WINNER: South Carolina, 65-63 NEXT: No. 1 seed Tennessee, 1 p.m.
The opener played out the way a game of middle seeds should in an evenly matched affair. The teams took turns trading the lead and tying the contest throughout the first half and went to the break knotted at 27-27.
Auburn jumped out to an 11-point lead in the second half, but South Carolina tied the game at 54-54, with 6:10 to go.
Auburn summoned a defensive stand, including a block by KeKe Carrier, and pushed the lead out to 61-56 with 4:23 to play. South Carolina's Ilona Burgrova got a block on the other end and Stacy Booker drilled a three to cut the lead to two, 61-59, with 3:27 to go. A basket by Lakesha Tolliver once again tied the score at 61-61 with 2:17 left. Melanie Johnson was looking for Burgrova under the basket, but the ball bounced past her and right to Tolliver, who hit the layup.
South Carolina, 17-13, hung on for the 65-63 win. The Gamecocks were led by four players with double figures – Booker, 14; Tolliver, 12; Johnson, 10; and Lauren Simms, 11.
Auburn, 19-12, was led by DeWanna Bonner with 21 points and Carrier with 14. South Carolina won on the boards, 42-31, led by 10 rebounds grabbed by Johnson. The Gamecocks lead the SEC in rebounding – and are 13th in the country – with a +8.6 margin. The Gamecocks had 28 boards in the first half against Auburn.
Auburn Coach Nell Fortner cited South Carolina's work on the glass, especially the 19 offensive boards, and late turnovers as the difference in the game.
"The six down the stretch, turnovers down the stretch, you just can't win games that way," Fortner said. "It was just unfortunate that it happened to us that way. Disappointing loss."
The loss in all likelihood eliminated the Tigers from NCAA consideration but they could get an invite from the WNIT.
"I don't know what the committee will do," Fortner said. "We'd love to play in the NCAA Tournament. We'll just have to wait and see what they do. Hopefully we'll be going somewhere, one or the other."
In her opening remarks to the media Coach Susan Walvius made her team's case for an NCAA Tournament bid based on its RPI rank among the bubble teams, beating Auburn twice and the strength of the SEC.
"This team is battle tested. … We're working to play our way into the NCAA Tournament," Walvius said.
Prior to entering the interview area Booker reminded those nearby why it was important to never give up. She had said that over and over during the game, too.
"I just didn't want my team to give up," Booker said. "I was going to jam it in their heads the whole time. I don't care how many times I was going to say it, I was just going to keep saying it. I guess it stuck with us. We came out with a win."
South Carolina is a senior-laden squad, and Walvius saluted the two players on the dais with her, Booker and Simms.
"There's no question about it," Walvius said. "The two guards sitting here did a fantastic job. Our senior class did a great job. Some of our younger players did as well. ‘Kesha Tolliver brings so much emotion. She has a physical style of play. She's a junior player. Demetress Adams is a sophomore, brings so much defensively, hard to shoot over her.
"Our team, for being as diverse a group of people are they are, they are a cohesive group."
Simms hit the biggest shot of the first half, a three-pointer with shot clock about to expire, over the 6'4 Bonner to put South Carolina up by one, 23-22.
"I knew I had to put it up or try to draw the foul," Simms said. "Fortunately, I was able to get it over her long arms, and it went in for me."
South Carolina shot 53.3 percent in the second half – after shooting 30.3 percent in the first half – to spur the comeback. The 11-point deficit was its largest comeback of the season. It was the first SEC tourney win for South Carolina since 2003 when the Gamecocks beat Ole Miss, 79-64. The win also avenges the loss to Auburn in the first round of last year's tournament.
"Just real proud of our team, excited to be advancing," Walvius said.
The first game certainly fit the bill in terms of excitement but the Thursday matinee start time drew a smallish crowd. Scattered among the seats in the Gwinnett Center were early arrivals from the Tennessee contingent of fans. The Lady Vol assistant coaches, Holly Warlick, Nikki Caldwell and Dean Lockwood, took some courtside seats for their scouting duties. They left after the game for Tennessee's practice session at a local high school.
GAME TWO: No. 10 seed Arkansas vs. No. 7 seed Kentucky
WINNER: Kentucky, 72-57 NEXT: No. 2 seed Georgia, 3:30 p.m.
This game featured two coaches ready for the fresh start of postseason. Kentucky's Mickie DeMoss wanted her team to play its way off the bubble and into the NCAA tourney. Arkansas' Susie Gardner had seen her team start the season well and then struggle in conference play.
The Lady Razorbacks jumped out to a quick lead, 7-2, but the Wildcats, who started the game 1-9 from the field, settled down and held the halftime edge, 35-28. Kentucky made a run to start the half this time and quickly pushed the lead to 17 points, 47-30, with 15:10 to go.
After a nip-and-tuck first game this one was considerably less suspenseful with Kentucky well in control throughout the second half.
"Very pleased with how we played tonight," DeMoss said. " … We're just going to have to have another one tomorrow. We're excited about the win."
Kentucky was led by Jennifer Humphrey, who had 21 points and 19 rebounds. She had eight assists, just missing a triple double.
"I didn't know until probably the last two minutes of the game," Humphrey said. "But I just wanted to really go out there and do what I had to do to help my team win."
Sarah Elliott, who banged her knee on the floor in the first half and played through pain, had 17 points and seven boards for Kentucky. Jenny Pfeiffer added 11 points. The combination of Elliott and Humphrey in the paint was too much for the smaller Razorbacks.
"Makes my job a lot easier," Elliott said of the performance by Humphrey, who is known as Lanky. "Really, you know, when Lanky gets going like that, you can just feel the energy go through the team. Even if you're on the bench, I mean, you could just sit there and everybody is on the bench, ‘Yeah, Lanky, good job.' We're screaming at her, all encouragement."
Arkansas, 18-13, was led by Dominique Washington with 18 points. Lauren Ervin had a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds. Brittney Vaughn added 11 points.
Humphrey was a difficult matchup for Arkansas, and Kentucky ran its high-low action to take advantage of the disparity in size.
"It was pretty hard to defend," Ervin said. "We didn't know if we were going to switch it or not. If we did switch, when the post was dribbling the ball over, we switched. Elliott was right in front of us and just sealed us perfectly. It's pretty hard to get around her when she's working.
"Even vice versa, if Elliott brings it, Humphrey was posting up in front of us."
Gardner applauded her team for its effort throughout the game.
"We battled back," she said. "We didn't quit fighting. We just didn't have enough offensively to win this game."
Kentucky, 18-12, got a much-needed win to help keep its hopes intact for an NCAA tourney bid.
"That's something that, you know, we're playing for," DeMoss said. "I think you have to play with a purpose. I think right now we know that we're still alive in the race. … It's one game at a time, one possession at a time."
The crowd picked up for the second game with some rowdy sections of Lady'Back fans calling the pigs and Kentucky fans decked out in matching blue T-shirts. The announced crowd for the first session of day games was 2,974.
GAME THREE: No. 12 seed Alabama vs. No. 5 seed Ole Miss
WINNER: Ole Miss, 78-49 NEXT: No. 4 seed LSU, 7 p.m.
The game started slowly and then Ole Miss used its helter-skelter defense to disrupt Alabama and build a double-digit lead. The Rebels pressured the ball and stepped into the passing lanes – led by SEC Defensive Player of the Year Armintie Price – and led at halftime, 42-20.
Ole Miss had 14 steals in the first 20 minutes and finished the game with 25, which set a new tourney record, breaking the previous record of 20 set by Tennessee. Alabama had 23 turnovers in the first half and finished with 42.
The Crimson Tide also was setting records, but the wrong ones. The 42 turnovers were an SEC tourney record and set a single-game record for Alabama, besting the 40 miscues against Ole Miss earlier this season. Alabama's 28 rebounds set a new record for fewest in a tournament game, breaking the previous low of 32 by Vanderbilt last year.
"Obviously it's been a very difficult season for the University of Alabama," Crimson Tide Coach Stephany Smith said. "The thing that has plagued us all SEC play was definitely another Achilles heel tonight with the 42 turnovers that we had. … Have to give Ole Miss a lot of credit for their athleticism, their defensive ability. Just very bothersome."
Alabama, 10-20, was led by Dedrea Magee with 15 points. Two players, Kate Mastin and Navonda Moore, had nine points apiece.
Ole Miss' performance was particularly heartening for Coach Carol Ross, who wasn't sure of her team's mindset heading into the tourney after the Rebels lost on the last day of the regular season.
"It's a great way to start a great tournament," Ross said. "Our defense … it was very effective with our deflections, our speed and quickness really came into play. … We're happy to be advancing. Obviously we've got a tough opponent in LSU waiting on us. But it sure beats the alternative."
Ole Miss, 21-9, was led by Armintie Price with 26 points on 10-15 shooting, six rebounds, five assists and six steals. Ashley Awkward had 11 points and Shawn Goff added 10.
No player for Ole Miss went more than 25 minutes – Ross used 14 players – which is important for a team that has to turn around and play Friday. Ole Miss did have 28 turnovers – the five starters accounted for 17 of them, but that same group also tallied 19 steals.
"We know that us being Ole Miss our keys to our victories is our defense, the way we play, the way we get out on people, being aggressive," Awkward said.
Price said, "We just wanted to stay aggressive, try to jump on them early, try to rotate, move fast, just try to connect on a good level so the rest of the games we could just know what we've got to do, just move, just pick up our feet and just play together."
GAME FOUR: No. 11 seed Florida vs. No. 6 seed Mississippi State
WINNER: Florida, 69-63 NEXT: No. 3 seed Vanderbilt, 9:30 p.m.
The last game Thursday was much like the first – a closely contested affair with the two teams staying within a few points of each other and exchanging the lead. Mississippi State barely held the edge at halftime, 30-29.
The Lady Bulldogs had a small cushion to start the second half, but the Gators stuck close and were within five points, 43-38, with just under 10 minutes to go. Florida tied it, 43-43, with a coast-to-coast layup by Sha Brooks, who also drew the foul. She put the Gators up one, 44-43, with 8:21 to go in the game.
Florida surrendered the lead, 47-46, with 7:09 left and then used four free throws and three steals to regain the lead and hold onto it. The Gators then hit nine of 10 free throws down the stretch to seal the win.
Florida Coach Carolyn Peck, who was ousted last month, got choked up in her post-game press conference.
"I would say that right now I've got to be the happiest coach in America," Peck said with tears in her eyes. "I have a group of nine young women who are going to leave it on the floor. I'm going to make it through this. They're battling so hard and they're playing and showing a whole lot of heart. … None of them want this to be over, and they showed that tonight."
Florida, 9-21, was led by Marshae Dotson with 25 points and 11 rebounds. Brooks had 16 points, and Sharielle Smith had 11 rebounds, a career high.
"All nine players, like coach said, we're giving 110 percent because we don't want this to be over," Brooks said.
Peck indicated the way Florida ended the regular season – winning two of the last three – was what she had expected; it just didn't happen soon enough.
"I just felt like it was a matter of time for it to all we click together," Peck said. "We've had so many different things to happen this season. Now we have the continuity. Everybody in that locker room is on the same mission. They are very unselfish. They're very passionate. There's a lot of love."
Mississippi State, 17-13, was led by Marneshia Richard with 18 points. Imesia Jackson had 11 points, and Tysheka Grimes added 11.
"I think you have to give credit to Florida because they kept taking it at us," Mississippi State Coach Sharon Fanning said. "Very, very disappointed in terms of our effort. Very disappointed in terms of our focus. … Florida deserved to beat us with their work ethic."
The loss could have slipped the Lady Bulldogs off the bubble and into the ranks of non-invitees to the NCAA tourney.
"I hope that we still have a shot at it," Fanning said. "I hope that there's an opportunity, but it's not going to be in my hands."
Florida, meanwhile, will get some rest and try to keep Peck's coaching tenure extended even longer.
"The turnaround time for us to get ready I think is our biggest concern," Peck said as the clock ticked closer to midnight. "It's why we want to go home and get to bed and start letting the team prepare for Vanderbilt tomorrow."
ODDS AND ENDS:
FIRST BUCKET: The first basket of the 2007 tournament was a layup by Auburn's DeWanna Bonner.
CLASSY TOUCH: The white gloves worn by members of Auburn's pep band. The sophisticated look was undone, though, by the blue-and-orange headwear that resembled road kill.
BEST SMILE: That of South Carolina's Lakesha Tolliver, who, in the final minute of the first game, with the Gamecocks up by a point, faked a three in front of her bench. She then turned and flipped the ball to Stacy Booker, who set up a play. Tolliver has attempted one three this season and missed it.
BEST ADVICE: That by Tolliver who directed her team to "match up" after Lauren Simms hit a free throw to give South Carolina its final margin, 65-63, with 2.3 seconds left. Auburn lofted a long shot, but it fell way short.
"It was hard to get anything with them up on us," Auburn Coach Nell Fortner said. "They were just up on us so tight, we couldn't get any space to get any kind of look at the basket. … They just weren't going to give us any breathing room at all."
DIEHARD FANS: Those of the Lady Razorbacks. Despite the large second half deficit the Arkansas fans continue to encourage the players, offered defensive stance instructions, made suggestions to the officials and reminded the team that the game wasn't over. The Lady'Backs got as close as 14 points but Kentucky had too much size inside with the 6'6 Sarah Elliott and 6'3 Jennifer Humphrey.
FUNNIEST FANS: Carol's Court convened at center court to represent devotion to Ole Miss Coach Carol Ross. The four ladies, who are a staple in the postseason and related to Ross by blood or marriage, wore matching blond wigs, black glasses, white shirts, beads, dark pants, red feather boas and crowns. They also carried wands with stars. The wands were touched to each other for each free throw attempt. Made shots resulted in the wands being thrust in the air. Made field goals, especially three-pointers, set off massive wand waving.
"I don't know those people," Ross said to laughter in the post-game press room. "They could look like me and have the same last name, but I really don't know them. Yes, they have a problem this time of year. They keep showing up. I keep ignoring them. There is some relation. My mother is a very dignified Southern belle sitting up there not anywhere near them."
FUNNIEST COACH: Carol Ross. When asked of the "advantage" of not having a bye – Ole Miss surrendered it with a loss on the last day of the regular season – and getting to get her bench players some experience, Ross answered, "We were thrilled we blew that bye, could get in here early and get that extra game."
Then Ross gave a serious reply: "You know, when things happen, you always have to look for the silver lining. You know, I love this tournament. I love being here, really and truly. I told the team this, I said, ‘It's almost like we get to be here first. There's just so much good in being here.' Certainly, you know, we want to stay here a long time."
BEST USE OF TRASH CANS: The facility staff at Gwinnett Center. Due to torrents of rain Thursday, the arena roof had a couple of leaks that evening. Trash cans were positioned to collect the steady drops of water. The leaks were near the floor level entrance but well away from the court.
LATE NIGHT APPEARANCE: The LSU team was in the Gwinnett Center prior to the tipoff of the last game Thursday between Florida and Mississippi State. The players' entrance led to chants of "L-S-U" from a small cluster of LSU fans. The Tigers don't play until Friday night. Vanderbilt's players were courtside for the late game but left at halftime. The Commodores play the late game on Friday.
BEST TEAMMATES:Alabama's Kate Mastin, Navonda Moore and Leah Drury came off the floor for the final time as Crimson Tide basketball players with about a minute to go in the loss to Ole Miss. Although clearly upset, they spent those last 60 seconds cheering for their teammates on the court.
BEST FAN COMPLAINT: A Mississippi State fan, tired of yelling three seconds to an official after it seemed a couple of Florida players were settled in the paint, changed her complaint to: "Three days in the lane."
BEST PROMOTION: Tins of Ar-MINT-ie mints put out with Ole Miss' media guides in recognition of guard Armintie Price. The small circular tins contain Rebel red candies and recognize her accomplishments at Ole Miss. The tin includes her photo and notes she is one of only five players in NCAA women's basketball history to amass more than 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, 300 assists and 300 steals. (The others were Cheryl Miller, Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Sophia Young.)