Mike Siroky's SEC Tourney: South Carolina Claims Another Title and a Likely NCAA No. 1 Seed
By Mike Siroky
The only conference with two Top 6 teams decided the SEC championship on Sunday.
No. 5 South Carolina downed No. 6 Mississippi State by 10. Same matchup and same winning team as last season.
The winner gets a No. 1 seed in the elimination season. The other earned a No. 2 with play all season, each far outdistancing not only the rest of the league but most of the nation.
Today, ACC bid winner Notre Dame has the No. 2 RPI in the nation. That is one of the Selection Committee clues. South Carolina is No. 3 in RPI and among No. 1 seeds. Mississippi State is No. 5 and first among No. 2s.
The conference elite must be separated in the Regionals.
Last season, Notre Dame was a step behind South Carolina and still got a closer Regional assignment, flaunting every NCAA protocol. The phony statement that South Carolina is further away from Lexington is geographically disproven.
Not to mention how an SEC fan base can more easily find its way to an SEC town.
Mississippi State is the No. 1 among 2s and should get as close to home as possible. That may be Lexington if South Carolina is gimmicked out of No. 1 there.
The next closest site – avoiding UConn at Bridgeport – is Oklahoma City if South Carolina is not there.
That leaves a Left Coast assignment after hosting the qualifiers, a program first award. Oregon State could be there as the fourth No. 1 with the nation’s fourth-best RPI.
Baylor seems destined for Oklahoma City as a No. 2.
We’ll all know in a week.
For now, we know how SC won its 27th game and a third straight SEC tournament title. If they make the Sweet 16 they have a shot at 30.
Only Tennessee fans are sad that it ties Pat Head Summitt in that streak, the inevitability of improvement slowly erasing all her records.
A’ja Wilson said, “It means a lot, it really does. When you look at it, Tennessee was the powerhouse of the SEC. Just to really see how coach Staley and her coaching staff really turned this program around, it really does mean a lot. Just being a part of the legacy that we're going to leave when we leave here just really means a lot.”
SC edged Mississippi State by three with its full complement of players at home. This was in essence another home game, Greenville just 90 minutes away. They drew a national best 7,715.
One of Dawn Staley’s few miscues this season was letting Alaina Coates decide if she was rehabbed enough to test her sprained right ankle. She was not.
Would any player say she was not ready? Coates was using a lean-on scooter up until that semifinal game and had not practiced with the team.
So she put aside that let’s-get-the-freshman- playing-time experiment and used her speediest player, Bianca Cuevas-Moore in the four-guard lineup.
It paid off in the 10-2 start. State was on its heels.
Kaela Davis, in her first SEC tournament after transferring in from Georgia Tech, was unleashed on back-to-back steals and scores, part of a 5-for-5 start. Morgan William had her first two turnovers of the tournament.
“You’re not playing hard,” Vic Schaefer told his team, having already tossed his jacket aside. He kept it on for the semifinal. “You are letting me down. I am not going to stink this place up in the dad-gum first quarter.”
State called a timeout to allow that speech.
All-Sec scorer Victoria Vivians, absolutely awful in this tournament, was put on the bench. No one thinks of her as an All-American anymore because she does not show up in competitive games.
State was shooting 28 percent from the field and down 14-5. SC was hitting 78 percent. State had four turnovers and SC scored off every one.
The 6-7 Sixth Player of the Year Teaira McCowan was put in to at least hassle Wilson. They had responded to the Schaefer tirade by cutting it to 14-13 with possession on an 8-0 run.
An air ball muffed the chance. It ended that way.
“I was disappointed in some of our energy,” said Schaefer. “We have to play defense and we got after it.”
Vivians had not yet been given another chance. A basket to open the second quarter put State ahead for a possession. They traded baskets, Davis and McCowan.
Here came Vivians with three minutes so far. Wilson had a two-minute break but was back.
Vivians immediately fouled.
A couple of defensive plays and SC was back ahead by three. Vivians, of course, missed.
Morgan William and Davis traded baskets in the final seconds. It was 27-24 SC at the break,
“We found a rhythm,” said Staley. “We need to be a little more poised and attack the basket.”
Davis had 13 but Wilson only four. McCowan had eight off the bench and Vivians five. With McCowan, State had one more rebound. That’s where Coates was missed.
National teams had to take note SC is very good but not elite without her, though that won’t show up as stategy until the Sweet 16. They have won four straight, all in-state.
Vivians got up to nine and it stayed a one-possession game in the third. McCowan had 15 and extended the lead to five.
Davis had 15 in her best tournament game. Wilson only had eight. Wow. The trends were all discombobulated. A 19-11 third left State barely ahead.
Came the deciding last quarter of the SEC season. The heavyweights were slugging it out.
McCowan had two blocks in two seconds. She is a grown-up center now with a season left. But then Wilson got a rebound and McCowan fouled her. Wilson had three blocks as well.
Her free throws pushed the lead to three, immediately countered by a Roshunda Johnson jumper.
Four and a half left in an excellent conference season. Whatever was to happen couldn’t hurt either team’s reputation as Top 6 teams.
Fully loaded, they went at it.
Mississippi State was firing blanks. They picked a terrible time to put forth a single-digit quarter.
SC kept on going and pulled away, making the final score bigger than the game indicated, but indicative of the speedy start which rocked State.
South Carolina got the important rebounds. Davis earned a spot on the all-tournament team with play after play and 23 points.
McCowan would not give up, 15/12 double/double. Insignificant Bulldogs kept missing shots.
“This is what we play for. This is why I came here,” said Davis. She said she is “living the dream.”
With Coates MIA, she exemplifies the “Next Player Up” mystique of champions.
William finished with 16 but only one assist. She was shut out in the final 4:30. She is lone Bulldog on the All-SEC team, probably because the SEC broadcasters kept cheerleading for her.
DeShields missed double figures for every tournament game. The new statistic, subtract her shooting from the rest of the team and State still only hit 36 percent but battled even on the boards.
Wilson was ecstatic, 15 points and nine rebounds. She is undoubtedly the MVP of the tournament.
McCowan earned a spot but was disrespected. Instead the mystery selectors went with two eliminated losers, Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator of Kentucky, opting for seniors over deserving underclassmen.
Wilson said, “She’s a great player. She really is. I haven’t felt nothing like that in a while.
“She kind of gave me a different look that I haven’t. It was kind of difficult to get around her because she’s big. She’s right up there with me. But my teammates keep feeding me the ball. I kind of found a way.”
Next year’s tournament is in Nashville.
“We beat a tremendous basketball team in Mississippi State Bulldogs. I thought it could have gone either way,” said Staley.
“I felt like our players, when it was time to step up, stepped up in a big way, you know, to get us this victory in an incredible atmosphere.
Wilson said, “Just during the timeout, coach pointed at her chest, it means heart. That's what it comes down to. Great talent on both teams. In a championship game, it comes down to who wants it more. We came out with a lot of heart and energy.
“We just kind of stuck to our system. We didn’t really let up. We didn’t really doubt ourselves.”
Davis said, “I think the stakes got a little bit higher with each game. That’s just part of it.
Obviously the competition increases as you get deeper and deeper into any tournament. You've just got to be ready to play. With Alaina out, we have to compensate for that and fill that hole.
Reflecting on her first SEC tournament, she said,
“It’s amazing. There’s really no feeling like it to know that we faced a lot of adversity this year. To know through our conference play, we’ve had to deal with a lot. We found a way to just fight through it, be better because of it. Like I said, there’s no feeling. Can’t match it.”
“It feels great, I am happy for my kids and here stand the same place we stood last year,” said Staley. “We knew Mississippi State would have their runs and if we could sustain those runs we’d be OK.
“I want to thank our fans for this environment, for finding the time and using their budgets to support us.
“The SEC prepares you to play anywhere in the country and that is what we’ll do.” With the next two at home.
Schaefer said they played well after those first six and a half minutes.
“It was a heckuva basketball game,” he said. “We just didn’t compete at times. Morgan and Teaira carried us. They competed. They made some plays.
“In a game like this you have to go out and lay it all on the line. I think our kids did that.
“We didn’t make good decisions, stopped throwing the ball inside. They kind of took Mo away, switching the high-ball screen, putting a bigger person in there. That made it a little bit of a challenge for us.
“We played hard defensively. I’m not sure how well we played. We played pretty hard defensively. “Again, they're tough to guard. They spread you out, shoot the 3. I thought our fives did a magnificent job on A’ja.”
McCowan said, “I made her catch it way out. With her catching it way out, she would play a power dribble in, and counter-back to the left. She is left-handed, and that's what hurt me.”
William said, “ I'm sure we'll get past it. I’m sure we’ll watch film on this, learn from it. After that, on to the next game. Can’t dwell on this game. There's more basketball to be played. Might see them again.”
McCowan said, “This game, we played hard, but at the end of the day when we didn’t execute, we didn’t get to our spots, rebound. We’re going to go back and watch film and learn from that.”
Mississippi State is 2-3 in its most-recent games, including a loss to unranked Tennessee at home. That’s what Staley meant about the league preparing you for anything. But they can celebrate a program best 30 wins in their first NCAA game, at home.
In this one, senior starters Dominique Dillingham and Chimwe Okorie did not score. Yuck.
They now join America in plotting a way to win six, with the first two at home.