March 4, 2023 

SEC Tournament returns to chalk in emotional Day 3

South Carolina's depth is 'demoralizing'

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Although Day 3 of the SEC Tournament didn’t have the shiny upsets of previous days, Friday’s action illustrated the emotion of basketball and provided insight on the top four teams in the conference.

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SEC Game of the Day

The final matchup of the day, Tennessee vs. Kentucky, proved to be exciting with No. 14 Kentucky coming within four points of an upset, but the seasoned Lady Vols put an end to the Wildcats’ Cinderella story.

SEC Moment of the Day

Greenville was a different city on Friday. Around Bon Secours Wellness Arena, the streets were packed, the stadium was loud, and the traffic was atrocious as Gamecocks fans came out in droves. Columbia, S.C. is just an hour and a half away, and nearly 7,500 people attended the earlier games. Later in the day, the stadium filled with orange, and although the Tennessee crowd was quieter, it again proved how dedicated SEC fans are to women’s basketball.

SEC Fun of the Day

I really tried to not go with mascots once again, but in a crazy weather delay during LSU vs. Georgia, their mascots Hairy Dawg and Mike the Tiger got into a pretty serious dance battle lasting at least four full songs. Enjoy the video.

Hairy Dawg and Mike the Tiger face off in a dance battle at the SEC Tournament at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C., on March 3, 2023. (Video credit: Gabriella Lewis)

Game 1 (Game 7 of Tournament): No. 8 Arkansas vs. No. 1 South Carolina

An Arkansas player rises to shoot as a South Carolina player closely contests.
Arkansas and South Carolina matched up at the SEC Tournament at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C., on March 3, 2023. (Photo credit: SEC)

Summary: The Gamecocks took an almost immediate lead, and though the Razorbacks kept it pretty close for much of the first half, South Carolina’s depth overtook the smaller Arkansas squad. By half, the spread was 15. In the third quarter, when South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley began to use more of her bench, the Hogs kept it tied 17-17 but looked fatigued. The margin only widened from there, leaving the Gamecocks with a 27-point win, 93-66.

South Carolina’s depth is “demoralizing”: I think Arkansas head coach Mike Neighbors said it best about South Carolina when he said, “Their depth is demoralizing.” The Gamecocks’ starting five is incredible, but when they bring 6’7 center Kamilla Cardoso and Canadian national team forward Laeticia Amihere off the bench to score a combined 30 points, there might not be a team in the country they won’t beat. Guard Zia Cooke had a slow night, illustrating her inconsistencies, but again, it didn’t really matter. This team does all the little things right, which truly shows how well-coached they are and how well they play together. In addition, their size is unmatched, and they got 60 points in the paint, led by senior forward Victaria Saxton’s 19-point performance.

It’s challenging to envision a world where South Carolina loses, but Kentucky did upset the Gamecocks in the 2022 SEC Tournament championship game, so it’s not impossible. Neighbors said this is one of the better college basketball teams he’s ever seen, equating it with some of the “great UConn teams.” And if South Carolina can keep this undefeated streak (now 30-0 this season), it may go down as one of the best teams of the last 10 years or longer.

What it means for Arkansas: Basically, Arkansas did the best it could, and Neighbors agreed: “To have this type of performance from our kids this time of the year and [in] this environment against that team, we’ll fly home with a lot of pride.”

This Arkansas team, considered one of the first teams out of the NCAA Tournament before Friday’s game, was no match for South Carolina. Arkansas’ team ball has seriously lacked recently, and its scoring distribution on Friday was unideal, with just three players scoring in double figures and five of the nine players who entered the game scoring under five points.

Even though the Razorbacks don’t seem to be working together as much on the court, their togetherness seems fantastic off the court. They talk a lot about each other, the confidence they instill in one another, and leadership.

However, credit to the Razorbacks because they never gave up, and as Staley said, “They’re never out of the game because of their ability to shoot the three.” The Hogs, who have struggled with confidence all season, seemed to reflect well on their mindset, speaking about how playing South Carolina is all mental, from rebounding to confidence to shooting the ball. Sophomore guard Samara Spencer told reporters that the team gave “a lot more gut, a lot more grit” in this matchup against South Carolina than in previous games, and it seems that the team has improved its tenacity by leaps and bounds.

Neighbors said on Thursday that he hoped that his team would put up a good fight to bolster its NCAA Tournament chances. After the game, Staley said, “Oh, they’re in without a doubt.” It’s up to the selection committee, but if it were up to these SEC coaches, the Razorbacks would see more of the postseason.

Game 2 (Game 8 of Tournament): No. 4 Mississippi vs. No. 13 Texas A&M

Summary: Texas A&M and Mississippi kept it close throughout the first quarter, but Mississippi took over in the second and never looked back. The Aggies lost steam, and the Rebels dominated. The Rebels had a brief scoring drought in the third quarter, but A&M couldn’t capitalize, and Mississippi blew the game open, winning 77-60.

Veteran Mississippi is ready for South Carolina: Full of graduate students and upperclassmen, Mississippi is a veteran team that plays like it. The best illustration of that is fifth-year guard and All-SEC First Team member Angel Baker, who scored 23 points, telling media, “I’m getting old, Jesus Christ.”

Baker and her team took Texas A&M for a ride. They had tons of energy, 12 steals and good shooting, and they ran circles around the less experienced Aggies. However, they need to work on staying out of foul trouble.

Mississippi head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin said that it was like playing a brand-new Texas A&M team on Friday, featuring five different players from the last time they matched up, but Mississippi plays well together and adapts. McPhee-McCuin was proud that she played every player on Friday, as that depth is the only way the Rebels can beat South Carolina.

Mississippi and Stanford are the only teams in the country that have had a true shot at beating South Carolina, sending them both to overtime. From what most teams say, playing South Carolina is a mental battle, and having a close last game is crucial. “I won’t have to convince my team that they can play with them. This time, I can just focus on the X’s and O’s,” McPhee-McCuin said.

The future is bright for Texas A&M: The good news for Texas A&M is Janiah Barker. The freshman registered a double-double on Friday and is an absolute beast. She is a monster at the rim, with a great basketball IQ, and highly coachable, according to head coach Joni Taylor. Barker told The Next that she’d be returning to Texas A&M but only plans to play three years there before heading to the WNBA. Freshman Sydney Battles is another star who broke out this tournament, and things in College Station are going to get better.

But on Friday, things just didn’t work out. The dynamite shooting that kept the Aggies alive in the last two games dropped to an abysmal 9% from 3-point range and 35% overall. Mississippi was the better team, and its experience showed with forced turnovers and pressure.

Even though the Aggies’ run seemed impressive to the outside world, they were unsatisfied. Barker told The Next that the SEC Tournament was all about redemption, and although the other wins were sweet, she said about Mississippi, “I really wanted it.” The postgame presser was extremely emotional as Aaliyah Patty said goodbye to this team and her collegiate career.

“We all just wanted to fight for each other,” Patty said through tears. “I think we shocked a lot of people the past two games. I don’t think tonight was our night, and that happens.”

Game 3 (Game 9 of Tournament): No. 2 LSU vs. No. 7 Georgia

LSU's Alexis Morris flashes four fingers on each hand, her elbows extended to the side and hands pointing down.
LSU’s Alexis Morris celebrates in an SEC Tournament game against Georgia at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C., on March 3, 2023. (Photo credit: SEC)

Summary: LSU came out of the gates running with guard Alexis Morris immediately raining threes. Georgia struggled to defend the 3-point line, and LSU just kept shooting. Midway into the second quarter, Georgia cut it to four until severe weather caused “a damper to open in an exhaust fan in the roof, allowing water to enter the roof and fall to the court,” according to a statement by the SEC. This caused a delay of 30-plus minutes, and after the game resumed, there were constant stoppages and fouls in a very physical, chippy and downright tense game. But LSU just kept building its lead thanks to their guards’ shooting, and despite Georgia’s best defensive efforts, the Tigers took the 83-66 win.

If you don’t trust my summary, check out Flau’jae Johnson’s rap version:

LSU proves its Big Three: On Friday, LSU star Angel Reese immediately found herself in foul trouble, sat on the bench for much of the game, and didn’t get her usual double-double. But the Tigers were fine without her. Morris and Johnson picked up the slack, scoring 28 and 21 points, respectively. The pair combined for 10 3-pointers, with the team shooting 50% from long range. Their dominance proves that this is not just Reese’s team, and although the Tigers may not be as deep as South Carolina, they’ve got many explosive stars. Head coach Kim Mulkey (fully clad in animal print) praised many of her players, calling Johnson an “entertainer” on and off the court and deeming sophomore guard Kateri Poole the night’s star.

It seems that this LSU team has really come together and looks out for one another, exhibited by the bear hug Reese wrapped freshman forward Sa’Myah Smith in after she got hit in the face by a Georgia player. Mulkey says they have fun and “they get on each other. They probably get on each other more than I get on them.” This united front will serve them well going forward.

Confidence is key for the Dawgs: According to Georgia head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson, the stoppage really hurt her team’s momentum, and the Bulldogs never got it back. Their defense was impressive, with good rebounding and 10 steals, but they couldn’t keep up with LSU’s shooting and struggled to adjust.

The Bulldogs also turned the ball over more than they should have and didn’t shoot well, but their confidence isn’t lost. After a fantastic February and a great start to the SEC Tournament, Georgia seems confident in who it is. And although things got a bit ugly on the court with techs and physicality, that shows Georgia won’t back down to anyone, even one of the best teams in the country. With their near-lock status in the NCAA Tournament, the Dawgs need to bring this energy to go somewhere in the rest of the postseason.

Game 4 (Game 6 of Tournament): No. 3 Tennessee vs. No. 14 Kentucky

Two Kentucky players and head coach Kyra Elzy sit at a table with the SEC logo on a backdrop behind them. All look down at the table.
An emotional Kentucky team addresses the media after a loss to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C., on March 3, 2023. (Photo credit: Gabriella Lewis)

Summary: Kentucky kept things close in the first quarter but lost control in the second. In the final five minutes of the game, Kentucky cut Tennessee’s lead to just four points, but a key block by senior guard Jordan Horston and continued dynamite shooting from senior forward Rickea Jackson ended Kentucky’s Cinderella story with a 80-71 Tennessee win. Ultimately, Tennessee was just too skilled for the Wildcats’ momentum that had overcome Alabama a day earlier.

Vols prove growth: In the final five minutes of this game, when Kentucky cut the lead to four, I thought I was going to see Tennessee implode at the end of a game like it so often does — or at least used to do. Instead, the Vols found poise and focus to finish out the win. And although they got hammered in nonconference play due to an extremely challenging schedule, those tough moments have seemingly paid off. This Vols squad looks confident and ready for more.

That said, Tennessee played a far from perfect game. It really needs to work on reducing turnovers and toughening up on defense. But Jackson’s career-high 14-for-14 performance on free throws and overall 34 points, along with Horston’s elite basketball IQ, kept the Vols in the game.

Kentucky’s emotional end: Similar to Texas A&M, despite an unlikely tournament run, Friday was a sad day for Kentucky. Tearful seniors Blair Green and Robyn Benton used the postgame press conference to say goodbye to the Kentucky program. Elzy told reporters that “today is [always] the hardest” when it comes to saying goodbye.

Elzy praised her team for its grit and tenacity. Kentucky proved it was a team that never gave up. And Elzy has proven that she is the queen of the SEC Tournament over the past two years.

Kentucky truly does have another tournament gear, shown in the ability to get important buckets in the right moments. And this run may help Kentucky in the long run. With only two conference wins entering the tournament, it would be easy for players to leave or coaches to be questioned, but this run is now the last memory in everyone’s head.

On Friday, Kentucky showed how emotional basketball can be — and how tightly knit the Wildcats’ fans, known as Big Blue Nation, are. After the loss, the program honored its seniors by coming together with its band to sing the Kentucky fight song.

Members of the Kentucky program, along with cheerleaders and the mascot, put their arms around each other and sing.
Big Blue Nation sings together after Kentucky was eliminated from the SEC Tournament at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C., on March 3, 2023. (Photo credit: Gabriella Lewis)

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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