March 1, 2023 

Brawls and upsets: SEC Tournament Day 1

Vanderbilt and Florida's seasons end and what that means for Texas A&M and Kentucky

GREENVILLE, SC — It is not every day that eight players are ejected from a basketball game. But the SEC Tournament is not just any day.

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The opening matchups of the 2023 SEC Tournament in Greenville, S.C., proved to be anything but boring, with No. 13 Texas A&M upsetting No. 12 Vanderbilt and No. 14 Kentucky upsetting No. 11 Florida in a matter of hours. 

And through the dramatic brawls and upsets, two teams’ conference seasons are over, and the wins today tell us quite a bit about the season past and ahead.

The fight

Four and a half minutes into the second quarter of Kentucky and Florida’s matchup, the Wildcats up 20-14, Florida’s Taliyah Wyche grabs a ball to inbound and throws it in a fashion that looks like it’s meant to hit Kentucky’s Ajae Petty in the head. Words were exchanged and chaos ensued as Wyche ran at Petty.

The arena’s air immediately filled with adrenaline as benches cleared, the group of 10+ players tussled into the scorers’ table, and Kentucky head coach Kyra Elzy said she was even knocked down and lost her sparkly pumps in the mix.

“I came out my shoes. I didn’t know what was happening. I turned around and everybody was flooding towards our bench and I got knocked over,” Elzy said postgame. “This is two teams battling for wins. The intensity was high. The emotions were high. Obviously, for myself or Coach Finley, that’s not how we want to play out and we’ll both address our teams. So it was an unfortunate situation.”

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Ultimately, referees ejected eight players, four from each team. Florida starters Ra Shaya Kyle and Faith Dut, as well as Wyche and Zippy Broughton, who was not dressed for the game due to injury, were ejected. On Kentucky’s side, Eniya Russell, Saniah Tyler, Cassidy Rowe and Zennia Thomas were all ejected.

Ultimately, this left both teams with depleted benches. Florida played with just seven players, many of which were forced to play positions they’d never played before.

“We had a lot of student-athletes that were asked to do something that they’ve never done,” Florida head coach Kelly Rae Finley said postgame. “Jeriah [Warren] has never played the five. She did it with a great attitude and great effort. Jordan [Merritt] has not played for the five for us all season. She did so for about 25 minutes. … Myka [Perry] had to play the four as a freshman.”

And although fighting isn’t everything, it set the tone for what should be a dramatic SEC Tournament.

The end of Florida’s season and under-delivering?

With this loss sealing Florida’s fate of not going to the NCAA Tournament, it has proven that, in all honesty, Florida has under-delivered on the preseason expectations of both myself and the rest of SEC media, who predicted it would finish No. 6. It felt like this Florida team was on the precipice of something huge. Although it may still be, it’s going to take another year or two to find out.

Florida addresses media after the loss to Kentucky in the 2023 SEC Tournament in Greenville, SC. (Photo credit: Gabriella Lewis)

According to KK Deans, who transferred into the program this year, the season was tumultuous but united.

“I think our season was up and down. We had highs, we had lows,” Deans said postgame. “I think my teammates did a good job coming together in hard moments to finish a fight through … But we stuck together.”

The Gators’ young and new squad ended their season 16-14 and have plenty to work in the offseason on both offensively and defensively. Both Deans and Finley said the team has seen tremendous growth, and if they can capitalize off of that and keep players out of the transfer portal, a year from now may look very different.

The end of Vanderbilt’s season and Texas A&M upset

Throughout this conference season, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M have both majorly struggled to find wins. Their squads are young, and injuries hurt them both.

In today’s matchup, Texas A&M looked like a much better-oiled machine than usual, staying locked in and focused for almost the entire game as Vanderbilt looked half-asleep until the last five minutes.

“You see these flashes of my team where … we just overwhelm people and we’re able to do some amazing things in a short period of time,” Vanderbilt head coach Shea Ralph said postgame. “And then there are stretches where we just shoot ourselves in the foot with our lack of discipline, sometimes our lack of focus, our fatigue.”

Texas A&M and Vanderbilt match up at the 2023 SEC Tournament in Greenville, SC. (Photo credit: Gabriella Lewis)

What really threw Vanderbilt was Texas A&M’s well-above-normal offense, shooting 51.7% FG when they usually shoot 37.9%, shooting 40.9% from three when they usually shoot 27.3%, scoring nine triples when they usually make under five and scoring 77 points when they usually average below 55, the worst in the SEC.

And although they couldn’t keep their intensity from whistle to whistle, Vandy played a beautiful last five minutes of basketball: full-court press, trapping, steals, and overall gritty play. There is a future for this Vanderbilt team. Still, they’re losing leading scorer Ciaja Harbison and leading 3-point shooter Marnell Garraud due to eligibility, which coach Ralph said her team might not have fully understood.

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“This was it for [the seniors[. And so I don’t know that when you’re starting to build something, do your younger players understand that? That they’re fighting for their survival… but you’re also fighting for those who don’t get another chance next year,” Ralph said. “That’s what it means to be part of a great team. And we’re gonna continue to work on that.”

Does last season’s SEC Tournament success carry over?

Last year Kentucky, ranked just No. 7 in the SEC, upset South Carolina in the SEC Tournament championship to complete their Cinderella story and take home the tournament title. And despite their big win last year, things have dramatically changed, coming into this year’s tournament ranked dead last in the conference with just two regular season conference wins.

But just like the beginning of their run last year, they won their first game of the tournament, this year upsetting a significantly higher seed. And although the fight ejections made it a different battle than anticipated, the team played focused together, and according to them postgame, they “just had fun.”

So does last season’s win play into that? Elzy assured the media postgame this team is different from last year, with few of the same core members, and that would be a whole new fight. Still, the poise and uncharacteristic tenacity of players in this game make a good argument for the residual confidence of last year.

“I just have confidence coming into this tournament just because we did win last year, so anyone has a chance to win it this year, not just the teams that like people project are gonna win. Anyone can win if they put their mind to it,” sophomore Jada Walker said. “It’s March… anything can happen.”

Today Kentucky looked like a team that knew how to step up in big scenarios, exhibited well by Adebola Adeyeye, who had 17 rebounds, majorly outdoing her average of 4.6 per game. If Kentucky can keep this fire with a full roster tomorrow, maybe it’ll repeat history?

*An earlier version of this story misidentified one of the players involved in the brawl. The Next regrets the error.

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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