RESULT: Ole Miss 64, South Carolina 63
NEXT: Ole Miss, 17-13, vs. No. 1 seed Tennessee, 27-2, at noon Eastern on Friday, TV: FSN.
Ole Miss and South Carolina got the 2010 edition of the tournament officially underway with a 12:06 p.m. tipoff, and the Gamecocks proceeded to score the first 10 points of the game before Bianca Thomas hit a three for the Rebels.
The lopsided start was no indicator of how the game would unfold - though South Carolina held onto the lead for 12 minutes of the first half - as Ole Miss settled down and started making shots after missing its first 10 attempts. Kayla Melson hit a three-pointer to give the Rebels a 15-14 lead, and Thomas extended it to 18-14 with another three. By halftime the teams had played nearly to a draw with Ole Miss holding a 30-28 lead.
The game remained tight until the final seconds with 10 ties and 15 lead changes. With Ole Miss down a basket after La'Keisha Sutton hit a layup to give South Carolina a 63-61 lead with 35 seconds left, Shantell Black got an offensive board for the putback to tie the game and was fouled. The free throw with 16 seconds left turned out to be the final margin, 64-63.
"I think that was the biggest rebound of my career playing basketball," said Black, who is from nearby Lawrenceville, Ga. "It just feels great to come back and do that in front of my home state and family and friends."
Ole Miss had lived by the three ball in the game but got the winning basket at the rim.
"She made the play when she had to," Ole Miss Coach Renee Ladner said. "You have six seniors playing for their life right now. I think she understood the urgency. She just made a basketball play."
Thomas' first three-pointer seemed to settle down the team.
"Yeah, I think so," Thomas said. "We came out very anxious. I think we just needed to settle down, get focused a little bit. Our shots started to fall."
"I think Bianca sparked us with that three," Black said. "We just took over from there, never looked back."
Ladner doesn't want a slow start Friday. She cited that as an issue in the last game against Tennessee.
"They, like any other team, makes mistakes, as well as we do," Ladner said. "I thought when we played them at their place, just recently, that we did not get off to a very good start. I think a key in playing in any game, much less playing Tennessee, is I think you have to start off well."
Ole Miss was led Thursday by Thomas, who had 22 points, four boards and three assists. Elizabeth Robertson scored 19 points and hit four 3-pointers. The Rebels shot better from long range, 40.0 percent, than they did overall at 35.5 percent.
Black had nine points, two assists and six boards, none more important than her final offensive one.
"I was just determined to do whatever it took for my team," Black said. "I did all the dirty work. I was a trash player basically. That paid off for us in the end."
Kelsey Bone led South Carolina, 14-15, with a double-double - 20 points and 10 rebounds. The freshman center was 10-20 from the field and also had two assists and a steal.
"Definitely not where we wanted to be at the end," Bone said. "But I think it's better than the previous year. So we take the good; we observe the bad; we move forward."
Charenee Stephens also had a double-double for the Gamecocks with 12 points and 11 boards. Valerie Nainima added 10 points.
"Like Kelsey said we just want to get better," Stephens said. "Coach talked to us about getting better in the off-season. We're going to work hard and make an effort to develop our team over the summer and in the off-season to just be a better team coming back next year."
Coach Dawn Staley indicated that process would start soon.
"Although we're not where we used to be (and) we're not where we want to be, there is progress inch by inch," said Staley, who was disappointed with the 14-15 record. "But, certainly not for the players that we have, not for the talent that we have. We're a better team than 14-15. We've got our work cut out for us in the off-season. You know, that starts next week."
RESULT: Auburn 74, Florida 61
NEXT: Auburn, 15-15, vs. No. 2 seed Kentucky, 23-6, on Friday, 2:30 p.m., Eastern, TV: FSN.
The second game also featured a fast start with Auburn getting out to a 7-0 lead before Florida answered to get on the scoreboard and then went on a run of its own for 7-6 score at the 15:30 mark of the first half.
But, this time, the team that jumped out to the quick lead managed to also be leading when the game ended. The lead changed twice early in the first half, and then Auburn held onto it for the final 33 minutes of the game, though the margin at halftime was slim, 32-26.
The Tigers were hot from the field in the first half - Alli Smalley was 5-7 - and shot 53.8 percent. They cooled off a smidgen to 50 percent in the second half and finished at 51.9 percent for the game.
"I thought we shot the ball really well," Auburn Coach Nell Fortner said. "That definitely makes a big difference in a game. But it was good to see us hitting over half of our shots."
In keeping with the close game theme of the tourney, Florida stayed within striking distance of Auburn with the lead staying in single digits for nearly all of the second half. Four consecutive free throws by Blanche Alverson and Jordan Greenleaf gave the Tigers a 70-58 lead with 1:03 left in the game, and Auburn maintained double digits for the final 74-61 score.
Smalley finished with 29 points and hit a career-high five three-pointers to lead Auburn.
"I did have some good open looks," Smalley said. "That can be attributed to Jordan. She sets some great screens for me. I was able to come off. I had a lot of open looks, a lot of air. I was able to get the shot off."
Three other Tigers were in double figures with Greenleaf scoring15 points, Alverson adding 13, and Morgan Toles pitching in with 11.
Alverson and Smalley took all 14 threes for Auburn and hit eight of them - five for Smalley and three for Alverson - for a 57.1 percent shooting clip behind the arc.
"Those two are dangerous all the time," Fortner said.
Smalley's production was even more important because KeKe Carrier was on the bench in foul trouble early in the second half.
"I'm always trying to create things for Alli because I know she's our primary scorer," Greenleaf said. "The ball needs to be in her hands. I'm always looking to screen to make sure she's open."
Florida Coach Amanda Butler congratulated Auburn on a "fantastic performance," and said the sharpshooters for the Tigers did what they can do.
"Alli and Blanche didn't do things that we didn't expect for them to do," Butler said. "They did a great job of hitting open shots. We didn't do a good job of getting out to them and making them adjust to our defense. They were open, and great shooters knock down open looks when they're not guarded."
Even with Carrier limited to 20 minutes, Auburn still won on the boards, 41-30.
"I felt like they were more physical than us, dominated some statistical categories, rebounding, had some outstanding individual categories," Butler said. "It's obviously a very disappointing loss for us, disappointing exit from the tournament. We had much higher hopes than the way we performed."
Florida, 14-16, was led by Steffi Sorensen, who tallied 14 points with just two coming after halftime.
"We had Parrisha (Simmons) on her," Smalley said. "Parrisha did a great job of blocking her down in the second half. We weren't switching off on her. She was chasing her the whole way, was contesting every shot, and she wasn't hardly getting any looks. P did a great job defensively."
Sharielle Smith added 11 points for Florida, and Azania Stewart chipped in with eight. The Gators' bench outscored Auburn's, 25-6, but the Tigers got plenty from their four starters to carry the game.
Carrier had six points and seven points off the bench for Auburn.
"I thought it was a great team effort," Fortner said. "Everybody contributed from the starters to the bench on down. Just a good day for us. But it's just one game, and time to move on."
Auburn will next face Kentucky, a team the Tigers just beat last Sunday.
"In this tournament every team is gunning for each other," Fortner said. "It doesn't matter if you played them the last regular season game or the middle. It doesn't matter. Everybody is trying to play for the same thing, and that is to win the tournament.
"Doesn't matter how you come in here. Everybody starts from the same place."
RESULT: Vanderbilt 65, Arkansas 64, OT
NEXT: Vanderbilt, 21-9, vs. No. 4 seed LSU, 20-8, at 6:30 p.m. Eastern, TV: FSN.
Vanderbilt needed overtime to slip past Arkansas, which was attempting to become the third lower seed of the day to win its opening round game. The Razorbacks slipped up in the game's final seconds when they didn't realize the game clock was winding to zero and were not able to get off a good shot.
It was the first overtime game in the tourney since 2004 and the fact it came between a five seed and a 12 seed - a game that should be, on paper, lopsided - was typical of the SEC this season.
"I know every other conference in this country claims they're the best from top to bottom," Arkansas Coach Tom Collen said. "I really believe in my heart - I know we finished as the 12 seed, and I know how good we can be on any given night.
"You know, I feel like we can play with any top 25 team in the country, except maybe Connecticut. It's just a great conference to play in. It's hard on coaches, hard on players, but it's a great conference to play in."
Arkansas trailed 31-22 at halftime, and then by double digits, 33-22 when Jence Rhoads opened the second half with a jumper, but Lyndsay Harris got a layup for Arkansas to trim the lead back to nine points, 33-24, and Vandy never again led by double digits.
Arkansas, 12-18, stayed within striking defense throughout the second half and seized a four-point lead, 48-44, with 6:24 left to play. But Vandy got a three-pointer from Rhoads and then a steal by Rhoads to tie the game at 51.
The teams battled to a standoff - Harris drove to the rim for the tie in regulation and Vandy had its last bank shot hit the front rim and bounce out. Overtime was as close as the first 40 minutes with ties at 60-60 and then again at 62-62.
Vandy's last points of the game came from Rhoads, who hit a layup, was fouled and converted at the line for a 65-62 lead with 2:25 left. Two free throws by Charity Ford closed the Razorbacks to two, 65-64, with 1:25 left, and that is where the score remained.
"It was a tough loss for us," Collen said. "I thought we came down and battled hard, got behind by a pretty good margin twice and battled back. Got a stop, goes into overtime. It's hard. You get into these kind of games, and it's all about making plays.
"Give Vanderbilt credit. They've got good veterans out there to make plays when they needed to. I'm proud of the kids I've got."
Charity Ford led Arkansas with 21 points and was 4-8 from behind the arc. Dominique Robinson had 18 points off the bench for the Razorbacks.
Vanderbilt, 21-9, was led by Rhoads with 21 points, and Coach Melanie Balcomb wanted the junior guard to have the ball in overtime and guard the three ball.
"Keep the ball in Jence's hands as long as I could," Balcomb said. "They hit huge shots from the three. Then, they went into the post, and the post was scoring. It was tough to make a defensive game plan. When we doubled, they kicked out three. We were trying to make game-time changes all night on offense and defense."
Merideth Marsh also scored in double figures for the Commodores with 19 points and was 3-7 from behind the arc.
The close game with the conference's last-place team was indicative of the SEC season.
"That's the way it's been all year," Balcomb said. "When you look at the scores every night, I can't believe this score and that score. Everybody has been surprised all year. Nothing is going to surprise us."
Vandy next plays LSU on Friday, and Balcomb was taking the approach that since the Commodores have played a game in Duluth, it becomes more like a "home" court.
"I'm always one of those people that thinks about the positive, not the negative," Balcomb said. "Going in (Friday), what I like is that we've already played on this court, so this is our home court now, and they're just playing their first game. That's the way I look at it.
"We have our feet wet on a neutral court and are comfortable, and a victory on it. Sometimes I will take that, if you look at it in the scheme of things. We take one game at a time. You always want rest. I like that we've won on this court already and feel comfortable on it."
RESULT: Georgia 73, Alabama 66
NEXT: Georgia, 23-7, vs. No. 3 seed Mississippi State, 18-11, at 9 p.m. Friday, TV: FSN.
Alabama and Arkansas finished with identical records in league play at 4-12 - Arkansas was in last place by head-to-head results - and both teams pushed higher seeds to the breaking point in the final two games of SEC play on Thursday.
Alabama, 12-18, hit four 3-pointers in the first half - Ericka Russell was 3-5 from long range in the first 20 minutes - and trailed by just three at halftime, 29-26.
Georgia, 23-7, had the edge in the stands by playing in its home state, but the Crimson Tide never led the Lady Bulldog fans get comfortable as they repeatedly fought back from deficits - the largest lead for Georgia was nine points, 44-35 with 14:17 left in the game - and tied the game at 50-50 with 8:43 remaining.
"I kept thinking when we pulled ahead, I think three different times by eight or so points, that we might spread it out," Georgia Coach Andy Landers said. "But invariably it seemed like we then would turn it over and they would hit a three and it would go back to being close again."
The score would be tied six more times in those final minutes until Georgia finally put the game on ice with six free throws from Meredith Mitchell, who finished with 16 points and a 10-12 line from the stripe.
"I knew I had to knock it down to get the win," Mitchell said.
"Really, really proud of our players for hanging in there and making plays down the stretch, then for hitting the free throws, particularly Meredith and Ashley as they finished the game out from the free throw line," Landers said.
"It was certainly a hard-fought game," Landers said. "I give Alabama a lot of credit for coming to play and being very well prepared to play. They did, in my view, a lot of good things and adjustments from the other two times that we had played them defensively, and were very, very good."
Russell scorched the Lady Bulldogs for 30 points with a 6-11 performance behind the arc. It was Russell's corner three that cut the lead to 67-66 with 31 seconds to play, but Mitchell sealed the game for Georgia from the free throw line.
"I thought we played awful hard," Russell said. "We played as a team. We did. That's what Coach wanted us to do. Just hate we came out with a tough loss."
Tierney Jenkins scored 15 points for Alabama, and Dedrea Magee added 10. LaToya King fouled out with 1:29 left to play and tallied seven points and six assists.
"I think both teams played awful hard," Alabama Coach Wendell Hudson said. "I thought we were prepared. Couple things could have went our way, we could have been playing (Friday) night. But Georgia did the things they needed to do at the end of the game to win the basketball game."
ODDS AND ENDS
FIRST BASKET OF THE SEC TOURNEY: Scored by South Carolina's Kelsey Bone. The center was selected as a member of the SEC's All Freshman Team and Second Team. The Gamecocks went on to score the first 10 points of the game before Ole Miss got on the board with a three-pointer from Bianca Thomas.
BEST BAND ENERGY OF SESSION ONE: That of Ole Miss. The Rebel band members stood for long stretches of the game with the clarinet and flute players showing the most stamina. The saxophone players were the first to give in to fatigue.
BEST BAND ENERGY OF SESSION TWO: That of Alabama. The enthusiastic group cheered the entire game and coordinated chants and cheers with the pep band director. One routine was the instructions to "hold it, hold it" and then let out primal screams when a Georgia player got ready to release a free throw. The band got a lot of practice. Georgia was 28-36 from the line.
LONESOME MASCOT: That of South Carolina's Cocky in the first tourney game. Ole Miss students last month voted to eliminate Colonel Reb. A new mascot identity has not been determined yet - though Star Wars character Admiral Ackbar has been the choice of an Internet grassroots campaign - so Cocky had the court to himself Thursday.
Aubie the tiger and Alberta the alligator were present at the second game.
ONE, TWO, THREE …. South Carolina got a technical foul for taking the court with six players in the second half. Bianca Thomas hit both free throws for Ole Miss.
THREE, TWO, ONE … Yelled by the Auburn band to try to convince Florida that the shot clock was winding down to zero. Duke students - think Angie Bjorklund, Cameron Indoor Stadium, circa 2008 - now know that doesn't always work. The then-freshman believed the students - she actually had more time - and lofted a sideways three from beyond 25 feet that connected.
BRIGHTEST ATTIRE: The lime green-yellow blouse worn by Auburn's Nell Fortner. It also had metallic accents on the sleeves and collar that glistened in the lights. Vandy's Melanie Balcomb got in the spirit, too, with a bright lavender sweater. Both colors are usually popular on Easter eggs.
BEST BAND COMMUNICATION: That of the Arkansas pep band. From greeting all the starters with some kind of remark to chanting "You won't make it" when an opposing player stepped to the line - and cheering wildly if she didn't - they kept up chatter all game. The shouting of assorted foods such as fried Twinkies and chicken nuggets, while the Commodores went to the line brought shrugs and laughter from the players. Vandy was 12-19 from the line.
SHOOTER! SHOT! SHOOTER!! SHOOOOOOOOOOOTER!!! The words screamed by Arkansas Coach Tom Collen as he watched Vandy players fan out to spots on the floor with nobody matching up with Lauren Lueders. She drained the three-pointer in the first half.
HEAD'S UP PASS: A Vandy pass in overtime hit Gabby Smith in the back of the head as she ran down court. It caromed right to a trailing teammate, and the Commodores continued down the floor, none the worse.
CROWD CONTROL: Attendance can be lighter on the first day - 2,385 attended for the first session, 3,682 for the second for a first day total of 6,067 - with an increase in fans in the seats for the final game of the day with Georgia playing its first round game in its home state.
Tennessee fans continued their support of the postseason tourney, even on a day when the Lady Vols didn't play. Orange-clad fans were scattered throughout the arena for all four games and sometimes out-numbered fans of teams playing on the floor.
The arena is very fan-friendly with free parking for tournament attendees.
NO LAUREL RESTING: Kentucky's Matthew Mitchell, the SEC Coach of the Year, remained courtside for all four games Thursday. The Wildcats open play at 2:30 p.m. today against Auburn.
BRRRRRRRR: The arena also is used by the Gwinnett Gladiators, a minor league hockey team, and the indoor temperature is chilly to accommodate the fact that ice is underneath the basketball court.