By Mike Siroky
The first two rounds of the SEC women’s basketball tournament are done, with quarterfinals Friday night in an Atlanta suburb.
This means all the ranked teams start play, with all four of them already somewhere in the NCAA Tournament Committee’s lists of must-admit teams.
For the national elite, those projected into the Sweet 16, what they are playing for now across the country is where they go and that means seedings.
The SEC’s regular-season best, No. 5 South Carolina is likely a No. 1 seed at Lincoln, Neb. If SC loses Friday night, then they will be a No. 2 at worst but could be sent to another Regional, with whomever upends them anytime in the tournament a higher-seeded No 2.
Nobody wants that at Louisville as UConn, the undisputed No, 1 of all No. 1s, will be there and the home team will be the No., 2 anyway because that is how the provincial NCAA fixes things to attend to better attendance in this last season of allowing Regional home teams. UConn ran past Louisville, at Louisville, by 20 this week. Would the NCAA dare send UConn further away from home to avoid a quick rematch?
If so, that means UConn at Lincoln and the SEC No. 2s not wanting to go to there.
How tough will they want to make it on Notre Dame, the likely ACC conference tournament winner and No. 1 seed at home is the only real discussion for a second set of No. 2s.
The second-best No. 2 will get to go to Stanford.
Tennessee, should it be the second selection from the conference, would find itself at Notre Dame (because its sub-Regional feeds there) against a team which obliterated them at home in the regular season even when UT was at full strength.
Lady Vols’ point guard Ariel Massengale has been out with what coach Holly Warlick finally admitted was a February concussion.
“It’s been out of my hands,” said Warlick. “She’s been practicing, but as long as she has headaches she will not play.”
So a dramatic NCAA entrance could well be at hand.
The first two rounds went like this (seedings and overall records): GAME 1(12) Mississippi State (19-12) 73, (13) Missouri (17-14) 70
State is the feel-good underdog of the conference. The 19 wins is a school high.
Junior Martha Alwal, one of the defensive players of the year and a first team all-conference, scored 16 and surpassed 1,000 for her career.
“It’s such a big accomplishment for me,” Alwal said. “I never thought I would reach this milestone. I’m really happy I got it and I wouldn’t have done it without my great teammates.”
Kendra Grant scored 17 and Breanna Richardson, a member of the conference all-freshman team, had eight rebounds. “This win means a lot to me and the team,” Grant said. “This is the first time since I’ve been here that we won our first game in the tournament, so this is a big win for us.” She is a junior and a native of Mississippi.
A 7-2 run closed the first half and gave State a four-point advantage, which they needed in the second half for the win. Missouri rallied to lead by as many as seven in the second half.
But State came up with six straight points and then turned on the defense, holding Missouri to two field goals in the final 5:47.
“I’m awfully proud of our kids,” said State coach Vic Schaefer. He achieved a first as well, with a post-season win.
“That’s win number 19 for this team this year, a tremendous accomplishment for them,” Schaefer said. “It was not Martha’s best night. Our best player, we didn’t get our best night from her. We put two freshmen on the floor, and that’s when we made our run from down six.
“I am so proud of the team, the perseverance. That was the word on the board tonight. The words were perseverance and resilience.
“We didn’t play well Sunday and prior to that had back-to-back-to-back overtime games. Missouri kept coming at you. Every time they left somebody open, they made a shot. It’s demoralizing to be quite honest when you go through and talk about guarding them, you know what they want to do, how they want to do it.”
This completed a season sweep by State, winners by seven at home in the regular season.
Mizzou might get a post-season invitation to a lesser tourney, which would extend the career of senior Bria Kulas, a second-team all-conference selection.
She scored 18 with 11 rebounds in her SEC farewell.GAME 2
(14) Ole Miss (12-19) 63, (11) Arkansas (19-11) 62
Mississippi is not going further than this tournament.
But even a win was huge for a team disqualified from last season’s SEC tournament due to self-admitted irregularities by the former coaching staff.
So, for coach Matt Insell to win his first post-season game after several season as the main assistant at Kentucky, this was big.
Freshman all-conference second-teamer Tia Faleru scored 16. Senior Valencia McFarland, another all-conference second-teamer, scored 14. But it was a tip-in by senior Kenyotta Jenkins that decided it. She had announced herself in this one by scoring the first six points after halftime.
Ole Miss had a 13-2 run to end it and seal the Razorback collapse. It trailed by 10 with 4:50 left.
“We do this drill every day that’s score and get a stop, score and get a stop,” Insell said. “We talked about that in that huddle and then see where we’re at if we can do that. If we can get a score and then get a stop, and then get a score and then get another stop, and let’s see where we’re at there. We got that and it continued on. That’s all I kept telling them: ‘Stop, score, stop, score.’ ”
An offensive rebound by yet another senior, guard Diara Moore, set up the deciding basket.
She fed Jenkins with 3.6 seconds left.
“In the huddle, coach drew up a play and told us, even if she misses, we have to get a rebound somehow,” Jenkins said. “When the shot went up, Diara got the ball going out of bounds and I saw that there was still time on the clock. I was closest to the goal and I called her name and I put it up and prayed that it was going in.”
“It was basically just a toughness play from both Diara and Kenyotta,” McFarland said. “For Diara to fight for the rebound and for Kenyotta to finish and put it back in.”
Coming to Ole Miss, Insell said he didn’t look at is rebuilding but a process of getting the program back to the top as one of the nation’s most storied programs in all of women’s college basketball. A win like this, Insell said, helps you get there.
“What a great win for our basketball team,” Insell said. “What a great win for our program. I told the kids before we came down here that we’re playing as good as any team in this league. We have to keep fighting until the final buzzer.
That’s been our saying for the last five or six games.
Arkansas never got its 20th win, going the entire SEC season and this game trying to win seven.
They, too, might get an invitation to a lesser tourney based only on the 13-0 start.GAME 3
(9) Georgia (20-10) 53, (8) Vanderbilt (18-12) 43
Georgia coach Andy Landers had said he had hoped his team would have a chip on its shoulder after a January loss at Vandy in this rematch.
That showed up defensively, holding Vanderbilt to 15 first-half points and gaining that 20-win season so many NCAA selectors favor. They basically maintained the 13-point halftime lead with their three-guard offense controlling the flow. They overcame a 6-0 hole to start so actually won the half by 19 after that.
They burst from a 9-12 deficit to a 28-13 lead from the 9:14 mark. All five starters scored in the spree.
Senior guard Khalida Miller scored 12 in a very balanced attack. Georgia had lost nine of the previous 12 in this series.
“It was the kind of game I thought it would be, extremely competitive,” Landers said. We thought our players answered the challenge.”
Miller said she thought the defensive play made the difference. It was the best I’ve seen us play defensively all year.
“Even at times when we weren’t do as well as we wanted to offensively, we stayed the course and guarded them on their end.”
Landers said, “I think, after the first 10 minutes, all five of our kids were on the same page. We were close to playing exactly the way we wanted, the way we hoped we could play defensively.”
Vandy senior scoring machines Christina Foggie and Jasmine Lister ended their Commodore careers. Each were second-team all-conference. Foggie finished with 19.
Vanderbilt may well be one of those teams outside of the NCAA ; it played its way down to that position.GAME 4
(5) Florida (19-11) 71; (12) Mississippi State (19-13) 67
All-conference first team senior Jaterra Bonds scored 18 points and Kayla Lewis 17. State failed to advance past the second round for the 10th time in 11 years. The Bulldogs have lost nine straight to Florida.
Cassie Peoples' 3-pointer in the final minute of first half gave Gators their biggest lead at 15. And Florida was outscored 20-8 over a nearly nine-minute span of the second half. A Jerica James 3 gave State its last lead.
The Gators led for the final 7:32 after Peoples hit a jumper.
Florida coach Amanda Butler said her team is comfortable in the Atlanta area, as Gator Nation has a great local alumni club in the centralized neutral site.
Florida had won by 10 in the regular season-opener at Gainesville.
Junior guard Kayla Lewis said, “In this league, everyone is good, everyone is going to make a run. You have to be able to weather the storm. That’s what we did.”
Bonds agreed. “I tried to tell everyone in the huddle to stay composed. We made some silly turnovers; I know I made four of them in the second half. “
This all happened on Butler’s birthday; she termed the win as a present “the best ever.”
“I am just proud of the battle and for the resilience they showed, never doubting, even when we gave the lead up, to just bounce back, trust their teammates the coaches, the process.”
The Gators are on schedule, as one of the league’s Elite 8, to go to another NCAA, even if seeded to meet UConn early.
State may have earned its way in as well, but more than likely will get to earn a 20th win as a host team in another post-season tournament.GAME 5
(10) LSU (19-11) 78, (7) Alabama (14-16) 65
This is not where LSU wanted to be, with an NCAA opening-round tournament at home, struggling at the close with five losses in a row coming here.
Alabama kept the pressure on with eight minutes left in the half, trailing only 18-16. At that point, guard Danielle Ballard had eight of LSU’s points and senior guard Shafontaye Meyer had all but two of the Tide points and finished her career with a best-effort 27.
It was 41-29 with 17 minutes to go and Alabama knew it was slipping away as much as LSU knew it was going to end a losing streak and get a shot at a 20-win season, same as happened in last year’s SEC tourney
So LSU moves close to 20 wins with some confidence again after a long-sought win ended the school’s longest losing streak in 19 seasons.
Alabama had whomped LSU at LSU to end the regular season. That doesn’t matter now.
Senior all-conference first team player Theresa Plaisance has been on and off the starting rotation all season.
Plaisance was on again in this one, a dozen points and rebounds and three blocks. Ballard led the three-guard offense with 18. The Tigers paid attention at the free through line, hitting 11-of-12.
“Enjoy today, enjoy the moment,” said coach Nikki McCray. “Tomorrow we get to play another 40 minutes as a team.
“That’s what it is going to b e about. It’s going to be about us executing our game plan and playing as a team.”
“We came into the tournament with the mindset this will not be our last 40 minutes together,” said senior Shanece McKinney, as if LSU really had to still qualify for the NCAAs on their own court. “We just kept that in mind and dreamt about this game.”
McCray chose to bring another senior into the interview, Jeanne Kennedy. “As seniors, it’s something that is very evident and we realize it’s coming down to the end.”
With a losing record, coach Kristy Curry will, like South Carolina’s Dawn Staley did, point to this season as the beginning of increasing wins each season.
She already has a good recruiting class on her way to national impact after one more season.GAME 6
(5) Auburn 17-13) 70, (14) Ole Miss (12-20) 54
Ole Miss had won by a basket in overtime to end the regular season at home. But Auburn took advantage of superlative firepower to advance in the immediate rematch.
Siohnore Tra’cee Tanner scored 17, senior all-Conference first team Tyrese Tanner 16 with a game-high 12 rebounds. All-conference freshman Hasina Muhammad scored 11.
The Tigers survived despite hitting 37.1 percent from the field. But Ole Miss was worse, 28.1 percent, 16-of-57, from the floor.
Auburn was as opposite successful from the line, 81.5 percent, 22-of-27).
Coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said, “I thought we did much better in the second half, holding Ole Miss to 17 points.”
Tra’Cee Tanner said the difference between the previous game and this is obvious.
“I would say we attacked the basket a lot more. We finished. We made the most of our free throws.”
Tyrese Tanner said, “We just played harder. We played both halves hard. It was good we got to play Ole Miss again and could show who we really are.”
Ole Miss’s superlative senior point guard Valencia McFarland scored 23 in her farewell to the league and also earned praise from Auburn.
In his first season as a head coach, Matt Insell has laid a foundation for a return to the Rebels’ former runs as a ranked team.
“I’m real proud of our team,” he said. “We had three seniors. I have a lot of respect for them bringing our program back to where we’re on the radar again.
“There’s so much to do when you’re remodeling a program. I’ll tell you, the last five or six games, we started to play really, really well.”
.FRIDAY QUARTERFINALS(seeds and regular-season overall)No. 5 (1) South Carolina (26-3) vs. (9) Georgia (20-10)
Georgia coach Andy Landers has said the NCAA Selection Committee is committed to putting the best field together as is possible. He said the SEC regular season stands as evidence enough.
In the NCAAs, he will set the record for most tournament appearances by a league coach, breaking the tie with Pat Summitt, as he only missed one and has been Georgia’s coach all along.
With that in mind, he said regular-season champ South Carolina has proven itself the league’s best this year.
So that is Friday night’s challenge in the conference’s version of the elite eight, or the teams most likely into the NCAAs based on conference tradition.
SC won at Georgia by 11 Feb. 27 in the last of a 10-game win streakNo. 12 (4) Kentucky (22-7) vs. (5) Florida (19-11)
Among its upsets this season, Florida won at home against Kentucky by six, but then lost four out of five after that.No. 6 (2) Tennessee (24-5) vs. (10) LSU (19-11)
Good ol’ LSU has given Tennessee fits recently, but the Lady Vols won there by five as part of the Ben-Gals losing six in a row to close the season. Former Lady Vol and now LSU coach Nikki McCray knows how much adrenaline would come from a win tonight in the first tournament matchup between two guaranteed NCAA entrants.
Tennessee fights for at least a No. 2 seed by winning here.No. 15 (3) Texas A&M (23-7) vs. Winner of Game 6.
A&M coach Gary Blair Gary Blair said the best thing is they got through January and February. He said if the league could hold onto the traditional eight teams in the NCAA draw, that says enough about the league.
A&M Beat Auburn by 17 to close January.
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