GAME ONE: No. 8 seed Arkansas vs. No. 9 seed Ole Miss
WINNER: Ole Miss, 65-60
NEXT: No. 1 seed Auburn on Friday, 1 p.m. Eastern
Bianca Thomas started the second half the same way she did the first – nailing a three-pointer – and Ole Miss outlasted Arkansas, 65-60, in the tourney opener on Thursday.
Thomas was 6-10 from long range – the tourney record is seven made three-pointers held by two players, most recently by South Carolina's Sara Burgess against Ole Miss in 2003 – to account for all of the Rebels' three-pointers.
"She has made big plays along the way and today she had this look on her face that she wanted the ball and in critical situations, so we put a lot of merit in Bianca Thomas' play, and we ran a lot of things to her, and she came through for us," Ole Miss Coach Renee Ladner said.
Arkansas' undoing was its turnovers, not so much the number – the Razorbacks had 19 to 13 for the Rebels – but how Ole Miss capitalized with 22 points off the miscues to just six points for Arkansas.
Ole Miss opened in a man defense – that "lasted about one minute," Ladner said – and then switched to a zone defense.
"I thought the zone affected Arkansas, and they hurried shots, rushed shots, forced shots and we did get some turnovers early on," Ladner said. "I think we scored 22 points off of their turnovers, and that is probably the biggest difference in the game."
Coach Tom Collen agreed with that assessment.
"When we're in a rhythm, a good tempo, I think we can come down and make plays, but I really believe that sometimes we come down and rush just a little bit, and we try to make plays without slowing down and executing," Collen said.
The loss was especially hard for the Razorbacks because it came in their home state, and they had hoped for a better showing in the tourney.
"We're extremely disappointed on a couple of fronts," Collen said. "We're disappointed that we – I know a lot of people in Little Rock and in the state of Arkansas put forth a great deal of effort to host this tournament down here three times and at some point in time we would really like to be able to reward them.
"It's painful to lose. I want to try to look at it from an optimistic perspective since I've only been at Arkansas two years. I can tell you we've made a lot of progress since last year, went from an 11th seed to an eighth seed, going from a game, really, we got blown out last year (73-51 to Auburn) in the first round to a game where we competed right down to the wire. Clearly there has been a lot of progress. We understand that, and we know that, but the bottom line is losing is painful."
Arkansas dominated on the boards, 40-26, but couldn't get the defensive board it had to have late when Thomas missed both free throws with 17 seconds left and the Razorbacks trailing by three.
"We are the cardiac kids," Ladner said. "Things get down to the wire sometimes we go haywire."
Rebel Shawn Goff got the offensive board and got the ball to Thomas, who was fouled again. Thomas missed again but hit the second one to give Ole Miss a 62-58 lead. A turnover on the other end – Arkansas' 19th for the game – allowed the Rebels to go back to the line after a foul was called and hold on for the 65-60 win.
It was a close game from beginning to end – neither team led by more than five points – and had nine ties and 11 lead changes and underscored how tightly contested this SEC tourney could be.
Thomas, who was 11-20 from the field overall, led all scorers with 31 points, a career high for the junior guard from Henderson, Tenn. The First Team All-SEC selection accounted for 18 of Ole Miss' 33 first half points.
"The teammates were making screens, and I was coming off of them and knocking down the shot," Thomas said. "It was just a total team effort."
Shantell Black joined her in double figures with 16 points on 6-9 shooting. As a team Ole Miss shot 53.8 percent in the first half – the Rebels led 33-31 at the break – but just 28.6 percent in the second half to finish at 40.7 percent for the game.
Arkansas, 17-13, was led by Whitney Jones with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Ceira Ricketts backed up her designation as co-SEC Freshman of the Year with 16 points, 10 boards, eight assists and two steals. Lyndsay Harris also got into double figures with 12 points and hit 3 three-pointers. As a team Arkansas shot 44.6 percent.
It was the Rebels' sixth consecutive win in their SEC tourney opener, while Arkansas dropped its fourth straight in SEC postseason play.
Ole Miss, 17-13, will next face top seed Auburn, the regular season champion.
"You know, what do I need to say about Auburn – one of the best teams in the country, best team in our league," Ladner said. "We played them very well at their place. We will have to be above and beyond the call (Friday). We will have to regroup in a hurry. … We would like to make the game ugly. We can play well like that. We would like to be able to compete with them for 40 minutes, just keep, you know, chipping away, chipping away, trying to find a way.
"This is the SEC Tournament. You give it your best effort for 40 minutes. We have to compete with everything that we have."
GAME TWO: No. 7 seed Georgia vs. No. 10 seed Kentucky
WINNER: Georgia, 82-64.
NEXT: No. 2 seed Vanderbilt on Friday, 3:30 p.m. Eastern
The game between Georgia and Kentucky produced a box score that was similar in every stat except one – shooting percentage – and the Lady Bulldogs broke open a close game in the second half with torrid shooting and 53 second-half points.
The Lady Bulldogs shot 73.1 percent in the second half and finished at 63.3 percent for the game after shooting 52.2 percent in the first half. The record for field goal percentage in an SEC tourney game is 67.3 percent, held by Georgia in a game against Ole Miss in 1986.
Kentucky led by one at halftime, 30-29, despite shooting just 25.0 percent overall, but the Wildcats had connected on 50 percent (4-8) of their three-pointers. Kentucky stretched the lead to nine points, 42-33, with 16:28 to play, but Georgia tied the game at 42 with 14:08 to play, and then maintained a single-digit lead until the 6:37 mark when the Lady Bulldogs broke open the game with layups and free throws to pad the lead to double digits and keep it there.
"We were able to get a nine-point lead and then it just unraveled on us," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "I thought we stopped guarding dribble penetration. I thought they really started taking it to the basket on us. Even when we built the nine-point lead I thought we were playing very good offense, but I was concerned. I thought they were scoring a little bit too easily in the second half."
Georgia, 18-12, was led by Ashley Houts with 22 points and fellow starter Angel Robinson contributed 12 points on 6-7 shooting and completed the double-double with 10 rebounds. Christy Marshall had 17 points off the bench, and Porsha Phillips added 14 in a relief role.
Kentucky, 15-15, also had four players in double figures – two starters and two off the bench – in Eleia Roddy with 20 points and Victoria Dunlap with 10 and Amani Franklin with 14 points and Carly Morrow with 10 off the bench.
The stats were nearly even in the box score – both teams hit seven 3-pointers; Kentucky edged Georgia on the boards, 32-29; Georgia had two more turnovers, 21-19; Kentucky had one less foul, 16-15; Georgia had two more assists, 16-14, and two more steals, 12-10; and free throws were close with 15-19 for Kentucky and 13-16 for Georgia.
But Georgia scorched the nets – and also dominated one defensive stat with nine blocks to just one for Kentucky – and turned a close game into a rout.
"I'm trying to get my mind around this," Robinson said.
Georgia Coach Andy Landers pointed to execution of the offense as the reason.
"We executed very well as a team, and we ran our stuff very well as a team," Landers said. "And the end result in that was (Angela) Puleo got shots that she shoots, Christy got shots that she shoots. And the bottom line is everybody is getting shots out of our offense, and they're all on today, so the percentage is really, really good."
It was a difficult display to be on the receiving end of for Kentucky.
"It was very frustrating, but I give 'em credit," Mitchell said. "You feel like you're playing hard and they just hit every time. It's frustrating. When a team is hot there is not much you can do about it but just keep trying to go at 'em."
Georgia is trying to make a case for an NCAA bid this week – the Lady Bulldogs are the host school for the Duluth sub-regional and guaranteed to be assigned there if they make the field of 64 – and will next face Vanderbilt on Friday.
"I think what's important is, really, we're in the SEC Tournament and trust me, I know, our team can't think about vanilla and chocolate, you know, two choices, so we don't want 'em thinking about the NCAA," Landers said.
"This is where we are and this is a big deal and this is a wonderful opportunity and that's all they need to be concerned about. We play a team (Friday) that we split with, we played 'em very well at our place, and they played us very well at their place."
GAME THREE: No. 5 seed Tennessee vs. No. 12 seed Alabama
WINNER: Tennessee, 68-49
NEXT: No. 4 seed Florida on Friday, 7:30 p.m. Eastern
See separate story on this site.
GAME FOUR: No. 6 seed Mississippi State vs. No. 11 seed South Carolina
WINNER: Mississippi State, 49-39
NEXT: No. 3 seed LSU on Friday, 10 p.m. Eastern
Mississippi State did not score a basket in the first 10 minutes of the game while South Carolina got out to an 18-0 lead, but the Lady Bulldogs battled back to trail by just four at halftime, 26-22, took the lead, 29-28, four minutes into the second half and held on for the 49-39 win.
The Tennessee fans in attendance let out the loudest roar when Mississippi State finally got on the board with a three-pointer from Chanel Mokango with 9:29 remaining in the first half, in what amounted to relief on behalf of the Lady Bulldogs.
Neither team shot well for the game – 29.8 percent for South Carolina and 32.1 percent for Mississippi State in what turned into a defensive battle after the early onslaught of offense from the Gamecocks.
"We dug a hole, but we kept digging to get out of it," Mississippi State Coach Sharon Fanning said. "Initially, I was concerned about our energy and our focus relative to execution in terms of guarding, penetration and box-outs, taking care of the basketball. And our shot selection.
Mississippi State, 22-8, was led by Alexis Rack with 12 points, Tysheka Grimes with 11 and Mokango with 10. Rack struggled from the start – she was 0-5 from behind the arc – but hit 4-15 shots overall and 4-6 from the free throw line to help the Lady Bulldogs eke out enough offense to wipe out the deficit and seize the win.
"Just getting the stop and getting points up there," Rack said of her mindset when her team fell so far behind. "We were focusing on stops. Clearly, we didn't get enough stops, but as soon as we got the stop we started focusing on the offense and got our momentum going."
"We just had to work hard, very hard, to get our rhythm going, and we just had to work hard on defense," Grimes said. "Once our shots started falling, our defense was there, then our shots starting falling, so they went hand in hand."
South Carolina, 10-18, didn't have a single player in double figures, but Lakeisha Sutton and Jewel May had nine points each, C.J. Pace added eight, and Tonia Williams chipped in with six points.
Pace hit a layup and a three-pointer to open the game for the Gamecocks followed by a layup by May and then another three-pointer from Pace for a 10-0 lead. Mississippi State, meanwhile, was either misfiring or turning over the ball, and South Carolina capitalized on the mistakes to take the 18-0 lead.
"At that point we were hitting shots and obviously we wanted to open up as big of a lead as possible, because we knew we couldn't shoot that way the entire game," South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said. "We knew they weren't going to shoot that way the entire game. You just have to ride it until it stops. We knew it stopped, just didn't think it would come that abruptly."
The Lady Bulldogs chipped away with the 3-pointer from Mokango and then layups from Armelie Lumanu and Grimes to cut the lead in half. The Lady Bulldogs ended up going on an 18-2 run to trim the lead to 20-18 with 2:59 left in the first half.
South Carolina got the lead back, 38-36,with 6:52 left to play on a three-pointer by Miranda Tate, but Diamber Johnson tied it for Mississippi State with a jumper, and the Lady Bulldogs held on for the win behind two layups by Rack and one by Donnisha Tate. The lead didn't reach double digits until the score was 49-39 with eight seconds left in the game.
The 39 points was the lowest total of the season for South Carolina and just three more than the lowest total ever at the SEC tourney, a record held by Ole Miss, which managed just 36 points against LSU in 2008.
"The second half our shots weren't falling, but we kept shooting, trying to get the ball to the shooters, and we kept trying to get the ball in, but it wasn't falling," Sutton said.
"We knew they would have some kind of run at us," Staley said. "We just didn't have enough bodies to sustain, and rebounding the basketball. We lost the game off rebounds, to be quite honest."
Mississippi State prevailed on the boards, 41-33, and had 16 on the offensive end to just nine for South Carolina. The Lady Bulldogs got 12 second-chance points to five for the Gamecocks.
Mississippi State also switched out of its man defense into a matchup zone to try to stop South Carolina's penetration.
"They do a great job of getting the ball to the rim, so we tried to switch defenses," Fanning said. "For the most part we contested shots better, blocked shots (nine total), rebounded the ball better, did a better job containing them and didn't let 'em get to the free throw line quite as much."
Mississippi State next faces LSU, a team the Lady Bulldogs beat twice this season.
"Right now what we have to do is take the lessons that we've learned and regardless of whether it's LSU, regardless of how many times you've played 'em, whether you've won or lost the game, you have to play your best basketball at this time of the year. You have to outwork your opponent, you have to have energy and focus and you want to have fun so you have to relax. And you have to play the game hard."
ODDS AND ENDS
FIRST BASKET OF TOURNEY: Scored by Arkansas' Ceira Ricketts, the co-SEC Freshman of the Year, on a midrange jumper.
DRY HUMOR: The "probable starters" sheet for the Ole Miss-Arkansas game listed Rebel Kayla Holloway's hometown as "Dryersburg" instead of Dyersburg, Tenn.
LONGEST DAY: That by Mississippi State, which took the Alltel Arena floor last for a morning shoot-around session at 11 a.m. Thursday and tipped off at 9 p.m. that night. The game ended at 11:10 p.m.
EARLY FAN SUPPORT: As usual it was orange-tinted with sprinkles of the Lady Vols third color of light blue. Even in the opening game of the tourney between Ole Miss and Arkansas, the prevailing color in Alltel Arena was orange. Arkansas, the home state school, did have some hearty support, including some Tennessee fans who cheered for the Razorbacks.
The Session One attendance was 2,952. Session Two attendance was 3,880.
The 2010 SEC tourney will be in Duluth, Ga., and the 2011 one will be held in Nashville, two sites within closer driving distance than Little Rock for Tennessee fans, who often make up the majority of fans in attendance regardless of which two teams are on the court.
BIGGEST OUCH: Arkansas' Brittney Richardson fouled Ole Miss' Alliesha Easley on a drive to the basket that took a toll on both players when Richardson's jaw collided atop Easley's head late in the second half. Easley stayed in the game and hit both free throws. Richardson went to the bench for an icepack and returned with 32.5 seconds left in the game.
BEST OOPS: That by a Kentucky cheerleader at the beginning of the game. As the cheerleaders circled the floor with individual flags to spell out "WILDCATS," the one carrying the ‘A' fell to the court. The Kentucky mascot tumbled in solidarity.
BEST BAND COORDINATION: That of Kentucky and Georgia. Kentucky wore baseball-style gray T-shirts with blue lettering and khaki pants. Georgia wore baseball-style red jerseys with a black logo and khaki pants. The Georgia jerseys all had No. 6 on the back since they represented the Sixth (Wo)man.
BEST CATCH: That by Fox Sports commentator Teresa Edwards, a former Georgia standout, when a loose ball bounced to press row.
BEST SIDELINE DEFENSE: That played by Mississippi State Coach Sharon Fanning in the first half. When two players got a trap in front of the bench she held her arms up, shouted encouragement, did a five count and looked to the official for confirmation. When her team got the five-second call she applauded the effort. Her team got in an 18-0 hole but had battled back to 20-19 at that juncture.
BEST QUIP: That by Georgia Coach Andy Landers after iron-woman Ashley Houts, who often plays 40 minutes a game, took a shot to the top of her head but stayed in the game. Landers said he was not concerned.
"No, because she got hit in the head," Landers said. "If it had been her leg or ankle or shoulder I would have been concerned, but when I saw her rubbing her head, I thought we would be OK."
Houts, who is 5'6, said she thought she caught an elbow from teammate Christy Marshall, who is 6'1, as she came down with a rebound.