It has been awhile since a Southeastern Conference women’s basketball team has been a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and that happened in 2011 when Tennessee was given one of the four highest honors.
On Sunday, Tennessee will vie for that honor in the conference tournament finals. The opponent, Kentucky, can win a No. 2 seed, perhaps even in a Regional with no clearcut favorite, like Stanford.
No one can argue these two teams have earned the shots. The NCAA, on Selection Monday, will realign the feed-ins to accommodate them both, as each has a home sub-Regional.
Tennessee was the mammoth favorite by league coaches to win the conference in the pre-season vote. Kentucky received one media vote to win it.
Now entering the conversation is some applause for Tennessee coach Holly Warlick.
After all, she is in just her second season as a head coach, despite decades of affiliation with her alma mater.
It is South Carolina coach Dawn Staley who was the easy selection as league coach of the year after the Gamecocks dominated the season. She is loaded with talent, included incoming, for seasons to come.
They dominated, that is, until the final day of the season and a visit to Knoxville where Tennessee took their measure and gave them the lovely parting gift of a loss.
Warlick is trying to re establish the Lady Vols as an Elite Team. They had a tradition which included every player who lasted all four seasons making at least one Final Four and many making multiples, stretching back to the pre-NCAA days when Warlick played in the AIAW.
Matthew Mitchell, at Kentucky has won his biggest coaching challenge of his seven Lexington seasons. He had players eliminated by injuries (not starters but still a hit to team depth). He had his pre-season best senior need weeks off for a knee scope from which she is now just recovered.
He and Warlick each stressed mental preparation for this stretch time. Mitchell went so far as to cancel a crucial Friday practice late in the season to just sit around and talk life goals.
All the crown pretenders are gone.
The field is clear and the mission defined.
Neither team lacks confidence.
And that is why the conference remains the top one in America.
Here’s the conference tournament semifinal results (seeds listed):
•(4) Kentucky (24-7) 68, (1) South Carolina (27-4) 58
This win, if nothing else, probably rescues national No. 12 Kentucky from having to go to the Louisville Regional, where UConn is the likely top seed and the home team a No. 2 or 3.
For SC, No. 5 nationally until tomorrow’s ranking, this means they have lost two of the last three. They could be a No. 2 somewhere or maybe even No. 3 at Louisville under the pretense of being placed close to home or at Notre Dame, where another home team would love a whack at them.
But enough about the overstuffed Gamecocks.
Kentucky has beaten SC both times they have met when it counted, in the league tournament. It is in its second straight SEC league tournament final and its fourth in five seasons. It has not won it since 1983 and the first great UK team featuring All-American Valerie Still.
UK showed its mettle by halftime of the semifinal, with a lead. That is important because they have only blown a halftime lead twice in the 24 games they took one to the locker room at break.
And they are tough in crunch time. The Wildcats’ latest five games have all been decided by 10 or less.
UK Freshmen Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper proved the point no one is a freshman any longer at this point in the season, with a combined 22 bench points and seven rebounds. The UK duo outscored SC’s entire bench.
Junior Bria Goss led the balanced attack with 14. Senior Samarie Walker had a game-high
Kentucky had five turnovers while forcing 16, which led to as many turnover points.
“You had to play well in this game and we did,” said a proud UK coach Matthew Mitchell.
The had started with a shocking 12-2 run. “Our players listened to the game plan,” Mitchell said, “ and that was to be in attack mode all day. That would rule the day for us. We weren’t worried about the result or the points, just stay on the attack.”
“We were able to sustain it for 40 minutes. That was impressive.
“No matter what happens (against Tennessee) they’ve done an outstanding job of pulling it together under difficult circumstances when things weren’t going as any of us planned.”
Mitchell also confirmed he was kneeling and praying along the sidelines as the game wound down. He would not say what the prayer was about but did confirm it is a ritual he often does during games.
•(2) Tennessee (26-5) 86, (3) Texas A&M (24-8) 77
Ho Hum. Another double-digit deficit. Another Tennessee comeback win.
The result, among other things, probably elevates the Lady Vols up from their No. 6 national ranking.
For the second straight game, center Izzy Harrison shouldered a load, this time with 20 points, without a ballot needed, and looms as the tournament MVP.
Her game-best 13 rebounds was a second straight double-double. A hook shot late, put them in front to stay, again for the second straight game.
“I think, as a team, we understand whoever we play if going to give us their best shot,” she said. ‘Whatever happens, we stay composed.
“In our huddles, we stay tight. ‘Y’all are going to get in this defensive stance,’ things like that we are going to do.”
Senior Meighan Simmons, reduced by coaches’ votes from the best player in the conference to first-team all-league, earned some inward satisfaction with 15 and the suddenly improving Bashaara Graves with 14. Rookie Mercedes Rusell had her conference best with 11.
Coach Holly Warlick said of Simmons, whose game is not always pretty, “When it’s Meighan you never know when she is going to get a hot hand. She can be 0-for and then get a hot hand and suddenly she has 20 points. I am not going to fault Meighan for takings shots. When we needed it inside, we got it inside. That’s her game. Every time out, when we drew it up to inside, that’s for Meighan. I can live with that.”
Tennessee avenged its conference tournament semifinal loss of a year ago.
The Lady Vols are 5-1 vs. A&M overall. The two losses this season, by 10 and now 11, are A&M’s biggest differentials.
UT was won 12 of the past 13 and six straight. But Kentucky, the title game opponent, won at their place by four which left the Lady Vols seething.
UT coach Holly Warlick said, “When we needed stops, we got stops. We just played hard. When you get 26 second-chance points off rebounds, you’re doing something right.”
She cited the play of her rookies as being the direct result of the older players taking them under their wings. “They’re just having fun,” Warlick said.
Freshmen come in having had great success so far. Warlick does not allow them to get disillusioned with reduced playing time.
“I do not know if they know enough to be worried or concerned,” she said.
It has to be said the No. 17 Texas A&M coach Gary Blair had picked UT as the best team athletically all season. He did not devolve into a pity party, as did SC coach Dawn Staley after her loss. He saw only positives, as is his style.
“The country just saw a championship basketball game. To play at the level Tennessee played at, with just seven turnovers, that’s championship basketball,” he said.
“I hope you all realize how good the league is going to be next year.”
He took a small shot at national basketball leaders as his three sophomore starters have yet to be selected for any national Basketball USA teams.
“They’re pretty damn good,” he said. “They know what a jump shot is all about. They were running on fumes, because (Warlick) could rotate her bench in and my bench wasn’t doing as good.
“I hope Tennessee has a little bit left, because Kentucky and Tennessee, that’s a classic matchup.”
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