March 6, 2023 

Day 5 SEC Tournament: Will South Carolina ever lose?

14 teams, 13 games, 12 mascots, and 57,000+ fans.

GREENVILLE, S.C. — The 2023 SEC Tournament has concluded after five days of fan-filled fun. Chock-full of fights, upsets, tears, and beautiful basketball, the SEC showed off its talent this last week.

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According to the SEC, 57,801 fans attended the tournament, setting an SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament record. And across the 14 teams, 13 games, and 12 mascots, five players emerged as the All-SEC Tournament Team.

LSU’s Alexis Morris, Tennessee’s Rickea Jackson and Jordan Horston, and South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke took home the honor. Aliyah Boston was named the tournament MVP. Here’s what else happened on Sunday:

Moment of the Day

With just two minutes left in the third quarter, sophomore guard Bree Hall made a trey. The crowd and her own team erupted illustrating just how ravenous women’s basketball fans are, especially the Gamecock FAMS, for everyone to succeed. No matter where a player is off the bench, they’re hype.

Fun of the Day

There is nothing more fun than a Championship! Confetti and trophies galore! 

Oh, also, I ranked every SEC mascot which you don’t want to miss: 

Championship Game (Game 13 of Conference): No. 1 South Carolina vs. No. 3 Tennessee

Summary: Over 12,000 people piled into Bon Secours Wellness Arena to watch this matchup which began with a neck and neck first quarter. Both teams shot near 60%, and Jordan Horston finished the quarter with a buzzer-beater jumper. As the Vols’ shooting started to slow in the second, South Carolina went on a 12-0 run. Tennessee beat South Carolina on the glass in the first half 15-12. As the second half started, it was clear the Vols were tired and went stagnant. South Carolina dominated the third quarter, and with two minutes left Vols Head Coach Kelly Harper called a timeout. The Vols looked more intense out of the time out, keeping the Gamecocks scoreless for over two minutes from the end of the third to the beginning of the fourth. However, things fell apart in the fourth, and although Tennessee kept giving their best effort, the No. 1 Gamecocks overcame. 

South Carolina’s seniors shine in last SEC ride: Tonight, Dawn Staley kept a tighter rotation than she regularly does, playing only eight players all game. She told media postgame this was partly due to the absence of starting point guard Kierra Fletcher, who went down Saturday and will spend the week rehabbing her ankle, but also because Staley wanted to send her “seniors off the way that they wanted to go off.”

And they delivered. Zia Cooke recorded 24 points after struggling the rest of the tournament, Aliyah Boston had 18 points and seven rebounds alongside all the nonquantifiable additions, and Brea Beal had a solid eight points, eight rebounds, and six assists. Staley told media postgame that her senior class “raised the standard” for the program and will leave a huge impact. 

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Tonight the ‘Cocks capitalized off the Vols’ mistakes well, and although the Gamecock seniors were most of South Carolina’s offensive production, the team’s depth is what always prevails. Staley praised Teneesee’s Horston and Jackson but said, “over the course of 40 minutes and the amount of people that we were able to throw at them, they weren’t as sharp as they were throughout the entire game. That’s just a product of our depth.”

With South Carolina, their depth extends beyond the court. Center Kamilla Cardoso told The Next after the game that the team came together and decided to play this final game for Fletcher. And after Laeticia Amihere did not receive All-Tournament Team honors despite a breakout weekend, Staley revealed that Boston gave Amihere her All-Tournament Team trophy.

The Gamecocks will undoubtedly get a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, and it’s challenging to imagine a world where anyone beats them. And the rest of the SEC agrees.

In response to their undefeated regular season, Harper said it’s “extremely impressive to go blemish-free through the regular season and the tournament, and that’s really tough to do. They have had great consistency and obviously they’re talented.” Arkansas Head Coach Mike Neighbors said, “I’ve been in it 23 years. You’ve got to put them in the conversation with the great UConn teams… You can do everything right and they still get it.” And Mississippi Coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin put it bluntly, “I don’t see anybody beating them. You can quote that.”

Unlike some other teams, this SEC Tournament win meant something special for South Carolina, although they’re focusing on the next challenge.

 “Winning championships, it never gets old,” Staley said. “We often have to remind ourselves where we come from. We used to come to this tournament and were out in one day.”

Pregame hype at the SEC Tournament Championship Game. (Photo credit: SEC)

Tennessee went from tumultuous to tenacious: Tennessee has played a great SEC Tournament, but tonight’s second half caught up with them. Coming out of the half down just six, the Vols could not catch up to the Gamecocks. Harper chalked it up to fatigue after three games, including a very tough one Sunday night. “Some of their shots, some of their getting up and down the floor, was a little slower. I think the mental and emotional fatigue is as heavy as the physical,” Harper said of her team.

Tennessee battled well on the boards, even outrebounding the Gamecocks in the first half. Throughout the tournament and tonight, Jordan Horston, Rickea Jackson, and Jillian Hollingshead led the charge. Horston and Jackson have looked extremely dominant, playing with an intense win-now mentality. And although they’re offense-first, they have been making gritty, high-effort plays on both ends. Hollingshead, who’s just a sophomore, has really come into her own: making shots, fantastic footwork in the paint, and finding confidence. More to come on Hollingshead.

But for Horston, she couldn’t deliver in the second half, scoring just five compared to her 14 in the first. Horston and the Vols became fatigued, and the Gamecocks locked in during the 3rd quarter, annihilating the Vols’ shooting percentage, which went from nearly 50 percent in the first half to 26 percent in the second. They continued to make some poor offensive choices and mistakes.

And despite being unable to make a comeback as they did on Saturday, Jackson says their run this week in Greenville will bring them confidence into the upcoming NCAA Tournament. When asked about preparing for the upcoming Tournament, Harper said, “We’re not going to overhaul who we are. We know who we are.” And this confidence about her team’s identity is a departure from earlier this season when she told The Next her team didn’t know its identity yet.

“Tenacious. That’s our word. You know, we never quit. We gonna have a long fight. I believe in this team, no matter what,” Horston said.

“I think we have been an aggressive team. We’ve been, obviously, a team that has found some toughness, found some grit,” Harper said to media postgame on Sunday. “I’m proud to be able to say that. We learned that.

Now, she and her players say that their identity lies in their tenacity and grit. 

“I think we have been an aggressive team. We’ve been, obviously, a team that has found some toughness, found some grit,” Harper said to media postgame on Sunday. “I’m proud to be able to say that. We learned that.”

The nine lessons we learned

Over the past five days in Greenville, S.C., we’ve watched a lot of basketball and learned a lot. Here are some of those lessons:

1. South Carolina can’t seem to lose. This team looks to be an all-timer, and I only see a loss in their future if there’s a colossal shooting breakdown from the entirety of the deepest bench in the country.

2. Tennessee has found its next level, despite struggling much of the season to do so. In too many Tennessee games, the Vols somehow kick it into a lower gear in the final quarter, but this tournament proved just the opposite.

3. LSU did not face a very difficult schedule this year, and it has begun to show. Blowing a 17-point lead to Tennessee on Saturday, it’s apparent the Tigers have some work to do, and although they’ve got incredible talent, it’s unclear if their mental toughness is enough. Also from LSU, Angel Reese was not named to the Wooden Award shortlist due to not making eligibility requirements, with Coach Kim Mulkey mentioning GPA.

4. Kentucky is the SEC Tournament champion. Not literally, but after last year’s incredible run and this year’s No. 14 seed advancing to the Semifinals, the Wildcats’ record-breaking 2023 run proves that Coach Elzy and her program know how to do tournament play.

5. At Texas A&M, we know that Janiah Barker is the real deal. The freshman, one of the top recruits in the country out of high school, averaged over six rebounds and three blocks this tournament and was a delight to watch.

6. Tournament time is upset time, and these Texas A&M and Kentucky teams especially proved that to us. The No. 14 and No. 13 seeds broke SEC Tournament records by making it to the Semifinals, showing us that even if you have a terrible regular season, that doesn’t matter when it comes to the postseason.

7. The Razorbacks probably deserve an NCAA Tournament bracket spot, at least according to Staley and Neighbors. The team worked hard to overcome some confidence issues, and when they play well Arkansas is a solid team.

8. SEC fans show up! Anyone who says “no one cares about women’s basketball” has obviously not come down South. The Vols and Gamecock fans particularly brought the numbers, with over 57,000 total attendees over the five days.

9. Last, the rest of March will be a blast! The SEC will likely have eight teams (South Carolina, Tennessee, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Georgia, Alabama, and Arkansas) in March Madness. The final bracket will be revealed in a week on Selection Sunday.

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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