Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Now It Starts
The first week of Southeastern Conference competition proved nothing, except that Tennessee will not go quietly into the abyss.
Never before had the legendary Lady Vol program started the conference season with a record number of unranked weeks, in last place.
They are not yet in danger of following elite teams of the NCAA past like La.Tech and Old Dominion because modern communications will not allow them to slip away, because more people are paying attention and because they remain in the superior conference, which means a great recruiting class – already registered – can get them back.
They were still the best finisher last season, a win away from the only conference Final Four rep.
From 2009-2014, no one else did either for a league with more Final Four teams (two teams in one final eight times, with UT in each if those), they are thus surprisingly relevant.
For the Associated Press rating week, the ranked teams stayed ranked. But there was a loss.
No. 5 Mississippi State
A loss by a team ahead of them may mean another program record ranking.
The win streak hit 15 with LSU getting a national stage to see if the 11-2 start is legitimate.
LSU does have one of the superlative players in Raigyne Moncrief, a year removed from a knee rebuild. Before that, her potential to be All-American was evident.
Now she averages 15.8 points per game. LSU was on a seven-game win streak.
They negated her. She scored 12.
Mississippi State missed their first five shots. Coach Vic Schaefer flung aside his jacket. State finished the first quarter by hitting 7-of-8 from the floor.
Mississippi State junior shooter Victoria Vivians used the league opener to post her first double-double of the season, 24 points and 12 rebounds, in the 74-48 whomping. It is her third straight with 20 or more. She never before had 12 rebounds.
“Mainly, I was focusing on rebounding,” Vivians said. “Coach has been on me about being more aggressive on the defensive end. I really focused on the rebounding and being more aggressive. After that, the offense was able to come.”
The separation against the league has begun. It was 37-19 at half, after posting a single-digit defensive second quarter They drew a conference third-best 5,849.
“I have to say I didn’t see that coming because LSU is really good,” coach Vic Schaefer said. “We haven’t been a really good practice team the last couple of days. In back-to-back games, Victoria has been dialed in on both ends of the floor. That is how an all-American should play.
“On the defensive end, you can tell this means something to her. Our team plays with a sense of calmness when Victoria has things going.”
The Bulldogs shot 57.1 percent from the field – the best in an SEC game in four seasons -- while holding LSU to 34 percent.
Chinwe Okorie also hit double figures, 17, 8-of-10 from the field. Morgan William had SEC best seven assists.
The first 200 attendees in the crowd were feted with a traditional Mississippi New Year’s meal of black-eyed peas, cabbage and cornbread. It is only the second time in 11 seasons the ’Dogs had a conference home opener.
The Bulldogs move along with projected road wins at Arkansas and Tennessee, both unranked.
Before the SEC: Mississippi State welcomed in Northwestern State for a home game to end the year.
The Lady Demons are a traditional Mississippi State foe, from Natchitoches, LA. Also welcomed was senior Dominque Dillingham, finally back after rehabbing six games for minor surgery.
It was not close from the start, a single-digit defensive effort and a 31-9 quarter lead. The Lady Demons hit but 26 percent from the field. Mississippi State was hitting 50 percent, with all starters scoring.
The second quarter was 15-4, a program record on defense. Vivians had a dozen points and backup center Teaira McCowan nine.
The opponent shooting was down to 24 percent.
A third straight quarter of single-digit defense in the 106-30 statement win was another program record. Breanna Richardson was 10-of-12 from the field with her season best 21 points, Vivians had 22, each playing 25 minutes. McCowan grabbed 12 rebounds for a double/double with 14 points. Every player played and all scored. The crowd of 6,532, seventh-best home ever, responded well.
Always good for a unique view of every game, Schaefer said, “I want to give the good Lord the glory tonight. We have navigated a difficult non-conference schedule. He provided us good passage and good health for our talented, young ladies.
“When you are the two best players on the team, you should show up and play like it. These two did that tonight.”
“We have a lot of areas to work on defensively,” Schaefer said. “You might not think so after allowing 30 points, but I see things we need to work on. The Southeastern Conference can expose you in some areas.”
No. 6 South Carolina
As Mississippi State seemed destined to bump up, so it seems inevitable for the Gamecocks.
Unranked Alabama was 12-1, deserving of more, and had back-to-back league rookies of the week in Ashley Knight and Jordan Lewis.
They need to find eight wins in 14 SEC attempts.
Mostly, though, the third-best scoring team (79) was to be challenged by the third-best points allowed (54). SC is the top scoring team (81.4) while ’Bama is second best in points allowed (53).
SC had a week off to prepare. With more time to work with, the expected happened when the present demolished the future, 93-45.
The best front line duo in America had a combined 42 points from senior center Alaina Coates (19) and junior forward A’ja Wilson (23).
Wilson is the returning Player of the Year. Coates gathered 11 rebounds for her 50th career double-double. SC win rebounds, 44-27.
The Gamecocks scored 36 points off 22 Alabama turnovers and held the Crimson Tide to 27.1 percent shooting. They had 10 blocked shots and started with a demoralizing 27-9 opening quarter, off a 12-2 start. Four of the blocks came from freshman Mikiah Herbert Harrigan as she introduced herself to the league.
“It’s (defense) something that we’ve been working on for quite some time,” said coach Dawn Staley.
“I was really pleased with the amount of energy and effort from one through five on the defensive side of the ball. We have to continue to get better.
“I think they know what we are coming in the game to do. They (Coates and Wilson) are efficient player, How do you get past that? They have to alter their game plan.”
Wilson said being in the first SEC game, “Sort of fueled our fire. (Defense) is something coach has been on us about. It has always been the first part of our game since I have been here, so to start well was important. It’s something we worked on during the break.”
No. 17 Kentucky
When everyone else in the league was still pointing at Tennessee as the unreachable challenge, only Kentucky was a continuous buzzkill.
Nowadays, a UT win is more of an upset. The Lady Vols won, 72-65, at home. UK needs 11 SEC wins in the final 13 tries to get to 20 overall.
Unlike the men’s game, true centers still are worthy of attention.
UK’s SEC Player of the Week Evelyn Akhator vs. Tennessee’s Mercedes Russell is a nice battle, maybe the best among those deemed by their coaches as starting centers.
Redshirt junior Diamond DeShields made a UT return after two games to rehab an injured thumb.
She scored 21 points 8-of-16 from the line. She scored nine of the final 20 points.
“I feel myself coming alive a bit more in games, just from an energy standpoint, not necessarily even scoring,” she said. “I feel like I have more in the tank when I’m out on the floor each and every night. I think that will be an ongoing thing as I continue on this season. I was just glad to be back out there with my team.”
Fellow redshirt junior Russell won the center battle, 22 points with nine rebounds in 38 minutes. The Lady Vols also need 11 wins in the remaining 13 SEC games to hit 20. But they have won five straight.
Junior Jaime Nared scored in double digits for the 10th consecutive game,18 on 5-of-10 from the floor, 5-of-6 from the line, including four straight in the closing minutes to keep UK at bay.
Tennessee's win came before 9,709, an attendance bested nationally only by South Carolina.
A trio of players led Kentucky. Taylor Murray finished with 23 points. Akhator recorded the only double-double, 11 points on 5-of-5 from the field with 10 rebounds. But she had two fouls in the first two minutes and was really a non-factor with 25 available minutes.
Maci Morris had 15 points. Senior leader Makayla Epps was harassed to only eight points (3-of-13 from the floor) in 39 minutes. Her first points were free throws with 1:10 left in the half. The points are a season low.
Kat coach Matthew Mitchell said, “We just need to get back to Lexington and practice and sharpen up what we do because we just mentally are not where we need to be right now. That will improve greatly with reps and practice.”
The Kats next get a home celebration against vapid Missouri and a challenge at Texas A&M, the Aggies still defining role on a young team.
Before conference: UK was teetering on the edge of the Top 20. Three of the four losses leading to the SEC mudpile are on the road.
At Duke, the team which beat South Carolina, No. 15 Duke won every quarter, but especially the fourth, when it posted a 20-10 rollover in the 69-54 win.
Point guard Murray was back in the starting lineup after a two-game injury miss and scored 18, but she took 15 shots to make six. She scored one basket after Duke locked her down at intermission.
The embattled Duke coach said they made that the focal point.
She was indicative of the Kats that did score. Epps was 5-of-13 and Maci Morris 3-of-15. That’s 14-of-43 (32 percent) from the guards.
It was worse for Akhator, one point. She did get 15 rebounds, 10 defensive, but it was not nearly enough. The No. 17 team shot 17 percent after halftime.
Duke hit 48 percent, though 14 points under their average score. They drew only 4,121, less than half what the men draw there.
UK also failed to defend the league honor until the NCAA challenges, the loss giving the Atlantic Coast a 10-9 season edge at this point. It will be one game worse when UT loses to Notre Dame.
Other SEC winners: Ole Miss (1,280 attendance), Missouri (3,879) and Auburn on the road.
Reset: Alabama has two games to prove its record is real, home for Ole Miss at and Missouri.