SEC women's coaches get ready for tourney play

The SEC women's basketball coaches agreed on two things Monday during their media teleconference: this is the best time of the year, and no team can look past its first game. <p>

The 2005 SEC Women's Basketball Tournament gets underway Thursday at the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, S.C. Eight teams open play on the first day. The top four seeds - LSU, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Georgia - earned byes until the quarterfinals Friday. Fox Sports Network will broadcast the first three days of the tournament; espn2 will show Sunday's championship game at 7 p.m.

There's not an easy game anywhere in the bracket. Tennessee will play Friday at 3:15 p.m. against the winner of Kentucky-Auburn. If UT survives that game, Vandy might be waiting, but that's assuming the Commodores can withstand the winner of Arkansas-Mississippi State.

The prohibitive favorite is LSU, which ran the table in the regular season and will play the winner of Alabama-Florida on Friday.

The format favors the top four seeds, because they only have to win back-to-back-to-back games, as opposed to four in a row. But Vandy took the tournament last year by taking four straight games.

Tennessee coach Pat Summitt predicted three teams - Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn - have a legitimate shot to make it to Sunday's title game, even though they start play Thursday.

Considering that Auburn would have to knock out Summitt's Lady Vols to do so, that's saying a lot.

"Anything can happen in this tournament," Summitt said.

At the beginning of the season, UT's three seniors - Shyra Ely, Brittany Jackson and Loree Moore - were asked about the fact they had never won a SEC tourney title. After seven straight regular season championships - three on the seniors' watch - they all indicated that was a "been there, done that" situation.

"Maybe that's why they didn't show up to play LSU," Summitt said Monday after practice with a bemused look on her face.

The seniors were quick to add in the preseason that winning the regular slate was still a goal. But what they really wanted was a tournament title.

LSU took the regular season with an undefeated record in conference play. Tennessee seniors have one last chance to seize a SEC tourney title. Beginning Thursday, it will all start to shake out.

The SEC coaches, except for Vandy's Melanie Balcomb who was unavailable, participated in Monday's teleconference. Here are some of their thoughts.

RICK MOODY, Alabama (13-14, 4-10), No. 9 seed, plays No. 8 seed Florida at 1 p.m. Thursday to open the tournament.

"We're just excited to be playing," said Moody, who will retire at the end of this season after 16 years as head coach of the Crimson Tide. "It's always a great time. It's one of the most exciting tournaments in the country, and we're pleased to be a part of it."

Moody said the keys to surviving the SEC tourney are defense and rebounding. He noted by the time March rolls around, all the teams in the conference know each other and how to minimize strengths and exploit weaknesses.

"The bottom line is that both teams know a lot about each other, and you will have to have people who are making shots," Moody said. "If you make shots, you can go on a run."

Moody emphasized that every game in the tournament "becomes a championship game."

"You've got to put everything into that first one," he said. "I've seen strange things happen, especially on the second day."

Moody said his colleagues in the coaching profession had told him that he would know when it was time to walk away.

"I knew it was time," said Moody, who added a new coach could "reenergize the program and take it back to where it used to be."

The winner of Alabama-Florida will take on LSU at 1 p.m. Friday.

LAST GAME: 94-81 loss to Tennessee.

SUSIE GARDNER, Arkansas (15-12, 3-11), No. 11 seed, plays No. 6 seed Mississippi State at 9:15 p.m. Thursday to close the first day of play.

The seedings weren't determined until the final day of regular season, so the Lady Razorbacks didn't know who their opponent would be until after getting back home from a road game at Kentucky.

"We were on the plane not knowing, until finally last night we found out we had Mississippi State," Gardner said. "That was one of our wins this year. It was at home, however."

Gardner was asked to look ahead to LSU, a common question during the teleconference, and how to stop the No. 1 seed.

"We played pretty well the first half; it was a six point game at halftime," Gardner said. "I don't know if there is a way to stop them, they are so good. They have a great post presence. You can't zone them, because they shoot the ball so well from the outside. You have to try to stop them in transition. They are very good, I don't know if there is a perfect game plan out there."

One of Arkansas' best players, Sarah Pfeiffer, sustained a mild concussion after taking a shot to the jaw Sunday against Kentucky, but she is expected to be OK.

Gardner joined the teleconference after speaking at a luncheon for Arkansas fans, during which she received a standing ovation. The Lady Razorbacks were hit hard after two post players went down with season-ending knee injuries.

"Those are the true fans," Gardner said. "They support Lady Back basketball no matter what."

The winner of Arkansas-Mississippi State will play Vandy at 9:15 p.m. Friday.

LAST GAME: 73-67 loss to Kentucky.

NELL FORTNER, Auburn (15-12, 6-8), No. 7 seed, plays No. 10 seed Kentucky on Thursday at 3:15 p.m.

"We played Kentucky once, and we beat them here in Auburn. I felt like we played a really good game. To do that was a positive win for us," Fortner said.

At the time Auburn was without Marita Payne, a dominant shot blocker in the paint.

"We will be at full strength," Fortner said. "We will have our work cut out for us."

Kentucky is coming off of a win, and Fortner said that can tip momentum.

"I think that gives you great momentum coming into the conference tournament," she said.

When Fortner was asked to comment on the play this season of freshman forward Tasha Humphrey of Georgia, she jokingly said, "I'm going to tell her to go pro next year when I see her."

Fortner also volunteered the play of another freshman, Sylvia Fowles of LSU.

"Her and Sylvia are unique in that they came into a conference like the SEC and dominated," Fortner said.

Auburn gave LSU all it could handle this season, and Fortner said that's because her team matches up well on the perimeter - "we're able to guard them well and stay in our man-to-man to do it" - and in the post, except for Fowles.

"We don't have an answer for her," she said.

Fortner also was asked to look ahead to the possibility of playing Tennessee on Friday.

"They have weapons at every position," Fortner said. "You guard them as best you can and hope they have a bad shooting night. They have great rebounders in the post. They are a tough team. Our defense has allowed us to be able to stop some people. We can be physical in the half-court."

The key is ball pressure, Fortner said, and Auburn does that well to disrupt offensive flow.

Fortner was working as a TV analyst last season; this year she's back on the sidelines.

"I can't say I would draw on anything from being an analyst," she said. "I'm pretty focused on my team right now and the next opponent."

Auburn is clinging to an NCAA bid, but must do well in the tournament to secure a position.

"Who knows?" Fortner said of a possible invite. "I know we have to win two to even get a shot. That's where you keep hope alive."

Fortner did note that seniors don't want to stop playing yet.

"They're going to give you everything they've got," she said.

The winner of Auburn-Kentucky will face Tennessee at 3:15 p.m. Friday.

LAST GAME: 75-68 loss to Mississippi State.

CAROLYN PECK, Florida (14-13, 5-9), No. 8 seed, plays No. 9 seed Alabama at 1 p.m. Thursday.

"Our team is coming off a tough lost against LSU," Peck said. "There is a reason they are ranked No. 1 in the nation."

But Peck also knows the regular season slate is wiped clean, and the tournament offers every team a new shot.

"We look at the SEC Tournament as a new season," she said. "Everyone has an opportunity or a chance; that is what it makes so great."

Florida, which will be without top player Bernice Mosby for the rest of the season for personal reasons, will have to contend with a team playing for a coach on the verge of retiring in Bama.

"I think there is going to be a lot of emotions on both sides with us playing without Bernice Mosby," Peck said. "Alabama is going to be trying to keep their momentum going. It is going to be a great game. This is going to be a match-up of emotion and intensity."

Peck echoed the words of Fortner in that "we've got seniors who aren't ready to stop playing yet."

LSU awaits the winner on Friday, but Peck wasn't inclined to look ahead, expect to note her team had 23 turnovers against LSU in the regular season.

"The biggest thing we would focus on is beating Alabama," said Peck, who noted that Bama's Monique Bivins "is a phenomenal player."

Peck also doesn't put any stock in the motivation of certain matchups, such as possibly facing a former colleague in Summitt. Both teams would have to reach the final for that to happen.

"In the SEC it's such a dogfight," Peck said. "You want to win every night."

LAST GAME: 76-52 loss to LSU.

ANDY LANDERS, Georgia (21-8, 9-5), No. 4 seed, plays winner of South Carolina-Ole Miss on Friday at 7 p.m.

"We are a team that has roller-coastered a bit, playing good one night and then not playing as well," Landers said. "Defensively we seem to be getting better. We are healthy and are looking forward to the challenge of the SEC Tournament."

If Georgia and LSU both win Friday, they would meet Saturday in the semifinals. Landers had no desire to look that far ahead at all.

"We have an important game with Ole Miss, a team we split with this season," he said.

He did comment on the play of Tennessee. The Lady Vols and Lady Bulldogs won't play unless both teams survive until Sunday.

"I've always felt they were beatable, as long as our basketball team ... showed up prepared and ready to play," he said. "That's where our focus is."

LAST GAME: 66-59 overtime loss to Vanderbilt.

MICKIE DeMOSS, Kentucky (15-14, 4-10), No. 10 seed, plays No. 7 seed Auburn at 3:15 p.m. Thursday.

When Kentucky last played Auburn, Payne was out. She's back now.

"It will be a little different look for us," DeMoss said. "We're going to have to play extremely well to beat them. We're going to have our work cut out for us."

Coaching in the land of race horses, DeMoss was asked for some dark horse candidates for the tournament.

"The dark horse team could be a number of squads," she said. "I like Mississippi State a lot; on any given night anything can happen."

The quality of play in the SEC ensures that any team could get on a roll and ride into the title game. That guarantees fan interest and hopefully a packed house. DeMoss has seen the emergence of interest in SEC women's hoops for herself. Although Kentucky struggled this season, they played before large crowds at home and had 6,000 fans for the Arkansas game on Sunday.

"Just to see the fan support that we have for a team that hasn't proven themselves it says a lot about how far the sport has come," DeMoss said. "The visibility of the sport makes people stop and notice."

LAST GAME: 73-67 win over Arkansas.

POKEY CHATMAN, LSU (27-1, 14-0), No. 1 seed, plays winner of Alabama-Florida at 1 p.m. Friday.

LSU rolls into the Bi-Lo Center with the confidence of a team that no SEC opponent took down in regular season play.

"We are excited with some of the momentum that we are bringing in," Chatman said. "We have been playing some good basketball. It will allow us to be focused no matter who we play."

But Chatman did note that everyone could "throw out" the regular season results as March is the second season.

LSU enters the tournament with a balanced team led by frontline players Seimone Augustus and Fowles and a backcourt fueled by Temeka Johnson, who has been referred to as the best point guard in the country.

"I think guards are important in postseason play," said Chatman, a former point guard for LSU. "Those are the players that are crucial in getting the frontcourt players involved."

The tournament also allows the freshmen, such as Fowles, to get a first taste of post-season play.

"I think it's huge," she said. "This is so new to them."

Although LSU enters the tourney as the No. 1 seed, Chatman knows the importance and stature of Tennessee. That was apparent last December on her radio show when a caller wanted the date of the Tennessee game.

"You are always chasing them, and they are at the level we always want to attain," Chatman said. "You're chasing a program of such power, a program of firsts. It is good to have that kind of program in your conference and it gives you something to strive for."

LSU's recent success also is something to be reckoned with, though.

"It's give you confidence you can compete on that level (but) it's difficult to stay there," said Chatman, who added it means the program is headed in the right direction and can "scale those mountains."

LAST GAME: 76-52 win over Florida.

CAROL ROSS, Ole Miss (18-9, 8-6), No. 5 seed, plays No. 12 seed South Carolina at 7 p.m. Thursday.

"It's a tough match-up for a lot of reasons," Ross said. "We just played them, and it was a very hard fought win for us at home. They are considered the home team, since the tournament is in South Carolina. They also happen to be a hot team and are playing with great confidence."

Ross said the transition from regular season to postseason was always exciting because a team gets to "slam the door and kick open a new door."

Ole Miss seems assured of an NCAA bid no matter how it performs in Greenville, but Ross said "we haven't had the luxury to think about seeding."

"We thought yesterday gave us an opportunity to talk out loud about the NCAA Tournament," she said. "Anything you do in March helps out, and you have to focus on the game in front of you. A win or loss is coming one way or the other. This is one-and-done time."

The winner will face Georgia and its super frosh Tasha Humphrey at 7 p.m. Friday.

"She's phenomenal," said Ross, adding that Humphrey has a mature body, "and she knows how to use it."

"I don't know what makes her so special. I just know what makes her a handful to deal with. She's dangerous no matter where they put her."

For Ole Miss to make the title game Sunday, it would have to complete the rare feat of winning four straight days. Ross won't think that far ahead but said "you've really got to be hitting stride and playing well."

Just to win one game in the tournament, Ross said, a team has to rebound, defend and shoot "light's out."

LAST GAME: 57-51 win over South Carolina.

SHARON FANNING, Mississippi State (17-10, 6-8), No. 6 seed, plays No. 11 seed Arkansas at 9:15 p.m. Thursday.

"I see that Arkansas is playing so hard," Fanning said. "I like their energy. We know that they will be ready to go."

Both squads play home games in Central time so the late start in Eastern time won't seem too bad to them.

"We usually play at seven or even eight Central time, so that's close," Fanning said. "We will plan the day accordingly. It is the same for both teams, and we will focus on the positives and be ready to play."

The biggest positive is that it's a fresh start for any team seeking a postseason bid past this weekend.

"This is a new season for everyone, and we will have to play our best basketball and try to guard hard and block out better," Fanning said. "All the fundamentals will be our focus, and hopefully it will be there on Thursday night. That's what I want to do - leave it on the floor."

Fanning does bring one of the best players in women's basketball in Tan White, who leads the SEC in scoring and poured in 34 points Sunday in a win over Auburn.

White also is determined to graduate on time and took on a courseload of 19 hours this spring to make sure she would.

"It's a great challenge because you're going all day long every day," Fanning said. "But she's getting it done; she believes that she's going to make it."

Fanning said her senior guard is a solid student, and what's been the most pleasurable part of her job "is to see how Tan developed as a person."

"There's just a look about her that she really wants to be successful," Fanning said. "I've been blessed to have a player of that talent. She sure makes us go."

LAST GAME: 75-68 win over Auburn.

SUSAN WALVIUS, South Carolina (8-20, 2-12), No. 12 seed, plays No. 5 seed Ole Miss at 7 p.m. Thursday.

The Gamecocks were without a conference win this season and then took two of three at the end.

They played Sunday without point guard Lea Fabbri, who returned to Croatia because of the death of her father. Guard Lauren Simms remains out of action with a knee injury so Stacy Booker had to slide into the point guard slot.

"I thought we played well considering we lost our point guard," Walvius said. "It was a real emotional blow to our team and had an opportunity to win the game. We have won two or our last three and we are excited that Greenville decided to host. Our team is looking forward to that. We're going into the tournament confident."

Walvius noted she's taking a young team to Greenville, but "there's nothing like it; it's just a great experience."

With the state of South Carolina hosting the tournament, Walvius said she wished she had a better squad to showcase, such as the one three years ago that finished second in the conference, but "we're excited to have it here."

She did point out, however, that South Carolina held a lead against the majority of SEC teams this season.

"Our issue is finishing," Walvius said.

She noted the SEC women's conference might be "the best conference of any sport" top to bottom, and she expects a lot of fan support, especially for Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky.

She knows there's not a gimme game for any of the teams, and playing as No. 12 doesn't mean South Carolina doesn't have a shot.

"You have to play well in the SEC tournament to win any games," Walvius said.

LAST GAME: 57-51 loss to Ole Miss.

PAT SUMMITT, Tennessee (23-4, 13-1), No. 2 seed, plays winner of Kentucky-Auburn at 3:15 p.m. Friday.

"I think our team is excited about it," Summitt said. "I can't believe it is that time of the year. I am pleased with how we have responded after our last SEC loss."

Summitt is coaching to secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and believes her team has to get to Sunday's game to seal it.

She welcomes the tournament atmosphere, especially since Tennessee heavily counts on the contributions of two freshmen, Nicky Anosike and Alexis Hornbuckle, to succeed. This will be their first test in the postseason and whether or not they can maintain their poise.

"It gives you tournament atmosphere," Summitt said. "I think you go back to that it can only enhance game preparation for NCAA purposes. It gives you a chance to secure a No. 1 or No. 2 seed depending on who you are talking about. We talk about going in and staying focused and controlling your own destiny."

Summitt also thinks the depth of the league will generate interest in early round play and keep fans coming.

"I think it's good for our league to have teams stepping up, playing better and having a little bit of more depth," she said. "I think that as you look at some of the match-ups going into the tournament, it generates fan interest and excitement. I do think there will be a lot of eyes on what happens in Greenville because of what it means: how many teams can position themselves for post-season play and how many teams can make sure that they better their spots through their play."

LAST GAME: 94-81 win over Alabama.

Several of the coaches were asked about an old idea to delay the women's season a month so that postseason play wouldn't begin until the men had completed the NCAA Tournament. The coaches opposed it, none more forcefully and eloquently as Peck, who initially was baffled at the question.

"I think it's tournament time," said Peck, noting that such a format would confuse fans. "There's excitement about basketball period. It's March Madness. It's basketball time."

It is indeed.

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