March 3, 2023
Two record-breaking upsets lead Day 2 of SEC Tournament
Kentucky: 'We're dangerous now because we've got nothing to lose'
GREENVILLE, S.C. — Day 2 of the SEC Tournament brought us redemption, upsets and beautiful basketball and illustrated why March is the best time of the year.
On Thursday, the SEC Tournament upset record fell in back-to-back games. First, No. 13 Texas A&M upset No. 5 Mississippi State to be the first No. 13 seed to make the quarterfinals since the tournament expanded. Mere hours later, No. 14 Kentucky’s win over No. 6 Alabama broke the earlier record, making Kentucky the lowest-ever seed to make it to the quarterfinals.
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SEC Game of the Day
Despite the fantastic upsets, I’m giving this to No. 8 Arkansas’ win over No. 9 Missouri, proving what Mike Neighbors’ squad is capable of.
SEC Moment of the Day
Kentucky’s huge upset, mirroring its trajectory last year when it beat South Carolina for the tournament title, was met with “MVP” chats from its band and a postgame scrum of excitement.
SEC Fun of the Day
I want to bring you a moment of non-basketball fun from the tournament each day. Forgive me if it’s always mascot-related. Thursday’s is Aubie the Tiger, who really brought the energy. Maybe I’m biased because he danced for me, but Aubie is a star.
Game 1 (Game 3 of Tournament): No. 8 Arkansas vs. No. 9 Missouri
Summary: These neck-and-neck teams, Arkansas sitting 7-9 and Missouri 6-10, battled back and forth with 12 lead changes throughout the first half, despite Arkansas leader Makayla Daniels missing most of the half after going down with an ankle injury and being escorted off the court. Daniels returned after the half, and Missouri promptly took a solid lead in the third quarter, going on a 10-0 run. But as the Hogs went into the fourth quarter, they put it in another gear offensively and defensively. They couldn’t miss from 3-point range and ended up outscoring Missouri 29-10 in the final frame. And as Missouri imploded, the Razorbacks won 85-74. Both teams were extremely hot from three, making a combined 25 triples.
What it means to Arkansas: This may be the most important game of the Razorbacks’ season. The team is on the bubble for an NCAA Tournament spot, so every win is crucial, and you could feel the relief postgame. But what was most important was that this team battled to a tough win, something it is often incapable of doing. Daniels was out for most of the first half, Erynn Barnum was in foul trouble; only clocking four points; and apparently, Samara Spencer played half of the fourth quarter with just one contact.
It felt like the type of game that Neighbors would explain didn’t go well because a lot of little things went wrong, but instead, the team overcame and had a dramatic redemption. Neighbors told The Next in mid-February that his team’s confidence was shaken, but today it looked intact. “You see our kids when they get a little bit of confidence … whew, it’s a lot.”
The Razorbacks couldn’t have done it without No. 34 Chrissy Carr, who had a career-best 34 points on six 3-pointers, a feat for which Neighbors coined the hashtag #34for34.
However, Daniels came to postgame in a boot. She called the ankle injury a “little tweak,” and hopefully she’s right as Arkansas matches up against an undefeated South Carolina team on Friday. The Razorbacks really have their work cut out for them, but if they can build off of that confidence, they have a shot at a good fight.
The end for Mizzou: This was potentially the end for Mizzou unless it gets a WNIT bid. The Tigers can rest easy knowing they left it all out on the 3-point line, but defensively they lacked a lot. They seemed defeated postgame, with departing grad student Haley Troup reflecting on her time in Columbia and being welcomed with open arms.
The good news for Missouri is that leading scorer Hayley Frank told media postgame she was taking her COVID year, and they can hope and beg that she stays in her home state of Missouri. According to head coach Robin Pingeton, the incoming class will bring a lot of depth, and she hopes to grow the post and point guard positions. But with the Tigers’ most recent NCAA Tournament appearance coming in 2019, it’s unclear whether Pingeton will keep her job, and they may need to rebuild.
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Game 2 (Game 4 of Tournament): No. 5 Mississippi State vs. No. 13 Texas A&M
Summary: During the first quarter, it looked like Texas A&M’s earlier upset was just a fluke and it’d soon be on its way back to College Station. But then Texas A&M shut out Mississippi State until minute seven of the second quarter, completely dominating the quarter 18-5. The Bulldogs lacked energy and could never get their lead back, largely because Texas A&M shot 65% from 3-point range and was ferocious on both ends. The game stayed close, but the Aggies upset the Bulldogs 79-72.
Texas A&M peaks at the right time: Before this tournament, Texas A&M had won just seven games all season and two in SEC play. By all statistical purposes, they were pretty abysmal. But that’s not what March is about. Extremely well coached by head coach Joni Taylor and the second-youngest team in the conference, the Aggies finally seem to be gelling and hitting their stride. They have minimal injuries, their freshman gained experience, and they understand their chemistry.
“When you got freshmen that get punched and they get a lot of play[ing] time, guess what: Those freshmen get better,” Mississippi State head coach Sam Purcell told reporters about Texas A&M. One of those freshmen was Janiah Barker, who spent some time injured but proved her talent on Thursday with a monstrous block in the final minutes.
“Our babies are growing up,” Taylor said, and we’ll see how high their ceiling is against Mississippi on Friday.
Mississippi State looks to NCAA Tournament: Although Purcell said his team brought the intensity, I wasn’t sure I agreed. It seemed this MSU team gave up by the end, and although the Bulldogs kept it close, something was missing. As graduate student guard Ahlana Smith said, “Credit to them, but I think tonight we beat ourselves.”
However, it didn’t seem that the Bulldogs were that upset about the loss, as they’re a near-lock for the NCAA Tournament. Purcell, who’s coming off of an assistant coaching tenure at Louisville, told reporters and his team about Louisville’s trajectory last year: upset early in the ACC Tournament, then made the Final Four. It seems that the ever-positive Purcell is quickly transitioning his team into the NCAA mindset instead of getting bogged down by Thursday’s loss.
Game 3 (Game 5 of Tournament): No. 7 Georgia vs. No. 10 Auburn
Summary: In the first five minutes of play, Georgia did not score a single basket. That’s where its worse hand ended. After that, the Dawgs took the game, playing elite defense and clicking on offense. Diamond Battles’ 18 points, along with Alisha Lewis’ 12 assists, was too much for Auburn, which had only Aicha Coulibaly cooking. Although it stayed within a respectable distance all game, Auburn went for a much more aggressive defense in the last quarter that was still no match for Georgia and lost 63-47, the largest margin of any game so far in this tournament.
Georgia is no No. 7 seed: Despite some early-season struggles, including a loss to Texas A&M, Georgia has really pulled it together. Its zone defense is a thing of beauty, and although it’s not high-scoring, it has fantastic offensive components. Head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson has taught her players to adapt well, and they work on defense every day. Battles attributes the Bulldogs’ success to leadership and wanting wins “really bad.” Next, Georgia plays an LSU team that has only lost to South Carolina this season, but I think if any team can upset LSU, it’s this well-oiled UGA machine.
Auburn’s disappointing end: In postgame media, head coach Johnnie Harris seemed very disappointed in her team. She pointed out the lack of energy on the offensive glass, lack of capitalizing on turnovers, and more. She was happy with the defense but not her team’s effort. Freshman Sydney Shaw told media, “Honestly, I just didn’t want to go home” and was upset with how the season ended.
Auburn may have a shot at the WNIT, but likely the season is over. Harris wants to work on her team’s toughness, but with the transfer portal’s popularity, I wonder what this team will look like next year.
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Game 4 (Game 6 of Tournament): No. 6 Alabama vs. No. 14 Kentucky
Summary: Until the third quarter, Kentucky trailed Alabama by just a small spread, impressive for a team with two conference wins. Then something happened to Kentucky, and junior guards Maddie Scherr and Eniya Russell got hot and put on a clinic. Alabama shot so-so, but Kentucky outworked the Crimson Tide, getting gritty steals and building off Wednesday’s momentum. After Kentucky took the lead, Alabama could never come back, and the Wildcats upset the Crimson Tide 71-58.
Kentucky is built different in March: When Kentucky beat Florida on Wednesday in a flukey post-fight matchup, I thought it was just a one-time thing, aspirationally evoking its tournament run last year. But I failed to consider the freight train momentum a team has after an upset, fight and previous Cinderella stories. In the final quarter, Kentucky fans filled the stadium with noise, and their team delivered with grit, toughness and energy. It seemed like the Wildcats just couldn’t miss, shooting 66.7% from the field. They had a fire where I knew they couldn’t lose.
They couldn’t have done it without sophomore Jada Walker, who had a career-high 24 points. When asked why Kentucky basketball is different in March, players and head coach Kyra Elzy said, “We’re built different.”
From my perspective, in contrast to Texas A&M, which has hit its stride, Kentucky seems like it has simply caught the tournament bug and is riding it as far as it’ll go. And although a No. 14 seed beating a No. 3 seed is nearly unheard of, Kentucky’s momentum may run down Tennessee’s inability to deliver in close moments. As players said, “We’re dangerous now because we’ve got nothing to lose.”
Alabama barely knows what happens: Alabama head coach Kristy Curry said she doesn’t think her players stepped up at the time of year that they needed to, and her team missed vital opportunities at the free throw line and the rim. Kentucky held All-SEC First Team player Brittany Davis to nine points, and Curry couldn’t understand why, other than Davis couldn’t step up. Curry gave most of the credit to Kentucky, further proving that the Wildcats’ momentum is at another level.
Prior to the SEC Tournament, Alabama had lost three games in a row, and it seems that it couldn’t overcome the “slippage.” It’s a near-lock for the NCAA Tournament, but it will need to have a mindset flip in the next couple of weeks to have a chance to win there.