March 11, 2024 

South Carolina brings home SEC Tournament title — but not without a fight

The weekend's highlights and more from Greenville

GREENVILLE, S.C. — On Sunday, the South Carolina Gamecocks took home their eighth SEC Tournament championship of Dawn Staley’s tenure — but not without having to fight for it. After a weekend of hard-fought wins, the nation’s last two national champions, No. 1 South Carolina and No. 2 LSU, matched up in the SEC Championship for a battle of will. 

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The game was close throughout, with LSU just a few points behind the Gamecocks in every quarter. The two teams were evenly matched in shots taken, three-pointers made, and more. LSU turned the ball over a few too many times, and with Cardoso in some foul trouble for much of the third quarter, LSU outrebounded the Gamecocks overall.

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Every time the Tigers made a run, the Gamecocks responded immediately. Freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley was particularly hot, scoring 24 points and earning herself Tournament MVP. LSU coach Kim Mulkey was overall happy with her players’ performance and cited Fulwiley as their only Achilles heel.

In addition, LSU has a far more depleted bench than the Cocks, with Last-Tear Poa in concussion protocol after a scary semifinals incident and Mikaylah Williams on limited minutes. South Carolina’s bench outscored LSU’s 35-8.

Ultimately, the two SEC squads fought hard, but South Carolina did everything just a bit better and came out with the big win. And despite the excitement of another SEC ring, not everyone was able to celebrate.

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Several players ejected after fight

Most people will remember Sunday’s championship for the bench-clearing incident that left just six players on the Gamecocks’ Championship stage.

All night the game had been chippy and especially physical, with elbows flying left and right. The matchup of the game was 6’3 LSU star Angel Reese and 6’7 South Carolina center Kamilla Cardoso, who spent most of the night grinding it out in the paint, as well as Chloe Kitts and Morrow, and Fulwiley chirping LSU’s bench after a couple of big shots.

With two minutes remaining on the game clock, Fulwiley blew past LSU’s Flau’jae Johnson, and Johnson fouled her hard to prevent a breakaway. As Fulwiley walked off, Johnson pushed South Carolina’s Ashlyn Watkins. In retaliation, Cardoso pushed Johnson to the ground, and the benches cleared. Johnson’s brother even jumped out of the stands, over the scorer’s table and onto the court to defend his sister.

Staley, Mulkey and the coaches ran to break things up and exchanged words themselves. Cardoso was ejected for fighting and will be ineligible for the Cocks’ first NCAA game. All players on the bench, except for South Carolina’s Sania Feagin and Te-Hina Paopao, were ejected but will be allowed in future games.

“A lot of people ask me to compare last year’s team to this year’s team. That would have never happened with last year’s team,” Staley told press, smiling. “They would have been so political about it. If that would have happened, Aliyah [Boston] would probably have been the referee… Then you got this team, they’re protectors.”

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Staley apologized to fans after, and told media Johnson apologized to her immediately after the game. Cardoso immediately issued an apology on X, formerly known as Twitter. Ejected players could not publicly celebrate the win.

In the postgame press conference, Reese reiterated one phrase many times: “We’re not scared of South Carolina.”

And although a brawl shouldn’t eclipse the high-level basketball played, it’s a symptom of larger tensions. The entire tournament was physical — which is the SEC’s style and also due to lackadaisical officiating. LSU and South Carolina’s January matchup in Baton Rouge was also tense, as well as LSU’s semifinal matchup against Mississippi on Saturday.

Sunday’s officiating was particularly apathetic, allowing tensions to rise further than necessary. Only two other fouls had been called in the eight minutes prior, despite intense physicality.

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The highlights

Tournament All-Team: My vote went to South Carolina’s MiLaysia Fulwiley and Kamilla Cardoso, LSU’s Angel Reese, Tennessee’s Rickea Jackson, and Mississippi’s Marquesha Davis. SEC voters agreed, except they swapped Davis for Flau’jae Johnson.

Tournament Most Outstanding Player: Fulwiley was definitely the star of Sunday, but Rickea Jackson played in three games and dominated almost every one of them with back-to-back 22-point performances. She proved herself a March star who’ll succeed in the pros.

Best Breakout Star: Aliyah Matharu has had a solid season, but she really carried Florida to a Cinderella run. Her 35 points on Thursday defeated No. 6 Vanderbilt, and her quarterfinal performance was awe-inspiring after quickly fighting back from hitting her head.

Best moment: Cardoso draining the first 3-pointer of her college career to save South Carolina’s undefeated season and thwart Tennessee’s epic 23-point comeback was easily the best moment of the tournament, and maybe even the best of the season.

Best game: Sunday’s championship, a fierce matchup between the last two year’s reigning national champions, is hard to compete with. A very close honorable mention goes to the aforementioned Tennessee vs. South Carolina matchup, and after that is Friday’s Florida vs. Mississippi quarterfinal.

Best Band: Florida had the best band last year, and they did again this year. Three nights of funny signs, “You Can Call Me Al” on a tuba and good vibes.

The rest of the SEC tournament

Looking back at this year’s tournament, it’s challenging not to draw striking comparisons to last year. The winner and top four remain the same, but the journey to get here is completely different.

First, the Gamecocks leave the tournament undefeated once again but in a shakier place. Last year’s team, full of seniors, beat every team in the tournament by 15+, whereas this year’s team showed moments of weakness in close matchups. 

“I also know that you can’t keep winning the close games,” Staley said after their SEC Championship win. “At some point the law of averages say… You got to build the lead, and you got to keep the lead, if you can get one.”

The Cocks are still very good and are likely to make a prolific postseason run, but they’re undeniably less experienced. They feel like a real team this year rather than an untouchable force.

On Saturday, when Tennessee almost overtook South Carolina, fighting back from a 23-point deficit, it was easy to think back to last year, when they beat LSU in the semifinals and set an SEC record by overcoming a 17-point deficit. For the last few years, the Vols have followed the same trajectory: a messy fall, growing into a tough team, and being ferocious by March.

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LSU retained its star Bayou Barbie but has grown astronomically with the addition of Aneesah Morrow, Johnson’s development, and more. What’s changed for LSU is the expectations — when LSU was winning last year, it felt shocking, and now, when they don’t crush teams, it’s seen as a letdown.

Mississippi, which was a strong leader last season, looks worlds better. In last year’s SEC Semifinals, they fell to South Carolina by nearly 30 points and were absolutely crushed. In this tournament, they went toe-to-toe with LSU and looked like they could run with the bulls. If they play as well as they did Saturday, they could give anyone a run for their money during March Madness.

But some things also stayed the same — Kentucky upsets, disappointing losses from Mississippi State and Alabama, and Arkansas finds itself just inches away from the NCAA Tournament. And last year’s SEC would’ve laughed at the idea of some of 2023’s worst teams — Auburn, Vanderbilt, and Texas A&M — likely going dancing. But as of Sunday, ESPN predicts nine SEC teams will make the NCAA tournament, eclipsing last year’s seven. It’s clear that there’s even more parity in the SEC this year — every night could be a dog fight.

“There’s not really a weak team. … With the SEC it is just such a strong conference,” Arkansas’ Saylor Poffenbarger explained. “The transfer portal and NIL has just really made it a gray line. There’s no powerhouse. There’s South Carolina, but like all the teams below that are kind of intermixed.”

Regardless, it feels like everyone is ready for the rest of March. 

“How can you not leave here and go, ‘God, I wish the playoffs started next week?’” Mulkey questioned.

Stay tuned for more SEC postseason content, and read more stories from the SEC Tournament here.

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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