So how tough, really, is predicting the Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball?
Well, three of the top regular season finishers all advanced to tonight’s semifinals.
The Big Three are in the Top 16 nationally, with hopes of hosting NCAA Sweet 16 qualifiers. The NCAA jury is out on Mississippi State’s qualification as the NCAA generally bans hosts from states which display the Confederate flag.
Mississippi in the past few weeks voted to keep that flag as part of the official look. But the story of the tournament is Tennessee, upsetters of the No. 2 seed. Saturday night’s semifinals *South Carolina vs. Florida. *Tennessee vs. Mississippi State. No. 1 seed South Carolina 57, No. 9 seed Auburn 48 No. 5 seed Kentucky 70, No. 4 seed Florida 49 No. 7 seed Tennessee 70, No. 2 seed Texas A&M 60 No. 3 seed Mississippi State 63, No. 11 seed Vanderbilt 46
This is the No. 15 Aggies’ highest ever seed.
They are on a national reputation reclamation effort after a disastrous close last season.
But they were one and done and have lost two straight after winning six in a row, including a five-pointer at home against Tennessee.
Diamond DeShields was on the bench then. She starts now. The Aggies had the top scorer in SEC play, All-SEC senior Courtney Walker (19.7) and the top assister in SEC play, Jordan Jones (6.5). Having achieved their goal of reaching the Elite Eight in conference and an undisputed NCAA bid with 18 wins against the top-rated schedule anywhere, Tennessee was ready to play for fun, unranked and their lowest seed for the first time in SEC history. A&M coach Gary Blair had an inkling. Surveying his scouting report ad assessing Tennessee he said, “They’re baaaack!” UT coach Holly Warlick’s pre-game message was to “Settle the score tonight. All I need is your best.”
Bashaara Graves started 4-of-4 from the field. Her fast starts are usually good news for the Lady Vols.
It was 20-all as the half wound down. Mercedes Russell is still coming off the bench with a tweaked ankle. She was 2-of-3. So the decisions that were made were good ones for Tennessee. A&M had a nicely balanced attack as well. Each side was hitting around 30 percent from the field.
At halftime, there was no indication of either team being in control, though UT edged ahead by four with a minute left.
DeShields had seven points with five defensive rebounds. It was three at the half. “We need to play fast and ugly,” Blair said. “Let’s not celebrate after a basket, let’s play defense.” The struggle bus was full to start the third quarter. Baskets were traded but nothing much changed.
Tennessee pushed the lead to seven. But their quarter of doom has been the fourth, with A&M rallying in game after game.
Any point differential was crucial to each side. UT had an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter of that first road meeting on the road and lost. Warlick shed her jacket as intensity increased. Blair began calling out plays with his offense in front of him. Graves had 14 and DeShields nine.
The two senior A&M Courtneys, Williams and Walker, each had 14 shots.
But Walker hit three for eight points.
Williams hit eight for 16, including a slicing putback at the third-quarter buzzer to make it a two-point game. She did not score at all in the first game. UT was 14-of-16 from the line, A&M 7-of-7. Warlick switched DeShields to guard Williams. Then A&M’s best rebounder and tallest player, 6-5 Khaalia Hillsman, fouled out. The crucial three-minute mark came and went with UT up by eight. Warlick was leaping up and down on the sideline. Anyone who saw this, Tennessee hater or not, could deny this was a team at last worthy of an NCAA bid and maybe not a bad one. The deficit was six, UT inbounding all the way downcourt with 67 seconds to go. But they got it in, and DeShields was fouled and hit both. UT swatted away the next A&M possession. DeShields was in full throttle control, feinting drives, drawing the desperate defenders and then she saw Graves all alone under the basket. She drew them to her, they did not force her out. It was every play she had been expected to make all season. Boom! went the dynamite and the double-digit win was theirs. Tennessee picked the best time for their best game and only upset all year. Now they have 19 wins. One more and they could indeed be considered for a hosting spot in the NCAAs. Graves had 19 points and seven rebounds. DeShields scored 21. Graves was 5-of-6 from the line. Backup guard Jamie Nared was steady for the second straight game, 4-of-4 from the line. Deshields was 6-of-6.
Graves is accumulating school records. She has 999 rebounds, passing the late legendary All-American Mary Ostrowski for fifth on the program list.
Her 14,666 points puts her ahead of program originator and Pat Head Summitt Olympic teammate Cindy Brogdon 24th on the program scoring list.
Saturday night, she will start her 124th game, passing Olympian Lea Henry for seventh-most starts. “Gee we work so hard so this win means so much,” said Graves, a senior with purpose. “We gave them too many rebounds, though. We have to work on that.” Warlick said of work of DeShields, “We wanted her to take those shots. We screened for her. We want the drive. She is so much better off the dribble in that 10-foot area. “We needed to get Bashaara Graves the ball. We worked to get it to her and when she gets it she does something with it. “We didn’t let our mistakes define our game. The score does not show how difficult this one was.”
A&M’s all-conference senior, Walker, was 4-of-16. Credit the defense or did she just have a bad night?
She has 11 days to figure it out before even knowing where and against whom the elimination games start. A&M coach Blair said, “We did a lot of things well. I was proud of my team. We competed hard. We controlled the boards. But when you shoot 28 percent the first half, end up with 35 percent for the game, that hurts. “We missed a lot of shots that we normally hit. Particularly Walker. I thought we really had a chance in the second half when all of a sudden I called Williams' play. Two times in a row she nails the shot. I called two more. She missed two layups. “But that just comes with pressure, that comes from defense, and that comes from the length that they have. Sometimes it’s hard to make those shots. “I thought Graves was the difference in the ballgame. She had her way inside. When we beat them at our place, she was coming off of injury and didn't play as much as she normally does. “I hope she (Warlick) realizes the heck with all those McDonald's All-Americans. She’s got the best doggone post player they’ve had in a while there. They need to just keep feeding her the ball.” He is happy, of course to see Williams playing well after missing several games mid-season with a fracture in her back. “I was proud of C-Will today. She did a good job. Hit some tough shots. That's what she can do every night. I have to get her consistent. She was the only player we had that shot 50 percent. “But give them all the credit in the world. My big three, 17 out of 46. We've got to do better. All 14 turnovers came from our big three and from me because I didn't have them in good sets. “The first half, their press bothered us. Not that we turned it over, but it took time off, and we were having 14 to 15 seconds to run an offense whether they switched back to man. “Second half, we turned it over against the press, and they got some wide-open layups. “Give Tennessee credit. Remember, there's nothing wrong with Tennessee. They’ve corrected it theirselves. They were a Top 5 or 6 team to start the year, just like Kentucky was a Top 6-8 team to start the year. I think both of those teams are playing up to their level now. “Just think, our last two losses were to what I consider Top 10 teams. I don’t care who they have in the Top 10 now, but I call Kentucky and Tennessee Top 10 basketball teams. That's how strong this league is.
“That other team over there, South Carolina, obviously as well.”
Williams said there is no lack of effort from her team. “Well, I mean, I think our team, we played hard,” she said. “Just some shots we usually take weren’t really falling. I think we could have handled the pressure a little better, particularly the guards up front. We should have taken care of the ball a little more. “We shouldn't have put Anriel (Howard) in those positions. I shouldn’t pass her the ball when she can’t handle so much pressure in a big game like that. She’s a freshman. “It just falls on us guards because the ball is almost always in our hands, either if Jordan is running the offense or we’re breaking the press to get the ball to somebody. “If we would have just kept the turnovers down a little bit, we would have been in better shape.”
“I agree with Courtney, with what she was saying. Like coach said, most of the turnovers came from all three senior guards, myself, Courtney Walker and Courtney Williams. To be a Top 10 or Top 5 basketball team, in games like this we can’t turn the ball over against a team such as Tennessee, the way they’ve been playing. “Tennessee had a great game plan. They came out, forced the ball out of our hands. A couple times we got into hodgepodge offense that we didn't want to, and that worked to their advantage.” “The thing with Howard,” Blair said, “is she’s going to get the offensive boards, but she's only 5-11. We’re telling her, ‘Don’t try to do something you can’t do. As she gets older, we’ll work on her shot. Right now I just need her effort. “She played the game without any turnovers, gave me eight boards. But eventually we have to have scoring on that position. It’s too much pressure on my guards to each be on every night. “I just think we were overmatched at the five position down there. “Other than that, get this, we're 0-for-3s four games in a row. I don’t care if we shoot a lot of them or not. We had seven chances today, probably five of them were open, two were shot-clock situations. We haven’t had a 3 in four games. We don't take as many. Then we still have to do a better job of hitting the 3s that we attempt.”
No. 25 Florida’s 85-79 home win gained them the double-bye as they tied for fourth in the regular season. No. 13 UK had 30 turnovers in that one.
This is the one of only two quarterfinal matchups of nationally ranked teams this season in America.
Again, strongest conference. And UK has evidently gotten much better and earned the shot at the best team they’ll see. Florida ran out to a 9-2 lead. Running is their game. UK coach Matthew Mitchell was frustrated his team did not respond. It was 16-9 at the first quarter, despite UK having a rebounding edge. There was the single-digit offensive quarter effort again.
But UK broke that mold when it started the second quarter 10-5 making the game competitive again.
They led at the half, 42-29 after a 33-13 second quarter.
“We started getting rebounds and that fueled our offense,” Mitchell said. “It will come down to hustle.”
Senior guard Janee Thompson had 13 and Makayla Epps 11 at the break. Evelyn Akhator had eight rebounds, six defensive. No one on Florida had more than six points.
It was 70-49 after three and only a collapse could help Florida. Epps had 19, Thompson 16, each with four assists. The hustle was on. Rookie Batouly Camara had a dozen, 5-of-6 from the field. At the end, Epps had 21 with seven assists and seven rebounds. Thompson 19, 4-of-7 on 3s, also with seven assists. Akhator rounded into a double-double, 12 points and 11 rebounds in the junior college transfer’s first SEC quarterfinal, a big player on a big stage. UK hit 17-of-21 free throws in its eighth straight win. The challenge from here on out is when the lack of depth kicks in. UK cannot afford a game of attrition with anyone. UK coach Matthew Mitchell had once been a Florida assistant. He had never lost to them in three conference tournament games. “We were really tough today. We tried to make the game about that,” he said. “We certainly wanted that to happen for our team. We tried to be tenacious and just stay with it. Had a really, really rough start to the game. I thought that the players were very tough together and tenacious. That was the theme of the game. That's what we were trying to accomplish. I think they did a fantastic job “Our players need to recognize they just beat a really good team today. Happy for the victory and glad we're still alive in the tournament.” So now comes South Carolina. “They're a very good team,” he said. “Only the second team to go through our league undefeated in a year where there were a lot of tough teams. You have to give them a tremendous amount of credit for the team that they are. “We get to play them twice every year. We have a very healthy respect for coach Staley and their players and program. It’s always a very tough game for us to get ready for. There are no secrets between the two teams. “We will get back to the hotel, get our minds intent on going out and doing our very best, trying to earn a victory tomorrow. They are a very, very good team. Back to this one, Mitchell said Epps played well in transition. Those 30 turnovers in the most-recent meeting are a faded memory. “I thought that Makayla, Janee, Taylor, some of our post players got on the attack. As we practiced this morning, we called it press attack. We wanted to attack and score. We did not want to just break the press, we wanted to try to attack and score. I thought we did a fantastic job.” “I think I just let the game come to me,” Thompson said. “I try to start the game off being more of a floor general, a leader. I know I got Makayla Epps who can take over the scoring load. I just popped open for some open shots. She found me a lot of times. I just hit some shots. Once I got going, it was good for our team. It gave us a lot of energy. I was glad to see that.” “Janee Thompson is doing the best leadership job that we’ve had done at Kentucky in my nine years,” said Mitchell. “She could have run the practice this morning. When she said she’s trying to provide leadership, she’s not trying, she’s doing it. She’s really at a high level right now, and it’s making a huge difference for our team. “We've really tried to emphasize being high character.” “As long as you're aggressive and your mindset is to be aggressive early and often, that's been my mindset for this tournament, and it's worked in my favor and for my team's favor,” Epps said. “You have to credit South Carolina for what they do. I feel like once Kentucky gets out in transition, it's off to the races. It's hard to stop us in transition.
“We always tell our bigs to be ready. They put in a lot of hard work. We see them. Sometimes the guards miss them, but we see them. When we give them the ball, we're confident in our ability. I found Evelyn Akhator on a great eye cut one time. It's just stuff that we practice on. Our bigs have a lot of confidence.
"They know eventually we might not see them the first time or second time, but eventually the third or fourth time, we'll see them. When we give them the ball, we expect them to score.” This win ought to solidify another home set in Sweet 16 qualifiers, though UK did lose last season in a qualifier at home, the only host team do to so. *South Carolina vs. Auburn The No. 2 or 3 team in America showed its joy of simply playing well. Top seeds in this tournament are now 28-3 in their opening games.
Their only tournament title was last season and they mean to defend it. As we first projected, they have three All-SEC players in senior Tiffany Mitchell, a two-time league Player-of-the-year, junior center Alaina Cotes and this year’s Player-of-the-Year, sophomore A’Ja Wilson.
In a league of good centers, Coates is great. Mitchell represents the “latest greatest” system in women’s college hoops with the next recruiting classes surpassing the previous ones. It’s what keeps the league the best in the land. In the previous three games, Mitchell turned it up as the elimination cycle loomed, hitting 52.2 percent from the field and 43.8 from the arc, for a 15.3 points per game average. Coates, a first-time all-conference player has the league best 16 double-doubles. She did it again against Auburn, 14 points and 12 rebounds. The other scorers were not needed. As for this elimination, Auburn was awful and is obviously the bottom of the SEC pick ’em bag for the NCAAs. They put up the single-digit white flag with six in the second quarter. Worse yet, they stayed stuck on 16 points until six minutes were left in the third quarter. Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley was able to putter about with players and tried to design new schoolyard plays on the fly. Whatever they did worked. Auburn was that overmatched. They had lost by 16 in the regular season. Senior point guard Khadijah Sessions did not even play in the second half as Staley rested her. She is battling the flu. SC was self-analytical afterwards. “I know personally for me, I didn't take my time on a lot of my shots,” said Coates about the overall low scoring. “ I felt like I needed to rush and get the ball up there. But given the height advantage, you know, coach Staley talked to me, I had to realize that you’re up there, just keep the ball high, no one’s really going to block your shot. It was just a matter of taking my time, focusing and finishing.” “You have to feel good about your performances,” Staley said. “You want to try to correct the things that we didn’t do so well today in a short turnaround. Knowing our team, they understand what took place out there. From a defensive standpoint, I like what we’re doing. It’s been a stable force over the past couple of games in which, you know, it’s been hard for our offense to get going. “Our offense has to find a way to find some fluidity, have our posts and perimeter sync up a little bit better.” “ We have to hit our post players when they’re open,” Mitchell said, “when they’re not around two people so they can have easy looks at the basket. When they do draw the double, they can hit us on the outside. Just thinking and being able to find each other when we need to.” SC could get its countrywide best 30 wins today. They will be favored to do so.
Mitchell and Wilson are among eight semifinalists for the national Naismith Award, the only two from conference. The award will be won by UConn’s Breanna Stewart, but is nice to be considered and is a predictor of the All-American teams.
UConn also has a second semifinalist, Moriah Jefferson. Staley is among the 10 Naismith coaching semifinalists, as is Amanda Butler of Florida and the dominating Geno Auriemma of UConn. Mitchell was also recognized on the national all-American Academic teams, the conference’s lone honoree. She is a five-time Dean’s list honoree at SC, on the President’s List (a perfect 4.0 GPA) for the past two semesters and has been on the league Academic Honor Roll every semester of her career. *Mississippi State vs. Vanderbilt. No. 16 State’s incredible youth is already flowering. Sophomore Victoria Vivians is an unrepentant shooter and, as we first projected, All-SEC. Junior Dominique Dillingham is on the SEC All-Defensive Team. Freshman center Teaira McCowan is the tallest SEC player at 6-7 and is on the SEC All-Freshman team. State closed Vandy’s home season with a five-point win just two games ago. State eased into a doubling score, 12-6 at the first stop. Here again was the single-digit offensive output for a team destined to lose. It obviously is Vandy’s lowest quarter of the season. Worse yet, one of their leaders, Marqu’es Webb,
Bonked her right knee, already in a brace, with the left of Vivians on a Vivians drive and was helped to the locker room.
She came back in with 7:26 left in the half but was never the same, limping it out. State’s lone senior, Sherise Williams, got some early playing time. State took a 17-11 lead, maintained it at 25-19 with three minutes left in the half. State had custom-made undershirts “Made in March” in school colors. Coach Vic Schaefer told them, “I want to play tomorrow. However we do it, I want to play tomorrow. “We missed a ton of layups,” he said at halftime. “We have to stop fouling, play smart and make our layups.” They had forced 11 turnovers. But no one was scoring well, least of all All-SEC performer Vivians, 2-of-11 from the floor at the break. State kept kept wearing down Vandy, as they were in their third game in three nights and the Bulldogs were fresh. It was 41-32 State with breathing room at the end of three. Vanderbilt couldn’t quite muster a good shot in five attempts on one possession. They looked spent. Vivians had 10 points on 23 percent shooting and no one else in the game had more than seven. Schaefer “Our lack of inside game, we have size and haven’t taken advantage of it. My little freshman point guard (Jazzmunn Holmes) came in and did a good job.” He sat starters Vivians and Morgan William and moved to a 12-point lead without them. They won with Dillingham scoring 12 in the second half, on 6-of-8 shooting. McCowan scored 11. “It’s defense first, then distributing the ball and take the pressure off Victoria and them,” Dillingham said. With 25 wins, they have the outside shot at 30. “I knew that tonight would be one of those, like it was, especially the first half. It was ugly. We had an ugly one with them a week ago. But I was really proud. I thought we executed some good stuff, but late, late.
“I mean, if you’ve known me any period in my 31 (coaching) years, I’ve won more 51-50 games, 48-46. When they write down W, they don't put if it's pretty or ugly. “Didn’t play exceptionally well the first half.
"I was proud of our defense. We talked about it at halftime, we just had to stop fouling, period. “Play with our feet, stop playing with our hands. I thought we did that. I can't tell you the last time I've had a five player with five steals and I've never had a freshman five player with five steals. “I’m really proud of T (McCowan) tonight, getting up the line and doing things we’ve been asking her to do. It’s hard for anybody to do, a guard. But you get a 6-7 kid like her to get up the line, she has a seven-foot wingspan, she can really wreak some havoc in there. She did that tonight. “I thought she was a big difference tonight. Dom bounced back after having a bad first half. “Made some big shots for us. Guard their best player, holds her to 2-of-11. Got to rest Victoria and Morgan, which hopefully will pay off for us for tomorrow, so . . .” It is all about playing their own game. “For us, our identity is we try to defend and we try to get some transition off that defense. When we made a run in the second half, I thought that's what we did. “We got some steals. Dom had a steal good steal off the sidelines. My freshman point guard played really good off in transition. She is really finding T a lot. But, yeah, I kind of like it.” Dillingham’s own identity is secure. “It just starts on the defensive side for me,” she said. “Whenever I’m getting stops, I’m at my best. Whenever I’m able to knock down shots consistently, I help my team. It helps take some pressure off Victoria. I got to keep shooting the ball and have confidence in myself.” McCowan said listening to her coach is an important way to start with defense. “I don't think I've ever had five steals in a game, no. That was my first time. And coach, like, he's a defensive coach. We work on defense every day in practice. “So that's kind of the main point that he stresses, like defense during the game. It comes easier because we do it so much in practice.” Diillingham also knows this to be true. “With us, it starts with defense,” she said. “The game was going back and forth for a while. We really locked in on defense. I think that’s just what got us going. The steal I got on the sideline, got two points. So I think that really started us. Once we got defense going, it was over with. “It starts with defense. We’re really good when we’re playing really good defense.” “Our league has so much parity,” Schaefer said. “There’s just a lot of good players spread out. But everybody, it seems like, is well-coached and does a tremendous job. This league, this year, I say this all the time: Y’all, we play 16 rival games. I mean, it's just a nightmare of a league. You get in this tournament, it's a toss-up. You've got to be ready every night. “I say this every year: If you're not ready to play in this league, you’re not going to get beat, you’re going to get embarrassed. The fishbowl we live in is full of piranhas. It’s the way it is. But we choose to live in it. We choose to swim in that water. “You got to prepare. I think it’s the one thing I’m proud of. As young as we are, I’m really proud of how we prepare. When we step in a gym -- it doesn’t matter where we are -- when we start talking about an opponent, our kids usually get locked in.
“Dom really does a good job with that. I think our kids will get locked in on film in the morning at breakfast, get locked in in the shootaround. Been a while since we played Tennessee. We'll be excited and ready to play."