By Mike Siroky
Friday's quarterfinals of the toughest conference tournament in America – the Southeastern of women’s basketball – features the five nationally ranked teams as well as three likely other invitees to the NCAA show this month
*The quarterfinals, with seeds and conference records: No. 9 Auburn (9-8) vs. No. 1 South Carolina (16-0). No. 5 Kentucky (10-7). vs. No. 4 Florida (10-6). No. 7 Tennessee (9-8) vs. No. 2 Texas A&M (11-5). No. 11 Vanderbilt (6-11) vs. No. 3 Mississippi State (11-5). Thursday’s qualifiers: Kentucky 79, LSU 71; Tennessee 68, Arkansas 51; Auburn 57,Missouri 55; Vanderbilt 55, No. 6 Georgia 49, in overtime. The only nationally ranked team in this round, No. 13 Kentucky won the regular season matchup, 70-58. This was a mercy killing of a three-win in conference team. Makayla Epps and Janee Thompson both scored 17, but it was center Evelyn Akhator, in her first SEC playoff game, with the double-double, 15 points and 13 rebounds. It is her 11th this season. Thompson had six assists. LSU, done at 10-21, was led by Alexis Hyder with 23 points and 10 rebounds. Kentucky dominated from the start, a 17-5 lead. A pair of free throws by Akhator midway through the second gave Kentucky a 16-point lead. Thompson's jumper at the end of the third made it 58-42. LSU outscored the Wildcats 29-21 in the fourth as UK coasted out. The Kats won every quarter. They have a seven-game win streak. “I think the first game is always a tough one,” UK coach Matthew Mitchell said. “We had some great moments in the game when we hustled and played with great focus. We had some tough moments when we didn't and let LSU play harder than us and outhustle us. “It’s really what our team is. If we play with tremendous focus and effort and play for each other, don't let off the gas pedal, we're a good team. We’re glad to survive today. “I thought we were disruptive with our defense, were able to turn LSU over some, create some problems for them. “Effort and attitude. We got a 20-point lead. You’ve seen it before this year. We get a 20-point lead, for some reason we just let off the gas. It’s disappointing. It’s a great wake-up call for our team that we have to hustle for 40 minutes. We had some really, really great moments in the game today. They were all born from hustle. When we didn't, you saw how we looked.” “ That's going to be the key for us throughout this entire tournament, is making sure nobody outhustles us or outworks us,” Thompson said. “If we work hard, we'll be fine.” Epps had scored 14 in the first half. “I just got real hot,” she said. “I tried to have the mindset the whole tournament to start aggressive early and often. I had a really solid first half. It's not all about scoring. If I can direct the offense, then that's fine with me, too.” Tennessee won its SEC conference tournament opener for the 23rd straight year. They had lost eight of their final 14 playing the toughest schedule In America. They had been stumped at Arkansas in this season of disbelief, 64-59. This was more of the recent recovery.
UT coach Holly Warlick has reinstituted joy in the outlook.
Mostly, she has reinserted sophomore slumper Diamond DeShields into her starting lineup. She was a preseason All-American, on all the watch lists after transferring in from North Carolina and sitting out last season. She didn’t even start the majority of the games this season. She started for the second straight game and led them for the second straight game. They drew 3,094, the smallest crowd on this night.
DeShields scored 15, Jaime Nared 11.
UT opened a double-digit lead in the first quarter and pulled away in the third. DeShields scored eight straight points late in that quarter as the Lady Vols extended to 52-35.
Although the Lady Vols lost eight of their final 14 regular-season games, they are a lock for the NCAA Tournament. They led this one wire-to-wire. The Lady Vols’ bench finished with 21 points. Arkansas has never won a conference tournament game. Warlick said, “I think we kind of proved that Georgia game (the season-ender) wasn’t a fluke for us. I just love our energy and effort. When we do that, great things happen.”
She said her two players from Oregon, Jordan Reynolds and Mercedes Russell, were significant.
Reynolds had 10 points and six rebounds. Russell, continuing to recover from a tweaked ankle, was off the bench with 19 solid minutes. “I’m glad to see that the Oregon kids decided to play today, especially Team Jordan,” Warlick said. “I introduced her to the team after the game. We’re just excited about the win and getting the chance to move on. “I just love how (Reynolds) played, a lot of energy, a lot of heart. She led this basketball team. She didn’t waiver. I like to give Jordan a hard time. But really, really, really proud of her. When she brings the energy and effort that she did tonight, we’ve got a great chance to do something really special.”
“I thought our defense was solid. When our defense is solid, and we rebound the basketball, I thought we were all over the boards early, I think we got a great chance to win the basketball game. I thought we were getting good looks. We were getting great looks. We just weren’t knocking ’em down early.
"So I thought our defense led to some open layups.
“Let me say this: We haven’t had a season up to our standard. But they have worked so hard in practice. They never thought that they would be out of a game. I was really proud of them throughout the year.
"We had a lot of losses, but they stayed focused and came in every day and worked hard. You just think something’s going to click. It’s clicked towards the end of the season. “They could have folded, and they didn’t. Really proud of our young ladies in staying focused and trying to dig out the hole that we were in.” Reynolds said, “Whenever it comes tournament time, our coaches always emphasis it’s a new life. Post-season, anybody can be taken down on any given night. So there’s really no turning back from here on out. “It’s really one-and-done now. You don’t know how many games you have left. You don’t always know if you can continue, so you have to give it your all in each game. That’s what they’ve been emphasizing lately. We really want to give our seniors a good run in this post-season. That’s what we’ve been emphasizing lately. “It is a new season, she said. “We just have to refocus. We haven’t had our ideal season, but we still have games left. “We have (this) tournament and then beyond that. We just have to refocus and play the way we’re capable of playing, not worry about what happened before.” “I think we are happy to move forward with a clean slate,” DeShields said. “We aren’t going away. It’s just consistency. If we come to play we can be competitive with anybody.”
Auburn, never ranked, earned its way into the Elite Eight of the conference tournament and therefore into the NCAA show.
It has 19 wins and will not get 20 in the quarterfinals against magnificent South Carolina. If Missouri wanted to show what it has learned in a season of ascension, here was a test result. They failed with a third straight loss, a third of their overall losses in the past three games. Yikes! Suddenly a team that had been nationally ranked for eight weeks can only hope for a shot at being the ninth league team in. If not, this is the game that eliminated them. Freshman phenom Sophie Cunningham almost pulled it off for her team.
She blocked a shot with 24 seconds left that would have made the Auburn lead an impossible four.
The ball ricocheted around and Mizzou had it for a last shot with 2.3 seconds left.
Another All-SEC freshman, Cierra Burdick, had her runner rim out as time expired. It would have been Burdick’s only points of the night. Each had been less than inspiring in the third quarter when they both scored six, keeping a theme in which a team with single-digit quarter lost three of the four games in this round. Jazmine Jones scored 10 for the winners. Auburn won the second half, 18-17.
Morgan Stock of Missouri was the individual high scorer with 17, including a career-high five 3s.
Lindsey Cunningham, Sophie’s older sister, scored 11 with her own career-best three 3s.
But it was Sophie Cunningham, the team’s leading scorer at 12.3 per game, who was stifled with but five points and second-best scorer Jordan Frericks four points below her average with eight.
In a game in which points were precious, both were missing in action. Of course, that had something to do with Auburn’s game plan.
“We just continued to work, work. That was the message, “ said Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy.
Had they lost they might have been overlooked for the NCAAs. They drew 5,000 fans for this game. “I told our young ladies, Missouri is a team that shoots the 3,” she said. “That's what they're known for. That's what they do. You're not going to stop it, OK? You might slow it down maybe, but you're not going to stop it. “We really wanted to just be the pressuring defensive team we are. We wanted to be flying all over the floor. I told them we want to trap and trap and trap some more, trap as many times as we can.” They caused 20 turnovers.
“People coming and playing us, against our defense and saying you're not going to turn the ball over. You are going to turn the ball over because that's what we do, that's who we are,” said Williams-Flournoy.
“You couldn't just focus on the 3. You could probably say, ‘That’s the craziest thing, coach. Last time we did it we got all out of position.
"When we went back and looked at film, I don't know what defense they were running. I told them they made up their own defense. We had to go back to our principles and do the best we could.” Auburn’s Brandy Montgomery said of the defense, “It’s just what we do. That’s what we've been focusing on this week Doing what we do, doing it well, trying not to worry about the other team. If we take care of Auburn, everything else will take care of itself. “Like coach said, we didn’t focus on their 3-point shooting because that’s what they do. But we did make sure we got out to them and there was a contested 3-point shot, not leaving their 3-point shooters wide open.” Missouri is a little nervous, now cast in the role as plus-one among invitees to the NCAAs. If the league gets nine in, this is No. 9. Missouri coach Robin Pingeton knows it and was forthright in her assessment. “Overall, you feel you hold a team to 47 points, you should have a great shot at being successful,” she said. “We didn't get the ball inside nearly enough. I felt like we hit some shots early on the perimeter and started to become a little bit of a doughnut and didn’t punch it inside the way we needed to. It's a combination. We've got to look for our bigs a little bit more and our bigs have to demand the ball. It’s on both. “Offensively we struggled. There's 20 possessions out there that are empty possessions. You're not going to win ballgames that way. It's been our Achilles’ heel that way. We left 20 possessions out there and lose by two points. We’ve got some work to do going into post-season and next season. That seems to be our Achilles' heel all year long, not taking care of the ball.” Morgan Stock and her twin sister Maddie are seniors. She had her best effort in a first elimination game and wants one more chance. “ Oh, yeah, for sure,” Morgan said. “It was exciting. I like playing those types of games where it’s close at the end. They’re fun. But, yeah, I wanted to get that win. That one stung a little.”
The coach was not so enamored with the game. She had one word for the waiting period until Selection Monday.
”Miserable. You know, we’re going to have to exhale a little bit and regroup. We hit some speed bumps here at the end of the season coming off three losses.
"Played real well at Kentucky, then a tough loss on Senior Day. To come down here and take another loss, doesn’t leave you in a very good place. I mean, they all want to win. They’re competitors. We’ve all worked really hard. “So we're going to need to take a couple days to regroup. “Well, we do spend a lot of time breaking down the kind of turnovers we have. It is frustrating. I thought we did a good job handling their full-court pressure. That's not where our turnovers came from. It’s just having poise. It's not putting your head in the ground, driving it to the rim.
“It’s a little bit of a lot of different things. I think that's been the toughest thing to wrap your arms around. There were a lot of travel calls, offensive charges.
"There are a lot of different things. Tonight we had some kids that were uncharacteristic with their turnovers. “They’ve been pretty solid for us. We’ll give them a couple days. We all need a couple days to exhale, then we'll get our scout team back after it and go back to work.” As a rookie with impact, Sophie Cunningham has now seen it all in her first go-round, coming to a post-game analysis in her first college tournament. “I just need to stay poised,” she said. “If I have a turnover, I have to get rid of it right away and not linger on. Props to Morgan on a great night tonight. Lindsey stepped up tonight. I think our upperclassmen stepped up tonight. This one stings. I'll put this one on me. What I’ve learned, I just have to move on. We will from that. “I just think it’s poise. For me, I just need to get the ball more inside, look at our posts more so they can go down there and get more and-ones.” Morgan Stock, as a senior reaching for her first NCAA experience, said, “Yeah, it would be a big deal for me. But, again, to say we're for sure in . . . it's kind of like, ‘Yeah, it would be cool, but it's not a for-sure thing yet’. I'm not going to get my hopes or anything up yet. “Prepare like it's going to happen, but prepare like it's not.” Georgia becomes the first SEC team with 20 wins to miss the NCAA tournament.
They missed the quarterfinals for the first time since 1999.
Vanderbilt is playing like their coaches’ career depends on it. If six conference wins, 18 overall, is good enough for the Selection Committee, they get the gift basket. Georgia lost three straight without its senior leader and best scorer, Shacobia Barbee, done with a fractured ankle.
Then it lost another guard, Tiara Griffin, with a leg injury in the third quarter.
Attrition continued as all-conference reserve freshman forward Caitlyn Robinson, leading this game with 14 points and 12 rebounds, fouled out as regulation closed, leaving them ’Dawgs severely short in OT, with a lineup they had not used before. They blew a six-point lead in the final minute of regulation by being not being able to control the ball. This after they had rallied from a 16-3 opening deficit. Christa Reed stepped up for the Commodores with four points, half of the team’s extra period effort. Minta Spears hit three free throws to just get it to OT. Reed led Vandy with 18 points. Spears scored 17. There were 4,000 in attendance. “I kind of air balled a 3,” Spears said of the frenetic finish. “The credit really goes to Rachel Bell. She crashed the offensive boards huge and saved it from going out-of-bounds, kind of threw it to the corner. “I'm pretty sure (she got fouled). She’d (Robinson) been blocking people’s shots all night. I shot faked her, luckily got the foul. “I knew she was going to jump. I just wanted to go into her and make sure we got the foul.” It also fouled Robinson out of the game. “Those are probably the biggest ones,” she said of her free throws. “Just going to the line. We shoot free throws every day. I just went up there and shot them with confidence. Just trusted the work that I've put in.”
Coach Melane Bascomb said of the turnaround from the 64-58 regular season loss at home, “I don't think we've been a different team. I think we're finishing now.”
They have won three straight.
“I’m really proud of how they've been resilient through a really tough stretch and have grown and continued to get better and stay together and get more together. “The cohesion got better and better as we faced adversity. The tougher that stretch of losses got, we just kept practicing well and getting better until we finally finished a game on the road. That just propelled us to really get to this third season.”