By Mike Siroky
The mightiest conference in women’s college basketball -- the Southeastern Conference – opens its moneyball tournament this week after closing the regular season.
The winner has the only guaranteed entry ticket for the NCAAs. The league has had 10 of its 14 teams represented in the Associated Press poll this season. Nine is the operating number many use in projecting total insertions to the Big Dance.
It says here, maybe eight. Nine would be a gift but who is to say the ninth best in this conference is not better than the second-best in most other conferences
The league will distribute its all-conference awards before the tournament.
It is not a true all-conference team because political correctness insists it is more than five players.
You could take three players from South Carolina and that scorer from Mississippi State plus the main Courtney from Texas A&M and defeat any team in America that is not UConn.
The rest of the team are just cats in a bag; pick any of the best from the other teams except for Arkansas, Vanderbilt or Ole Miss.
Here is the playin lineup, with conference records. The top four seeds get the double-bye into quarterfinals and absolute assurance of great seeds in the NCAAs. Their opponents are also likely in.
*Opening Round (Wednesday): The first elimination games means it’s all but likely all these teams are done for the season. No. 12 Alabama (4-12) vs. No. 13 LSU (3-13). No. 11 Vanderbilt (5-11) vs. No. 14 Ole Miss (2-14).
*Second Round (Thursday): No. 9 Auburn (8-8) vs. No. 8 Missouri (8-8). Alabama/LSU Winner vs. No. 5 Kentucky (9-7). No. 10 Arkansas vs. No. 7 Tennessee (8-8). Vanderbilt/Ole Miss winner vs. No. 6 Georgia (9-7).
*Quarterfinals (Friday): Auburn/Missouri winner vs. No. 1 South Carolina (16-0). Kentucky game winner vs. No. 4 Florida (10-6). Tennessee game winner vs. No. 2 Texas A&M (11-5). Georgia game winner vs. No. 3 Mississippi State (11-5).
*Title Game (Sunday)
We’ll report each night.
By abdicating its spot among the elite of women’s college basketball, Tennessee has also given traction to other teams in the Southeastern Conference, the mightiest of them all in yet another hoops season.
South Carolina was unchallenged for the third consecutive top seed in the moneyball conference tournament that decides the bid in the reality show that is the NCAA seeding committee’s work.
They are a No. 1 seed in that tournament to come which means they won’t have to face eventual champ UConn until the final Four.
Their next stop in the Sweet 16 after winning two home games will be the Lexington Regional.
Texas A&M earned its first No. 2 seed in the conference tournament and the Aggies are likely to be at home for the Sweet 16 qualifiers.
Mississippi State earned its third consecutive double-bye position as No 3, a program first
They could be at home for the Sweet 16 qualifiers as well, if the NCAA conveniently ignores its own rule about not granting home events to teams in states which display the Confederate flag. The state recently voted to keep the flag.
The NAACP is aware.
The rebuilding program at Georgia is way ahead of schedule, no matter what happens now that its leading scorer is out for the rest of the journey with a fractured ankle. They will get a low bid.
Tennessee, by finishing seventh in conference is in, to be cemented with an 18th win in the second round of the conference tournament.
Florida unranked but fourth in conference, is in. Missouri should cap off a wonderful season with a terrible bid (like at UConn).
We are supposed to believe the wonderful start-to-finish marathon sprint of the regular season means nothing.
Purists deny that belief.
The injuries and the necessary realignments of pieces/parts are all important to a championship season. The coaches and others bet on reputations in preseason all-conference notices. At least one was way off.
A coach no one would believe to be embattled is suddenly battled. Her whole campus is in a much-bigger uproar which buys her at least a year of grace, especially if she makes some assistant coaching moves.
Another bright young coach may move out as his program is floundering and about to be hit by the NCAA for infractions which pushed along the previous coach.
He does not have to look for opportunities. They will find him.
So here’s the final day of the season. Ranking numbers reflect the Associated Press standings at game time.
This week’s senior farewells include the marquee teams – the first four – plus two more suspects for the NCAA tournament.
*LSU at No. 3 South Carolina.
The first goal for any coach in any league is to win conference. That SC did so without a loss was enough to break out the sideline dances.
They lapped the field as everyone else had at least two home losses in conference. They will start next season on a six-game win streak.
It helped that LSU is so awful, but no one else beat the Gamecocks,
Accepting attainment of the first goal, SC coach Dawn Staley made a vow to fans: “We’re not done.”
They are to be back at home for the Sweet 16 qualifying games for the second straight season. They have earned the right to be the second of all No. 1 seeds after UConn and so will be placed in the Lexington Regional as the closest one to campus.
Two-time SEC player of the year Tiffany Mitchell scored a season-high 24, moving into fifth place on the program’s scoring list with 1,796.
A’ja Wilson, likely the league player of the year, scored 14.
Only a mighty 2011 Tennessee team had gone 16-0 in conference before this.
“The task at hand was being 16-0 in this league,” Staley said. “It’s the kind of focus you need when you’re trying to win a National Championship because it doesn’t get any easier.
It gets a lot harder as we take each step.”
“We’ve accomplished one of our goals this season,” Mitchell said. “But we’re not done at all. We have a lot more that we want to accomplish and that’s another tournament championship and getting to the Final Four again.”
Mitchell scored nine straight in a 22-4 run midway through the second quarter. They held LSU to 13 field goals.
South Carolina finished as the top draw in women’s basketball, attracting 14,831 per game.
They had 16,240 for this one. In the nation, conference sorority sister Tennessee is the only other women’s team with more than 10,000 per game -- at 10,285.
“Our seniors make it look so easy,” Staley said. “They’ve adjusted to playing in front of a big crowd and just feed off the energy in the building.”
No doubt, these are all Dawn Staley’s players, the second group in fact. The premier team in the conference went undefeated. They will host NCAA Sweet 16 qualifying games without the shadow of a back door OK that got them in last season.
Three of the five – Tina Roy, Sarah Imovbioh and Mitchell – even have successive numbers, 23-24-25. Asia Dozier chose 31. Khadijah Sessions chose 5.
*Alabama at No. 16 Mississippi State.
Dominique Dillingham scored 13 of her 17 in the second half and State closed its home season with an eight-point win.
The Bulldogs secured the third-seed for the Southeastern Conference Tournament, the first-time ever they've finished that high in consecutive seasons.
Two seasons into her career, Victoria Vivians’ nine points pushed her past 1,000.
The Bulldogs made 11-of-13 free throws in the second half. They threw nine-point defensive effort on the Tide in the opening quarter but ’Bama closed it to 28-25 at the half, despite having 13 turnovers that led to 16 State points.
They drew 6,224.
“It wasn’t pretty, but you take them as you can get them,” State coach Vic Schafer said.
“They beat us off the bounce, but these kids found a way to win. Dominique has improved. Without her we don’t win. She’s shooting and she’s guarding everybody’s best player. It’s Game 30.”
So the most fun, good time team in conference has built a Top 16 reputation and likely earned the program’s first Sweet 16 qualifying games with one senior. Sherise Williams is due a lot of props for being the first to see the building project to completion.
They could have hosted last year too, but this university refuses to claim any wrongdoings by the NCAA’s suspect hosting rules. They just won again and revisit the controversy.
“I’m really proud of my team,” Schafer said. “I think we’re kind of starting to play a little better. I’m proud of how hard we play defensively.
“We still have a lot of things we need to work out.
“We’re still young. I keep thinking we’re going to grow up a little bit. I think we’re young.
"It is what it is. We’re still young. We’re still immature. We make some very poor decisions at times, but it’s like (former Duke) coach (Gail) Goestenkors said, ‘You’d rather be young and talented than young and not talented.’
"We are talented. The bottom line is this, and this is my thought for the day, too often we get frustrated by difficulties. You can’t have a harvest without a few weeds and we’ve had our share of weeds this year.”
As for his senior, the first of his time at State: “She’s the only player who has been with us for all four years. She will always be the only player that was with us that first year all the way through the fourth year and that makes her very special.”
*Vanderbilt at No. 24 Missouri.
It has been a fun year in Tigerland, an elevation to 20 wins and a likely NCAA bid for a Robin Pingeton team at last. They surprised enough conference foes on the road.
They were nationally ranked eight weeks of the SEC season, each one memorable.
It is a sad farewell to the contributors who must now step away. Their home ride is over, success and promises of much more with what they started.
Twin guards Morgan and Maddie Stock join Michelle Hudyn and Juanita Robinson as the kind of players who made the team attractive to still better players.
They stayed steady and helped the newbies adjust to college life while elevating the team. Hudyn, for instance, is a Canadian who has represented her country in international competitions.
They lost at home by four to a Vanderbilt team trying to salvage their coach. Sophie Cunningham and Cierra Porter had 11 each.
Losing two straight to close the season shows the work in progress for an eventual unranked team.
They drew just shy of 6,000 in the home finale.
The Tigers started swell, a 12-2 run, then holding on for a 20-19 lead at the end of the first.
It was a back-and-forth contest through the second quarter with five lead changes. Lindsey Cunningham hit two 3s, but the visitors had come all the way back from the awful start with a 15-point advantage to lead by five at intermission.
It stayed tight. Awful free throw shooting (6-of-22) hurt the home team. They went 13-3 at home this season.
“First thing, just want to acknowledge the great fan base this season,” Pingeton said.
“It’s been incredible the way they come out and support our team. I just appreciate everybody’s support.
“I want to talk about our seniors a little bit. Certainly not the way we wanted to send them out. This one cuts a little bit deeper, it being Senior Night.
“I’ve got a great team. We’ve had a great season. This one hurts a little bit, like I said. Last home game in front of a great crowd for our seniors. We had some shots that didn’t fall for us. Had some miscues, tried to force a few things. We missed some key defensive rebounds but the thing you can’t question is this team’s heart.
“I feel like after that first 7-8-9 minutes we exhaled and you can’t do that in the SEC. You do not get an opportunity to exhale in the SEC, home or away. We just kind of let down our guard and they kind of came back and threw that next punch.
“We regrouped a little bit coming out of the locker room, but we had shots, they didn’t fall for us. Shots that really could have separated a little more. But when that doesn’t happen for you, you’ve got to be able to get things done on the defensive end.
“You know they’ve had a great season. They’re gritty, they’re tough, they play hard. They’re united and it’s been one heck of a run for us, but this is the closing of regular season play and we’re going to close the book on it and open a new chapter to conference tournament.
"We’ll see what falls in front of us.”
Junior Lindsey Cunningham was obviously disappointed in this home finale.
"It cuts hard losing that game,” she said “ It hits deep, especially that senior class. We wanted to get that win for them. There is no doubt in our mind that we can still make a run.
We’re not going to hang our heads and the last thing we’re going to do is feel sorry for ourselves.
“This team is not done yet this season. We’re going to go back to work and we’re going to make a run. It is going to be tough. Nothing about it is going to be easy. Nothing about this season has been easy, but were definitely not going to lay down and die now.”
Her sister, freshman guard Sophie Cunningham said, “We have yet to play a game 40 minutes altogether and hopefully this tournament we can do that. But, we’re going to have to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”
*No. 15 Kentucky at No. 11 Texas A&M.
A&M celebrated the best group of seniors in conference this year, in a pre-game party. Then they tanked.
This game, simply put, meant more to Kentucky, as unfathomable as that may seem. A&M had already locked into the double-bye. UK could not.
But UK was trying to impress the deciders in the NCAA as a home team for the Sweet 16 qualifying games despite finishing fifth in conference.
A&M averages 72; they scored 14 shy of that.
Alexis Jennings and Evelyn Akhator each had career-high rebounds as UK dominated the boards, 57-32.
Jennnings, off the bench, had eight points and eight rebounds in the first half using a three-inch height advantage on the A&M defenders. UK had a two-point edge.
A&M forward Ariel Howard picked up two fouls in three seconds, to total four , early in the second half. UK was outrebounding the home team, 35-19. Akhator was dominating the middle for the Kats, already at a double-double just a few minutes into the third quarter.
The lead grew to 12. As A&M had led by that many early on, this was a 21-point swing with A&M unable to counter. It was 10 entering the last quarter of the season. A&M’s last basket was with 4:12 left, then a whole lotta misses.
Makaya Epps, UK’s best player, had 14. Akhator had 11 with 15 rebounds. The team rebounds were 45-28.
But with 4:47 to go Epps knocked knees with Chelsea Jennings and Epps exited for two minutes. She had 14 points at the time and her team led by 11 with the ball.
The lead was 14 with two and a half minutes left and it was over.
Epps continued to limp up and down the court. With one player fouled out, UK was down to eight players.
Akhator finished with 15 points and 18 rebounds, 10 offensive. Jennings also gad 15 points with 16 rebounds, 12 defensive. The combined 34 rebounds are two more than A&M’s team total.
Courtney Walker scored 16 for A&M but was 5-of-19 from the field. A&M was 14-of-18 from the line. They drew 7,133.
“This was a great victory for us and the team has just worked so hard the last three weeks of the season to try to become their best and I’m just really proud of them,” said UK coach Matt Mitchell about the rare road win over a ranked team.
“It’s about as much fun as you can have coaching when you’ve got a group of people that really want to play for each other and work hard for each other and meet challenges together.
"I give the players credit, they changed their attitudes around and their effort to finish the regular season on a six-game winning streak.”
He said the rebound focus was evident.
“Well, specifically, we wanted to get more offensive rebounds because we think that really speaks to hustle. A jump-shooting team, the way that Texas A&M plays offense, sometimes they’re missing shots and you’re in rebounding position and you can do a good job on the defensive boards.”
He had praise for A&M senior Courtney Walker.
“She’s a great player, has been for four years. It’s been an honor to compete against her, she’s really, really good, I know she’ll be a great pro. She’s a great student and she’ll be a great professional whatever she chooses to do.”
Texas A&M senior Jordan Jones said the emotions of Senior Day got to her.
“Most of the seniors were very emotional as well as the underclassmen, because we are a very close ball club and love each other dearly. We left it all on the court, but we just came up short today.
“[The seniors’] job is to get the underclassmen to jump on board with us and have the same mentality and same mindset that we have (in the SEC Tournament) which is Coach Starkey’s ‘NBA: Next Best Action.’
Our next best action is going to Jacksonville, Fla. and worrying about who we’re up against the next game.”
A&M Coach Gary Blair said, “Obviously their inside players killed us. Akhator had a great game. When you look at [Akhator and Jennings], between the two of them, they outrebounded our team.
"Today, this was a toughness game which they wanted a whole lot more than us. I think we wanted it, but they played tougher.
“Walker had as good of shots as she’s ever had. It just wasn’t her night. She was moving and shooting shots that she normally knocks down. I thought we got the shots we wanted in the ball game, but we didn’t hit them.”
Will they or won’t they? Will the NCAA dare to give the league not only nine entry tickets but also three of the Sweet 16 qualifying games?
Irregardless, the two Courtneys, Williams and Walker, have been a long time coming to this point of Senior Night celebrations. The senior backcourt celebrated with classmates Jordan Jones, Chelsea Jennings and Rachel Mitchell.
These five make the largest graduating class in the league and provide four starters to replace.
In a classy move, Blair made sure his three senior managers—Curtis Dopson, Hannah Gentry and Danielle Pierce – were included. This senior class is 96-37 overall and 55-11 at Reed Arena.
*If the SEC gets eight in, here are two others which celebrated Senior Day waiting in the alley outside the stage door:
Florida: The Gators worked their way back to the NCAA after skipping a season. They were ranked a few weeks off and on. They lose four this year, the second-largest eligibility class in January Miller, Carlie Needles, Cassie Peoples and Carla Batchelor.
They stifled Auburn by seven despite losing the second quarter 16-8.
Tennessee: They were ranked until two weeks ago, ending the longest run in the national AP poll, having been there since mid-Feb. 1985, of 565 weeks.
For the first time in a long time, this truly was the last home game of the season. The Vols have not earned more than an NCAA reputation invitation but could be the team you don’t want in your qualifying games – if – the completely focused team finally coalesces.
Their seniors are an example of the depth of talent that has not always played to potential. Bashaara Graves and Nia Moore represent the first team of players not recruited and signed by Pat Head Summitt, truly defining the stumbling start of the second era.
They dumped Georgia by 20 for the 17th win.