Mike Siroky's SEC Tourney: The Conference Final Four is All Set
On the most-exciting day of the Southeastern Conference women’s basketball tournament, the semifinals were set.
The Top Two remain the Top Two.
The other semifinalists are also possible Sweet 16 hosts.
None of the seniors on losing teams in the quarterfinals are done; they will all either be NCAA or NIT entrants.
In fact, the NCAA does have a difficult decision of considering Alabama instead of Auburn. The Tide has a more robust overall record and went a round further. Even Georgia, with only one win over .500 and a losing league record, should be a bubble team.
As we projected from the start of his career and again last week, Jimmy Dykes is out at Arkansas, the first SEC coaching opening of this season.
He never did anything to improve the program after winning the job with no prior coaching experience.
It was a joke from the start. They ended with 11 straight losses.
Back to the quarters: The four nationally ranked teams kicked in as the top seeds, each having earned the double-bye. Only No. 3 Missouri fell.
The only real questions were how would Mississippi State stop its free-fall with two season-ending losses after only one all year before that and when will Kentucky’s notorious short bench come into play, as happened in its season-ending debacle at South Carolina
No. 1 seed South Carolina (25-4) simply erased No. 8 Georgia (16-14), 72-48 in the noon game.
SC has its eyes on a No. 1 NCAA seed. Win here and win two Sweet 16 qualifiers and they would not have left the state, even if the NCAA once again insults the best fan base in America by sending it as far away as possible.
In this one, Georgia offered little resistance.
Alaina Coates’ bum ankle kept her out again.
She only came downstate to see the game.
The conference’s best player and likely All-America A’ja Wilson was there.
SC took a few minutes to find its game legs after five days off. Georgia was not much better in their third of three days.
Dawn Staley went with her freshman forward Mikiah Herbert-Moore. Of the three guards, two were in their first SEC tournament after transferring in.
None of the Gamecocks have experienced a season without a league title. No other team has any players with such a resume item.
It was obvious the offensive game plan was get it to Wilson and wait for the magic.
Georgia junior forward Mackenzie Engram was on the bench with two fouls trying to keep up with 5:30 left in the quarter. A second forward, Caliya Robinson, joined her there, also unable to guard Wilson. The deficit was already seven. The Bulldogs had five turnovers. They were hitting 18 percent from the field, SC on a 14-2 run to close the 17-7 quarter.
In the SEC, 95 percent of the teams that post a single-digit quarter loses. The trends all looked fine for the league champs.
Georgia knew. South Carolina knew. It was already over as only the clock had to tick away. Georgia did not hit double figures until four minutes were left in the half and bled into a second single-digit quarter, junior varsity vs. varsity.
Wilson played sparingly and scored 18. Allisha Gray, one of those transfer guards, scored 17 as Staley tried a variety of sets in this practice game. Georgia hit 28 percent from the field.
Bulldog seniors Pachis Roberts, Shanea Armbrister and Halle Washington have played their final SEC games.
If SC had a seeding advantage from the way the season played out, the two teams that beat them in the regular season were in the opposite bracket which means only one can advance to a rematch.
“It felt great to just get back out there,” said Wilson. “It was something we needed. It’s become a second nature to us to come in rested. It was nice to play again.
“Our guards give us the healthy battle that we need.”
“Our ream was ready to go, ready to play fast, especially when our big girl not being there opens the lane up,” Staley said.
“We played up the tempo. It’s been an evolution on what is working for us. A lot of time we just put our kids in a position where they do what they do naturally.
“A’ja likes the space when our big girl is not there. We got our doctors sprinkling their magic on that bad ankle.
“It’s gonna take stamina and character, our team focusing on our game. The first half, nine of our 11 field goals were assisted,” Staley said.
Maybe Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer has figured it out again. On the day after his birthday, the No. 2 seed Bulldogs (28-3) eliminated No. 7 LSU (20-10), 78-61.
It was a struggle until a 13-point bump in the final quarter. They even survived a single-digit quarter.
Raigyne Moncrief, the defensive player of the year and second-team all-conference kept LSU alive in this one. She avoided the foul problems of the previous game.
State had a height advantage. That includes the 6-7 Sixth Player of the Year Teaira McCowan.
LSU’s freshman Ayana Mitchell picked up her third foul early, limiting the LSU options.
Mississippi State senior Dominique Dillingham suddenly showed up hitting her first two shots, further spreading the Ben-Gal defenders. She was on the conference all-defensive team.
It was a five-point lead with four to go in the first.
“We got things we got to get done and tonight is the first step,’ said State coach Vic Schaefer. “We have to box out. A shot goes up and it’s a butt in the gut. Now let’s go.”
State had forced five turnovers. It became a seven-point lead without All-Conference Victoria Vivians, a steady scoring machine, concentrating on defense.
Bree Richardson scored 10 on 4-of-4 from the field as State took a 21-15 lead at the first stop.
Schaefer had rotated the scorers. They had eight assists. Farkas was calling for more quickness on defense.
“We played out butts off and we’re only up six. Let’s push it to 15 and keep playing defense,” said Schaefer.
Instead, LSU dug in and tied it at 23.
State missed three attempts on one possession. LSU fired an air ball. No one was in control.
This seems to be the LSU pattern: Use the opening to figure out the opponent, then win the middle quarters. They did that in their opening round win.
They have the confidence of knowing they are in the NCAA field, so are playing for a good seed in the eliminations.
State also has confidence and is still in play for a No. 1 seed if they win this tournament.
To close the half, State had a one-point lead and had turned in a single-digit quarter. Whoops.
Moncrief had 13 with five assists and her side was hitting 57 percent from the field. State needed to tune up its defense and use its height advantage. Vivians had yet to score.
They are still in the national Top 6, but one half away from a third straight loss after losing once before that. It seemed as undecipherable as a Tennessee game.
LSU would not fold. They were hitting 61 percent from the field. It remained tied at 37 – incredibly low-scoring -- with four minutes left in the third.
A little flurry and State moved from a 39-all tie to 45-41 with a quarter left.
“This is our game right here. We gotta battle on the defensive end,” said Farkas.
“We are getting just what we want. If there is a layup, take it,” said Schaefer. State took his advice and ran up a double-digit lead.
Morgan William is second team all-conference and the second-best league point guard She is a pass- first point guard, yet she answered the call with 20 in Vivians’ scoring absence.
With a minute to go she snared a rebound – at 5-4 he’s the shortest person in the league – and waited for the foul
“We had to get back and play our style, which is defense,” William said. “Moncrief, you can’t stop her.
“We have to come back and play Mississippi State basketball no matter who it is. We locked down on defense and that leads to our offense.”
“Well it sure doesn’t feel like a 17-point win. I’ll tell you,” said Schaefer. “We have a lot of weapons.
“Give our team credit, (Vivians) was pressing too much and she was guarding a pretty tough player. All the kid wants to do is win. I am proud of her patience.
“Everything you do has to be perfect. I want to win.”
Moncrief scored 25 with just one turnover and played the entire game.
Morgan scored 21 with seven assists. McCowan scored 15 off the bench. They had 38 points in the paint, 12 more down low than the Tigers. Vivians scored five in the closing flurry.
The Bulldogs can win 30 before the Regional round. That would be another school record. They will be awarded their first Sweet 16 hosting honor.
Last season it was Mississippi State vs. South Carolina in the league tournament finals.
No. 6 Texas A&M (21-10) eliminated the paper Tigers of No. 3 Missouri (21-10) in the other matchup of 20-game winners, 62-48.
Missouri had won 10 of its previous 12 and five in a row. Sophomore sharpshooter Sophie Cunningham is a genuine all-conference selection. As she goes, so go the Tigers. Her frustration blew her image when she got a late frustration technical.
Robin Pingeton, the league coach of the year after elevating her team from a No. 7 preseason to No. 3, has yet to win her first SEC tournament game.
A&M replaced four starters and three of them -- Khaalia Hillsman, Curtyce Knox and Danni Williams – are second team all-conference. Knox, a senior, has the league record for assists and has shepherded her young charges this far.
They have already earned a decent NCAA seed. But had lost four in a row. They needed this win to earn a shot at hosting a Sweet 16 qualifying round.
If Pingeton is the coach of the year, she got bumped by an unranked team and an evidently better coach in her first game after being awarded the honor.
Mizzou jumped out to a 9-0 lead, all 3s by different players. A&M needed to resettle.
“We’ve been here before,” said coach Gary Blair. “We were down 15-4 last night. Every one of their players is gonna shoot a 3. We need one play at a time.”
And they needed to break loose of the 20 percent shooting. Mizzou led 19-10 at the first break.
No one was in double figures. And that means A&M outscored them by 23 the rest of the way.
A&M whammed the Tigers with a single-digit defensive second. They repeated the effort with a single-digit third, allowing four points while scoring 15.
Pingeton could not stop it. A&M just needed to maintain against a team which obviously was willing to die by their one-trick pony, the 3.
Missouri cut the lead to 10 with six minutes left, a doable recovery. But they were still there with two minutes left.
Sophie Cunningham especially flamed out. Fouling out with 13 points, five below average. After opening with three straights 3s, they hit three of the next 24. They had 20 turnovers.
Blair used a final timeout to get his starters out with hugs all around and get his bench players in. They got zero bench points.
Anriel Howard said, “We knew that we were not going to lose today. They had that hot start but at that first timeout we knew.”
She scored 19 with nine rebounds and four steals, exemplifying the defense.
Taylor Cooper had 16 and Williams a dozen. They hit 16-of-20 free throws. Knox had 10 of the team’s 14 assists.
“I got a helluva point guard,” said Blair. “We switched to a man-to-man for awhile and we had to guard the shooters.
“I just loved the hustle plays even if we didn’t get the ball. They could double and triple-team Khaalia but she takes up space.
“And how about Cooper who transferred in because she wanted to play at the highest level.
She even designed a scoring play. She’s a fifth-year player who waited for her chance.”
He now gets a matchup with his longtime assistant and best friend Vic Schaefer in the semifinals.
Missouri is likely no longer ranked and will not host any NCAA games.
No. 4 seed Kentucky (21-9), assured of hosting both a Sweet 16 qualifying round as well as a Regional, eliminated No. 12 Alabama (19-13), 65-55. The Tide will have at least one game elsewhere to seek the first 20-win season of this century.
Kat seniors Evelyn Akhator and Mikayla Epps are both all-conference.
It started as a well-matched game. Akhator and Epps shared the UK scoring. Hannah Cook was holding up the Tide scoring.
Early in the second quarter, Akhator already had 10. Epps was stalled at three. UK led by five, then grew it to nine. A bit of separation had begun.
Ashley Knight for Alabama picked up a second foul on the team’s 12th turnover. UK had four.
Akhator was unstoppable and why would they go anywhere else. Cook had 10 for the Tide but they were not going inside and had no free throws. UK was 7-of-8 at the line, the difference in scoring.
“You’re not playing hard,” Alabama’s Kristy Curry told her team. “not playing smart. Our energy and focus had got to go up. You can win today, but you can’t win like that.”
Akhator had 17 at the half and the lead was only six.
“We did a fairly good job on defense,” said UK coach Matthew Mitchell. “We’re excited to be up six. Alabama is playing tough.”
They extended the lead by six in the third and were never threatened. It wound down naturally. Alabama could not catch up. For the second straight game, the team that had played twice to get here could not match the energy of the seeded team.
Cook had three 3s and scored 19.
UK was 17-of-20 from the line. Akhator led with 23. But they never really pulled away, even as they accomplished the first mission. They will have to elevate against the champs.
Taylor Murray was removed from the game when she ran full-speed into an opponent in an unfortunate collision Mitchell described as a “hockey play,” a totally legal blindside hit.
She was being evaluated for her play today.
“We just have to hustle from the beginning,” said Akhator. “From the beginning. Win or go home.
“We play together, which we bring from practice.”
“We had some great looks, created some great looks,” said Mitchell.
“I just tried to talk to them at halftime about getting their footwork right. You can't let the jitters get to you. It was a difficult day for us offensively from the field. But one thing we know is we didn't shoot it that great on Thursday last year, then scored 92 on Friday. You never know what's going to happen in this tournament.”
They are in their eighth straight SEC semifinal.
“Hard-working young women have come through,” Mitchell said. “They go to practice, go to work every day. This team’s really worked hard, really brought it every single day. I think we have great respect for this tournament. I have great respect for this league. I think it's a privilege and an honor to have one of the four seeds in this league that gets to lead a team in here.
“The key for us today was to take care of today.”
Next up is the semifinal against Carolina. The Gamecocks closed the season with a blowout win against UK.
At the end of the day, three of the top seeds held into the semifinals. That trio are the nationally ranked teams in conference
No. 1 seed South Carolina (25-4) vs. No. 4 seed Kentucky (20-9).
No. 2 seed Mississippi State (28-3) vs. No. 6 Texas A&M (21-10).
As far as past performances predicting current success: Carolina and State won the regular-season challenges. In fact, State won twice.