GAME ONE: No. 8 seed Ole Miss vs. No. 9 seed Mississippi State
RESULT: Ole Miss 54 – Mississippi State 49
UP NEXT FOR OLE MISS: No. 1 seed LSU, 1 p.m. Eastern
The in-state rivals got the tournament officially tipped off Thursday at noon local time and in the first four minutes there were more turnovers between the two teams, seven, than points, four. Despite having 15 turnovers at halftime, Mississippi State led by a point, 25-24, at the break, on the strength of 27 rebounds in the first 20 minutes of play to 14 for Ole Miss.
The Lady Bulldogs finished with 52 rebounds to 40 for Ole Miss but came up short on the scoreboard, 54-49.
Senior Danetra Forrest was the go-to player for the Rebels in the second half – all of her nine points came after the break – and she helped Ole Miss slip past Mississippi State and then hang on to win.
"I love my team, I love my teammates, so I just wanted to keep going," Forrest said. "I want my season to keep going."
It was a two-point game, 51-49, with 21.8 seconds to go after Mississippi State's Alexis Rack hit a three-pointer to draw the Lady Bulldogs to within two. Ole Miss' Bianca Thomas was fouled with 18.9 seconds left, and made one of two to push the lead to three, but Rack missed a three-point attempt, and Ole Miss hit two more free throws for the final margin.
Thomas was the leading scorer with 18 points on 6-9 shooting in what was otherwise a poor shooting performance by both teams. Ole Miss shot 32.8 percent (19-58) overall and 25.0 percent (4-16) from three-point range. Mississippi State misfired at a clip of 29.2 percent overall (19-65) and 12.0 percent (3-25) from behind the arc.
Ole Miss was behind on the boards, 27-14, at halftime but managed to close the gap and out-rebound Mississippi State by one in the second half, 26-25. Thomas cited that difference in the outcome of the game.
"It's all about rebounding," Thomas said. "They out-rebounded us pretty bad, and we had to get on the boards and limit our turnovers and do those things, and we would win. We had no doubt that we were going to win this game; we just had to get on the boards.
Mississippi State (16-14) was led by Rack, who finished with 13 points but was 3-15 behind the arc. Tysheka Grimes had 11 points and 14 rebounds for the Lady Bulldogs.
Mississippi State led by five, 37-32, at the 10:50 mark, but Ole Miss stayed close and overtook the Lady Bulldogs, 41-39, with 6:05 to go in the game and never trailed after that.
"We got a little lax and lost focus," said Marneshia Richard, who had six points and four assists. "We turned the ball over and then we didn't fight back."
Mississippi State Coach Sharon Fanning hopes her team can continue the season with a WNIT bid as she continues to seek a 40-minute game from her players.
"We haven't tackled it the way we have to," Fanning said. "It takes focus, it takes the value of every possession and being smart with the basketball, and if we continue to improve that and mature as a basketball team … hopefully we'll have that opportunity in postseason play."
Ole Miss (13-15) will next face LSU in the first game of Friday's action.
"The most consistent player that we've had all year has been Shawn Goff," Ladner said. "She's been able to score. We prepared for her to be triple-teamed. What happened last time she was triple-teamed, she kicked it out and our shooters knocked down shots."
Ole Miss will have to find a way to contend with LSU's Sylvia Fowles, the SEC Player of the Year, in the paint.
"I don't know if you can stop any of them," Ladner said of LSU's team. "If I were to plan I'd put all five of them on Sylvia, but I don't know if that will work, either. The last time we played them (78-48 loss on Feb. 17) we did a fairly decent job of making runs on them, but we couldn't sustain the run. … I just think we'll have to dig and claw and hope we can knock down shots. They're the best team in the league. We have a big challenge ahead.
"There's not really any answers. I hope some intangibles kick in with a little divine intervention, and we'll see what happens."
GAME TWO: No. 7 seed Florida vs. No. 10 seed South Carolina
RESULT: Florida 71 – South Carolina 57
UP NEXT FOR FLORIDA: No. 2 seed Tennessee, 3:30 p.m. Eastern
Florida jumped out to a double-digit first-half lead over Florida behind the scoring of Depree Bowden and Sha Brooks, who combined for 28 of the Gators' 34 points in the first 20 minutes.
Bowden had 19 points in the first half and hit 5-6 from behind the arc. She hit a 30-footer from the wing as time expired in the first half to put Florida up 34-17 at halftime and single-handedly out-scored the Gamecocks.
Bowden finished with 21 points as Brooks picked up the scoring load and finished with 14 points. Jennifer Mossor hit two three-pointers and two free throws to tally eight points. Aneika Henry added 10 for the Gators.
South Carolina (15-15) was led by Ilona Burgrova with 12 points and three players with nine apiece – Demetress Adams, Lakesha Tolliver and Jordan Jones.
South Carolina had recently beaten Florida in Gainesville, 69-65, on Feb. 24.
"Their system didn't change in this game, but they were much more aggressive within their system in this game," South Carolina Coach Susan Walvius said. "I thought they did a great job, not only offensively, but they did a much better job defending us this game. Typically we are a good rebounding team. Typically we are a scrappy team, and they were able to get to the rim at will and score or get fouled, and I thought they had an excellent game plan and I thought they executed it well."
Florida (18-12) needed production from Bowden because post Marshae Dotson picked up two fouls and played just five minutes in the first half.
"I was hoping that maybe we could get a little bit of a rebounding advantage at that time, but that didn't seem to go in our favor," Walvius said. "I thought Florida looked absolutely great today."
Florida shot 42.9 percent for the game – a scorching 53.8 percent in the second half – and won 71-57 in a game that was never in doubt.
Bowden had the last loss to South Carolina in the back of her mind.
"I hit my first two and I kind of got confidence from there and just started shooting," Bowden said. "They beat me on my senior night, so I knew I wanted to get back at them."
The teams had played each other to the last possession in the two previous matchups, but Florida never allowed the lead to dip below 11 points in the second half.
"We just had more intensity," Brooks said. "They beat us last time so we knew we had to come out and play aggressive in the first half and in the second half, we kind of got in a lull in the second half, but then we had to pick it back up in the end."
Florida's first-half play, thanks to Bowden, overwhelmed South Carolina.
"I think especially in an SEC ballgame when you're able to do that, it's a tremendous performance and I think you saw an instance of a senior sensing the moment," Florida Coach Amanda Butler said. "All factors considered, Marshae was on the bench, her shots were not just big in terms of momentum and that sort of thing, but it made everybody around her confident."
Butler is back home in Middle Tennessee – she is from nearby Mt. Juliet – and has a contingent of family in Nashville.
"It's great to see so many familiar faces and different people that mean a lot to me," Butler said. "I can't say that I looked up there too often. I did hear my mom whistling every now and then. But it's great to be in Nashville and in the mid-state where basketball is so important and well supported and in a place where a lot of Gators showed up to cheer for us."
Butler had heard mention that Florida is a bubble team for the NCAA tourney and any wins in Nashville would buttress the Gators' position to get an invite.
"I sure hope so," Butler said. "I sure would like to think so. I think we've done some things, and a big one was today. We needed to win this basketball game and do it in a convincing fashion and show that we're a postseason team.
"I think that's definitely a performance that you saw today. We were an NCAA Tournament team, no question."
Butler said Florida benefited from having played the Gators so recently. She hopes that carries over to Friday, when Florida will face Tennessee. The Lady Vols won, 88-61, on senior night in Knoxville on Feb. 28.
"I think the offensive confidence that we played with today was crucial and our preparation as the players mentioned," Butler said. "We had an opportunity, obviously, to play a team we were very familiar with and now hopefully we'll be more familiar with Tennessee.
GAME THREE: No. 5 seed Georgia vs. No. 12 seed Alabama
RESULT: Georgia 71 – Alabama 62
UP NEXT FOR GEORGIA: No. 4 seed Kentucky, 7:30 p.m. Eastern
Alabama opened up the first half shooting 52.0 percent and trailed Georgia by only a basket, 31-29, at halftime. Tierney Jenkins, who is from nearly Mt. Juliet, Tenn., led all scorers with eight first-half points. Jenkins finished with 18 points, but the Crimson Tide couldn't get pace with Georgia and fell, 71-62.
The showing, however, was better than most would have expected from Alabama, which came to Nashville with one SEC win this season.
"We were walking out of the game, it was Tierney, and we were going through a little tunnel and I said, ‘That was the funnest game we've played this season,' " said Katie Hancock, a freshman guard for Alabama. "You notice that you don't really get tired when you're having fun, and that's really what it's all about for me, just coming out here and playing with some of my best friends, so I had the most fun.
"I wish we were still playing, first and foremost, but this is a perfect time for us. We're kind of firing on all cylinders, things are really clicking, and we're definitely going to take all this momentum into the off-season because that's really where it comes down to players getting better."
Georgia, 22-8, never trailed in the second half, but Alabama, 8-22, stayed within striking distance behind the offensive effort of Jenkins, 14 points from Hancock and 13 from Varisia Raffington.
Georgia Coach Andy Landers said his team lacked effort and pride in the first half.
"My question at halftime tonight was – when I walked in – was how do y'all feel about the way you played," Landers said. "No answer. Why didn't somebody jump up and say, ‘We played great,' or why didn't somebody jump up and say, ‘Hey, we haven't played very well, and this is not right.' No answer. I mean that's not a trick question."
"I'm not sure what to attribute it to, but I know we can't let it happen again," Humphrey said of the team's lack of energy. "We are in the postseason; we are one and done from this point on. I think (Friday) we've got to come out with a better intensity in what we have to do."
Alabama continued to shoot well – they finished at 48.9 percent for the game – and Georgia, which shot 41.4 percent, never put a lot of separation between itself and the No. 12 seed. The Crimson Tide was done in by 19 turnovers – the Lady Bulldogs had just nine – and Georgia converted those miscues into 18 points.
"I just felt like we ran out of real estate," Alabama Coach Stephany Smith said. "We've had so much adversity with injuries and we are so young in our rebuilding process … but I'm really proud of our fight and talent and we've just kind of made the step into the college game just as far as awareness of the offensive end and defensive game."
Alabama will head home; Georgia will get a rematch with Kentucky, which beat the Lady Bulldogs in Athens, 47-44, on Jan. 31.
"Just looking back on that game if that doesn't get us fired up I don't know what will," Humphrey said. "I think that's going to get us hyped us because they beat us on our home court in the beginning of competition.
"I know it's one of those feelings in your gut that you don't want to have. We're going to get rest and come back prepared to do what we have to do against a good Kentucky basketball team."
Landers wants to see that attitude on the floor.
"We give beautiful answers to tough questions when we're talking to you folks, but we don't always give beautiful answers when we walk out on the floor, and that's where the question is going to be answered."
GAME FOUR: No. 6 seed Auburn vs. No. 11 seed Arkansas
RESULT: Auburn 73 – Arkansas 51
UP NEXT FOR AUBURN: No. 3 seed Vanderbilt, 10 p.m. Eastern
Auburn shot an eye-popping 61.5 percent in the first half to build a 41-29 lead and never trailed in the last game of the first day of action. Arkansas did manage to stay within respectable range for most of the game by limiting its turnovers and getting some steals, but the Tigers never cooled off from the field and shot 55.3 percent for the game.
"I thought we shot the ball really well tonight, and that's so important when you're playing basketball," Auburn Coach Nell Fortner said. "The ball has got to go in the hole."
The Lady Razorbacks struggled to score – they were 1-14 from behind the arc – and shot 34.0 percent for the game, but they did manage to get 10 steals and converted 19 Auburn turnovers into 17 points.
"We were having a hard time pulling away from Arkansas, then we just hung tough and stayed with it and stayed with it and eventually did that, and it was just the persistence and just hanging tough," Fortner said. "So I was proud of the total team effort."
Auburn, 20-10, was led by DeWanna Bonner with 26 points and 14 rebounds.
"I came out very confident, and we came out with a fire ready to play," Bonner said.
Jordan Greenleaf had 17 points for Auburn, and Alli Smalley added 12.
Arkansas, 17-13, was led Brittney Vaughn with 16 points and Sarah Pfeifer with 13 points.
The Lady Razorbacks were in a 7-0 hole to start the game and facing a double-digit deficit, 18-7, at the 12:25 mark of the first half.
"You get off to a start like we got off to and you're trying to play five or six players and you're fighting from behind the whole game, and it's tough," Pfeifer said. "And that's what we've made a pattern of doing."
Arkansas also was having a few breakdowns on defense, and Auburn capitalized each time.
"I can't tell you how hard we worked and how much we walked through preparing for what they were going to do, and we just missed assignments," Arkansas Coach Tom Collen said. "And every time we missed an assignment they stuck a shot. … They drove right down the middle of our defense so many times and just got the layups. That was frustrating."
Auburn will next play Vanderbilt on Friday and will hope to carry some of its shooting momentum into that game.
"A win builds confidence in your team, and a good shooting percentage like that definitely will help our confidence," Fortner said. "And that's just very important for us."
Vanderbilt beat Auburn, 73-56, on Feb. 28 at Auburn. The Tigers are trying to make a case for an invitation to the NCAA tourney so another win in Nashville would help them considerably.
"We have a lot on the line here," Fortner said. "We're trying to get to that NCAA Tournament so the more wins we get, the better it is for those opportunities to happen."
ODDS AND ENDS
FIRST BASKET OF THE TOURNEY: By Shawn Goff, a 6'3 junior center for Ole Miss, on a drive to the hoop.
LASTING EFFECT: The "Think Pink" campaign by the WBCA and the Kay Yow Foundation to raise awareness about breast cancer. Teams had donned pink uniforms, shooting shirts, shoes and shoelace in displays of support this season.
Players still sporting pink shoelaces: Nearly all of Mississippi State's team, including Alexis Rack, Donnisha Tate, Mary Kathryn Govero, Miayorka Johnson, Imesia Jackson and Amy Reeder; Ole Miss' Shantell Black; and South Carolina's Jordan Jones, Ilona Burgrova, Ebony Jones and Jewel May.
BEST HOOK SHOT: By Mississippi State's Miayorka Johnson with one second on the shot clock. After losing the ball she regained control on the baseline and calmly released the ball with Lady Bulldog fans frantically counting down the clock.
HARDEST SHOT: The one taken by an Ole Miss player during a scramble for a loose ball. MSU's Alexis Rack rotated her hips in pursuit of the ball and slammed into the Rebel at full speed. Rack was called for the foul.
BEST ADVICE: That by the Ole Miss pep band which, situated on the baseline, shouted "This way" when the Rebels in-bounded the ball 94 feet away.
MOST POPULAR COACHING STAFF: That of the Lady Vols. Pat Summitt and her assistants signed autographs during breaks in the action and at halftime as they scouted the Florida-South Carolina game.
FUNNIEST QUOTES: Those of Ole Miss Coach Renee Ladner after an Ole Miss player tumbled into the bench.
"I picked her up and threw her back out," Ladner said. "I took a charge. … They could dive into anybody on the bench and heels could fly and I don't care. As long as she's making the effort, I can live with that."
BEST BIRTHDAY PRESENT: The win for Florida Coach Amanda Butler, who turned 36 on Thursday.
"It was all I wanted," Butler said. "I just wanted to win, didn't care by how many, didn't care what it looked like, just wanted to win and advance."
BEST PRE-GAME SPEECH: That delivered by Carol Ross, a former head coach at Ole Miss and Florida, to the Gators. Ross was the head coach at Florida from 1990 to 2002 – Amanda Butler played for Ross from 1990 to 1994 – and retired as the program's all-time winningest coach with a 247-121 record.
Florida had won just 14 SEC games over 11 years before Ross arrived. She tallied 84 victories in the conference, including a program-record 11 SEC wins in 2001, when she was also SEC Coach of the Year.
Ross was honored at halftime of Thursday's game as Florida's representative in the 2008 class of SEC Greats.
"I draw a lot of the things that I do and probably even things that I say from her," Butler said. "So just her presence before and around the game today certainly made us feel good."
Florida's Depree Bowden said, "It meant a lot. She got us motivated and inspired to play, and it was good. It was real good."
Ross is providing television commentary during the tournament for Fox Sports Net.
QUIET SPIRIT: That shown by Alabama's cheerleaders, who asked for silence by simultaneously saying shhhh, which, of course, was loud when Georgia's Tasha Humphrey went to the free throw line. It didn't bother her. She swished both shots to give the Lady Bulldogs an early 6-2 lead.
The cheerleaders also trilled the theme song from "Jeopardy" to try to distract the shooters.
For made free throws by Alabama players the cheerleaders tossed their pom-poms over their heads and into a megaphone.
BEST FANS: As always, those in orange, who show up even on the first day when Tennessee has a bye. The Sommet Center had orange-clad fans scattered throughout the stands.
BEST HUSTLE: That of Arkansas senior forward Sarah Pfeifer, who crashed into media row going after a loose ball with her team down 69-49 and a little more than three minutes left in the game. Pfeifer sent a computer monitor and a cup of water tumbling to the floor.