December 1, 2021
2021 Big 12/SEC Challenge preview
Great storylines, matchups will treat us to five days of big-time games
Whether you were getting your fill of holiday meals, holiday hoops or both in the past ten days, it is not time to relax. December is here and the calendar is full of must-see games coming up. It was a welcome sight when women’s basketball embraced what their counterparts on the men’s side had been doing for years – branding and channeling interconference games for bragging rights all the while boosting RPI’s and strength of schedules. The 2021 Big 12/SEC Challenge tips off this week with ten games. It is a slate filled with great storylines and matchups that you do not want to miss.
December 1 – West Virginia at #16 Kentucky
The Mountaineers (4-1) are coming off a 58-57 loss to BYU at the St. Pete Showcase where they had a chance to put the game away at the free throw line. Juniors Esmery Martinez and KK Deans continue to carry the load for West Virginia, both averaging double figures. This team is built on defense, holding teams to 35% from the field and riding a +12.8-turnover margin, including turning BYU over 23 times over the weekend. Kentucky will get the advantage of playing at home and are 4-1 as well, with their lone loss being to now #5 Indiana by 21. This Wildcat roster is loaded with scoring firepower, including junior Dre’una Edwards and senior All-American Rhyne Howard both averaging 19.2 points per game. Kentucky is averaging 82.4 points per game – this will be a physical and fast game and it may come down to who turns who over more.
December 2 – #20 Georgia at Texas Tech
Undefeated Georgia hits the road to west Texas at 6-0, claiming two decisive wins at the Daytona Beach Invitational over Notre Dame and Marquette. The Bulldogs are led by 6’4 center Jenna Staiti, who has two double-doubles so far this year and is averaging 13.3 points per game. The consistency of Georgia’s offense has been key, shooting close to 45% from the field but also has their ability to shut people down. Through six games, teams are shooting just 29.5% against their pressure defense. Texas Tech head coach Krista Gerlich knows that to stay in this game they will have to find a way to score and protect the basketball. She has had the services of her All-American senior guard Vivian Gray for only one of their seven games. Gray has been dealing with a foot injury since the pre-season. Guards Rhyle McKinney and Lexy Hightower are averaging double figures to help this team get to 6-1 but the #20 Georgia defense is coming for them.
December 2 – #14 Iowa State at LSU
It is hard not to notice that the dean of Big 12 coaches, Bill Fennelly, is the one that goes up against Kim Mulkey in her first Big 12/SEC Challenge – at an SEC school. Fennelly’s Cyclones are 7-0 and fresh off a championship at the Gulf Coast Showcase, a tournament that historically has spring boarded teams to an outstanding year. With four players averaging double figures, including senior All-American Ashley Joens (19.8 points and 7.5 board per game) and sophomore Lexi Donarski (18 points per game), Iowa State is averaging 83.5 points per game. Mulkey’s Tigers (5-1) will need a game plan to stop this high-powered offense, which includes four players shooting over 40% from behind the arc. LSU is forcing almost 19 turnovers per game and that pressure defense, especially on the perimeter, will be key to stopping Iowa State. 5’7 guard Khayla Pointer is leading the way for Mulkey’s new squad with 17.8 points and 7 rebounds per game. This game could be a high scoring shootout, but it will be hard fought and physical for 40 minutes.
December 3 – K-State at #1 South Carolina
K-State is 7-1 but has only left the friendly confines of Manhattan, KS once this year which was a 90-69 loss at now #2 NC State. The Wildcats are built around their All-American center, 6’6 Ayoka Lee, who has had six straight double-doubles and is a force inside. She is going to need a lot of help from the young K-State guards against the #1 team in nation. South Carolina (8-0) has proven they can take their game to another level when needed, most notably overcoming a double-digit deficit against UConn to win the inaugural Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. Their frontcourt of 6’5 Aliyah Boston and 6’2 Victaria Saxton will be a handful for Lee and containing the likes of guards Destanni Henderson and Zia Cooke will force K-State’s defense to be almost perfect.
December 4 – Mississippi State at Oklahoma
Mississippi State was dealt a blow when head coach Nikki McCray-Penson stepped down this fall, but the Bulldogs have rallied to be 6-1 with a game tonight at home versus McNeese State. They are led by 6’2 junior Rickea Jackson, who is averaging 19.8 points per game and shoots almost 80% from the free throw line. 5’7 guard Myah Taylor runs the show out front, leading the team in steals and assists. Oklahoma will have their hands full containing her and their high scoring offense, but it could be a perfect match – the Sooners also loves to score, averaging just under 90 points per game. OU needs to win the battle on the glass and get the balance scoring that has led them to be 6-1. Redshirt senior guard Ana Llanusa is healthy and is providing a huge lift back in the starting lineup. She will be called upon to do a lot of heavy lifting against Mississippi State.
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December 4 – Missouri at #4 Baylor
Head coach Robin Pingeton, now in her 12th season at Missouri, has her team sitting at 7-0 with a game against SIUE on December 2. Immediately the focus will then have to shift to shutting down #4 Baylor (7-1). That means finding an answer for All-American forward NaLyssa Smith, who is averaging a double-double for the Bears at 19.3 points and 13.1 rebounds per game. The Tigers also have their own double-double machine in junior Aijha Blackwell and compliment three-point shooters in 6’1 Haley Frank and 5’8 Lauren Hansen. Hansen went 9-14 from behind-the-arc versus Lehigh on November 28 – they will need that scoring punch from deep to stay with Baylor. The Bears will get out in transition and push tempo with their guard trio of Jordan Lewis, Ja’Mee Asberry and Sarah Andrews. Missouri will have to find a way to slow down that tempo to stay with Baylor.
December 5 – Florida at TCU
Florida sits at 6-2 under interim head coach Kelly Rae Finley having rattled off five wins in a row. The Gators go on the road to George Mason Wednesday before heading to Ft. Worth. Three players are averaging double figures to start the year, including 6’1 junior Lavender Briggs. Turnovers have been an issue, even in their wins. Florida will have to be better about not giving away possessions against a scrappy and athletic TCU defense. The Horned Frogs (2-3) also play Wednesday at home versus SE Louisiana. They have had their own struggles, mostly on offense and on the glass. “Super senior” guard Lauren Heard does almost everything for this team, including averaging 17 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, leads them in assists and shoots 70% from the free throw line. TCU will need others to step up and not only defend Florida but help Heard rebound and put points on the board.
December 5 – Oklahoma State vs. Auburn
Oklahoma State has started the year 3-3 and comes into this game with back-to-back losses at the South Point Shootout in Las Vegas. The Cowgirls have turned up the pressure on teams with their defense, turning #11 Tennessee over 23 times even in that 80-55 loss. The struggles have been getting those stops and then scoring on the other end as they are averaging 55.5 points per game. OSU is led in scoring by 5’9 guard Lauren Fields (12.7 points per game) and in rebounding by 6’1 forward Taylen Collins. The Tigers are 4-3 to start the year under first year head coach Johnnie Harris. Guard Honesty Scott-Grayson has registered two double-doubles on the year and is averaging 11.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Just like the Cowgirls, Auburn will turn up the heat with their defense – this will be a battle of who handles it the best.
December 5 – Vanderbilt at Kansas
Vanderbilt head coach Shea Ralph is in year one of rebuilding a program with a storied history. The Commodores are 5-4 and finding ways to stay in games with veteran players setting the tone and everyone attacking the glass on both ends of the floor. Seniors Brinae Alexander and Jordyn Cambridge lead the team in scoring and rebounding respectively. But Vanderbilt will need to start putting together games for a full 40 minutes and taking care of the basketball. Kansas will look to capitalize on their 20+ turnovers a game for transition baskets and extra possessions. The Jayhawks host UTRGV Wednesday at home and will look to improve to 6-1. Their early success has come by shutting down opponents and then blistering them with balanced scoring from juniors Holly Kersgieter and Zakiyah Franklin and senior Aniya Thomas. This will be a possession game – who values it more?
December 5 – #15 Texas at #17 Texas A&M
This is Gary Blair’s last hurrah in the Big 12/SEC Challenge and what could be a better storyline than to have his Aggies host his friend and former assistant, Vic Shafer and Texas. The Longhorns are 4-1, including a win at Stanford. They host Jackson State tonight before they turn to the A&M scouting report. The Longhorns are averaging 86.6 points per game with 4 players averaging double figures, including 5’7 guard Aliyah Matharu who is shooting 43% from three-point range. Texas will be in your face for 40 minutes and 94 feet. They have a +13.8-turnover margin over their opponents and will expend all their energy to make you feel uncomfortable. Texas A&M has quietly been climbing in the polls and sits at 7-0 with a match up against Little Rock tonight. They are winning as they always do with their defense (32% FG defense) and balanced scoring. Guards Kayla Wells and Jordan Nixon are each averaging 17 points per game and 5’10 Destiny Pitts also averages double figures while leading them in rebounding. This game will be fast and furious – do not get comfortable because you never know what will happen. Get ready for 40 minutes of chaos which is going to be fun to watch.
Written by Missy Heidrick
I am a former shooting guard at Kansas State and spent almost 20 years working in Higher Education and Division 1 athletics. I am currently a basketball analyst for television and radio, contributing correspondent at The Next, WBB Naismith Award board of selectors member and run my own consulting business. I am a proud mother of two and wife to a patient husband who is almost as big of a sports junkie as I am!