GAME ONE No. 8 seed Florida vs. No. 9 seed Arkansas
RESULT: Florida 68, Arkansas, 59
UP NEXT: No. 1 seed Tennessee at noon Central on Friday
Florida (18-13) opened the game draining shots but Arkansas (18-11) withstood the offensive onslaught, and the Razorbacks used defense to turn what started as a rout into a contested game to open the 2011 SEC Women's Tournament.
The Gators prevailed, 68-59, but had to withstand rallies in both halves by the Razorbacks to survive the first game.
Arkansas started the game as if it were stilling reeling from the end of the season in which the Razorbacks lost in the final seconds to Kentucky and likely torpedoed its chances for the NCAA tourney.
But Arkansas managed to recover from a 26-9 start and used its defense to knot the game at 28 with 6:08 remaining in the first half. Florida, which hit its first eight shots of the game, went on another run and took a 10-point lead, 43-33, into the locker room at halftime.
Arkansas wasn't done, however, as the Razorbacks staged a late rally to tie the game, 49-49, with 10:33 remaining and then took its first lead of the game, 57-55, at the 4:27 mark.
"We've done it several times this year," Florida Coach Amanda Butler said. "We've had a little trouble with maintaining leads."
The Gators reclaimed the lead, 61-59, on a layup by Jennifer George, with 2:46 left in the game and held onto it until the clock struck zero.
"To be able to hold them off, as many offensive weapons as they have, to play the type of defense down the stretch to get the win, really proud of our team and the guts we showed, in particular to make the plays to finish it off," Butler said.
Arkansas was led by Lyndsay Harris with 18 points on six treys. She went down in the final minute of the game and left the bench on crutches after the game. Quistelle Williams added 13 points. The Razorbacks shot 37.9 percent for the game and expended a lot of energy in the first half emerging from a 17-point deficit and did so with defense.
"It's been one of our keys all year is to play really good defense, let that guide us on the offensive end," Arkansas' Sarah Watkins said.
The Razorbacks lost six SEC games this season on the last possession, and those outcomes likely cost Arkansas a shot at the NCAA tourney and instead will wait to hear from the WNIT.
"I think this team is so close to not being just a good basketball team but a great basketball team," Arkansas Coach Tom Collen said. "If you can get down that bad and battle back, no matter what happens, you can find a way to win. That's a great thing for a young team to learn. I think we'll carry that forward with us. It's going to benefit us somewhere down the line."
Florida was led by Ndidi Madu, Deana Allen and Jennifer George, who each scored 12 points. Jordan Jones scored her 1,000th career point and finished with 11. Jaterra Bonds also chipped in with 11 points. The Gators shot 45.8 percent from the field.
"I had no idea until they told me in the locker room," Jordan said of her milestone feat. "It's special but it's even more special it happened in a win. We're coming out of here trying to earn some respect. Having won four in a row that's our goal. That's what our goal was (Thursday), and that's what our goal will be (Friday)."
The Gators, which won their first tourney game since 2008, got off to a great start Thursday and hit their first eight shots, an energy boost they want to bottle for Tennessee.
"We'd like a few bottles of it so if we run out in the first bottle, we can throw some more in the second one," Butler said.
Florida played at noon Thursday so the Gators have established a routine for an early tip.
"These kids and their routine, game times and stuff, these kids are getting up and going to class at 8 o'clock or 9," Butler said. "Having to go to pre-game at 8 is nothing other than what they're doing on a normal Thursday or Friday. It's not much of a departure from what their normal schedule is. I don't think it's a big deal, getting up early.
"I thought we had a fantastic start. That's important for our team. It's going to be really important for our team (Friday) to get out of the gates quickly."
GAME TWO No. 7 seed LSU vs. No. 10 seed Alabama
RESULT: LSU 60, Alabama, 36
UP NEXT: No. 2 seed Kentucky at 2:30 p.m. Central
LSU's defense was the storyline of the second game as Alabama didn't score until 10:17 was left in the first half when Shafontaye Myers connected on a three-pointer.
LSU, 19-12, shot 49.0 percent for the game and wiped out Alabama, which shot 24.1 percent, by a score of 60-36.
The Crimson Tide, which racked up 92 points in the regular season finale against Arkansas, didn't even reach double digits by halftime against LSU and trailed 26-9 at the break. That tied an LSU record for fewest points allowed in half - Centenary (2009) and McNeese State (2006) - and set a record for an SEC opponent.
"Had 92 against Arkansas. Had beat some nice teams," LSU Coach Van Chancellor said. "We didn't want to give them a start. … We controlled the first five minutes of each half. I thought that was the difference in the game."
Alabama, 16-14, has not won an SEC tourney game since 2005 when it defeated Florida. The nine points was a season low in the first half, with the previous low the 13 points scored against LSU in the regular season. The 36 total points tied a tourney record for fewest points in a game, matching Ole Miss in 2008, also against LSU.
"Basically been a team that's made our living on defense," Chancellor said. "When you hold an Alabama team to nine points in the first half … that got my attention."
No player for the Crimson Tide reached double digits. Ericka Russell tallied nine points, and Tierney Jenkins added seven. Freshman Kaneisha Horn had three blocks and six rebounds.
"I thought we played hard," Alabama Coach Wendell Hudson said. "But I thought we did not shoot the ball very well. When we're not shooting the ball very well, we're not as good of a basketball team."
Alabama still finished the season with a record above .500 and could be considered by the WNIT.
"We want to continue to play postseason," Hudson said. "If we can get into the WNIT, we'd love to continue to play."
LSU was led by LaSondra Barrett with 14 points and Adrienne Webb with 13. Taylor Turnbow grabbed 12 rebounds to help LSU dominate the glass overall, 42-29.
"Coach Chancellor tells me I'm the most influential person on this team," Barrett said. "I know a lot of things start with me, the way I come out and approach the game."
Webb added, "I believe it raises our confidence level. Every time she comes out, plays with a lot of energy, knocks down shots, every time we're feeding off of her, also."
LSU was able to go deep into its bench Thursday - a key consideration when playing on the first day - and no player logged more than 31 minutes with 13 Lady Tigers seeing action.
"It sure is good to be hanging around another day," Chancellor said. "I'll tell you that right now."
GAME THREE No. 5 seed South Carolina vs. No. 12 seed Ole Miss
RESULT: South Carolina 62, Ole Miss 50
UP NEXT: No. 4 seed Georgia at 6:30 p.m. Central
South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said before the tournament her team needed at least two wins in Nashville to bolster its case for an NCAA bid - despite finishing fifth in the SEC - and the Gamecocks got the first one Thursday over the Rebels.
South Carolina, 17-13, took the lead at the 15:58 mark of the first half and held onto it for the 62-50 victory over Ole Miss, which had won at least one game in the SEC tourney since 2004. It was the first tourney win for the Gamecocks since 2007.
"I thought our players gave us a gutsy performance," South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said.
Ole Miss, 10-19, was led by freshman Valencia McFarland with 14 points. Nikki Byrd added 13 for the Rebels and Kenyotta Jenkins chipped in with nine points. Ole Miss prevailed on the boards, 45-43, but shot 26.9 percent from the field, including 1-20 (5 percent) from behind the arc.
"One of the keys for us was not to allow them any three-pointers," Staley said. "I think we were just trying to make them put the ball on the floor."
Ole Miss Coach Renee Ladner pointed to the shooting percentage in her post-game remarks.
"I just think it's very difficult to win games when you shoot 26 percent from the floor," Ladner said. "We did a lot of good things right. We just couldn't make the ball go in the hole. We tried to do everything in our power to score."
Ole Miss had just four turnovers and the normally stellar Rebels from the free throw line connected on just 13-26 from the stripe.
"For the most part we took very good care of the ball," Ladner said. "We out-rebounded them. It was almost an ‘almost' game. We'd be right there. They'd pick up the loose ball, knock a shot down. We were almost in every possession."
The Rebels are a young team that hopes to springboard from a boatload of game experience to a better performance next season.
"This off-season we're going to continue to work hard and grow as a team," McFarland said.
Ieasia Walker led South Carolina, which shot 43.1 percent as a team, with 15 points while Markeshia Grant added 13 points. Both players also grabbed nine boards.
"I just think we came out ready to win," Grant said. "We came out aggressive. Our defense in the first half, we were a little slow, but in the second half we came out and we just started executing."
South Carolina managed to get the lead to double digits, 48-38, with 8:46 to play and kept the Rebels at bay for the rest of the game.
"We've never blown any teams out," Staley said. "All the games are going to be close with us. If we can give ourselves a cushion, probably a 10-point cushion down the stretch, it's only going to benefit us."
GAME FOUR No. 6 seed Auburn vs. No. 11 seed Mississippi State
RESULT: Mississippi State 49, Auburn 47
UP NEXT: No. 3 seed Vanderbilt at 9 p.m. Central
The final game of the first day turned into a thrilling contest after both teams struggled to score in the first half.
Mississippi State, 13-16, kept its season alive with the upset win over Auburn, 15-15, in a game that wasn't decided until the final buzzer when the Lady Bulldogs held on, 49-47.
"It's a whole new season when you get to the SEC tournament, just like it is when you begin SEC play," Mississippi State Coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said.
Mississippi State trailed until the final 27 seconds in a game in which it seemed neither team could score. With 10:50 left before halftime, Auburn led 5-2, in a score more fitting for the Nashville Predators hockey team at Bridgestone Arena.
"Both teams started off shooting the ball bad," Mississippi State's Mary Kathryn Govero said. "We were thankful we were only down I think seven at halftime. We rallied back in the second half. A lot of credit to Diamber. She kind of put us on our back for a spell there, took charge."
The Lady Bulldogs did indeed trail by seven points, 22-15, at the break as both teams mustered some offense by halftime.
Diamber Johnson led the late charge for Mississippi State. It was her three with 2:54 left in the game that tied the score at 46, and she hit the go-ahead jumper with 1:27 left to give Mississippi State a 48-46 lead.
Auburn didn't hit a field goal over the final 3:23 of the game, and Alli Smalley's baseline jumper to tie the game went a little long, prompting a joyous celebration by Mississippi State, which won at least one game at the SEC tourney for the third consecutive year.
Smalley played quite a bit at point guard with sophomore Morgan Toles out because of a concussion and had a good look at the end of the game.
"I came off of two screens," Smalley said. "I had some daylight in the corner. I was a little bit behind the backboard, but it was a shot I should have hit. Just a tough break."
Smalley tallied 14 points. Chantel Hilliard led Auburn with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
"No question, it's disappointing to lose," Auburn Coach Nell Fortner said. "Especially when you have a senior as good as Alli Smalley, what a tremendous career she's had at Auburn. Just so proud of her. I hate that we lost this first game because I thought she played her tail off tonight, like a senior does."
Johnson led Mississippi State with 16 points while Govero added 15, and Catina Bett chipped in with 10. Ashley Brown grabbed nine boards.
Auburn paid a lot of attention to Govero, the team's leading scorer, and Johnson stepped up for Mississippi State.
"I just saw that there was a couple times I jumped at the basket because they were all looking at M-Kat," Johnson said, referring to Govero. "I was just reading the defense, not necessarily going for the play that was called."
The Lady Bulldogs had to wipe out an 11-point lead by Auburn midway through the second half to take the tourney win.
"I think a lot of it was just, ‘C'mon, y'all, let's pull together right now. Leave it all out on the court,' " said Govero, a senior. We knew it's win or go home.
"We tried to rally together as a team. Whether it was going to be win or lose, we were going to leave everything we had out there."
ODDS AND ENDS
BEST BAND HUMOR: That of the Arkansas Razorbacks. During the starting lineups, each time a Gator player was announced, they chanted lines ranging from "Are you on Facebook?" to "Who cares!" to "She's cute!"
FIRST BASKET: C'eira Ricketts of Arkansas opened the tourney with a layup. It wasn't a sign of things to immediately come as Florida started 8-8 while Arkansas was 3-10 and down 18-7 at the first media timeout.
BEST FANS That is always easy to call - the ones cheering for Tennessee. Despite the fact the Lady Vols don't play until Friday, the UT fans were in the arena in greater numbers than other teams' supporters on the opening day. They likely were scouting Florida-Arkansas and didn't cheer for either team.
BEST FASHION STATEMENT: That of Florida Coach Amanda Butler who slipped off her dress shoes as soon as she got to the tunnel area to walk to the locker room at halftime. Butler, who is from Tennessee, laughed when she was told it was OK to go barefoot in this state.
MOST CASUAL ATTIRE: That of the Ole Miss pep band whose members wore long-sleeved gray T-shirts with Ole Miss in red lettering and jeans, eschewing the usual attire of polo shirts and khaki pants.
BEST-DRESSED FANS: A group of Tennessee supporters wearing orange top hats with white fringe - think stylish lampshade - feather boas and orange T-shirts.
MOST POPULAR COACHES: The three assistants from Tennessee. Holly Warlick, Dean Lockwood and Mickie DeMoss were courtside to scout the Arkansas-Florida game and fans leaned over the wall to get autographs and take photos. It was a manageable crowd. If Pat Summitt makes an appearance, the ushers have to restore order.
MOST ENERGETIC FAN: The one in the Crimson Tide section who, despite the lopsided score, cheered, encouraged and coached the team throughout the game with suggestions for the officials delivered politely and often correctly. Alabama could have used her on its sideline as the bench was rather sedate throughout the game.
MOST ENTERTAINING COACH: Always LSU's Van Chancellor. When asked about his team deserving an NCAA bid, Chancellor closed his passionate speech with a reference to a cup of coffee and cell phones.
"My opinion used to be 50 cents could get you a cup of coffee, takes $1.50, $1.75 today," Chancellor said. "That's one of the biggest things that changed in my life, that and cell phones. But that's neither here nor there. Next question."
Chancellor could have added LSU playing on the first day of the SEC tourney. That hadn't happened in a decade before Thursday.
The price for a cup of coffee on the concourse of the Bridgestone Arena was $3, but it was quite good.
BEST BAND DUO: That of Ole Miss and South Carolina. Ole Miss members provided the lyrics while South Carolina played "Sweet Caroline." So good, so good, so good.
POLITEST BAND MEMBER: One from Mississippi State. After a questionable travel call, he yelled, "Ms. Official, I disagree with your call."
BEST INTERACTIVE FEATURE: The overhead scoreboard/screen. Fans could email cell phone photos of themselves in the stands, and they appeared on the big screen during breaks in the games.
NIGHT OWLS: The coaching staff of Vanderbilt. Melanie Balcomb and assistants were courtside for the last game between Auburn and Mississippi State for scouting purposes. The Commodores will face the winner at 9 p.m. Central on Friday.