"The good thing about having five seniors on your team is that this is it for them," Auburn coach Nell Fortner said. "They are hungry to make that NCAA Tournament and they know that the only way they can do that is to go to the SEC Tournament and have a really strong showing. That will not be a problem for them. They are ready to pick up the ball and go at it. That is a great benefit to having five seniors on your team."
Auburn started 1-5 in SEC play and 10-9 overall, but made a late push for an NCAA bid by winning five of seven games. However, a season-ending loss to Mississippi State last Sunday knocked the Tigers out of contention unless they make a run in Greenville.
The loss to the Bulldogs put Auburn at 15-12 overall and 6-8 in the SEC. No SEC team has ever been left out of the tournament with seven regular season conference wins.
"Our strength of schedule has risen to five and our RPI is now at 36," Fortner said. "Realistically, if we can get a win over a Top 10 team, we have a great shot at getting in there. Again, that is just my opinion. I don't know what will happen, but I don't think we will have a chance if we don't get two wins in the tournament."
Senior Natasha Brackett earned first team All-SEC honors for the Tigers.
Auburn and Kentucky (15-14 overall, 4-10 in the SEC) played once earlier this year in Auburn on Feb. 13 and the Tigers took at decisive 65-50 victory.
"We should beat Kentucky and we're expected to win," said junior forward Louise Emeagi. "It's just going to be a case of playing tough defense, me hitting the threes, (Natasha) Brackett making all of her spectacular shots and we should be fine."
If Auburn gets past the Wildcats, the second round game will be much tougher. Although the Lady Vols are a lock for the NCAA tournament, at 23-4 overall, 13-1 in the SEC and ranked fourth in the country, Coach Pat Summit's squad has incentive, too. The Lady Vols are looking to earn a No. 1 seed to the big dance.
Tennessee defeated Auburn at Beard-Eaves 81-71 on Jan. 20.
"In the sense that we beat Kentucky and we played Tennessee tough at home, maybe that is a positive, but I don't know if I would ever choose to play Tennessee," Fortner said. "At least we beat Kentucky and played the other one tough so you have to look at it as a positive. Regardless, in those two games, you just have to get out there and play some of your best basketball, if not your best basketball of the season."
Another SEC team fighting for its postseason life is Florida, which finished the regular season at 14-13 overall and 5-9 in the SEC. With a pair of other bubble teams in line ahead of Florida, the Gators would need to make the finals to have a legitimate chance.
They are set to take the court in the first game of the tournament at noon CST against Alabama (13-14 overall, 4-10 SEC). The winner of that game will have the daunting task of playing the nation's No. 1 ranked team, LSU, which has already locked up a No. 1 seed to the big dance at 27-1 overall record and a flawless SEC record at 14-0. The Tigers' lone loss of the year came in a two-point overtime setback against No. 9 Rutgers on Jan. 5.
The third game of the day matches Ole Miss with South Carolina at 6 p.m. CST. The Lady Rebels finished the regular season at 18-9 and 8-6 in the SEC. South Carolina finished dead last in the league at 2-12. The winner of that game would play the fifth seed and 20th-ranked Georgia (21-8 overall, 9-5 SEC) on Friday.
Mississippi State, another bubble team at 17-10 overall and 6-8 in league play, put itself in contention for an NCAA berth with its victory over Auburn on Sunday. The Bulldogs play in the final game of the day at 8:15 p.m. CST against 11th-seeded Arkansas. The winner of that game will play Vanderbilt (21-6 overall, 10-4 SEC), who will be looking to improve its overall seed heading into the NCAA tournament.
All games of the tournament will televised on Fox Sports South except for the championship game which will be aired on ESPN2 at 6 p.m. CST on Sunday.