There are senior stories on every team in the Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball.
Eleven players had their final regular-season home game in this next-to-last week of play as half of the teams wrapped up. For at least three of the top-rated teams, there will be two more in the whirl of the opening weekend of NCAA play. For the majority this was it.
They will never again get that home introduction, people they never met cheering specifically for them.
In a gym in which they learned so much, melded with other women as sister warriors wearing the special home jerseys.
Maybe they learned how to do no-look passes or break a pressure defense. In the SEC, they certainly learned how to apply one.
They welcomed better teams in and defeated some of them. They visited gyms legendary to the national game. They departed for countrywide road trips and returned from the same. They plotted and planned with their coaches and teams. They ran suicide drills until they were past the dry heaves to get to that place where character is not formed but revealed. Seniors especially know the reality of the elimination games. Some will end it with one game in the conference tournament. Real life can finally begin, hopefully with a degree attained.
Then there’s Georgia’s Marjorie Butler. Hers is a somewhat unique story in that she signed to play with a legendary coach.
And she grew up in the city that has the legend of the realm, Knoxville. But her coach in college, Andy Landers, hit retirement one year shy of her own expiration date.
Still, in a circle of life, she gets to finish her season at home in Knoxville on a national cablecast.
It’s been all good.
She has rallied her younger teammates from not making the NCAAs last season to expecting a bid as a 20-game winner this one. She is control as the point guard. As with many college students it is completion of another phase of life with the best yet to come. She will attend medical school. Somewhere. In a way it is recruitment all over again. The schools all semi-seriously mention the opportunity to play for the med school intramural team, which she will do. “Literally every interview that I have been on (at medical schools), they have recruited me for the intramural team,” Barber told the conference publicity department.
“I’ve had a lot of injuries and so for a while I kind of played more reserved because my body just wasn’t letting me do what I wanted to do,” said Butler.
This season, she’s started every game this season.
“I think I’m to the point now, I play through a lot of pain and it’s kind of like you accept the hand that you’re dealt and make the most of it. “I just try to leave it all out there and, I mean, I’ve got a couple of weeks left of basketball ... and then I’m done playing ball, so I’m not really worried about my injuries carrying over to playing in the future.”
One of those players is with a classmate, Shacobia Barbee, a regularly featured backdoor pass for a layin.
After seasons of play and practice it comes without warning, an ESP-like communication. “The thing about that play is it’s a complete trust play,” she said. “I have to throw that pass before she ever leaves the ground. I’m throwing it trusting that she’s able to get up in the air and get that pass and trusting that everybody else is doing what they’re supposed to do while the ball is in the air. “I think especially as a senior, and part of it you can give credit to Coach Joni [Taylor] for the really positive environment we’ve been around lately, but when you get into your senior year you realize, this is coming to an end and this is almost over,” she said. So Butler has had the best statistical season of her career, 5.3 points per game (6.3 in SEC play), 4.4 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 33 steals. “You can definitely tell that she loves playing and it’s something that she works really hard at,” said yet another senior, Merritt Hempe. “And since freshman year to senior year I’ve seen her get better at it, so it’s been a really cool transition.” The amazing thing is she has kept her classroom focus on the highest level as well. With a degree in exercise science already earned, she’ll receive a second degree, in biology. She is a finalist for the national All-Academic team, awarded by the College Sports Information Directors of America She has interviewed throughout the southeast at potential med schools. Vanderbilt and Florida have accepted her and offered full scholarships. Her hometown school, Tennessee, has a spot for her as well, joining Virginia and Morehouse. This is a more elite cut than even varsity sports, even more than playing in the best women’s basketball conference in America. “But medical school? Especially when you get to state schools and things like that, getting scholarships is very difficult and a hard thing to do,” Butler said. “I’m very humbled. When I got accepted to Florida, my mind was blown . . . I went to Vanderbilt on my interview and there were eight students there. Four of them were from Harvard or Yale, one from UC-Berkeley, and it was just humbling to be around those people and that caliber of person.” She is also among the brainiacs who know statistics on the court mean nothing to the next level of applications. “There were definitely days where I’d see her staying up late to study and getting up early to study and going to practice and going full speed and going home,” Hempe said, “and it’s like, ‘Geez, I got my full rest and sleep and I’m still tired.’ That’s why I think she’s been so successful, is she’s figured out how to get herself in that routine and work through all those things.” So Butler has the appreciation of being recruited by med schools as she was when coming out to the court out of high school. The med school recruitment is “so much more flattering,” she said.
For instance, in her last visit as a player at Florida she had her own corner of hopeful future classmates.
She said the UF School of Medicine’s “entire admissions staff came to the game and watched me play, which was so neat.” Imagine this Sunday, a final regular season game with friends and family in her hometown as they wrap up at Tennessee, the only time in her career they have had a better record than the Vols and a higher conference standing, at the moment holding No. 4 and a double bye. “It’s a great feeling,” she said, “to know that everything I went through, all the hard work, it’s really paying off.”
It’s one of those overlooked life stories most of the people who follow this great game will never know.
But it gives you chills to find a player, humbled by the reality of life and yet ever-optimistic and ready to play on, at the truly next level. Never in history has there been so many single-digit quarters, some in games in which the winning team was so dismal. It is the most-compelling statistic of the season. Here’s the conference collisions of the week, leaving one game on the schedule, with rankings reflecting the Associated Press poll at game time:
*No. 22 Florida at Georgia. This was a great chance to for Georgia to get its 20th win and the golden entry ticket to the NCAA tournament.
If turning around a program gets a coach a post-season notice, then Joni Taylor gets one.
Missouri’s Robin Pingeton staying the course with that program for this year’s elevation is another contender. They all but knocked the Gators out of the national stream of consciousness and certainly out of the Top 25 again. What a fun game. The ascension of the season and the reality no SEC team has ever been denied an NCAA entry with 20 wins. So not being ranked was no big deal. The foe being ranked meant much more because that makes the win more wonderful. How can you be the underdawg otherwise. The joy started almost immediately. Florida had a five-point lead closing down the first quarter. Senior Shacobia Barbee knocked it loose. Senior Tiaria Griffin grabbed it and drove in. She missed, but senior Marjorie Butler had her back and the offensive rebound. Barbee received in the paint, spun in and scored off the glass, drawing a foul.
The crowd of 3,733 was with them.
It kept happening.
Barbee got another steal and here came another fast break. She passed to Butler, who immediately passed it back, losing the Gator defense, and Barbee laid it in.
That’s how seniors do it.
It was veteran teammates playing well together.
“It really is amazing knowing that they can take over a game,” junior Pachis Roberts said. “They’re going to help us and they’re going to do what they have to do to.” “We love this program and we love this school and that’s why we played as hard as we did tonight,” said Butler. The other honored seniors are Merritt Hempe and Terryuna Godwin. It was not all gladness.
Barbee’s career ended with a fractured left distal fibula (high ankle). She scored 20 in her final game.
Her loss alters the offense dramatically from here on out.
“Since Cobi is a big part of our team and we knew there was a good chance she wouldn’t be able to come back in the game, so we had to pick up the slack and do the things that she would probably do on the court,” Roberts said. “We just had to win for our seniors today.”
Griffin opened the fourth with another 3, eventually going 4-for-4 from 3 in the final period, 2-of-2 at the line and she grabbed two rebounds in the quarter. Quarters don’t go much better than that.
“It was just motivation to go out and play a little bit harder for her,” Griffin said of the MIA partner. “I think it kind of just happened like that,” Griffin said of Barbee and her classmates.
“She’d take over and then the next couple of minutes somebody else. It’s just kind of our style of play; whoever comes out ready to attack, whatever they decide to do, and we just back them up on it.”
Griffin had a career-high 28 points, a career-high six 3s with eight rebounds. And she played all 40 minutes.
First-year coach Taylor has had her first Senior Day.
“We’ve been all over the place,” Taylor said, “tears, laughter — biggest thing was making sure we honored [the seniors] and giving them a voice. We took some time today to let them have the floor ... and we gave them an opportunity to address their team. They did an excellent job with that.” Griffin had a special group at the game. A church group from her hometown of Monticello, Miss., made the trip to Athens for the game, and they had customized Senior Day T-shirts that had, in big red letters, “TG3” on the back.
*No. 24 Tennessee at LSU. The Ben-Gals won their third SEC game this season by one. The Orange lightning is crashing over the once-proud UT program that hit its bottom. Doesn’t matter how they lost.
The Lady Vols proved once again they have no clue this season. This should be the death knell for the assistant coaches because that’s the only way an embattled coach makes a perception she is willing to accept blame and make changes.
The urban legend that former Pat Head Summitt players make good coaches is dead. D-E-A-D dead.
Not Holly Warlick, not anyone else.
The campus is embroiled in too many other coming lawsuits and other distractions in the important campus sports to make a direct move on Warlick.
It is over. As in so many other things,
UConn now rules that streak with no end in sight.
Tennessee, think about this, is not in the top 25 in America anymore. They had been the only team always ranked in most of the NCAA era as well as AIAW, missing just 14 times in the 706-week poll history prior to being evicted in the latest rankings that occurred before yet another shocker -- the loss at Alabama, which will be addressed here next time.
That’s 565 consecutive weeks.
The Summitt legacy lies trampled in the dust, belonging to the sands of time not the here and now or even the near future. The Lady Vols claim respect for the great coach. This is how they have demonstrated it.
Just being in the SEC gives all teams a strength of schedule that demands NCAA attention.
The potential of 17 wins at most means UT is definitely the ninth of nine teams in conference, though.
Warlick has yet to surpass Summitt’s first two seasons. All but one of the first eight league teams have their 20 wins. With the roster of high school All-Americans having their own reputations shredded, there is but one thought of doing something in the post-season tournaments. In this one, UT lost its second game of three played within seven days and then third of four played within 11 after the Alabama result was in, ending yet another long streak of previous futility by Tennessee opponents.
The Lady Vols were nailed with a singe-digit second quarter and trailed at the half. The rhythm was set, with no starters producing.
At the end, the starting five would have a total of 19 points.
They were all no-shows, as was coach Holly Warlick’s plan to shake things up. If ever there was a sign the staff is as adrift in the sea of unconsciousness this was it. Warlick had proposed using her only 3-point threat more. That equated in eight minutes and six points for Kortney Dunbar, just the latest promise unfulfilled. Center Mercedes Russell did not start after tweaking her ankle but do not lay this disaster on her. She gutted out 27 minutes. The 18 points in the first half is a season low up to the end of the LSU game.
The meager bright spot was Diamond DeShields off the bench with 19 points (17 after intermission) in 24 minutes.
Sadly, she passed 1,000 college career points in the debacle, so no way to celebrate. UT was able to rally and win each quarter of the second half. They were in it obviously, but bonked two free throws with a one-point lead and 4.5 seconds to go. For no apparent reason, the LSU rebounder was grabbed a court length away from the basket. Of course she hit both and the 57-56 gift was delivered. “Well, she fouled her,” was all Warlick could come up by way of explanation. “I can't explain it . . . I don't know why she fouled or what she was doing but she fouled her.” But isn’t it up to the assistant coaches to remind everyone to back off maybe to midcourt? They gotta go Warlick is consumed by the lack of basics. “Gotta make a free throw, just gotta make a free throw,” Warlick said of the endgame mishaps. Tennessee opened the third quarter on a 14-3 run. DeShields was obviously all UT has at this point offensively. She said of her second half, “They (the coaches just gave me a chance to play. The first half I had like two minutes.”
She had two 3s. She rallied the team to a tie with an endline-to-endline drive at the four-minute mark.
A jumper gave UT is first lead. Another jumper made it a three-point edge with 46 seconds to go. Tennessee had exhausted all its fuel. LSU seniors Ann Jones, Akilah Bethel and Ann Pederson had a game to remember in the final home swing. They had 3,132 fans there. The most embarrassing loss of a most embarrassing season was here until it got more embarrassing at Alabama.
The Tigers are the second team with a losing record to beat Tennessee this season. In prior years, Tennessee hadn’t lost to a team with a losing record since 1979.
So another splatter of mud on the Orange tradition. The Lady Vols’ 12th loss is the program record for losses in a season.
At least they didn’t have to immediately face their home faithful again. Alabama was waiting for them on the Tide Senior Night and delivered another shocker.
*No. 2 South Carolina at Alabama. South Carolina knows it is among the best teams in America.
The conference was theirs to lose and they did not. They have assumed the command position that was formatted by Pat Head Summitt and her Tennessee teams.
They are favored in every conference game and against every national team except UConn. Their ascension ensures they do not face that threat until the Final Four, as the certified No. 2 team in America. There will be the league tournament. Of course. We have said for several seasons the trick to winning the marathon of the regular season leading to the moneyball games of the conference tournament: Win at home. SC was the only league team to do that. They have a four-game lead in the toughest conference in America, which has had more ranked teams, week by week, than any other, five right now and 10 participating in the fullness of the season.
So what the Gamecocks must do is play smart but stay in fighting shape.
A 20-point road runaway accomplished that. Alabama seniors Kadijah Carter and Nikki Hegstetter, in their final home set, were properly honored, have had the cilege experience and now move onto real life. They drew 2,679 in their farewells. The Gamecocks fed their scoring by concentrating on rebounds. A'ja Wilson scored 16. Alaina Coates scored 13 with a career-high 18 rebounds. The defense allowed 28.6 percent shooting and outrebounded the Crimson Tide 58-31. That’s the third most rebounds in program history. “We got it done,” Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said. “We knew Alabama was going to kind of hang in there and at some point impose their will. We just had to be able to sustain doing what we do. “We didn’t shoot the ball as well as we’d like but we rebounded the ball and we gave ourselves a lot of opportunities to make baskets.” Coates picked up her league-leading 14th double-double and topped her best rebounding performance by one, taking advantage of a size mismatch. “It’s pretty exciting,” Coates said. “I kind of noticed that they weren’t as aggressive boxing out so I just kind of took the opportunity to get the long rebounds.” Wilson had 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. Tiffany Mitchell added 10 points and reached double digits with a layup off a behind-the-back pass from Bianca Cuevas midway through the fourth quarter. Khadijah Sessions had 11 rebounds. “We weren’t able to overcome the size disadvantage and we weren’t able to make shots,’ Alabama coach Kristy Curry said. “I thought coming into tonight if we could make 10 3s we'd give ourselves a chance.” The margin blossomed to 24 during the final period. South Carolina seniors Mitchell, Asia Dozier and Sessions broke the program school record for four-year wins, set in the previous season, with 114. *Arkansas at No. 16 Kentucky. The Kats could finish 6-4 in the final 10 and gain a nice No. 5 or No. 6 seed, depending on the SEC conference tournament. Arkansas is merely playing out the season. What a strange season to be the lone senior for the Kats. Up and down, short bench with four players either launched or walking away, never really in conference contention but – as with others in this league – still in the national rankings, UK for 129 straight weeks. If nine teams make the NCAA cut, the Kats may be No. 8. Kentucky celebrated in anticipation and put the woeful Razorbacks away by 14 as 7,849 joined the party,
Their best player, Makayla Epps shot 6-of-19 from the floor but did accumulate 16 points and that was enough for a fourth straight win.
Junior college transfer center Evelyn Akhator had her ninth double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds for Kentucky. Sophomore Alexis Jennings also had 14 points for the Kats. Freshman Maci Morris had 10. Kentucky stretched the lead to as many as 20 in the second quarter. Arkansas had its run, 13-3, in the third to pull to minus seven. That’s as close as it got. Kentucky dominated rebounds, 37-24. The Wildcats grabbed 15 offensive rebounds and turned those into 15 second-chance points. In the second quarter, Kentucky got a scare when senior leader Thompson went down with a right ankle injury. Thompson was taken to the locker room and did not return. She was able to run, but not switch directions after being taped. They did not need her. With one home game left, coach Matthew Mitchell expressed hope she’d play at least some, for the appreciation from what might be the last home crowd. UK is one of the few teams that can conceptually make the Final Four without leaving town. First they would have to earn a Sweet 16 hosting round. Then they’d have to be assigned to the Lexington Regional, which makes sense from NCAA ticket sale perspective at massive Rupp Arena which is not their home court but is obviously in town.
“I thought that the third quarter we lost some momentum. We tried to play a big lineup. We tried to play some zone. We just weren’t very dynamic in it. We didn’t play with a lot of confidence in it. I thought Arkansas really got on a roll and played hard and came out with a lot of fight in the third quarter.
"We just tried to stay positive and finish the game and I was really happy with the team and the way they responded in the fourth quarter and we’re able to get a crucial victory for us. So we’re happy today. ”
On Makayla Epps’ ability to overcome a rough shooting night: “It’s important because here’s the thing, it would be one thing if our players weren’t working hard on their shot, but we spend time every day shooting.
Just like Evelyn (Akhator), that baseline shot she made in the second half, she has to take that shot because that kid is working so hard. Same thing with Makayla. It was obvious, we had a little ball reversal baseline zone action that they seemed to be content to let us have and Makayla missed a few of those and that hurts her confidence and she just can’t let it hurt her confidence.
She has to make sure that she carries herself like she is the best player on the floor and stay confident in that. I thought she was terrific closing the game out offensively. We struggled a little bit defensively in the second half, but they would score and she would bring it right back and really drive the ball and had some crucial scores for us. Not a good percentage, but she stayed aggressive and that was very important for our victory today.” Epps said she listens to her teammates and just plays through. “I think I have gotten better with my frustration part,” she said.
“It was frustrating. It might have seemed that way by my facial expressions at times. And it is frustrating to keep missing shots that you practice every day. It was stuff like that.
"I went 6-of-19 from the field but coach Mitchell kept telling me to shoot, my teammates kept telling me to shoot, so everybody has a lot of confidence in me regardless if I’m 6-for-19 or not. “They still want me to shoot the ball because they know eventually I’m going to get going and shots are going to fall. I did hit some big ones down the stretch. It’s just a mental thing. I always tell myself I can’t miss them all. I really don’t believe that you can miss them all so I just keep shooting them until they start falling.” So when Arkansas made its run, nothing changed.
“Some people were getting frustrated,” Epps said. “A lot of people were getting negative – some of the younger players – because we had a really big lead and it was getting cut into and we couldn’t find the solution to the problem.
"We just had to rally around each other. I told them, ‘Just keep playing. We’re still up. Even though we’re not playing the best right now we’re still up. They still have to catch us. They still have seven more points to catch us. All we have to do is get a stop and then score, stop and a score, stop and a score.’
"That’s the game of basketball. Get stops, make runs and then everybody will be happy again.
“Janee is our senior. That’s our leader. We all have a lot of love and respect for her. So whenever she went down I told the team, ‘Play for Janee because I know she would want to be out here.’ She only has one game left at Memorial and the fact that she didn’t get to play in the second half in this one, I know it really hurt her.
"We just turned it around. Coach didn’t get negative with us. He didn’t get mad with us. He was real positive in the huddle when we were going into the fourth and I think that kind of pepped our team up.
"I feel like that sparked it. Then Alexis Jennings got going, Maci (Morris) got going, I got going and it just rallied.”
*No. 13 Mississippi State at Ole Miss. The battle for the Magnolia State had two teams seeking an energy boost, moreso from the ranked team which lost three league games on the road.
And the Bulldogs fell into a give-up funk in the home blowout loss to Kentucky. Ole Miss was guaranteed a losing season once the conference started. What better way for the Bulldogs to stop a two-game losing streak than an 11- point walkover. State has 22 wins and is a strong third – good for the double-bye – in the league tournament. “We had a bad game (previously) and I am really proud of how the girls responded,” said coach Vic Schaefer. “We talked about the season being a book. Thursday’s chapter wasn’t very good. Today was our chance to write a much better chapter in our book. “The competition in this league is a nightmare. Matt (Insell) has done a great job (at Ole Miss). They threw a box-in-one (on his leading scorer Victoria Vivians). I am really proud at how she responded. She is a player. That’s what great players do. They keep after it.” Vivians scored 22, her most since Jan. 7. Dominique Dillingham added 12 points and Morgan William 10. Vivians also pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds for her second double-double of the season. State put together a 15-2 run to end the first quarter. Ole Miss had one field goal over the final 6:54 of the quarter. Vivians capped a 7-0 run as the Bulldogs pushed the lead to 43-31 with minutes left in the third quarter. They drew 4,411, many of which were fans of the state rivals. “Really proud of the fans,” Schaefer said. “One guy told me that he hadn’t been here in 40 years. It is what we have going here with Mississippi State women’s basketball. We played in a tough place to play against a tough team, and I am really proud of this team.” *No. 12 Texas A&M at Vanderbilt. The Aggies continued their 20-win seasons, now at 11 straight, stayed a strong second in the league and may have earned the Sweet 16 qualifying games here. Aggie coach Gary Blair is 11th all-time with 25 20-win seasons. The Commodores may be on a coach death watch for the current leader. If nine teams make the NCAAs, then the ones that do not have to be scrutinized for a way to hit that low-tide mark. It is their seventh straight loss. Only 2,975 attended.
A&M’s Courtney Walker scored 22 -- her ninth 20-point game in league play. She is attempting to become the first SEC player since Bianca Thomas of Ole Miss in 2009-10 to average 20+ points per game in league play.
The Aggies outscored Vandy 32-16 at the end to win its fifth in a row. SEC assists leader Jordan Jones had 11. Chelsea Jennings scored 20 off the bench, 10-of-13 from the field. Vanderbilt's Morgan Batey – one of two seniors closing out their careers -- scored 15 points, 7-of-8 from the floor. Rayte’a Long is the other Commodore senior.
Vandy limited A&M to 22 points in the first half and the Commodores had a hopeful eight-point lead into the locker room. But the Aggies erupted for 53 points in the second half, including putting together an 18-2 run to start the fourth.
"They turned up the pressure and then we were on our heels, and that’s pretty much who we’ve been,” said Vandy coach Melanie Balcomb. “We’ve been fine as long as we’re in control and we get to do what we want to do.”
They lost the lead with 7:13 remaining.
“I think the biggest problem is we should have broken it open when (we had the chance),” said Balcomb. “When they changed the game and turned it up, pressed us, trapped us, made us play full court, we became tentative and turned the ball over.”
The Aggies made up for their lack of perimeter shooting by being hot from elsewhere.
A&M shot 52 percent from the floor for, including 75 percent (9-of-12) in the fourth quarter. The Aggies had the rare road advantage at the free throw line, 19-of-28 compared to Vanderbilt’s 5-of-8.
*No. 3 South Carolina at Ole Miss. The 44 regular season SEC wins in three seasons is another record, eclipsing, of course, the legend that was once Tennessee.
That victory was also the 113th for the 2016 Senior Class, matching the 2015 program record.
The Gamecocks lead the SEC in league play, so beating Ole Miss by 21 was ahead of their season average while scoring six points below their usual offensive outpoint.
“It was just kind of one of those nights,” A'ja Wilson said. “We stayed within our system and our system is getting it inside. We just take what the defense gives us and play off each other.” She scored a pristine 16, 8-of-8 from the field, Tiffany Mitchell had 12 and Alaina Coates 11 on 5-of-7 from the field with 14 rebounds, her 15th double-double this year. Wilson had five blocked shots and Coates two. Mitchell did not start for the fourth time this season as coach Dawn Staley continues to keep the lineup on edge with variations. South Carolina shot well, 23-of-41 (56.1 percent), but also had a season-high 29 turnovers. “Our offense has been something that’s a work in progress,” said Staley. “We took a few steps back tonight, but our defense sustained us all game long. “They bail us out a lot. We probably don’t get them the ball enough considering how efficient they are. They’ve done that all season long.” It was a 15-point advantage at the half. It was over. Ole Miss has lost nine straight. They scored eight in the second quarter and five in the fourth. “That’s the story of our season right there,” Ole Miss coach Matt Insell said. “Look at the box score, look at the shooting percentages. We get great shots and we don’t make them.”
*No. 24 Missouri at No. 15 Kentucky. Missouri took a one-point lead into the fourth quarter, holding Kentucky to 11.
They had been down by 13 at the half. The Kats responded with an eight-point defensive effort. Lone senior Janee Thompson scored half of her 24 points in the fourth quarter of Senior Night.
The Kats pulled away for a 10-point win before 6,496 witnesses in the final season game at Memorial Coliseum. Evelyn Akhator made 6-of-8 from the field and scored 15 with nine rebounds, while Makayla Epps scored 14 points for Kentucky. Freshman Sophie Cunningham led Missouri with 29 points. “I was really, really excited for the team because Missouri is very tough and very difficult for our team to guard,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. “It’s not a great matchup for us. They do things that make it difficult on our young team to guard. “I thought they played extremely hard but that wasn’t a surprise. They’ve played real hard all year. They are a quality basketball team. A really tough, young basketball team too. They have a very bright future.” He said Thompson was inspiring especially if this was her Lexington farewell. The only way she gets another one is if the Kats get awarded a Sweet 16 qualifier which will be decided in SEC tournament play next week. “To have someone perform like that on Senior Night, that’s storybook type stuff. We needed every ounce of her energy and her leadership. “After a third quarter like we had, very deflating and we weren’t very tough, she opened up the fourth quarter with a very tough play. She really, really put us on her back in the fourth quarter. She was really, really tough and came up big for her team on a real important night for us. .
“What she said on the court at the end of the game to everybody, that I’ve been important in her life, you just have no idea how meaningful that is to me. That’s what I’ve wanted her to be. It was not always sunshine and rainbows with us. There were some tough days.
"This season she has really come into her own. She’s still growing. She still has an opportunity to get better. But she is very special to me.
“We had just gotten out-toughed. I thought we were pretty tough. I thought that we really hustled in the first half and built a 13-point lead.. I mean it was a really good half for us. We fought real hard. After we got settled in, like I told everyone all week, this is going to be a really difficult game. I thought Missouri was real, real good at the beginning of the game. Thompson said, “I’m really just happy we won because we didn’t play as well as we needed to play, especially defensively in that third quarter. We had a lot of breakdowns and a lot of miscues, and we let them take the lead. We have a lot to learn and we plan to go back and look at film so we can correct the mistakes.” Senior Night was, of course, special for the Chicago native. “It meant a lot,” Thompson said. “I had a lot of people here from my hometown and a lot of family that I haven’t seen in a long time. It meant a lot that they were here to support me on a day like this. People make a big deal out of this, but I was just more happy to see my family and to know they were in the stands.”
Missouri coach Robin Pingeton has had a season worthy of league coach of the year honors. America has been introduced to her ranked team.
“I thought that we really challenged them,” she said.
“At halftime we really challenged them to come out and play a lot more aggressive. It helps when you’re knocking down shots. We shot it at a pretty high percentage in that third quarter. We thought defensively we did a nice job, better than we have been doing. It was a nice run in the third quarter but we couldn’t sustain it.” Cunningham, of course, is a game-changer for the program as a rookie. “Sophie, being a freshman, had a great non-conference and then it took her some time to adjust to the SEC play,” Pingeton said. “She’s been pretty dang consistent for us all year long. She’s a fierce competitor. She can do a little bit of everything. You saw tonight that she could play the one through five spot. We had her at point guard and at stretch four. She can guard on the perimeter and in the post. She rebounds really well. She can shoot the three and get to the rim. “She’s just a special player and she plays with such a motor and she’s so passionate about the game. I think the thing that really stands out to me about Sophie is just her unselfishness. There are nights where she’s not been able to get the looks that she did tonight. It’s truly not about the points or her stat line. Its about the front of the jersey for Sophie Cunningham.” If the standings do not change after Sunday’s league finales, the Tigers get Arkansas in the second round of the conference tournament. Kentucky would await the winner of Alabama/LSU in the playin game. No. 16 Mississippi State at Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs finish third in conference. SEC double-digit wins in back to back seasons is a program record. State has a double-bye to the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. This was another quality road win, the first in Nashville in more than half a decade. The Bulldogs built a 16-point lead and withstood a late rally. Vandy only had four league wins as the backsliding under the current coach continues. They will once again miss the NCAAs. Vanderbilt missed seven of its first eight shots from the field and had to fight uphill. State will match their conference win record if they win at home on Sunday against Alabama. MSU won its second conference road game in five days to improve to 23-6 overall and 10-5 in league play. Vanderbilt fell to 15-13 and 4-11. The Bulldogs claimed its third win ever at Memorial Gymnasium and its first since 2010. “Our kids played really well,” State coach Vic Schaefer said. “We defended well. We rebounded well. I am really proud of the effort. We have to hang our hat on our defense. That is what we do best. We went out there and showed that tonight.” Victoria Vivians led with 21 points. Morgan William had 15 points and Dominique Dillingham 12. Vivians fouled out with 33 seconds left and the head sliced to three. But, down the stretch the idea of fouling to stop the cock failed, as William hit six free throws and Dillingham two to preserve it. State hit 16-of-22 from the line, Vanderbilt 21-of-25. *No. 11 Texas A&M at Auburn. The Aggies clinched second in the conference and the double-bye in the league tournament, to the quarterfinals. It is their sixth straight win – a season high -- and sets up a delicious Senior Game on Sunday. The Aggies closed Auburn’s home season Courtney Walker and Khaalia Hillsman scored 16 apiece in an eight-point win. A&M clinched the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, its highest mark in program history. The Aggies end the regular season against No. 15 Kentucky on Sunday. “We’ve just got to take care of the ball at the end of the game,” Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said. “In the fourth quarter we didn’t do a very good job of taking care of the basketball.” A season-high crowd of 3,651 was on hand for the regular-season finale at Auburn Arena, the fifth-largest women’s crowd since the arena opened in 2010. “It’s been absolutely wonderful,” Williams-Flournoy said of the fan support this season. “I think they’ve really bought into us making our move and being a better basketball team, and coming out to support us. Once again, not only do we understand how important this game was, but the fans knew how important this game was and wanted to come out and cheer us on.” The two seniors in their final home game, Cabriana Capers and Tra’Cee Tanner, have helped the foundation of a long-awaited rebuild, but not quite to the NCAA magic ticket of 20 wins. In any other conference, that equates to a bubble team. Not in the toughest conference in America; it means there are eight others in line ahead of you, five of them ranked in the Top 25. *Other NCAA contenders: Arkansas at Georgia. The ’Dawgs took win No. 21 in the final home game despite an eight-point opening quarter. They stand fourth in conference. Florida won its 21st as well, at LSU, The Ben-Gals scored five in their final quarter at home. Tennessee has apparently fallen and cannot get up, stuck on 16 wins. They lost at Alabama when a three-point second quarter doomed them.