By Mike Siroky
The grind that is the Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball, with road kills at most every stop, is in the home stretch.
This is all about jockeying for position for the league tournament.
The good teams are firmly established among the nine that have made the national rankings this season.
All are likely in the NCAA elimination tournament. Injuries and other depletions have taken their toll.
Some players await near-term recovery while others are patched up and playing again.
The grind has had everyone but South Carolina submit one-digit offensive quarters. No one else is immune.
There is only one super team in conference, but that team is also among the tops nationally, which is where this year’s adherence to league legend continues. We called them champs a month ago and now the inevitable playdown to the final is on.
Four other teams need to settle on which three get double byes in the money conference tournament – which decides the NCAA bids – in a few weeks.
There are still teams yet to attain 20 wins, always the automatic conference entry ticket to the national tournament, and at least one which is in without winning 20 based on reputation in the realm. There are likely to be eight 20-game winners before any tournaments.
The conference has had ranked teams for 608 weeks (before the NCAA even acknowledged women’s hoops. The week’s games, with ranking reflecting the Associated Press list at game time:
*No. 19 Florida at Auburn. The home team would not be denied. The Tigers took their marquee win.
Auburn is the seventh team in conference with a shot at getting 20 wins, thought they need upsets in two of their final three.
It was cancer awareness week, the WBCA's annual Play-4-Kay tributes to the memory of the late North Carolina State coaching great Kay Yow. Home teams had uniforms tinged pink. But everyone had pink: Sleeves, shoes, socks.
Auburn was determined. The Gators started quickly, 10-2, but back came the home team. They caught up and stayed even for the rest of the quarter, taking the lead at 20-17, using a balanced attack.
Carlie Needles was 3-of-4 from the field and the line for the visitors at the first stop. In the second quarter, Auburn would not falter and won that as well, to remain ahead at half.
The third quarter was terrible for both sides, an inexplicable 9-5 Auburn.
Florida had fallen and could not get up. Katie Frerking scored 11 of 18 points in the fourth quarter and grabbed 10 rebounds.
A nice 6-0 effort by Frerking had Auburn up by 19 with under four minutes left. Auburn won by 21, its fifth straight, its best streak since 2009.
Frerking earned league Player-of-the-Week for her effort.
This knocked Florida back to fifth in that search for fourth in the league. In fact, it put them behind Auburn, which has never been ranked this season.
Florida still needs one more win to reach 20. The Gators will be favored in their final four, but they were favored here.
Auburn’s Brandy Montgomery scored 16 with four 3s, Tra'Cee Tanner 12 and Khady Dieng 10. It was the defense, turning 22 Gators turnovers into 27 points.
They had been ranked 4-5 nationally in steals, but Auburn turned it up, with a 13-5 edge, to the approval of the 2,760 in attendance.
Florida Coach Amanda Butler said, “Auburn just outplayed us. They were tougher than us. Other than that opening flurry by us, Auburn played with a lot more desire than we did and that's really disappointing.
“We typically don't generate as many turnovers off of our press, a lot of it come in the half-court and we played really bad defense in the half court."
Besides the points off turnovers and the steals, Auburn also had 16 second-chance points off 15 offensive rebounds.
“I thought we played a brand of basketball that was absolutely not us,” said Butler
“ We didn't do a very good job of sharing the ball. We didn't do a very good job outside rebounding the ball. The total rebounds were even, but I thought that was the difference in the game. The 15 offensive rebounds after you play defense and Auburn capitalized on it.”
She affirms it leaves concern over her own team.
“I don’t think they really made too many changes. Carlie (Needles) still took good shots, they just didn’t fall. That happens. They really did a good job stacking up in the paint and it was difficult for us to get it in the paint."
Winning coach Terri Willams-Flournoy missed the NCAAs for the first time in a decade. They are fourth in conference at the moment. If this had been the end of the season, they’d have a double-bue in the conference tournaments.
But the recovery is not yet done.
“The big difference in the game was that we gave up 43 points in the first half to Florida, and in the second half we only gave up 15,” Willams-Flournoy said. “That was the game right there. We were scoring. Our offensive game was at its best, but I told them at halftime that we had given up 43 points and we needed to do a better job defensively.
“We were boxing them out because they were hurting us a little bit on the offensive boards,” Williams-Flournoy said. “We were getting out to shooters and we were just flying all over the floor. When we are flying all over the floor, it is hard to get any balls past us.”
*No. 3 South Carolina at No. 24 Tennessee. A national TV audience was treated to what had been scheduled as two powerhouses, except UT stopped being that early this season.
Fifteeen wins impresses nobody. Seven losses (four in conference at home) even less so. The Lady Vols are a team that has a roster of high school All-Americans but too many injuries this season to be. competitive. They are seventh at the moment in conference but should win out.
When they are granted NCAA entry anyway, as the only team to never miss the tournament, there will be national rumblings.
Haters gonna hate, hate, hate. If they have an impact win it will be on the NCAA road to Indy.
They were fortunate in that this game came out after the weekly rankings, which kept them in. They have been ranked 565 straight weeks, since Feb. 17, 1985, in the Top 25, the national record.
The dwindling number of accredited AP poll voters has made it a bit schizophrenic, so for UT, maybe a barely-ranked team losing to one of the best teams in America will earn a final reprieve.
Yet the same voters penalized South Carolina for its only loss of the season, to UConn which also had handed the new No. 2 its only loss of the season. Apparently, as in college football; losing early can be forgiven.
All it really means is each remained a top seed in the NCAAs, as No. 2 and 2A and could settle this tiff (since Notre Dame will not play SC in the regular season) in the National Semifinals.
South Carolina has 24 wins and is one of the few with a shot at 30. The Gamecocks have been in the Top 5 in America for 37 straight weeks, building the legacy. They last lost in the league regular season in the final game last year.
The Tennessee game played out as expected. Even with 12,014 fans backing them, UT proved no more than a speed bump in a six-point loss, which is right in the wheelhous of the to teams in conference lost at home to SC. UT lost the final three quarters.
Diamond DeSheilds hit an uncontested 3 at the buzzer to make it appear more competitive.
At the start, UT held the visitors to 25 percent from the field and SC’s first single-digit quarter effort.
UT led 12-8 with six UT players scoring. The grind contimued. It was 24-21.
UT made a ball-handling error to close it after SC had hit two free throws for a one-point lead.
Instead of at least draining the clock, a misadvised 3 was launched. It gave SC time to get downcourt. Bianca Cuevas fed Tina Roy for an easy fallaway.
It was the only assist and only points for the duo. A’ja Wilson had 11. SC won the quarter, 16-9, putting a single-digit hold on UT. DeShields had six off the bench for the Lady Vols.
UT scored the first six to start the second half. Worse for SC, mighty center Alaina Coates had her second and third fouls with 9 minutes left in the quarter and coach Dawn Staley drew a technical yelling at the ref trying to protect her.
UT returned the favor when their freshman spark plug, Te’a Cooper had her third foul. The Vols had a three-point lead when she left at the 6:29 mark of the quarter. They lost by nine after that.
DeShields had 11 minutes in the first half. Now she might be in to stay.
Wilson had scored six more, including 5-of-7 at the line. But she caught her third personal before the quarter counted down below four minutes. Tennessee had eight scorers, even with a short bench that contributed a dozen. The only SC bench points was the last play of the first half.
DeShields led a fast break, hit two free throws and the lead was three again. Tiffany Mitchell, now the best SC player left, hit a 3, then led a fast break layin. DeShields answered but then committed a floppy foul running back downcout and had 3.
Wilson had a block. Khadijah Sessions was fouled on a drive. She hit both free throws and it was a five-point lead, the largest for the visitors. With 40 seconds left, Sessions committed her third foul. Andraya Carter hit the opportunities from the line. Then Wilson hit two free throws and had 20. It was a five-point lead, the 20-18 quarter edge to South Carolina.
Carolina doubled UT, 12-6, as the game wound down with the better team winning. UT coach Holly Warlick decided Staley couldn’t have all the fun and drew a bench technical, more of frustration and a last best chance of a season lost than anything else.
The ESPN mopes commented how SC was fighting for the title. We called it a month ago. Doesn’t being four games ahead with four to go mean anything anymore? With a double-digit lead by the visitors, the game meandered away.
Now UT will win out and ready itself for the SEC post-season tournament.
Their place in the league after this one would have them open with Arkansas after a one-round bye.
The advantage is knowing in advance who you will be playing. It is only the second home loss in conference.
SC won without Coates scoring a point, but she did clear 10 defensive rebounds. Wilson scored the aforementioned 20, including 9-of-11 from the line.
SC won the closing three quarters and recovered their field goal percentage to a respectable 37 percent. DeShields scored 21 and was 5-of-6 from the line. Tennessee needs more from senior center Bashaara Graves. She hit 9-of-10 from the line for a very quiet 13.
“It was a hard-fought game,” Warlick said. “I was really pleased with how we played. We had three keys to the game, and one was to make sure we didn't give up transition points and I thought that for the most part we did that, keep them off the boards and we did that, and take care of the ball and we did not do that.
“We turned it over 19 times, which allowed South Carolina to score sixteen points. When you play a team like South Carolina your margin of error is very small and we did some really great things, but we just couldn't get over the hump
“We were up three with the ball and we turn it over and then they go down and score. Nothing good is going to happen when you turn it over 19 times. We had opportunities and they kept benefiting from our mistakes. You are up three with the ball and you go five or six possessions and you just don't get it done.
“What is hard are the unforced errors. The ones where you throw it and it goes out of bounds for no reason. I thought we had some turnovers going into the post, but we didn't bring the ball down.
"You have to make a spectacular pass to be in the position where you are throwing the ball so just little things we need to correct. A lot of it was due to us being aggressive. When we are being aggressive like that I can take it, but not the ones where we just throw the ball out of bounds.
Regardless of the lack of offense, she said, “I thought we were in the game. We held one of their best players to no points. Then, with A'ja Wilson, we did what we could. She's a great player.
“I thought we were solid. I was really pleased with our scoring. I thought we got to the free thrown line the most we've gotten all year. So, should we have shot the ball better? Absolutely, we need to shoot the ball. We've got to hit outside shots to loosen the defense inside. I thought we played hard, and we competed. We clean up the turnovers and we're in business. The margin for error against South Carolina is really small, and we just didn't take care of the basketball.”
So she perseveres, with the record number of league losses for this program.
“We just talk about the next game,” Warlick said. “If we had one loss, I think it would be negative.
"We’re in uncharted waters for us right now, but all I know for us to do is to go back and keep working, keep our head up and keep fighting. So, it's still a big season for us. Our goal is to win the SEC Tournament. We have a great chance of doing that. All we can do is learn from our six losses, and we can learn from our six wins in the SEC.”
She feels worse for the players than she does for herself.
“I feel bad for all of these kids; they’ve fought hard. Jaime (Nared) fought hard. She didn’t have her best game, but some days you just don’t have it.
"Jaime has led us in a lot of games, and this game wasn’t her best. These guys put us in a position to compete and win. We just didn’t get it done. We just go back to work, and just continue to do what we do. We got back to work, learn, work hard and just keep continuing to get better.”
DeShields said she knew exactly when the game was lost.
“We gave away the game before the third quarter,” DeShields said. “We got outscored in the second quarter and we turned the ball over a lot. Every game we lose, we have close to 20 if not more turnovers.
“I think that was the game. We stopped two out of their big three. Then, we had two second-chance points. We did basically everything we wanted to do defensively. We did struggle a little bit stopping them in transition, but really I think turnovers killed us.
“You just continue to come to work every day. We definitely have time. It’s all about your perspective and believing in each other and believing in your team. We have a lot of negativity surrounding us, but this is a moment where we lean on each other.
“It’s the 12 players in the locker room and the four coaches. That’s all we’re listening to. We’re keying in on each other. We’re tuning in and that’s all we have moving forward. We definitely do have time to fix whatever issues there are. We're still confident moving forward. We believe, and that's all you need, belief.”
Graves said it was a terrific battle inside.
“We know our guards look for us inside, but, a lot of times they double in the post or they are in a zone so it’s hard to get good angles on the post players,” Graves said. “We understand, but we just have to get paint points when people play zone on us.
“It was difficult. I'm an undersized post, so getting over them at 6-4 or 6-5 it’s difficult. They are very physical also, but I think I got to the line a couple of times and that helped out a lot.”
Andraya Carter said SC accomplished their game plan.
“The whole purpose of a zone defense is to keep you out of the paint,” carter pointed out. “I think we have a lot of athletic, capable drivers, but when they’re packing it in and really playing on our post players, it’s just really given us a hard time all season.
“When we work on it and get ball movement we do fine. I think sometimes we get really stagnant where we really try to hone in on our post players, or we’re trying to make a home-run play instead of loosening up the zone. I think we get a little impatient when we’re not able to play inside-out. So, we have to be patient and work the zone, and do stuff that we work on in practice. We just have to keep working on it.”
What they really have to do is put this competition beheind them until they earn a rematch in the league tournament.
“We can look at our losses and move forward, there really is no team in the SEC we can’t handle when we’re playing our game and playing hard, playing Lady Vol basketball and executing a game plan,” Carter said.
“I think moving forward with the regular season games left we don’t want to lose any of those. I think we’ll have a lot of confidence moving forward into the SEC Tournament, just knowing that we’ve played every team close.
"We’ve either blown a lead or had a ridiculous amount of turnovers. We still have a lot of confidence moving into the tournament knowing that all of our losses we were really close. We were in them. We can beat anybody. We just have to move forward with our heads up.”
Staley said zone was not a Tennessee-centric move.
“We played a fair share of zone,” she said. “We probably played about 70 percent zone tonight. We had to do that, especially given that third quarter when we had a lot of fouls called on us. We just felt like we had to protect our edge a little bit more.
"We came in thinking we would play a lot more zone than we have played all year long just scouting them and seeing how zone slows them down a little bit. It makes them think a little bit rather than play off what they would do naturally. If you do that, their talent comes into play. They are a different basketball team.
“I think when you have seniors who have played a lot of basketball for us in a lot of tough environments, it is familiar to them. We don’t fret at all being down or being in close games. I think we played our best basketball in the fourth quarter when the game is on the line. That is when experience comes into play. Fortunately for us, we have players who have been in these type of situations. They execute at the end of games.”
The first goal remains to complete a conference sweep.
“I want to win all of them,” Staley said. “Have I looked at the history and seen what kind of programs have done it? Would we like to be at that number? Absolutely. But, we are going to take it one game at a time. Hopefully, we can get that done.”
She acknowledged the special accomplishment of this class being three times league champs
"It is pretty special. The players that have come and gone and graduated from South Carolina, they have left a legacy for us to be in this situation. I am very happy for the history of our program. I am happy for the start of it, although it was tough to come to work every day, until now.
“We have great players who understand what South Carolina women’s basketball is all about. They play to that reputation every time they step on the floor.
“What happens is you have players, Khadijah Sessions, Tiffany Mitchell, Tina Roy. We have Asia Dozier who didn't play, but she is over there coaching. When we have that kind of experience, good things are going to happen. It helps to have Alaina Coates and A'ja Wilson. You can do a lot when you have the experience of a backcourt and the talent of a frontcourt.”
Mitchell said stepping up is just something she and her classmates feel qualified to do,
“I was taking contested shots early on,” Mitchell said, “and I started to try to get easier looks. I was pressured early on in the second quarter.” Winning the conference, “says a lot about the hard work we put in each day, and where we have came from.”
Wilson said it is all about the system. “I was taking what the defense gave me,” she said, “and my teammates really helped me out. I was pounding it inside, that is our system.”
*No. 15 Texas A&M at Ole Miss. The Aggies worked through their 18th win, for the moment in second place in conference because Mississippi State had the opening of the week off. The Aggies had won, 81-58, in the first meeting this season.
Defense won it, A&M hanging single-digit stops on the firt twio quarters and expanding the lead to 45-28 after three. The Courtneys, Willaims and Walker, led Aggie scoring with 12 and 11, though it took the still-recovering Williams 13 shots with five hits to do it. She had a double-double, 10 defensive rebounds among her 11.
Ole Miss cannot have a winning season. They hit 22 percent from the field. There were 1,691 witnesses
Ole Miss coach Matt Insell said, “We have really good players. We did a really good job on the boards tonight. I don’t know how many offensive boards we gave
up at A&M, but I told the team we really needed to focus on rebounding and I thought we did a good job.
“We got beat by eight rebounds but we turned them over eight more times so that’s eight more opportunities. We shot it 71 times to their 51, so we shot it about 20 more times allowing them to get more rebounds. We held them to nine offensive boards, so that’s good.
“I thought we had a chance there. We missed a 3 to cut it to eight or nine, whatever it was, there in the fourth. We didn’t change anything we were doing offensively; we just attacked the rim. Erika Sisk got back to playing like Erika Sisk. She went 3-of-12 but she was going to the rim so I was real happy with her. Shandricka had one shot where I thought she settled and I got on her, but I thought she did better tonight. I didn’t not start her because I was mad at her or anything; I did it to help Shandricka get through this slump that she’s in. She’s getting better, though. Erika got back to getting the ball to the basket and I’m real happy with her and the way she played.
“When you’re in the process of building a program you have situations like this. Look at Auburn last year. They were 0-13 in the league and we beat them to make it 0-and-14. They got a few wins there at the end, but they were playing with all young players. Look at them now, they’re 8-4 and fourth or third place in the league. Those kids developed and got better over the year, and it’s hard to win in this league in any sport.
“When you have young players it’s very hard, but this is just part of the process we’re in right now. We fixed problems with this team in a huge way, I’ve said that several times, and nothing against any of our players but where we have problems with our basketball team we’ve fixed that in huge ways.”
*No. 18 Kentucky at Vanderbilt. Vandy beat Kentucky in the first go-round then lost four, now five, straight. This is where they realize they are not in NCAA tournament contention for the second straight season.
So they went ahead and lost at home again, UK outscoring them at the end of every quarter in a 16-point road win. Alexis Jennings brought 18 points and nine rebounds off the bench. To get to 20 wins, the Kats will need a road win at either Texas A&M or Mississippi State. They are ninth in conference after this game.
The Kats are also on the down escalator, and not only because they had four players either leave or be ejected from the program, eliminating bench strength.
Center Evelyn Akhator is lost among the very heavy depth at center in this league, a non-factor in that sense. Makayla Epps has not played like the all-conference selection she was projected to be (seven points here). Because the league cheats purists and does not limit all-conference selections to five, some players will get the resume notification without really being worthy.
Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said, “To come on the road against a team that we lost to a couple weeks back and show some real progress is something I’m real proud of. The team’s been fighting hard for improvement, and we’ve been fighting for defensive improvement, and I think we played much better today on the defensive end than we did the last time we played Vanderbilt, so I’m really proud of our team.”
His Kats managed 21 more shots, some of defensive pressure and some off of the game plan.
“We were able to turn them over,” he said. “We were plus-15 in the turnover margin and that’s really great for us and has not been something we’ve been able to do lately, then we more than doubled them up on offensive rebounds.
“That was a big emphasis in the game on the offensive end, to try and really assert ourselves on the offensive boards, and I’m so proud of our team for doing that. Just being able to keep our turnovers to a minimum and really have a high turnover game for our opponent, that’s always a good mix for you and gives you a chance to win.”
They used the week break to work on themselves.
“We’ve tried to come back. They met themselves, and then we met right off the bat after LSU. We were really disappointed in a couple of things that went on in the LSU game. It was the end of a tough stretch. I was really blunt with them.
“They’d had a couple days off, of what we were looking for. We really had a chance to focus on ourselves. I just told them, we’re not gonna be perfect on defense, we’ve still got a long way to go, but I really believe they’re going to try their hardest.
“It’s not the road. It hadn’t been on the road or at home, it was just us. It’s been the coaches and the players, it hasn’t been the situation. We aren’t a dominant defensive team one-on-one. We really have to be a cohesive unit and we really have to play hard together. We need to try and see if we can do that a bunch of times here down the stretch.”
*Others: Formerly ranked Missouri won its 20th and likely earned a non-16 entry into the NCAAs. With seven league wins they are ahead of Tennessee, for instance. They earned their one-game break.
Georgia hit 19 wins and continued its longest SEC win streak since 2012-13 at five, the most since 2010-11.
It was the ’Dawgs’ first win in Baton Rouge since 2001, and eight-game losing sequence. They missed the NCAA for the second time ever last season but will be in this time. Their next is the toughest road test, at South Carolina. They could be among the eight league teams with 20 wins.
*LSU at No. 12 Texas A&M. The Aggies returned from their week off and exorcised some old devils as they hit win No. 18. They will become one of nine SEC teams with 20 wins. In the SEC, they are alone in second in the SEC. They are playing for the NCAA Sweet 16 entry ticket and the SEC tournament double bye as well. This was the breast cancer awareness game for home teams in the second set of the week, so pink dominated.
At A&M, for example, the program had a silent auction with prizes such as a commemorative T-shirt signed by the team, the commemorative T-shirt for sale, a special performance of the Star Spangled Banner featuring three breast cancer survivors, was sung before the game, a halftime ceremony, recognizing and honoring individuals who are currently undergoing treatment and those who are in remission, a sorority challenge campus wide with gift card prizes, fans registering for special pink-themed prizes, such as headphones, fitness trackers, speakers.
In the classiest move from throughout the conference, A&M women's assistant coach Bob Starkey donated $1 to Pink Alliance for each Texas A&M student in attendance.
A&M coach Gary Blair gives away 100 tickets per game, personally delivering across town to disadvantaged children and other worthy recipients. He said if anyone sees what they do, they will come back for more. They drew 4,797.
In this one, no one seemed willing to score at first, which was fine for woeful LSU but maddening for the home crowd. It was 2-0 with seven minutes left in the quarter. It was 7-7 with four minutes left.
Eventually, A&M won the half by eight, with that many scorers contributing. Courtney Williams had nine.
“We have got to run our offense,” said Blair. “We rotate one way and my backup point guard went the other way. When my bigs come in, they have to play. We need to get Courtney Walker to want the ball at the end of a play.
“I like the score, just don’t like how we got there.”
Still he was calm enough that the jacket was on.
To be competitive, LSU found itself overly aggressive That led A&M to 11-of-18 from the line.
The second half was an easy to watch game. A&M was slowed in the quarter court by the LSU zone. Williams was floating again, the signs of her slightly fractured back lessening with each outing. She was 4-of-8 from the field, 5-of-6 from the line. She finished with 18. LSU could match points but not overcome.
The quarter ended with the home team up by five. But they did not score a basket from three minutes to go in the third to nine in the fourth. LSU found hitting 10-of-11 from the line kept it close enough. It ended a 14-point win.
“It was a good game,” said Williams. “We can get better on defense and rebounding. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”
Walker set the program record with her 130th start. She scored14, with 6-of-8 from the line, 4-of-6 from the field.
“LSU was slowing down the game and spreading it in,” Blair said “Just trying to run a little offense, which was a two-man game, and hitting their shooters in the corners and it was pretty effective. We couldn’t guard it. We had to switch to a zone.
“Give LSU credit for trying something different, because they didn’t have the firepower that they normally have. They made some adjustments in the ballgame and we struggled guarding it. My bigs couldn’t guard their littler players we had to go small and that was a mismatch for them. Chelsea was trying to guard Hyder and that’s a mismatch for them.
“Our bench played great. They were 10-of-21. I think Curtyce (Knox) did some great things in the first half and we didn't need her in the second half.
“Chelsea (Jennings) just does her thing as always. It’s good to see a senior who doesn’t have a big ego and doesn’t say ‘I have to be the star.’ She just plays her role for the team.”
After some injury time off, point guard Jordan Jones returned.
She was out wth an injury for the end of the last and the team dissolved without her.
“Jones didn't score very well but those nine assists were solid for us tonight,” Blair said. “It could have been 13 or 14 if we would have hit some easy shots. I thought she was solid tonight. Defense, she was her normal Jordan tonight. She took a charge, got a couple of steals and almost got another charge late in the game.
“It was just good to get her back in the lineup especially when we went with that spread defense late in the game.
“I like the way that we can win and stay ahead of the game even though we weren’t at our best. We are going to see two more zone teams in a row with Auburn and Vanderbilt. Vandy is small just like this team tonight, so our bigs have got to score early to get their confidence up and to draw fouls.
“We were doing a great job in the first half drawing fouls. It wasn't our best free throw shooting night.
We gave up too many second-chance points. We have to do better.”
As her games dwindle and certainly head to the NCAA elimination games, Walker said, “We have to finish it out. Those road games are going to be hard, especially at Vanderbilt, so we have to be as focused as we have been this whole season in order to not blow it. We have to focus especially if we want a Top 4 seed and a double-bye in the SEC tournament.
“Our intensity on offense was a lot better. We know that we can score, but I think we needed to box-out on the defensive end and get the rebound
“It felt great [to have Jones back]. She controls the game on defense and offense. It’s nice having her leadership on the court. Everybody on the court is comfortable with her because she’s our leader and point guard.”
So A&M is a game up in second in conference. They have the double bye at the moment and are in the quarterfinals and would play a two-game winner from the Arkansas-Kentucky matchup.
*No. 16 Kentucky at No. 14 Mississippi State. Kentucky is among the nine teams from conference likely to make the NCAA on the road, as a 20-win team. At 18 wins and 7-6 in SEC, Kentucky could win the next two and become the eighth league team with 20 before finishing at A&M on the Aggies’ Senior Night in a national cablecast.
State is fighting to earn a Sweet 16 qualifier after being dissed last season. They can win out and be 8-2 in the final 10. But this was U-G-L-Y.
Mississippi State has lost 10 straight in this series. The last two regular season losses went overtime. UK eliminated State in the conference quarterfinals.
As befitting the history between these two, the Kats were the better team at the start, a 13-3 run that had scoring from four players, 5-of-6 from the floor -- and State’s points from Victoria Vivians. But Vivians sat with foul trouble, the victim of trying to defend Kentucky’s slashing drives. She sat more than she played this night. She also sat for an apparent lack of effort.
It was 37-30 for the visitors and MSU coach Vic Schaefer was disappointed in no steals. His frustration with no defense was growing.
UK coach Matthew Mitchell said at halftime, “We wanted to drive, to take advantage of their zone because they do not play a lot of zone.”
It was a good half, he said and he simply wanted a repeat, which meant, of course they’d be all right.
Kentucky’s man-to-man made State stumble anew and it was an early 10-point lead. Morgan William was missing in action for State. The point guard is an able sidekick to Vivians. She sat with a towel over her shoulders.
For UK, star forward Mikayla Epps picked up her second foul on a charge and her third a little later and was sitting with 6:58 left. She plays more than anyone for the Kats. With her gone, Vivians became more the option than ever, inbounding and then getting it right back to create, though they stayed down by 10 because no one was playing defense.
UK Center Evelyn Akhator shot from outside and the lead was 12 without Epps. Two reserves led State, Breanna Richardson 4-of-5 for nine points and Nevitt with eight. William came back five minutes left in the quarter, but the lead grew to 16.
The freshmen had had 33 points and UK entered the final quarter ahead by 19. It was over. State had lost its second league matchup at home and second place in the league.
Schaefer did not mess around. He pulled Vivians in the disastrous quarter, the message was no defense, no playing time.
It matters little that Vivians was nine points below her average. State seems to have conceded. UK was up by 20. Freshman Maci Morris was 5-of-7 from the field and had 14 points. She finished with a career-best 17. Epps had 16, with eight rebounds and five assists. UK won the rebounds by 10.
“Kentucky played like they had something to prove,” Schaefer said. “They played with an edge. That is what we are trying to get our kids to do. We were on our heels from the start and never got off them. Kentucky was aggressive and really took it to us in every phase of the game.”
Richardson led the Bulldogs with 13 points, her best in an SEC game.
“We didn’t see this coming,” Richardson said. “We had two great days of practice but didn’t play well. We have to get back to practice to work hard and get better.”
The mercy killing ended in a 23-point runaway, State’s biggest loss of the season and at home.
“It started with our effort and hustle on defense,” said Mitchell. This has been building for awhile. They hurt us a little with the step ball screen in the beginning, but we wanted to get to the free throw line more. We did that.
“This is a young team, an inexperienced team. We want to get better every day. We’re doing that.”
Kentucky is a group at 7-6 in conference and would play Arkansas if nothing changes in the next three games, the winner to the quarterfinals and Texas A&M. State is next in line, three teams at 8-5 and they own the tiebreakers and the double-bye. Georgia gets the winner of Vanderbilt-Ole Miss. State awaits after that in the league quarterfinals.
*Georgia at No. 3 South Carolina. This is what the best team in the league, one of the best in the nation looks like playing maybe the ninth team in conference.
Georgia brought the best defensive average in the league, 52. SC had averaged a league best 74.
That’s a 22-point differential. While the Gamecocks scored 13 below their average, they won by 10.
The oh my! defensive effort and 32 combined points from senior guards Tiffany Mitchell and Khadijah Sessions did it. Georgia scored single digits in each of he first two quarters; the four in the second is an SEC record for defense.
Scoring runs to end the second and third quarters helped give South Carolina a 16-point lead with 10 minutes to play, and the Gamecocks just outwaited the clock. Mitchell, the best guard in a guard-oriented league, scored 19, 7-of-8 from the line. Sophomore forward A’ja Wilson scored 16 with nine rebounds, eight defensive. Alaina Coates had her second sub par game. She had been shut out at Tennessee and scored seven in this one with four fouls
Georgia kept fouling in an attempt to stop the clock as well as the game flow. South Carolina hit 16-of-27 from the line and had 13 steals and points off of turnovers.
SC coach Dawn Staley said, “It feels great. We did enough to get the job done. We’re going to dig deep now and rest up so we can find a way to close the season out the way we want to.”
SC remains the leading draw in the NCAA, with 16,186 witnesses this time.
Georgia’s 18 wins remains respectable and being even in the league is a program upgrade for the ’Dawgs. They could win the next two and end the season with a splash at Tennessee on the Lady Vols’ guaranteed season home finale on a national cablecast. They could finish 7-3 in the final 10. They would be the eighth league team with 20 wins.
They stand in sixth in conference, among four teams at 7-6 but they own all tiebreakers. They’d get the winner of Vanderbilt-Ole Miss. Mississippi State awaits after that in the league quarterfinals. Freshman Caliya Robinson had won rookie of the week for the third time.
*Vanderbilt at No. 22 Florida. The Gators hit their 20th win and the likely return of an NCAA bid. Another road NCAA team, but still.
Eleanna Christinaki scored 22, Haley Lorenzen added 12 and Ronni Williams, Carlie Needles and Simone Westbrook 10 apiece for the Gators. williams had 13 rebounds. Vandy kept fouling trying to keep up. That plan failed as well. The Gators were 22-of-34 to Vanderbilt’s 8-of-15. Florida also hit 50 percent. It is the first time in six meetings they have won at home in this series. They had 1,439 witnesses, another reason they will not host an NCAA Sweet 16 qualifier.
“l loved the way we attacked,” said Gator coach Amanda Butler. “Being super-aggressive and putting ourselves in that (free throw) position showed that. It’s art of when we are being our best. When we were communicating, it was reinforcing and in such a manner we knew we were going to win.
“It was exciting. We came out right away and hit some. We cannot get a lead and then become casual. The reason you saw such a stark difference between Sunday (a loss) was because the next time on the court the players were becoming accountable.”
Lorenzen said it is all about hustling.
“That’s what we practice,” she said. “Coach is always on us about that. We practice that.”
Florida matches its 8-5 SE record with others. Because of tiebreakers they are fifth right now, a game out of the double bye. They’d start with the winner from Alabama-LSU the winner moves on to Auburn.
The Commodores have lost six straight. They were outscored 11-3 in the close. They are the lone team most likely to replace its coach this season.
*Ole Miss at No. 24 Tennessee. The Lady Vols started a set of four winnable games, which is what you want headed into post-season. The team came into the arena through the stands, feeding off the crowd of 10,548.
Of course they started badly, as if with a mental hangover after being competitive with South Carolina but still losing. Ole Miss’s Madinah Muhammad took a defensive rebound and fed what became an 11-5 run to win the quarter, 19-14.
A’Queen Hayes fed Shadricka Sessom for a 3 with four seconds left. Sessom had seven in the spree.
The second quarter was 10-10 when Tennessee began to move incrementally closer. It was not pretty, plenty of fumbles, but they made up two points, down 33-30 at halftime. Sessom, off the bench, had 15, 5-of-8 from the field. They were exuberant, with only two conference wins this season, six straight losses and losers in 10 of 11, six straight.
The bigger loss for the Lady Vols was a crumpling ankle injury to magnificent Mercedes Russell, the only player to start every game this season.
She did not return. She had zero points at the time of injury. Late last season,
center Izzy Harrison went down at the end of the season and altered the path for the Lady Vols. They cannot afford such alterations this year.
Bashaara Graves moved over one spot and scored 11 by the half. What UT really needs is anything from sixth starter Diamond DeShields, a diamond in the rough for the conference season. She had zero at the break, zero at the end of three.
Nonetheless, without Russell, Graves grew to 15 points and 10 rebounds by the end of the quarter and UT had 16-6 defensive quarter, translated to a 46-39 lead.
So came UT’s quarter of doom all season, the fourth.
The Rebels started 12-4 in the quarter, twice as many points with three minutes left than in all of the previous quarter. What is the disastrous template for the Lady Vols?
No one in Knoxville knows and if the opposing coaches have a shared e-mail of explanation they ain’t saying.
UT was behind with two minutes left. Panic time again. Still no DeShields points but Warlick was out of options. OK, she had one: Kortney Dunbar, fearless on 3s.
She hit one of those and it was a five-point lead with 28 seconds left, four with 24 seconds left, just enough of a Band-Aid over a severe confidence slice. DeShields missed two free throws, so the visitors got the ball back.
Ole Miss missed and Jordan Reynolds grabbed her eighth rebound, was fouled and stuck two free throws. It was finally safe, six points with 18 seconds left.
Grateful exhale at home. Ole Miss won the first and last quarters, UT won the game on defense in the third.
“We just keep on talking to each other, relying on each other,” said Graves. “When Kortney came in and hit the big 3, that helped a lot.” Graves had her 28th career double-double.
Warlick held on to the idea a win is a win, no matter against whom it comes.
“It was a tough battle for us,” she said. “I thought the kids stepped up, and kids came off the bench that was huge. We got the win.”
In the previous game loss to South Carolina, she had taken heat for not reinserting Williams to loosen up the defense.
This time, “Thank God I got her in! Thank goodness, Kortney, Nia (Moore) and Meme (Jackson) work so hard in practice. I had already decided before the game started that I was going to give them that opportunity. They did not disappoint. They did not back down.
“I thought their defense was solid. I worry about sometimes Kortney defending, but I thought she did an outstanding job, and obviously hit a big 3, got a huge rebound for us. Then, Meme Jackson was just Meme Jackson. So, you see what she can do. I thought the last two weeks she has gained a lot of confidence because she’s played really hard in practice.
“I’m really proud of them, and Nia Moore as well. Nia just goes about her business and it’s solid. So, I’m really excited for them to get the opportunity to contribute, and contribute in a big way.”
“Kortney just does what she does. She has ice water in veins. She and Meme both went in at crucial times, and they delivered. She has a lot of confidence in what she does. She’s put in the time and I think our defense has gotten so much better, so I gave her that opportunity and she delivered.
“I’m always trying to get Kortney in the game. I’m trying to get everyone in the game. It’s kind of time and possession and who is scoring, and who’s playing well and what we need.
“Like I said, some games I have a lot of confidence in Kortney and I haven’t gotten her in. I think we’re going to need her down the stretch, and I think this was a great start for her.
“Yes, I’m going to try (to use her more). Look, bottom line is I’ve got to do what I need to do to win. Those two young ladies helped us win today. I hope I can get them more playing time, absolutely.”
“I was excited for Kourtney. We all knew that she could hit that shot on any day and any time from even further than she was. We knew that was money all day. When she hit [the shot], it was definitely needed, she helped us win.”
Dunbar said “I knew my teammates trusted me from behind the line so I was confident in my shot.
“I know that my time is coming and even tonight my teammates were just really happy for me. I just love going out there and doing what I can do to help my team win. I know that Holly trusts me and I have complete confidence in her. I know that she’s going to play me in situations that I feel comfortable in. I know people say that I might not get a lot of playing time so coming into clutch situations like that might be kind of nerve-wracking; but even in practice I’m always the one shooting the last-second 3 so
"I knew I had a lot more time. I just came in comfortable with my feet set, even like Bashaara said, ‘That’s money’ because we always joke around and in practice I’ll say that. When I saw it leave my hand I just knew it was good.”
“We definitely needed these last wins and we knew how bad we needed it today. I think we just buckled down and we got stops when we needed to and scored off transition when we needed to,” Warlick said.
“I think Meme’s style is she comes in a plays all out. There’s a little bit of her that doesn’t have a conscience, and that’s OK for me because I think she has the confidence right now to go in. She didn’t hesitate to hit those two shots, and I thought those two shots were crucial. To come off the bench cold, I thought both she and Kortney were huge for us, huge.”
She said Russell assured her she had jus landed on someone’s foot and tweaked the ankle. “I asked her how she is and she said OK, but that’s Mercedes. I don’t know; I haven’t talked to the doctor yet.”
Then there’s the sublimated talent, DeShields getting a lot of minutes but no points.
“I think Diamond, right now, is trying to play so hard with everyone else that it’s, you know, she’s going 0-for-4 and four turnovers,” Warlick said. “ She’s a better passer, she’s a better player, and you want Diamond DeShields at the line to hit two free throws in key situations, and she misses them.
“It wasn’t a great night for her. She was positive on the bench, and she was excited for Kortney, Meme and Nia. She didn’t have one of her better games. I think she was pressing and just didn’t have a good game.
“I haven’t even talked about Bashaara, and you know why? She’s just so constant. We take Bashaara Graves for granted and should not. She’s playing like she’s on a mission. She’s a senior leading this basketball team. Her effort is unbelievable. She just quietly goes about her business and gets 12 rebounds, 15 points, and one steal. I just can’t say enough about Bashaara.”
Actually holding a lead in the fateful fourth she said, “We haven’t been doing that. We haven’t held on. It speaks volumes of how far we’ve come. Now we’d love to not lose a lead. We have to get better in our zone-offense attack, and we have.
“The ball gets stuck in our hands for some reason and we’ll go back and watch tape and try and correct that. We could have folded, and we didn’t. We had kids step up and make plays, and get rebounds. We finished the deal. That’s what we needed to do, finish the job.
“I just think we were a little bit more deliberate with the basketball. We had two 30-second turnovers. We had another inbounds turnover. Those are things I keep saying. The turnovers that we can control, we have to get better at. You can’t have two 30-second calls, the 30-second clock go off twice in a row. You just can’t do that. I’ll take the blame for that.
“We need to work on that and we have, but we obviously need to do it more. We need to do more of getting the ball inbounds. I get to the point where you need to just get it in. Just get it in.”
Sophomore wing Jaime Nared said: “I think the third quarter we had two turnovers and we were way more efficient than the first and second quarters. We had to make smart passes and stop turning the ball over.
“It’s hard because Mercedes is 6-6 and she clogs up the paint entirely. When they dribble drive they don’t get easy layups or shots in the paint when she’s in the game. We had to adjust when she came out and it took a little bit for us to finally adjust because it’s so nice having her in there.
“They played well tonight, they’re a really good team. They’re great drivers, penetrators and very athletic. You have to be ready.”
Tennessee is ninth in conference, losing tiebreakers to the other 7-6 teams. For the first time ever, they’d start in a quarterfinal play-in in the league tournament. Against Missouri.
Ole Miss coach Matt Insell is building confidence as much as he is building a team.
“Tennessee has a really good basketball team,” he said. “I follow Tennessee a lot, growing up in this state and knowing a lot about the history of this program. I watch them as a fan at times. They have a really good team, and I was real proud of how hard our kids played tonight and gave ourselves a chance to win.
“You look at our record and really dig in to who we are and look at who we play. I have been in this light for eight years and followed it for 33 years, as long as I have been alive. I have never seen a team with a schedule like we have.
“Before the season started if you look at it, our double opponents are Texas A&M, Mississippi State and South Carolina, the top three teams in the league. If you look at who the bottom five teams were that were picked preseason--Alabama, Auburn, Arkansas, Georgia and LSU--we play four of those five on the road. That is why you are looking at a team that is 2-11.
“We are a young basketball team that is growing every day. We are getting better. Our goal right now is to go into Jacksonville, and we will be ready to go into Jacksonville as you can see tonight.
“Tennessee played a good basketball game. They just beat a good team tonight in Ole Miss. All compliments to Holly. She did a great job. Dunbar made a big shot. We are up one, and we had two missed executions. We don't execute offensively in one possession where two players were off what we're trying to run. That hurts you there. They go down, and Dunbar hits a 3. That is a backbreaker.
That is winning and losing games. We will get better from that.
“We brought them in here last night. We just walked in the gym and I made them look at all these banners. We have two players that have never been to Knoxville, Tennessee. These girls right here have never been here. I brought them in here and said, “Look, it’s going to be really tough tomorrow because [Tamika] Catchings is really good. [Chamique] Holdsclaw is really good. Bridgette Gordon is a beast on the block. It’s going to be real tough to guard them.”
They all looked at me because they didn’t know those kids were on the scouting report, because they weren’t. I just told them, I said, ‘Exactly. They’re not on there. They’re not out there. You have to play player-for-player, and not who’s in those rafters.’
“I’ve brought some teams in here when we were at Kentucky, where we played the rafters and got beat by 40. You cannot play the rafters if you’re playing Tennessee, and that’s why I was real proud of our team. They did not play the rafters, they played who they were playing. We’re a growing team. I bet some teams don’t want to see us when we get to Jacksonville.”