March 5, 2023 

Day 4 of SEC Tournament: Tennessee serves LSU second loss of season in stunning comeback

Vols to face Gamecocks in first SEC Championship since 2015

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Yesterday, I said the upsets were over, but Day 4 of the SEC Tournament proved me wrong. Tennessee pulled off a 17-point comeback over a single-loss LSU, and South Carolina’s depth dominance over Mississippi showed just how fun the SEC is.

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Game of the Day

Tonight’s Tennessee vs. LSU game was one for the books. Looking like a clear LSU win throughout the entire first half, the Vols turned it on in the second and fought back from a 17-point deficit to hand LSU only their second loss of the season. In fact, it could’ve been the best game of the entire tournament.

Moment of the Day

Tennessee hasn’t seen an SEC Championship since 2015, and when they beat LSU, the energy was truly special both from the team and their loyal fans.

Fun of the Day

Half the fun of these tournaments is that every single team brings a Spirit Program complete with a band, cheerleaders, and, most of the time, mascots and dance teams. Even when there are not copious fans for a specific team in the crowd, the Spirit Teams are unrelentingly raucous in between their own performances. I’m cheating a bit because this was technically Friday, but members of Georgia’s Spirit Team spoke to me about the tournament.

“Our job is to make them feel supported and encouraged and bring a bunch of energy for them to be able to do their best. And so whether or not spectators come we’re gonna do our job regardless,” Georgia Dance Team member Maggie Epps told The Next. “We just love getting to come and be a support system for them.”

Kentucky Spirit Team members hoist The Wildcat on March 3 at Bon Secours Wellness Arena at the 2023 SEC Tournament (Photo credit: Gabriella Lewis).

Game 1 (Game 11 of Tournament): No. 1 South Carolina vs. No. 4 Mississippi

Summary: The first minutes of this matchup were a solid back and forth until Mississippi went on a 2.5-minute dry spell, and the Gamecocks began to pull away. And despite Mississippi’s effort, their shooting in the second quarter only worsened, and South Carolina’s depth overcame. The Rebels were a bit foul-happy, sending South Carolina to the line 12 times to their four in the first. Beginning the second half, bad shooting kept Mississippi scoreless for the first four minutes of the quarter, and even though they shot more than the Gamecocks, the Rebels’ shots didn’t fall in the second half either. In the final minutes, even South Carolina’s deepest bench squad recorded an unanswered run, finishing out the win 80-51.

Game 11 South Carolina vs Ole Miss 2023 Women’s SEC Basketball Tournament in Greenville, SC. on Wednesday, March 4 Elaina Eichorn / SEC Photographer

Bench flexes South Carolina’s strong suits: Not to sound repetitive, but there is no team deeper in the country than South Carolina, and tonight exhibited their tale of depth perfectly. In the first quarter, Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke got the party started with a combined 11 points and five assists. And when Kierra Fletcher went down midway through the second quarter, the bench was ready to pick up the slack. According to Head Coach Dawn Staley, Fletcher is still being evaluated, although she probably could have gotten back in the game.

Freshman Raven Johnson fearlessly stepped up to the plate for Fletcher. 6’7 Kamilla Cardoso, who’s really found her offensive rhythm, provided good support clocking in a casual 12 points and 12 rebounds. But Laeticia Amihere was the real star off the bench with 17 points, six rebounds, and seven assists during a more extended run than Staley usually gives her. “She is the most versatile player I have ever had,” Staley told media postgame. ‘”She can play 1-5. She welcomes all the roles she is given.”

And in even the final minutes, when the team was up over 20, the last unit, met with some of the most raucous applause of the night from Gamecocks fans, were elite, contributing to the team’s closing 12-0 run. Staley said she had never seen the final squad play that well.

Mississippi Head Coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin also cited their size as impossible to overcome. “We’re a pretty good defensive team, and our guards are 5’11, 6′. Her guards are 6’4, Coach Yo said postgame. But the Gamecock X Factor may be their fans. Tonight Bon Secours Wellness Arena was piercingly loud, with over 10,000 fans coming over the two games. The Gamecock FAMS are ever-so-loyal and show up for every player. And since Greenville is just an hour and a half from Columbia, “this is like a home court for them,” Coach Yo said.

Tomorrow, the Gamecocks will face Tennessee who doesn’t have the same depth, but they do have fans that give the Gamecock crowd a run for their money. Dawn Staley and her team never miss a scout and watched the LSU vs. Tennessee match directly after the game.

Game 11 South Carolina vs Ole Miss 2023 Women’s SEC Basketball Tournament in Greenville, SC. on Wednesday, March 4 Elaina Eichorn / SEC Photographer

Mississippi wants to return to “Ole Miss basketball”: Postgame, every single player said the same: “Tonight we didn’t play Ole Miss women’s basketball.” Mississippi was frustrated by their own efforts, but after the second year in a row facing the Gamecocks in the SEC Semifinals, they also acknowledged just how challenging this South Carolina team is.

“I think they look like a championship team tonight,” Coach Yo said. “I don’t see anybody beating them. You can quote that.”

The Rebels’ Achilles heel was their shooting 29% FG and 67% from the stripe. Everything has to go right to overcome the Gamecocks, and shooting like just doesn’t cut it. Coach Yo and the players also criticized the team’s energy and lack of competitiveness. The Rebels had particularly bad starts and finishes, getting outscored 25-14 and 22-12, respectively.

And although Saturday was not their day, they’ll be in the NCAA Tournament, and their team seems disappointed with themselves and feisty to win. Angel Baker and Madison Scott are both talented players, and coupled with the leadership of their veteran squad led by Myah Taylor; this team has the potential for a postseason run if they stay determined and gritty.

Game 2 (Game 12 of Tournament): No. 2 LSU v. No. 3 Tennessee

Summary: In the first half, LSU thoroughly dominated Tennessee, holding them to ten points in the first quarter and 26 points by the half. Midway through the third quarter Tennessee began making a nice run, cutting the margin from 16 to four, largely thanks to the Tigers not scoring a single field goal for over five minutes. In the fourth, the Vols continued to fight back and tied the game 56-56 with 6:40 left. And with just over four minutes on the clock Tennessee took the lead 62-60 for good. But the Tigers were not going down without a fight. With 12 seconds left and down a point, Angel Reese was called for an offensive foul that initially looked like a defensive call on Tennessee. An apoplectic LSU obliged, and Tennessee’s Tess Darby was fouled in the backcourt, only making one of her free throws. With the Vols up just two with four seconds left, Alexis Morris missed from three to end as the buzzer rang, sending Tennessee to the Championship with a 69-67 win.

Tennessee celebrates making it to SEC Championship for the first time since 2015 on March 4, 2023, at Bon Secours Wellness Arena at SEC Tournament (Photo Credit: Tennessee Women’s Basketball Twitter)

Tennessee has learned to battle back: There is no denying Tennessee has had a challenging season, with ten losses, mainly in an extremely challenging pre-conference schedule. But tonight really felt like the win they needed. “That’s been our motto all year, overcoming adversity, and I’m just so proud of our team. We was bending but we didn’t break,” guard Rickea Jackson said to postgame media.

The Vols worked for a win like this. Coach Kellie Harper told The Next in December, “I think the best assessment comes at the end of the year: did we reach our potential as a basketball team?” And although Harper said Saturday night that they couldn’t assess that until the season concluded, it at least seems that a challenging schedule has transformed them from a team who struggled to finish out games to one that is confident and plays whistle to whistle.

“They were really determined to figure out a way to get the win. I don’t know where completely that came from,” Harper said to media. “Did it come from our experience? I think that has to be part of it. It’s just part of our journey this year.”

The Vols really turned it around in the second half, going from 13 turnovers in the first to just four in the second. Jordan Horston, who had just three in the first half, especially turned it around, finishing with 17, which she credited Jackson with. “Rickea staying on me, saying, ‘I need you, Jordy,’” Horston responded about how she flipped the switch. “I don’t like letting people down.” Jackson also had herself a night with 26 points and 10 rebounds. Sophomore Jillian Hollingshead also had an impactful performance with 11 points in 17 minutes, something her teammates were very proud of.

And although Tennessee’s biggest test is still in front of them, facing off against a seemingly unstoppable South Carolina squad, tonight seemed to mean a lot to the Vols, who haven’t made the SEC Championship since 2015. And the Vols fans, who always come out in droves, will be happy about seeing their team in tomorrow’s game too. 

Tennessee and LSU play a gritty game on March 4, 2023, at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in SEC Tournament (Photo Credit: SEC)

LSU handed second loss: As Head Coach Kim Mulkey said, “We came out the gate smoking.” In the first half, LSU started hot; Angel Reese was well on her way to her signature double-double; they made ten steals, shot well, and outscored Tennessee 40-26. In the third quarter, things started to heat up for the Vols, and LSU struggled to respond. Mulkey chalked it up to Tennessee’s change to a zone defense.

“It’s not like we haven’t seen zone this year. It was almost like we were just tired. No one flashed. No one moved. No one screened the zone. We had no dribble penetration to make two take you. We had no ball reversal, nothing. We just relied on the shot clock winding down, set a pick, jack a shot up,” Mulkey told media. “Was that fatigue? I don’t know. But we attack zones every day in practice and it affected us.”

Comparing Tennessee and LSU, it’s easy to think about the dichotomy of their pre-conference schedules. Tennessee had arguably had the most challenging pre-conference schedule in the country, and LSU had far easier schedules with no ranked matchups. And although they both had the challenge of the SEC, tonight, Tennessee’s schedule showed, and LSU’s did as well, just in different ways.

LSU has made it very clear that the SEC Tournament doesn’t matter to them. They’re correct; it doesn’t matter all that much because the real decider of preparedness and experience will be in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Fifth-year senior Alexis Morris, who had 20 tonight, is already preparing her team.

“They probably won’t like me for the next week. That’s because I have the experience, I am proven, and I feel like I am one of the players who can make my team a better team as a whole. We needed more from certain players tonight and certain people, and we’ll get it out of them this week coming up,” Morris said “As soon as I walked in the locker room some of my teammates were saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ Nothing to apologize for. We lost… We can’t worry about the next SEC Tournament.”

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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