Mike Siroky's SEC Report: The Grind Ends
By Mike Siroky
There are no gimmes in the Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball.
No. 3 Mississippi State fell into a tie with one game to go, due to an overtime loss at Kentucky.
The Bulldogs blew the fourth quarter by one point and were lucky at that to tie the game.
Kentucky won in overtime.
Mississippi State then dropped the season finale at home to Tennessee, to not win the title.
It renewed the trend that you have to win all your home games for a chance at the title.
The raw truth is State had its first-ever undisputed regular season title in its own hands and dropped the ball.
Whoever wins the conference tournament gets the automatic bid and a No. 1 seed. The Selection Committee will have to decide if a conference No. 2 in the tournament can surpass another conference’s champion.
The chances are they will not.
South Carolina sailed through its two games, one loss at home and one on the road in conference.
State has two road losses, the other at SC.
We have a separate posting on the league tournament and will file daily reports, starting Wednesday night.
The Associated Press rebalanced the nation by rating four SEC teams for the official national poll in the last week of the regular season.
This allows the NCAA Selection Committee to make half of its SEC entrants considered as hosts for the Sweet 16 qualifiers should anyone ahead of them stumble.
Missouri’s stunner over South Carolina pushed them in at 24. They were on a three-win run with two this week, giving them that special 5-0 close the NCAA covets.
Kentucky snuck back in at 22, pulled the upset at home against Mississippi State and achieved a 20th win, giving the league four at that moment.
They had a four-game win streak by beating the also-rans and never ranked. The Gamecocks only sagged one place despite two losses in a week.
Perhaps the SEC should have had four ranked teams all along, based on the strength of the conference. In past seasons, it did. So this is more of a correction than an anomaly.
No. 3 Mississippi State
The Bulldogs maintained all its program highs, 53 straight weeks in the AP poll, the seventh-longest active streak in the nation.
The payoff if they fail to win the league tournament will be a program-best NCAA seed at home as one of the No. 2s and not in South Carolina’s bracket.
Their first failed assignment was Senior Night at No. 22 Kentucky.
They could not do it against a worn-out Kats team that can only go six deep. A disputed late call helped the home team.
UK’s seniors are Makayla Epps – who stuck it out when six others left the program during her time there – and Evelyn Akhator, a junior-college product. Each are worthy of an all-conference team.
UK has now won 11 straight in the series. Kentucky won at least a tie for third place and the coveted double-bye, no matter what happened in the season finale.
The Bulldogs started 11-2 and were outscored after that. They were hitting 80 percent, UK 16 percent. The home team closed the gap at the quarter close, 19-18, State led by Victoria Vivians with 10 and Morgan William with five. UK spread its scoring among five players.
The Bulldogs maintained the one-point edge at the half.
Vivians hit a 3 inside of a minute to reduce a four-point deficit. Each side hit free throws.
William hit a jumper with 11 seconds left to tie it in regulation. McCowan had a block and defensive rebound to preserve it with four seconds left after Akhator blew a layup.
But here came the overtime. Epps fed Akhator for a jumper. William scored and then the shortest player in the game got a rebound.
Akhator had another layup, then fouled Vivians, who hit two.
A minute later, same foul and same foul shooter and same result. State was ahead with 86 seconds left.
McCowan had another block but Akhator had another layup, assisted by Epps. The seniors did not want to lose their last home game.
With 13 seconds left, Epps got the rebound – her second of the game -- off a long miss and tipped it back up and in for the final basket.
There was a controversial State turnover.
The player said she was running a standard play “and I must have tripped over something.”
Coach Vic Schaefer said he wasn’t sure there was a transgression but accepted the official call.
A missed UK free throw, a deadball rebound and a meaningless free throw ended it and State’s dream of an unshared title.
The surprisingly low 5,244 in attendance approved.
UK coach Matthew Mitchell claimed the next day there were at least 7,000 in the home gym.
But this win earned them the fourth-place final and the coveted double-bye. They were beaten at Missouri very early and that broke the tie for third.
Akhator scored 27 with 16 rebounds, 10 defensive. Epps scored 22.
Okorie only had six; backup center Teaira McCowan was even less-impactful, with five, though she did have 10 rebounds, eight defensive.
Vivians scored 27, Morgan William 20, though the point guard fouled out in overtime.
Had State scored one more point in regulation it would have hit its league-leading average and won.
State had 22 turnovers, Kentucky nine. State outshot them from the field, the line and had more assists and rebounds . . . and still lost.
Mitchell said, “Yeah, I think our team has done a great job all year of sort of bouncing back and they do not show any signs of physical letdown.
“I don’t think that we have been shooting the ball great from the 3. We continue to get together and talk about our team – all of us here – and one thing I would remind you all of is that if we can ever put a night together where we really shot the ball . . . we have had some nights where we have shot 50 or 55 percent.”
He had Epps facilitate in the opening and then concentrate on scoring at the end, “You are playing a very good team. They are highly ranked and talented. They had only been beat once before and everybody knows that going into the game.
“Then you are dealing with the emotion of people cheering for you and you see what the place means to her, she kisses the floor before the tip, which I love and think is fantastic.
“I don’t know how much of (the start) it was trying to get settled down from that. But, at halftime, I think she knew what needed to happen because you saw her come out on the attack right away in the UIKeyInputDownArrowsecond half.
“I don’t know if there is ever a plan for her to ease into the game, but I think (it) was a big moment for her and I think it is hard to process all that. I think she did a good job of really locking in when we needed her and she was good.”
“With only one realistic substitute, the obvious focus has to be on limiting fouls.
“That is a hard game,” Mitchell said. “I just think early on there were a few things we knew we had to do. We had to take care of the ball and we just don’t have the luxury where you can check out mentally and get careless fouls. I just think they know that.
“Early in the year, we really called the scrimmages in a realistic fashion to imprint it in their mind. And again, we had a 3.5 team GPA in the fall. There are some smart cookies out there.
“We are not dealing with people who cannot process information, although we do have some mental errors at times.
“Overall we are a pretty intelligent group of people, but Evelyn is a year older and more experienced. She used to really take some bad fouls. Alyssa Rice has just worked so hard. She fouled out, she didn’t score a point, but she was big for us in that victory with her defensive presence and defensive intelligence. I think we all knew that going in and we have done a good job with it.”
As for his Senior Night, “It was among the best. You love all these players and you love all the seniors and each one of them is unique, but from what those two were facing last April and May, I don’t know how it gets much better than last night for them. They will always have that. I am happy for them that they do.”
Schaefer said, “I really want to compliment Kentucky and their kids. They really played an outstanding ball game and this should be about them. They certainly played harder than us tonight and I have to wear that as the coach. I obviously didn’t have my kids ready to play. We turned the ball over 22 times and again, I’ll give Kentucky credit for that, and we only forced nine so I’ll also give them credit for that.
“They really took care of the ball and that may have been the fewest turnovers we forced all year. And of course, Evelyn and Makayla both were sensational tonight. Epps has now beaten me twice on the same play. Two years ago she beat us with the same play – offensive rebound and a stick back.
“She owns me. She’s singlehandedly beat me both times here.
“Here, she’s been special. I’ll take some solace in knowing that she’s done it to a bunch of people. She’s a heck of a player and she’s just got a real presence about her. So, you have to give Kentucky credit. They went to her quite a bit. The play that beats us is her hustle play on the rebound.
“So it’s disappointing, but at the same time you really have to take your hat off to those kids. They really willed themselves to victory and really played really hard. I thought their kids really played hard.
“I thought that first half we had a lot of issues with the point guard position. I thought Morgan played very well in the second half and we ironed some of that out, but during the first half we really struggled offensively and defensively.
“Even though the book only said they had two fast break points, I felt like I was looking at a completely different game ’cause I thought they had 10 to 12 fast break points.
“It was obviously a great basketball game, but I didn’t have my kids ready. I’ll take responsibility for that. I don’t like getting outplayed or outhustled, but we did tonight and that’s my responsibility.
“Those kids played extremely hard. They’ve always done that. It didn’t matter that it was Senior Night because I think if it had been any other night, they would’ve done the same thing.”
On what accounted for their 22 turnovers: “We just tried to do too much with the ball. We had people trying to do things that they didn’t need to do. Again, it was my fault for putting them in those positions.
“It’s my job as a coach to put them in positions where they can be successful. We can’t turn the ball over like that. We have to take better care of the ball, but that’s how Kentucky is. They’re really handsy, they steal and they do a really good job at it, so you have to take extra care of the ball. We just didn’t do that tonight.
“I’ve got to do a better job of making sure our kids understand that. We go over one down everyday and the way we guarded it tonight, it looked like Ned in the third grade. We didn’t guard it hardly at all. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and I was literally going insane on a couple things that we kept doing over and over again.
“Obviously I didn’t do a very good job of coaching my kids tonight, but this should be about Kentucky. They did a tremendous job tonight and those kids played extremely well and hard and you have to take your hat off to them.”
He praised Akhator’s endgame.
“I don’t think anything changed, we just didn’t have an explosive player to turn and run. We would turn and walk and then our help side was really nowhere to be found. She’s not an assist player, we talked about that, and she’s got like seven or nine assists in 14 games.
“When she puts her head down, she’s going. So if you’re in help you have to get there or get run over. We’re pretty good at taking charge, but we didn’t turn to run and stay with her and that kid just attacked us off the bounce all second half.”
They closed against the best of the also-rans, Tennessee.
For State’s own StarkVegas Senior Celebration, they said farewell to Dominique Dillingham, Breanna Richardson, Katera Chapel and Okorie. This foursome has made the national imprint.
Okorie and Richardson have started every game, Dillingham missed six games due to health reasons. All have had their moments, the most recent by Chapel, whose 3 late kept Texas A&M at bay, She had two previous 3s all season. It was her only shot of the game.
Against Tennessee, State once again began without traction, hitting 2-of-8 to start. Jamie Nared scored nine for UT and the Lady Vols led at the quarter break, 18-8. Yikes.
Tennessee thus offered another challenge: No good SEC team has had a single-digit quarter and win this season. Still haven’t
In the second, it grew to 36-20. Nared had a dozen and Jordan Reynolds 10. The State offensive average had been a league-leading 76.3.
Tennessee’s most potent players, Diamond DeShields and Mercedes Russell, had yet to really participate, though Russell had seven rebounds.
It never got better for the home team.
All Schaefer could do was put his seniors back in to be removed with a standing ovation.
But the scoreboard showed the awful truth to the home fans: 82-64. The Lady Vols have only lost once at Starkville in program history.
Tennessee got another impact win, coupled with at Stanford, Notre Dame and at South Carolina, meaning they are the only SEC program to win road games at the top two in conference.
Nared scored a career-best 30, DeShields 20 and Reynolds 17. They won rebounds by 13. They held State to 36 percent from the floor.
They earned fifth in the conference at 10-6.
The top 5 all had at least 10 conference wins. UT is two better than last season in conference,
miles ahead in program recovery.
I’m gonna put it in a bottle,” said Holly Warlick. “We played smart, we played together. Jamie Nared was all over the place. We held them in check defensively and we had talked a lot about that.
“We just played together and that’s something we need to see all the time.
“You know you’re doing something good when Vic Schaefer goes to a zone. Whatever they did, we answered it.
“Mercedes was setting great screens and that’s what playing as a team is all about. We came in here so focused and that’s what we need every game.”
They drew 10,500.
Schaefer, for the second straight game, was at a loss to understand the lack of motivation.
“I am disappointed in the effort today,” he said . “Credit Tennessee because they have been playing well as of late. We were beaten in all the toughness categories. We were outrebounded, outhustled, out-toughed. That is not what our program is about.
“I wish I could shake the hands of all 10,500 people who were here today. They did their part and deserved better.”
The Lady Vols won their 18th to start the week, Senior Night against long-gone Florida.
They lost leading scorer and likely All-Conference performer DeShields to a stretcher removal during the first quarter with an ankle sprain in the loss at woeful Alabama. She skipped a game then came back for this one, though not as a starter. She was in once UT was 0-for-6 possessions, down 8-0
No. 7 South Carolina
The Gamecocks, losers of two of three the previous week, hungrily went to then third-place Texas A&M to start the Aggies’ nightmare week as part of the Gamecocks’ recovery journey.
In a reverse of the previous week, they had the late Thursday game and knew Mississippi State had given them an opening by losing the early game.
They ruined A&M’s senior Night without their own senior star, Alaina Coates. She didn’t even make the trip, with a severely sprained right ankle. The previous game, she only two scored two in a loss. The finish the Final Five was 4-1.
No Coates did not stifle them much. Dawn Staley simply rolled out a very good four-guard lineup, half of which would be the starting backcourt on any other team, moving the best reserve, Bianca Cuevas-Moore in.
Winning each quarter, they had made it a 13-point lead midway through the third as the defending Player of the Year, A’ja Wilson, led with 14 points and 10 rebounds, already a double/double. She also had three blocks. Guard Allisha Gray was leading the backcourt with 10 points. Cuevas-Moore scored 15.
At the end, Staley said, “We pressed them, we just wanted to up-tempo them. They are a team that he calls the plays from the bench. We wanted to make them play not look over the bench for the play.
“Without Coates, we once again wanted to go up-tempo, drive the ball and get the points in the paint.
“We forced the action. It threw them off just a little bit.
“Sometimes, you have to create an edge with a Texas AM, especially on the road.”
It had been A&M coach Gary Blair’s idea to win No. 4 in conference, protecting the double-bye and his short bench while achieving a 20thwin. That all failed. They finished by being blown out by Ole Miss, 1-4 down the stretch and will play in the second day of the tournament.
“With the stat sheet you can basically write the story without any comment from me,” Blair said after the home loss. “It’s pretty obvious. They shot well. We tried our 2-3 zone and we even tried man-to-man a little at the end. They played like a top-5 team. They played a lot better than Mississippi State did.
“Give them a lot of credit playing without Coates, the best 5-player in the league. That’s what this league is all about. Are we going to be good enough to play with the big boys in this league?
“We are one of those teams. It doesn't matter that we've lost three games in a row. In 2013, we lost our last three games before the conference tournament and went in and won the tournament.
“What we have to do is not worry about the conference tournament and get our confidence up. We played two top teams here and both teams were a little bit better than us but one game we could have won.
“Our guards quit scoring; in the first quarter our post players were missing the easy stuff. So we traded off again, but tonight is about South Carolina. This is one of the first games all year where we just got outclassed. I’m not that down on my team I’m just high on South Carolina. They've earned everything they’ve got.”
The best road draw in America attracted 6,402.
A&M is at best, a No. 5 seed in the elimination games.
SC undoubtedly has two home games coming in the NCAA eliminations, as a No. 1 or No. 2, depending on the league conference tournament.
Coates was back as a starter. The Gamecocks were determined to earn a share of the regular-season title, their fourth straight. They have been a No. 1 NCAA seed the past thee eliminations.
On Senior Day, they settled Kentucky into a tie for third place by stopping a five-game win streak.
The SC seniors are Coates, a South Carolina girl, and Tiffany Davis. The seniors have won 59 conference games, a school record. Like Mississippi State, SC is already locked and loaded for next season.
Against the Kats, Wilson continued her run to be the back-to-back Player of the Year with six points, but all the starters scored. Kaela Davis also had six. They started by hitting 83 percent from the field,10 of their first 12. It was 25-17 at the first stop. Coates had five rebounds.
UK’s seniors, Akhator and Epps were silent. Guard Taylor Murray scored six. UK’s plan was to outrun SC, a decidedly edgy idea when you have no depth.
The lead grew steadily. Epps got her second foul trying to take a moving charge. She sat down for awhile. The depth was already in play.
Coates rose to five points and five rebounds in the second. Epps’ freshman replacement also had two fouls. Akhator had two fouls. So much for outrunning SC. Epps was put back in by necessity. Without the home cooking they got against MSU, they were in trouble. Another starter had three fouls.
SC obviously would attack Epps. At least the blathering cheerleader, failed SEC coach and ESPN commentator did not doom them with the “this team doesn’t quit” silliness. She did say they “will not go away” many times.
She also actually said UK “doesn’t much care” that SC was trying to win another title. Yeah right. How does she know that?
She could have said “she is playing like” but instead gave us the definitive that the player literally did not care. Never once did she mention it would be a shared title with Mississippi State. Way to diss the No. 3 team in America.
She also said UK was trying to hang on to the double bye in the conference tournament. It was already mathematically impossible to lose it.
How do these people get hired without insight and thus inflicted on the listening audience? Is it gender? It is yet another distance between the coverage of the men’s game.
“Could you imagine ESPN allowing a color commentary man who rooted out loud for a team? It is sadly expected in the women’s game, WWE style.
It was eight at the half. Wilson had a dozen and Kaela Davis 13.
Another Kentucky starter had three fouls early in the third. SC seemed unwilling to take advantage of any of it. Akhator, for instance, average five points against SC and was playing to that again, almost as if she folds when challenged. She was o-fer from the field.
Kentucky did not score a basket for more than four minutes. SC ran off eight. It was 65-55 at the final break. Two more UK starters had four fouls. It was not unbalanced. Each side had 15 fouls. Wilson had 17, Kaela Davis 15.
It ended as expected, South Carolina hitting a season-high 62 percent from the floor and a season-best points. Against a 17-point average, Davis had 25 and the double/double with 10 rebounds, all defensive. Kaela Davis scored 20, 8-of-11 from the field, 4-of-5 from the line. Allisha Gray scored 17 off the bench.
Coates retweaked her ankle and was taken to the training room for a visit with six minutes to go. It was once again the effective four-guard offense. They coasted out, 95-87, the tie for the title secured with the top seed in the conference tournament and no game until Friday.
“It’s been great,” said Staley.
“We’ve been very fortunate to get some talented players in here that believe in our vision. They’re creating a legacy.
“When we have our big girl (Coates) in the lineup, she’s a hard guard. “While it was fun playing without her at A&M, it is better when we have her in there.
“We’ll continue to get better. We’ve always been a work in progress and I think we’re moving towards our best basketball.”
The best attendance for the women’s game in America hit again in the finals, 18,000 capacity.
No. 24 Missouri
If anyone tells you they picked Missouri to be the only conference team to close the season 5-0, they are lying.
Missouri won its 20th and 21st games – giving the conference a fourth 20-game team. As the third-place team, it dares dream of hosting two NCAA games depending on conference tournament results.
Somebody besides the top two has gotta do it if the league gets eight in. They earned a double bye for the first time in league history. They won the most SEC games, 10, in program history.
The Top 5 finishers all have at least 10 conference wins.
Because the Mizzou program has expressed interest in not participating in this reporting, that’s all the details we will supply.
Alabama likely played itself out of NCAA contention down the stretch.
At the start of the week, the Tide were No. 8 in a league rumored to be sending eight to the NCAAs. They won the first of three, against Auburn, then lost in overtime at Georgia. Missouri made them 2-3 in the final five, 17-12 but 5-11 in conference, 10th place.
That’s two games better than last season, good enough for an NIT team. It’s a program best in this century and still the eighth-most overall wins in conference.
Other Also Rans
LSU lost at Auburn, assuring itself of missing 20 regular-season wins then closed at home vs. Vanderbilt. Seventh place. But 8-8, non-losing, in the league. Still, 2-3 in the closing weeks.
Will the NCAA really take eight league teams? That’s been the smoke signal from behind closed doors at the Selection Committee site for weeks.
Will they really take a losing team in conference, at 15-14 overall?
Auburn also had three this week, opening with an OT home loss to Alabama, then won vs. LSU and at Arkansas, 2-3 down the stretch, 17-13 overall, 7-9 in conference.
Georgia got to eighth place by closing 3-2 in the final five, also 7-9 in conference, 15-14 overall.
With two less wins than Auburn and ’Bama, they did beat Tennessee and LSU down the stretch.
Ole Miss finished another winning season at 17-13 after bopping A&M and will make a fine NIT team. They also beat Tennessee this season. They won the escape from opening night in the SEC tournament.