2006 Women's SEC Tournament tips off today

NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas – The 2006 SEC Women's Basketball Tournament tips off today with the home state team Arkansas taking on Mississippi at Alltel Arena. By the end of the day, four teams will have been eliminated, and Tennessee will know who its first opponent will be Friday. When the 12 conference coaches participated in a teleconference they pretty much agreed on one thing: There will be upsets and surprise winners.

The defending tourney champion is Tennessee, but the regular season winner was LSU. If the teams play for the postseason title in North Little Rock, they will both have to survive until Sunday. Here's what the coaches had to say:

ALABAMA, No. 11 seed (9-18, 3-11), COACH STEPHANY SMITH

The Crimson Tide will play Vanderbilt at 9:50 p.m. Eastern in the final game of the first day of play.

"Obviously it's been a tough season for us," said Smith who sounded hoarse and was "a little bit under the weather." "We have experienced injuries and other things (the dismissal of two players this year) just like everyone else in the conference. We have played better in the last few weeks, and we will need to play well to have success against Vanderbilt."

"Melanie Balcomb does a great job," Smith said. "She's a tremendous Xs and Os coach. She does a good job with game management. … In the last four minutes they went to a zone. We stumbled a bit against it and weren't able to score a basket in the final minutes. We fouled them, and they hit the free throws down the stretch."

Smith said her team would be facing a Vandy team with "a tremendous amount of tournament experience and tournament success."

ARKANSAS, No. 9 seed (13-14, 5-9), COACH SUSIE GARDNER

The Lady Razorbacks will play Mississippi at 1 p.m. Eastern in the first game of the first day of play.

The two teams just played each other to close out the regular season Sunday with Ole Miss taking the win, 85-78, at home. Now Arkansas gets a quick rematch on what amounts to home turf.

"I think our players are anxious to play them again," Gardner said. "Obviously we're looking forward to the tournament being in Little Rock. It's the best conference tournament around and should be fun for the fans and players."

Arkansas will continue its approach of small ball to try to steal a first round win.

"We're one of the smallest teams in the league," Gardner said. "We're not much at penetrating and drawing fouls. It's not a best-case scenario so we just have to adapt to what we do have. It's not our strength so we're not going to be someone we're not."

AUBURN, No. 10 seed (13-14, 4-10), COACH NELL FORTNER

The Tigers will play South Carolina at 3:30 p.m. Eastern in the second game of the first day of play.

Auburn lost at home to the Gamecocks in the regular season, 58-46, on Feb. 16.

"We are looking forward to playing South Carolina again," Fortner said. "We didn't play our best game last time, and we're looking forward to the rematch. We know we can play better basketball than that. South Carolina has had a really good year and is a very good team."

South Carolina likely needs a win to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive, but Fortner said she hadn't yet thought about which teams in the SEC would be considered on the bubble for the big tourney. She did think that the lower half of the SEC had fallen pretty far from the top teams this season.

"I think there is a discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots this year in league play," Fortner said, and in terms of toughest conference she gave a nod to the ACC.

"I really think the ACC is the toughest in the country this year with Duke, North Carolina and Maryland, my gosh," Fortner said. "The talent and play are the toughest night in and night out. Normally it has been the SEC but not this year. I just don't think we have it this year. This year, top to bottom, it's the ACC."

FLORIDA, No. 5 seed (20-7, 8-6), COACH CAROLYN PECK

The Gators will play Mississippi State at 7:30 p.m. Eastern in the third game of the first day of play.

Florida, which is coming off one of the biggest wins of the season by knocking off Tennessee in Knoxville in overtime, defeated Mississippi State, 63-48, on the road. Now Peck would like her team to win a first round game in the conference tournament.

"In the four years I've been here we haven't been able to get that first round win," Peck said. "I think teams come in prepared, and everyone brings their ‘A' game. It's a new season. The regular season is over. We have to set new goals and refocus."

It would be a major first day upset if Florida loses since the Lady Bulldogs have managed only one conference win all season.

Peck was asked during her portion of the teleconference to look ahead to a possible matchup with Kentucky. The two teams split the regular season – Florida lost at home, 80-65, and then won in Lexington, 68-61.

"It would be a tough challenge," she said. "Kentucky rebounds well. They have great size and can shoot well. … We were not even close to them in rebounding in the first game. We were closer the second time. We concentrated more on defense and not leaving anyone open."

Peck said the challenge for her team right now is handling success. After the Gators upset LSU in Gainesville, they went to Auburn and folded. The win in Knoxville last Sunday landed them in the Top 25 poll at No. 23.

"Our team doesn't put a lot of focus on it, though we are appreciative of the respect," Peck said. "After we won at Tennessee that's one of things our team talked about" in terms of how to respond to a big win.

The team talked about getting back to work, preparing for the postseason and not settling for scattered success.

"You've got to win to stay," Peck said. "A lot of teams are playing on emotion and passion and really turn up their focus."

GEORGIA, No. 3 seed (20-7, 10-4), COACH ANDY LANDERS

The Lady Bulldogs will play the winner of the Alabama-Vanderbilt game on Friday at 9:50 p.m. Eastern. Georgia defeated both in the regular season – 84-59 over Alabama and 83-61 over Vandy.

Landers was conducting practice at the same time as the teleconference and the background noise was replete with instructions and whistles.

"Is it my turn?" Landers asked. "I didn't quite hear the question. We're practicing."

When told it was his turn to talk Landers said, "We're an excited basketball team. We are reasonably pleased with our season. We have been very consistent. We are excited to be in the tournament and play some of our old friends we played earlier in the year."

Landers was asked for his perception of Florida, which Georgia wouldn't face unless both teams make it to the final.

"I think with a great deal of respect because of the way that they've played all year," he said.

Landers anticipates that there will be some surprise outcomes during the tournament.

"You would think there would be a surprise or two in the tournament because there're been surprises in the regular season," he said. "These teams, regardless of their record, are dangerous basketball teams. Now you're bringing all these teams on a neutral floor."

KENTUCKY, No. 4 seed (20-7, 9-5), COACH MICKIE DeMOSS

The Wildcats will play the winner of the Mississippi State-Florida game on Friday at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. DeMoss, who has turned Kentucky from a team in the lower rungs of the SEC to one that earned a first round bye, was announced Tuesday as the conference Coach of the Year.

"We were picked ninth in the preseason poll," DeMoss said. "I'm really proud of what this team has achieved."

A Thursday bye means a team has to win three in a row to take the tourney crown instead of four, which Auburn accomplished for the only time in tourney history in 1997. DeMoss is thankful for the day of rest and additional recovery time.

"Everybody knows how grueling the SEC Tournament can be," she said. "Getting that first round bye is huge. I'm very, very proud of where we are and how far we've come."

Kentucky split the regular season with Florida and beat Mississippi State, 51-46, in Starkville.

"At this point we don't know who we're going to play," DeMoss said. "It has been a real interesting year for this conference. … It should be a very interesting tournament."

A third game with Florida "would be a very good matchup," DeMoss said. "We are very similar, with the exception of them having the more veteran team. They do a good job of pressing and have a strong outside game. We're very familiar with each other. It would be a very hard-fought game."

DeMoss also can foresee upsets in the first two days.

"There's a lot of teams that are very evenly matched," she said. "Anybody can beat anybody. There are so many teams that are just so close."

LSU, No. 1 seed (25-2, 13-1), COACH POKEY CHATMAN

The Tigers will play the winner of the Arkansas-Mississippi game at 1 p.m. Eastern on Friday.

LSU's sole conference loss this season was to Florida. The Tigers defeated Arkansas on the road, 93-59, and Ole Miss at home, 78-63.

"Obviously I'm pleased with the fact we've played well to secure that No. 1 seed," Chatman said. "I'm also aware there are some glaring errors that need to be corrected. If we don't a fine Arkansas or Ole Miss team will do that for us."

When asked if she thought LSU had secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Chatman said that was still to be determined.

"I never feel comfortable with securing anything until it's done," she said. "I'll leave that to the committee and the powers that be."

Chatman has thought about the legacy of her senior class, which has won two consecutive regular season titles and last won the SEC tourney in 2003 when it also was played in North Little Rock.

"We have talked a lot about this senior class and this program," Chatman said. "Last time the tournament was in Little Rock we experienced success there. This team is a group of individuals that look at the task ahead. They understand that there is a lot of hard work that goes into that."

MISSISSIPPI, No. 8 seed (15-12, 5-9), COACH CAROL ROSS

The Lady Rebels will play Arkansas at 1 p.m. Eastern in the first game of the first day of play.

Ole Miss defeated Arkansas to close out the regular season, 85-78. Last year Ole Miss opened tourney play against South Carolina in Greenville, S.C., after closing out the regular season against the same team. This year it's Arkansas in North Little Rock.

"It's déjà vu all over again," Ross said. "We are coming off a disappointing season. We look forward to having a new opportunity to get a new season off to a good start."

For the third year in a row Ole Miss is leading the conference in attempted free throws.

"We just run over people basically," Ross said. "If they don't get out of the way it's a foul."

Playing Arkansas in its home state is "just the way things are," she said. "We'll have to use that as motivation … playing the role of road warrior and spoiler. We'll try to use it in some way to inspire and motivate … to keep Alltel quiet."

Ross said her team had to improve in two areas to have any success at Alltel.

"We have done two things really poorly. One is rebound. We're undersized," Ross said. "Our league has grown tall in a hurry. Second we've got to shoot the ball with some ability to hit some shots … and rebound it when we don't."

MISSISSIPPI STATE, No. 12 seed (6-21, 1-13), COACH SHARON FANNING

The Lady Bulldogs will play Florida at 7:30 p.m. Eastern in the third game of the first day of play.

Mississippi State is the longest shot to win a game in the tournament after a dismal regular season. Florida won in Starkville, 63-48. But the Lady Bulldogs will be encouraged by the fact it's a fresh start, and the Sunday winner will be invited to the NCAA tourney.

"It's a whole new season, and somebody is going to get the automatic bid," Fanning said. "Florida is coming off two of the biggest wins (LSU and Tennessee) in a 10-day span. Florida has good experience on the floor, and they rebound well. We have some things that we need to do. We will need to value every possession, get more possessions, so we can have more opportunities to take shots and hopefully get points. We will have to work hard together and stay focused."

If Mississippi State finds a way to win, it would be the first day's biggest upset.

SOUTH CAROLINA, No. 7 seed (17-10, 7-7), COACH SUSAN WALVIUS

The Gamecocks will play Auburn at 3:30 p.m. Eastern in the second game of the first day of play. Tennessee faces the winner Friday.

South Carolina won the regular season matchup at Auburn, 58-46. The Gamecocks will be a lot more comfortable about their chances for a NCAA bid if they get a win Thursday.

"I think we match up with Auburn fairly well," Walvius said. "We are both big at the three spot. We had a battle at their place. We will have to play better than we did at their place. We need to shoot the ball and play well to win."

Walvius stated her case for a NCAA bid during the teleconference.

"The RPI for us is frustrating for me," Walvius said. "I think if the NCAA wants the best teams, and I think that is what they look to do, then we would be invited. We played several teams in the 300s and even though we beat them by 40 points or more, we would have been better off playing a team in the 100, 150s, and that has hurt our team a little bit. Even though in non-conference we played Texas, Purdue and beat Minnesota I don't know if that helped. I think they should look at the teams we did play and not our RPI. I hope the NCAA will look at how we finished."

All things considered, though, Walvius is happy to be a bubble team as opposed to already being eliminated unless the team wins the SEC tourney.

"If the NCAA committee will look at our last 10 games I think we have an excellent chance of getting in," Walvius said.

The 11th one will be very important, too.

TENNESSEE, No. 2 seed (25-4, 11-3), COACH PAT SUMMITT

The Lady Vols will play the winner of the Auburn-South Carolina game at 3:30 p.m. on Friday. Tennessee beat both teams in the regular season – 66-51 at South Carolina and 81-56 at home against Auburn.

Tennessee was 8-0 this season versus the teams in its half of the SEC bracket – Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina and Vanderbilt – and 3-3 against the teams in the other half – Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi and Ole Miss. To have any shot at revenge against one of the three teams Tennessee lost to – Florida, Kentucky and LSU – the Lady Vols will have to get to Sunday's championship game.

Summitt also was conducting practice during the teleconference just hours after her team lost on its home floor and on senior day – the first time that has ever happened – and her tone of voice made it clear her focus was elsewhere.

"Yes, I'm here," said Summitt, who took the phone courtside. "Obviously we just came off a very disappointing loss to Florida but hopefully that will make us refocus on our defense. We have been a poor defensive team all year. That is our biggest concern – defense and turnovers."

Summitt was asked about South Carolina's chances to getting in the NCAA brackets.

"They have positioned themselves in a good spot entering the tournament," Summitt said. "I think playing in this league will help them."

Tennessee is already in the NCAA tourney, but the Lady Vols are playing for seeding and sites. For Tennessee to have any shot at a No. 1 seed the Lady Vols would have to win the SEC Tournament title.

VANDERBILT, No. 6 seed (19-9, 8-6), COACH MELANIE BALCOMB

The Commodores will play Alabama at 9:50 p.m. Eastern in the final game of the first day of play. Vandy defeated the Crimson Tide, 65-53, during the regular season on the road.

"I think we played well down the stretch," Balcomb said. "I think our kids are confident right now after winning two in a row, and we have improved since we played them last."

Balcomb cited those improvements as displaying a more aggressive attitude and drilling defense that have given her team "more of a ‘go for it' mentality."

Specifically she saluted three players – Carla Thomas for wanting the ball on the interior; Cherish Stringfield for driving more to the basket; and Jennifer Risper for being more aggressive on defense and setting the tone.

"I think you see everybody playing harder defensively," she said.

The entire tournament will be televised with Fox Sports Net showing the first three days, and ESPN2 broadcasting Sunday's championship game.


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