgia and then mighty South Carolina visits. Last season, on the last day, UK pulled SC into a title tie with Tennessee with an upset loss in Lexington.
*No. 13 Texas A&M at Arkansas: The opening win edged the Aggies up three spots. This 67-62 loss will put them on the down elevator again.
A&M, after some departmental turmoil on campus, tried to continue its rebuild after the disillusioning burnout to end the previous season.
But they ruled this night at home, sending A&M back out of the Top 15 for sure and halting the four-game win streak.
A 16-6 second quarter portended the finish by giving the Razorbacks a 10-point halftime advantage. It was all A&M could do to avoid a bigger loss margin.
A&M twice closed to one point.
But they missed twice in 37 seconds and Jackson hit two free throws with 41 second left after getting a defensive rebound.
Courtney Walker scored a jumper off a feed from Chelsea Jennings with half a minute to go and Jordan Jones fouled on the inbound. Cosper hit both free throws. A&M missed two 3s while Jackson had a layup and a free throw inbetween to seal the deal. She was 7-of-9 from the line.
Walker was one of three Aggies in double figures, with 24. Only 1,494 witnesses showed.
A&M coach Gary Blair was once the Arkansas coach.
A&M stays on the road, at LSU. They are just 7-8, but after this nothing is guaranteed for the Aggies.
*Auburn at No. 7 Mississippi State: The team with the most wins in conference, 15, continued its house party, bumped up a notch in the standings with the opening win in conference.
The Bulldogs hounded the Tigers into single-digit second and fourth quarters on defense in the 60-45 win. It is the Bulldogs’ 10th straight, protecting the program’s highest national ranking.
But it was the sophomore guard who felt as if she let her team down this week in the conference opening road victory over Florida. So she managed 23 points, one more than attempts, and did hit four 3s.
“My teammates expect me to score a lot of points,” Vivians said. “That is what I am here for. I tried to make it up to them tonight.”
The Bulldogs held the Tigers to 40 percent shooting and only allowed five free throw attempts. State was ahead from the first quarter on, stifling Auburn to 22.2 percent from in a five-point second quarter and wrapped up with a nine-point fourth.
“In the second quarter, we were just fantastic,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. “I don’t know how often you see five points in a quarter like that. We made a run. They made a run. Fortunately for us, our run (16-1) was much bigger.”
Vivians and Teaira McCowan scored on back-to-back possessions to push the lead back to double digits in the third. McCowan, the freshman center, hit for10 and was the other Bulldog in double figures.
“We just keep playing with patience,” said Mississippi State sophomore point guard Morgan William.
With13 rebounds, McCowan recorded her fifth double-double. Vivians had 10.
Auburn entered the contest fresh off a victory over then-No. 7 Kentucky. Schaefer said that upset got his attention.
“(Auburn’s) zone press is just totally relentless,” Schaefer said. “The good news is we have a bunch of relentless kids. We aren’t the best practicing team around but when the lights come on, they are ready to fight for everything.”
Arkansas is up next.
*No. 20 Missouri at Georgia: This was going to be the fun game of the night.
Mizzou took a 15-6 starting lead, freshman scoring phenom Sophie Cunningham said hello to SEC road kill with a 3 to open the game off a feed from older sister Lindsey. Comfort food. And Georgia focused on shutting her down.
It didn’t matter. There are other contributing players.
Jordan Frericks had 11 points and a key block with seven seconds left. Missouri made four free throws in the final four seconds to defeat Georgia, 54-48.
Leaue Freshman-of-the-Week Cierra Porter also scored 11, the last three from the line, where she was 6-of-8.
Fredricks blocked Tiaria Griffin's 3-point attempt with seven seconds left to protect a two-point lead.
"We got a big win for our team against a very, very good team on the road," Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. "We made tough shots, and defensively, I thought we did some things very well.
“I a very proud of our kids. They have resiliency. When things didn’t look good for us for awhile they stayed the course. To win is hard; to win on the road is very hard. You better bring your defense and you better bring your rebounding. We were really on point in both of those areas.
“It was very physical but that’s the SEC. You battle for every point you get. Our kids did a great job on their assignments, buying into the game plan.”
The challenge continues at South Carolina on Sunday. Georgia had been undefeated when conference started, has lost twice to ranked teams and welcomesin another, Kentucky, on Sunday.
*Florida at No 12 Tennessee: Quietly, without drama, the Lady Vols had almost earned a permanent spot in the national Top 16.
There is plenty of drama now.
They had won three straight but now face uncertainty of every game on the schedule, never mind pretending they belong with the ranked teams.
It started, as so many of their games do, with a grinding 11-point early lead. Then a 15-8 run interrupted that nice start for UT and had it tied four minutes before the half as UT misfired on seven straight possessions.
Tennessee rallied on D and reacted to the 9,774 crowd with the final six points of the half and had a nine-point lead at the break.
Rookie T’ea Cooper was 3-of-4 from the field off the bench. But she did not score again, as the whole team fell flat, hitting less than 30 percent from the field, 13-of-61 in the final three quarters.
Florida took the third quarter by eight and maintained it through a dominance of the middle quarters and a 74-66 win.
Tennessee had been allowing a league-best 56 per game and Florida had been scoring a league-best 86, came in 12-under and still won.
That’s because UT allowed the Gators to hit 60 percent from the field in the second half.
This will not stop the talk that UT coach Holly Warlick needs help or the negative discussions in the Lady Vol online sites.
She agrees with the idea of her team not listening to her, which is the ultimate negative vibe.
“We just got beat by a tougher team today; tougher, stronger, smarter, better team,” she said.
In the final three quarters, “We were 4-of-22 from the 3-point line. That was not our game plan. So, we were on our own agenda tonight. I'm telling ‘drive’ and they were shooting 3s.
“It wasn't impatience because we were getting deep into the clock. I don't know, ask them because I'm saying one thing and they were doing another.
“Tonight I was missing our whole team. It wasn't just a leader. We weren’t guarding anybody and the last three games we have been extremely steady and tough on the defensive end and tonight we weren’t anything.
“They were getting the ball inbounds and we just weren’t interested in playing any defense. We just weren’t interested. Then, we weren’t getting back, so I don’t know what we were doing. We were somewhere in ‘No Man’s Land’ right at half court. Must have been deciding what we were going to do after the game because we weren’t doing anything.”
“We know what the SEC is. You can't lose at home. You just can't lose at home. With the way we play, I wish all of our games were away because we aren't very good at home. There is not an easy team.
“They were tougher. I will say just flat out that I am disappointed. We did our own thing and didn't play. It is one thing to not make shots, but you can control your effort and how hard you play.
“We got the ball down the stretch down by four and turned it over. I am just disappointed in our effort and the things that we can control. You can listen, do what you are asked to do and play as hard as you can.
For the Gators, a 13th win in the past 14 games came thanks to three double-figure scorers, lead by Eleanna Christinaki’s 18 points, eight assists and six rebounds.
Tennessee had a less-impactful trio in double figures, of course led by Diamond DeShields’ 16. She was 6-of-21 from the field. Graves had a career-best 19 rebounds.
So here is Tennessee badly focused and we’ll keep harping on the weird scheduling of a road trip to a Top 5 team, Notre Dame, further scrambling this in a couple of weeks.
What is gained by losing to an insignificant team in conference and what would be gained by the winning the same? The answer is nothing if your top goal is truly winning conference and that calls into question the doubtful direction of the program.
This series ends contractually this year. Perhaps UConn is back on the short-range radar, in an early-season game next year.
But it is this year that is a problem.