Mike Siroky's SEC Tournament: Conference Title And a No. 1 NCAA Seed on the Line
If No. 5 South Carolina completes its Southeastern Conference women’s basketball sweep by taking the tournament title Sunday, the Gamecocks are assured of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
If No. 6 Mississippi State avenges one of its three SEC losses, it takes the automatic bid and the No. 1 seed, perhaps causing the national Selection Committee to give the conference two No. 1s.
There is precedence from the days when UConn and Notre Dame were in the Big East.
South Carolina and Mississippi State earned the tournament championship by winning their semifinals, SC dumping Kentucky and State taking out A&M.
Both of those are also in the NCAA tournament, both with a shot at also hosting Sweet 16 qualifiers, with at least four other league teams participating.
The best player on each of the finalists – A’ja Wilson of South Carolina and Victoria Vivians of Mississippi State – are on the 14-player finalists list for the John R. Wooden Award, one of the national Player of the Year honors. They are juniors.
Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer is among finalists for the Naismith Coach of the Year.
We have to pause and figure out how it is a coach not here won the league honor.
You can argue for Dawn Staley who is in the national Hall of Fame and has recruited herself into a position where she is already the favorite next season.
You can argue for Matthew Mitchell who survived graduation and six defections to also win 20 and get back to the semifinals.
You can argue for Gary Blair, already a national championship coach in the women's Hall. who graduated four starters and also won 20 and made the semis.
You can argue for Vic Schaefer, credited with the defensive design of a national championship team who elevated his program to a national contender and is the league title game with at least a No. 2 national seed.
Yet the winner allegedly is someone who has never won a tournament game, much less a title.
Does not seem possible.
One explanation is it was a close vote as the SEC will never reveal vote totals.
Perhaps as the majority of coaches are good ol’ girls, they simply had to not vote for the guys.
No. 1 seed South Carolina (26-4) easily took care of No. 4 seed Kentucky (21-10). At this point last season, they won by 30. They extended it at their very end this time and won 89-77, more of wearing down UK.
Alaina Coates was finally in this tournament – she had been negotiating with one of those kneel-on scooters to keep pressure off a bad tight ankle, but only as a reserve. It turned out to be a bad move.
It did not matter as to the result. SC struck out to a 47-36 halftime lead and was once again prepared to simply wear down the Kats.
They simply maintained and had to only play even after intermission for the win.
The conference’s best player and likely All-America A’ja Wilson had 16 and guard Allisha Gray with four assists halfway through the third.
Dawn Staley continued to get freshman forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan work, likely to harass UK’s only forward line member Evelyn Akhator.
Alongside Wilson, she responded with 14 by the tome four minutes were left in the third. Obviously, SC has all its best players back again next season. Playoff game experience is very important.
SC was ahead by shooting better than 60 percent. But Makayla Epps had 20 and Akhator 17 with eight rebounds as UK rallied at the close of the third. The all-conference seniors were grasping at their final chance of any kind of SEC title.
Playing Coates was a mistake as she re-injured her ankle in the third and is done for the tournament. She will have more than a week to rehab again.
Kentucky trailed by 14 in the third, but cut it behind their two superstars and trailed by three at quarter’s end, missing the final two shots. No one had done that to SC all season.
Someone was a quarter away from advancing to the SEC finals. Akhator had 29 and Epps 24. SC eventually lost rebounds, 44-26.
Kaela Davis, one of the two transfer guards enjoying her first SEC tournament had 13 for SC. Staley had called for more participation from her before the game.
UK was without point guard Taylor Murray, removed from the quarterfinal when she ran full-speed into an opponent’s screen and took one of those hockey body hits.
It remained a single-possession game, the undermanned and undersized Kats winning respect.
If nothing else. Their superior mindset assures them of hosting both a Sweet 16 qualifying round as well as a Regional.
This was their eighth straight SEC tourney semifinal. They have not won the league tournament.
There were six minutes to go.
Bianca Cuevas-Moore showed no fear for SC. No one guarded her and she sank a 3, her second Then UK’s freshman guard Jaida Roper took an elbow to the temple. She joins Murray in the concussion protocol, so neither could return in this tournament.
UK coach Matthew Mitchell had to put junior center Alyssa Rice back in with four fouls. Five minutes left.
Akhator hit two free throws and it was back to four. Wilson had a free path with Rice guarding her and it was six again.
Wilson drew the 10th foul as Rice fouled out. Both sides were in the bonus.Why the rotation did not have Akhator, best on best, on her is unknown.
Epps was short on a shot and Cuevas-Moore, the shortest player in the game at 5-6, got the rebound. Wilson drew the third foul on Akhator. She was 6-of-9 at the line, half of SC’s free throws.
Epps missed again, then blew a breakaway and committed her third foul.
The lead was seven. UK called a time out. Two minutes left. An SC steal by and a drive by Allisha Davis made it nine, a crucial speed move restoring the power to the Gamecocks.
UK time out, on the short side of an 8-1 run. Akhator got another rebound, but they missed a 3, down by nine with a minute to go. She finished with 25 points, 6-of-9 from the line, with 11 rebounds.
UK fouled again. Cuevas-Moore hit the free throws. Epps hit a 3 for her season-high 31.
Cuevas-Moore, Carolina’s fastest player, was gonna get the ball again. She got fouled again. She hit two again. The Gamecocks were 24-of-27 from the line. They hit 4 3s,
Wilson blocked the next attempt, her fifth. It was over.
Wilson hit the free throws for her 25th and 26th points and made it a difference of a dozen.
Staley pulled her starters.
“Well it came down to guts and rebounding,” said Staley. “We had our heads handed to us all night long but we got the rebounds at the end. We are a resilient basketball team.”
Only Pat Head Summitt has led a team to three state tournament titles.
“It was Big Girl Ball all day and ours was not there.” Wilson said. “It really felt great and it makes us respect this league every night. Alaina is big shoes to fill. We all let the game come to us.”
No. 2 Mississippi State (29-3) showed how tough it is to beat a team thrice in a season. State won by 10 and five. They haven’t tripled like that in this decade. But this one was 68-50.
Bulldog coach Vic Schaefer took on his best buddy and former coaching leader Gary Blair.
A&M continued to walk the edge of the precipice and finally fell in. For the third straight game here, the Aggies started in deficit, with a single-digit offensive output.
Ninety-five percent of SEC teams that score that low in a quarter never recover to win
The 6-7 Sixth Player of the Year Teaira McCowan was put in early for State to further establish an inner presence.
“We got intimidated inside,” said Blair. “Instead of having to run the perfect play, we just need to play. Same old same old, we have been here before and I am preparing my halftime speech.”
State had six assists on their seven field goals with no turnovers. Every starter had scored. They immediately faded into defense.
The lead extended to 12.
“Great job,” said Schaefer. “We have to find Victoria in transition. This is our game.”
Khaalia Hillsman, the A&M horse, picked up a second foul. The frontline depth was devastated. A&M went to a slowdown.
McCowan was knocked to her knees, maintained the rebound and dribble on her knees and fed Blair Schaefer for a 3.
It was evident which team was playing with both confidence and superior talent.
“They are tired,” Schaefer said. “I had to get three of you out of there because you were tired. But I liked that tired.”
It was a 14-point edge at half. Morgan William had three assists and Dominique Dillingham two. No one had double figures, but nine scored.
For the second straight game, Vivians was an offensive non-entity with one basket on eight shots. Without her, they were 13-of-24. They had just two turnovers, having caused seven.
“Well, I just felt like we competed defensively,” Schaefer said. “We just have to stay aggressive, keep attacking. We have to be attentive to detail and have good conglomeration.
“If we do what we do in the next hour we’ll let tomorrow take care of itself.”
What they did was scored the first nine points of the second half. Hillsman was in trouble with four points against a 17-point average. She looked worn out.
Williams picked up her third foul. They were more doubled, 46-22.
It didn’t change much. It was 59-40 with six minutes left. Vivians was up to 10, one of three in double figures. Without her, the team was hitting 62 percent, sort of a hidden statistic.
All 12 of the State players used scored. It was a20-point edge with a minute left. They had caused 12 turnovers and had 15 steals.
“It’s just the rhythm of the game,” said point guard Morgan William.
“We are taking care of the ball. I just have to do that.
It’s a nice matchup on a neutral court. We’ll see tomorrow.”
It is a program record 29th win.
“Giving God the glory for No. 29,” said Schaefer “It's an amazing, amazing group of young ladies I’ve been given the privilege to coach.
“But, boy, we made some shots. Dominique made shots. Morgan made shots. Morgan has, like, 33 points, 12 assists in the last two ball games, no turnovers, which I absolutely love.”
At the press conference, he said to her, “Scoot over here next to me.”
Dominique Dillingham, one of the seniors, said, “The key has been just buying in. This year, a lot more players are getting in the gym. That's one key we missed from last year, consistency with our shooting.
“I think a lot of players are just buying into what Coach Schaefer has been preaching this whole time. I think that's the key. Players got to buy into what he’s preaching.”
They drew a national best 7,554 for the night games.
The championship sets up as State’s guards vs. Wilson. SC needed Coates to barely edge State at home. It should be a classically close game.