March 10, 2021
Lessons learned from the SEC Tournament
Dawn Staley: 'We had to really fight'
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After watching the SEC Tournament all weekend, here’s what I learned:
The SEC is the most thrilling, competitive, fun-to-watch conference in NCAA Division 1 women’s basketball
And it’s not even close.
Sure, the other conferences are competitive and the games are exciting to watch, especially if you’re a general fan of women’s collegiate basketball. But there’s just something different about the SEC. The teams, the players, the coaches…they just have a different type of swagger, a different type of energy, a different type of hype…they have the it factor.
And it’s about to get even better as action from this weekend’s tournament showed. There are a number of teams in the conference on the serious come up — making a future, clear-cut SEC winner, well, pretty much nonexistent.
Dawn Staley said it best.
I’m tired,” Staley said Sunday afternoon shortly after her 7th seed South Carolina Gamecocks defeated the No. 16 Georgia Bulldogs 67-62 to win their sixth — SIXTH — SEC title in seven years.
“Honestly, this one was kind of draining. We had to really fight…I mean you have to fight for all of them this one was kind of draining. We had to really fight. I mean you have to fight for all of them but this was a little bit different,” Staley said.
“You had a young team in here (Georgia) trying to find its identity, having to play a certain way, the grittiness that you need to have to win three games in a row against some incredible competition…but the SEC prepares you for this grueling weekend and I’m happy that we found our way on top.”
As if there was ever any doubt.
And that’s lesson No. 2 that I learned from the SEC Tournament.
Never Count Dawn Staley – Or the Gamecocks – Out. Ever.
Allow me to stay on the DS hype train for just a bit longer. Dawn Staley is a master coach and arguably one of the greatest collegiate basketball coaches of all time. Not women’s collegiate basketball — all of collegiate basketball. @ me some other time.
The Gamecocks came into the season with unfinished business after last season was cut short by the global pandemic. Despite having one of the most exciting young talents in college basketball in Aliyah Boston, the Gamecocks struggled at times this season, eventually finishing 14-2 in SEC play and 22-4 overall. In the eyes of many, the Gamecocks’ four losses were four losses too many for a team that’s supposed to win.
They began to fall in the polls — well, they weren’t No. 1 — and some of the shine on their star did too, or so it seemed, especially for fans not willing to accept anything short of winning for the Gamecocks. A feisty Texas A&M team pulled out the stunning upset over the Gamecocks to win the regular-season SEC crown. Staley made the early list of SEC Coach of the Year but was not on the finalists’ list, another shocker to some. The sky seemed to be falling in on their season.
But the Gamecocks remained a force to be reckoned with despite the adversity. Staley kept the team focused, made the necessary adjustments and decisions, and stood back and let the players execute. They did, plowing through the SEC Tournament and winning it all. Again.
Sure, it was the players that went out and played the game. But they were executing the plays that the coach drew up. They were falling in line with adjustments that the coach made. That’s coaching. That’s Dawn Staley. Never to be counted out.
SEC is the Best Showcase of Black Coaching Talent
Speaking of coaches: the SEC is home to six Black women head coaches. Six. Down from a high of seven, earlier this season, after Auburn dismissed Terri Williams-Flournoy.
So it should come as no surprise that the title game featured two Black women patrolling the sidelines. But the story goes deeper than that.
Joni Taylor, in her sixth season as head coach of Georgia, was named SEC Coach of the year after leading her team — picked to finish ninth in the SEC — to a fourth-place finish. The no-one-saw-coming Bulldogs finished with a 10-5 record in the SEC, took down No. 1 Texas A&M 74-68 to advance to the championship game, and very nearly toppled South Carolina for the SEC crown. In addition, three Bulldogs were recognized with SEC honors.
Then there’s Ole Miss head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin, who took a very young team — one of the youngest rosters in the country according to the school — and very nearly knocked off No. 14 Tennessee in the SEC quarterfinals. It was Ole Miss’ best tournament finish since 2010.
Ole Miss finished the season 4-10 in SEC play, 11-11 overall, and now await to hear if their late-season surge will earn them a postseason berth. If selected to the NCAA Tournament, it would be their first trip to the Big Dance since the 2006-07 Elite Eight team.
Even if they’re not chosen, with McPhee-McCuin in charge, the team is in good hands.
As Staley said in talking about the number of Black women coaches in the SEC: “It’s an opportunity thing.”
The results of that opportunity was on display in Sunday’s championship game in a historic moment as Staley and Taylor, together, were the first time two Black women head coaches led both teams in a conference championship game.
When given opportunities, people will generally rise to the occasion.
That this moment happened during Women’s History Month was the icing on the cake and highlighted the SEC and its public commitment to providing opportunities for women coaches to grow and thrive. You love to see it.
The Future of the WNBA runs through the SEC
I learned that the SEC has some highly skilled, fun-to-watch, feisty ballers who have a style of play that will transfer well over to the WNBA whenever any of them are ready. Again, it’s that grit, that swagger, that energy that’s symbolic of the SEC.
Whether it’s double-double queen N’dea Jones of Texas A&M, two-time SEC player of the Year Rhyne Howard of Kentucky, Freshman of the Year Madison Scott of Ole Miss, Boston from South Carolina, Chelsea Dungee from Arkansas, or Unique Thompson from Auburn, these exciting players will no doubt perform well in the WNBA and make the professional league fun to watch for years to come.
ICYMI: The SEC 2021 women’s basketball postseason awards
Rhyne Howard of Kentucky was named Player of the Year for the second consecutive season. She was named Freshman of the Year in 2019.
Ole Miss’ Madison Scott was named Freshmen of the Year. Georgia’s Que Morrison and Aliyah Boston from South Carolina were named Co-Defensive Players of the Year. The Sixth Woman of the Year award went to Texas A&M’s Destiny Pitts while Scholar-Athlete of the Year honors went to her Aggie teammate Ciera Johnson.
Georgia’s Joni Taylor was named Coach of the Year. This is Taylor’s first SEC Coach of the Year honor.
First-team and second-team All-SEC honorees, All-Freshman team, All-Defensive team, along with Player, Coach and Freshman, Defensive Player, Sixth Player, and Scholar-Athlete of the Year were chosen by the league’s 14 coaches.
The complete 2021 SEC Women’s Basketball Postseason Awards follow.
First Team All-SEC
Jasmine Walker, Alabama
Chelsea Dungee, Arkansas
Rhyne Howard, Kentucky
Khayla Pointer, LSU
Shakira Austin, Ole Miss
Aliyah Boston, South Carolina
Zia Cooke, South Carolina
Rennia Davis, Tennessee
N’dea Jones, Texas A&M
Second Team All-SEC
Jordan Lewis, Alabama
Unique Thompson, Auburn
Destiny Slocum, Arkansas
Lavender Briggs, Florida
Jenna Staiti, Georgia
Aijha Blackwell, Missouri
Rae Burrell, Tennessee
Aaliyah Wilson, Texas A&M
Romi Levy, Auburn
Jordyn Merritt, Florida
Sarah Ashlee Barker, Georgia
Snudda Collins, Ole Miss
Madison Scott, Ole Miss
Madison Hayes, Mississippi State
Mama Dembele, Missouri
Marta Suárez, Tennessee
Que Morrison, Georgia
Khayla Pointer, LSU
Chasity Patterson, Kentucky
Aliyah Boston, South Carolina
Tamari Key, Tennessee
Co-Defensive Players of the Year – Que Morrison, Georgia and Aliyah Boston, South Carolina
6th Woman of the Year – Destiny Pitts, Texas A&M
Scholar-Athlete of the Year – Ciera Johnson, Texas A&M