GAME ONE: Ole Miss 94, Arkansas 64
NEXT UP: No. 1 seed LSU on Friday at 1 p.m. Eastern.
Ole Miss' Armintie Price got the first point of the tournament with a free throw. She went on to score 15 points, grab eight boards and distribute seven assists to help lead the Lady Rebels to victory. The two teams were facing each other for the second time in five days – the first game went to Ole Miss, 85-78 – and although the Razorbacks were within a point at halftime, 39-38, the Lady Rebels went on a withering run midway through the second half to secure the win, 94-64.
Oddly enough Ole Miss (16-12) put the game away after Price went to the bench with her fourth foul at the 12:14 mark and the lead at eight points, 55-47. Arkansas got a layup by Kristin Andjelkovic to cut the lead to 55-49, but Arkansas misfired from the field repeatedly and didn't score again until the 6:40 mark. By that time Ole Miss was up 72-51, and when Price returned to the game at the 4:30 mark, Ole Miss was ahead, 79-57.
Ole Miss got a season-high 23 points from Ashley Johnson and 21 from Carla Bartee, who tied her career high. Andjelkovic had a career-high 14 points for Arkansas, and Brittney Vaughn and Kristin Moore added 10 and 13, respectively.
"Armintie is all-around a great player," Johnson said. "Of course we look at each other, and we're like, ‘Uh-oh,' we've got to take our game up. She gets a lot of rebounds. We had to take good shots and hope that we could hit them."
The Lady Rebels shot 49.3 percent from the field and hit seven three-pointers – four by Johnson and three by Bartee. Ashley Awkward had a career-high eight rebounds to go with 13 points and Bartee grabbed six boards. LaTanya Jones, who subbed for Price when she left with four fouls, had five rebounds in 13 minutes of play.
In the game Sunday, Arkansas (13-15) made 11 three-pointers. The Lady 'Backs only connected three times Thursday.
"Obviously we came into this game fresh off an Arkansas matchup on Sunday afternoon, and they shot the three pretty well, and we knew they had the capabilities to do that," Ole Miss coach Carol Ross said. "I thought essentially our coverage was better today than it was Sunday. We were fortunate the few times they got open looks they simply didn't put the ball in the basket."
LSU coach Pokey Chatman watched the game on the sideline in the "team scouts" seats on press row with one of her assistant coaches, Bob Starkey. The Tigers might have wanted to play Arkansas based on regular season results. LSU beat the Lady Razorbacks, 93-59, on the road in Fayetteville, while handing Ole Miss a 78-63 loss in Baton Rouge.
The Lady Razorbacks' loss is especially disappointing for the team because the tourney is in their home state, and it looked as if Arkansas, the No. 9 seed, had a solid shot at taking out No. 8 seed Ole Miss. But Arkansas' chances of a mini-upset evaporated with stunning quickness, and the Lady Rebels ran away with the ballgame.
The game was an apt conclusion, although, to the way Arkansas' season winded down in general. The Lady Razorbacks were 5-2 midway through conference play – and won their first SEC road opener in their 15-year tenure in the SEC – but then closed with eight consecutive regular season losses.
That's one of those things where you start off so well in the SEC, everyone is positive and things kind of snowballed from there, and it's the same way when you lose," said Arkansas senior Adrienne Bush. "You try your hardest and you go out there and you make the plays and you try as much as possible, and I felt like in the first half that's what we did. And then in the second half, like coach said, it was like a different team out there. When things are going bad, they go bad."
Things really went bad behind the arc when Arkansas had the ball.
"We live and die by the three-point shot," Arkansas coach Susie Gardner said.
But things went even worse for Arkansas when Ole Miss had the ball.
"Our kids had said at practice that they were committed to the press, we wanted to press, we pressed and then they just dribbled past us," Gardner said. "There was no help, no taking a charge.
"You know it's very tough. It's embarrassing to be in Little Rock, for the city of Little Rock to work so hard to bring this tournament to Arkansas, and we had fans behind us. You know it's just really, really – I don't know how to explain it in all honesty."
The Lady Razorbacks played small ball after having its post game wiped out by injury. Ole Miss took advantage and scored 44 points in the paint.
"It was layups; it was dribbling right to the middle," Gardner said. "You would think that a post player or an outside guard, what a perfect opportunity to take a charge."
The exception was Bush, who took two charges in the open floor.
"I respect Adrienne Bush so much because she will do that, and she did it tonight," Gardner said.
Arkansas was hammered by losses to injury this season – forward Sarah Pfeifer was lost before the season started to a knee injury (torn ACL), and forward Danielle Allen went down two weeks ago with the same injury. Guard Kristin Peoples, who had been a starter, injured her back two weeks ago and hasn't traveled with the team since. Post player Whitney Jones' minutes have been limited by foot and shin ailments.
The win was No. 52 for Ross at Ole Miss, who played for the Lady Rebels from 1979 to 1982, and No. 300 in her coaching career. Getting No. 301 will be much more difficult. The Tigers lost only one conference game this season – in overtime to Florida – and want to top off the regular season title with a tourney trophy.
"Any time you can advance in this tournament it's a good day, and we feel very good that we were given the opportunity to play one of the best teams in the country and in our league, and (Friday) we'll see what happens," Ross said.
GAME TWO: Auburn 64, South Carolina, 48
NEXT UP: No. 2 seed Tennessee on Friday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern.
In a game of particular interest to Tennessee fans, No. 10 seed Auburn (14-14) opened with a 13-0 start and stymied South Carolina with a zone defense that led to missed shots and turnovers. Had Auburn not hit a cold spell after the hot start, the lead could have been higher. No. 7 seed South Carolina finally connected but had only eight points in the first 12 minutes of play while Auburn had 21.
South Carolina (17-11) was trying to make a statement it belonged in the NCAA Tournament in two weeks. Most of the first half didn't help the Gamecocks' cause at all – though they did rally in the last four minutes, forced some turnovers and managed to only trail 27-21 at halftime.
But Auburn opened the second half with a run and turned a six-point lead into a 15-point lead, 36-21, within four minutes. South Carolina got within eight, 39-31, with 10:41to go, but Auburn, led by freshman DeWanna Bonner's 25 points, stifled any shot at a comeback.
"I was concerned about this game because I know how strong Auburn is defensively," South Carolina coach Susan Walvius said. "Very strong defensive team, especially in the paint, which is the strength of our offense. We got some shots that we wanted. We couldn't get our shots to fall."
The Gamecocks shot 29.2 percent from the field and only made 4-11 free throws. Their leading scorer was forward Melanie Johnson with 14 points. Nobody else was in double figures. Auburn shot 43.1 percent, and three players had 10 points to complement a career high from Bonner – center KeKe Carrier and guards Nitasha Brown and Whitney Boddie.
Auburn coach Nell Fortner said the difference in this game and the last one with South Carolina – a 58-46 loss by the Tigers – was the presence of Boddie, who didn't play in the regular season against South Carolina.
"I did think the difference in the game was having Whitney Boddie on the floor as opposed to last time we played South Carolina we did not," Fortner said. "And she is a difference maker. She made a big difference for DeWanna Bonner today; she made a big difference for Keke Carrier today. That's what your point guards do, and that's what they did today. … Not to harp on it too much but when you've got your point guard playing and leading on the floor, it makes a big difference."
Tennessee assistant coaches Holly Warlick and Dean Lockwood were in the scout seats on the sideline and were joined by Head Coach Pat Summitt, who had an impromptu autograph line at halftime. Her son, Tyler, served as her assistant by handing items to his mother and then back to fans while she chatted and signed programs, hats, T-shirts, tickets, basketballs, the local paper's sports section that featured Summitt on the front, pennants and even other's teams' fan placards.
Once more fans realized Summitt was signing, the line grew in two directions along the rail between the seats and press row while people pulled out cell phones to capture photos. She even signed one of the phones. One of the tournament's young ball and towel boys sprinted over to get a signature on the back of his SEC volunteer T-shirt. The signature was visible every time he took the floor to wipe up sweat during breaks in action.
Summitt signed non-stop for the 15-minute intermission and then security had the fans return to their seats because play had resumed, and fans were still lined up and blocking others from getting back to their seats.
The Lady Vols will open tournament play against a team they beat, 81-56, during the regular season but with only nine players and the way they were left exposed Sunday by Florida's full-court press, nothing should come easy for Tennessee. If UT gets into semifinal play, Georgia or Vanderbilt will be lurking – two teams that have to be tired of losing to Tennessee in tightly contested games.
But the Lady Vols are still the tourney's defending champion after winning the title last year in Greenville, S.C.
"There's no question," Fortner said. "Tennessee is a great team. They're going to be hungry coming off their last game and a loss (to Florida at home). They're going to be hungry to play well (Friday)."
GAME THREE: Florida 98, Mississippi State, 83
NEXT UP: No. 4 seed Kentucky on Friday at 7:30 p.m. Eastern.
No. 12 seed Mississippi State made as much of a game of it as the Lady Bulldogs could – pretty much the story of their season – but No. 5 seed Florida rebounded from a slow start to take the win, 98-83. With Sunday's 95-93 win over Tennessee, the Gators have now scored 193 points in their last two games.
Mississippi State got off to a 12-6 lead – forcing Florida coach Carolyn Peck to call timeout – but the Lady Bulldogs stretched it to 15-8. The teams traded leads and then the Gators got a one-point lead, 22-21, at the 9:16 mark and never surrendered it. Florida led 47-39 at the half after Brittany Davis made a banked-in, falling-down three-pointer.
"Well, honestly I guess I just saw (Danielle) Santos, and I came up, and we kind of almost ran into each other," Davis said. "I kind of just threw it towards the basket. I couldn't really see it. It went in. I didn't even know it. … I think definitely it kind of gave us a little bit of something in the locker room to run in with. Little excitement."
The Lady Bulldogs made it interesting in the second half – they were within eight, 86-78, with under two minutes to go after being behind by as much as 19 with a little more than seven minutes to go – but missed jumpers on two consecutive trips down the court, and the Gators hit their free throws.
Florida (21-7) was led by a pair of guards. Danielle Santos scored 24 points, and Sha Brooks had 22. Three other starters were in double figures with forward Davis with 18 and forward Dalila Eshe with 15. The fifth starter, point guard Sarah Lowe, had eight points and seven assists.
Mississippi State (6-22) was led by guard Miayorka Johnson, who scored 21 points and had six rebounds, and forward Mamie McKinney, who had 19, along with eight boards. Guard Marneshia Richard had 14 off the bench.
The Lady Bulldogs matched the Gators in three-pointers – both teams made nine – but Florida made its free throws (25-27) compared to Mississippi State (14-22). Florida also got 29 points off turnovers versus 11 for its opponent.
It was Peck's first win in the first round as the coach at Florida.
"This is the first time we have gotten to do this – coming back to play tomorrow," Peck said. "When you get into the SEC Tournament, everybody's record is 0-0 because every team is going to come and play their best basketball, and I thought that Mississippi State did a great job with us today. … My team is doing a very good job of keeping their composure, bearing down and doing what they needed to do in order to get this win today. And we're thrilled about the opportunity to go back to the hotel and not have to pack our suitcases."
The Gators will face Kentucky in the same round with the winner of that game taking on the winner of the Ole Miss-LSU matchup.
Chatman and Starkey watched the game from press row, as did Kentucky coach Mickie DeMoss and her assistant, Niya Butts, a former player at Tennessee.
Florida and Kentucky split the regular season – each team won on the road – so this matchup should be a promising one on the second day of play.
"I expect it to be a huge battle," Peck said. "Kentucky is a very strong rebounding team. They are also a team that has a good post game that can score inside, as well as shooters on the perimeter. They have got a good bench, a deep bench."
GAME FOUR: Vanderbilt 84, Alabama 62
NEXT UP: No. 3 seed Georgia on Friday at 9:50 p.m. Eastern.
The late hour of the last game didn't catch No. 6 seed Vanderbilt napping as the Commodores out-hustled the Crimson Tide to the ball and defeated Alabama, 84-62.
No. 11 seed Alabama took an early lead in the first half, but Vandy had the lead at halftime by one, 37-36. Both teams had hit three 3-pointers and were shooting well from the field – 48.4 percent for Alabama and 47.1 percent for Vandy. But the Commodores drained three-pointers in the second half – they made six and hit 64.3 percent for the game – and seemingly beat 'Bama to every loose ball to pull further ahead and stay there.
"It's been a season full of half-performances," said Alabama coach Stephany Smith. "We have had 20-, 25-, 30-minute performances all season and tonight was another one. I thought we played well offensively and defensively for the first 20 minutes."
Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb went to several reserves with more than five minutes remaining to try to get some rest for her starters, who will square off Friday night against Georgia.
Georgia coach Andy Landers watched this late game from the sidelines. The Lady Bulldogs beat the Commodores, 83-61, on Feb. 19 in Nashville. That game followed the one in which Tennessee, playing for the first time without its point guard Alexis Hornbuckle, shocked Georgia in Athens, 58-55.
"We just lost to Georgia, so we have a bad taste in our mouth about that game," Balcomb said. "We were very unpleased with our play and we just – it's a game that all we can do, I think, in that game is help ourselves, you know. So in this tournament you're playing a great team and it helps yourself down the road. I mean, I think we can play free. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain playing at Georgia.
Against the Crimson Tide, Vanderbilt (20-9) was led by junior forward Carla Thomas with 15 points with forward Christina Wirth coming off the bench to score 17. Cherish Stringfield had 11 points with nine coming from behind the arc. Five players for Vandy hit at least one three-pointer with Carolina Williams and Jennifer Risper stroking two each.
Alabama (9-19) was led by Lauren Hill, who had a career-high 24 points; Kate Mastin, 13; and Dee Merriweather, 11. Navonda Moore, who had 18 earlier this season against Vandy, had seven and didn't score in the second half.
Even more impressive for Vandy than the three-point shooting was the number of assists, a rather eye-popping 32. Risper alone had nine. Point guard Dee Davis had seven.
"That's what we've been doing – moving the ball around and sharing the ball," Balcomb said. "Tonight we had 32 assists on 35 baskets, and that's really nice. It shows me that we're really starting to develop as a team."
TOURNAMENT ODDS AND ENDS
WORST INDICATOR: The way Arkansas was shooting in warm-ups before the game. The players were stroking the ball from long range and then hit 3-23 (13 percent) from the floor from behind the arc.
BEST CHANT: "Who's she?" by the Arkansas pep band when Ole Miss' starters were introduced.
BEST COUSINS: Ole Miss' Carla Bartee's cousin is William Bartee, a defensive back for the Kansas City Chiefs. Teammate Ashley Johnson's cousin, Consuella Sparrow, played for Auburn.
LAMEST CHEER: "G-O. Come on 'Cocks, let's go." Shouted by the South Carolina cheerleaders.
NOT MUCH BETTER: "My game, that's my game, that's USC." Same group.
MUCH BETTER: Three members of the South Carolina who stood and shouted the entire game, even when the Gamecocks were well behind.
BEST CHEERLEADERS: A group from North Little Rock that included two tiny cheerleaders that looked to be well under the age of 5 and whose pom-poms were nearly as big as they were. They performed at halftime of the South Carolina-Auburn game and were encouraged before taking the floor by UT's Sidney Spencer – the Tennessee team was watching the game – who cheered for them and joined in from the sidelines. She high-fived the girls as they left the floor.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: South Carolina having to use this game as a case to sway the NCAA committee to select the Gamecocks.
"We have a very good basketball team," Walvius said. "We finished 7-7 in the SEC. We beat Florida late. Florida goes on to beat LSU and beat Tennessee. We have a great basketball team. I hope the NCAA will take a look at that."
BEST BLOCK: Turned in by South Carolina's Melanie Johnson, a 6'2 forward, despite the presence of Auburn's star blocker Marita Payne. Johnson soared from the wing to reject a baseline shot, and a teammate snared the ball out of the air.
SECOND-BEST BLOCK: Came from the tots in the paint. Mississippi State's 5'10 Miayorka Johnson, a sophomore, swatted away the shot of Florida's 5'11 Marshae Dotson, a freshman, from behind under the basket.
BEST DEBUT: Auburn's freshman DeWanna Bonner. She scored a career-high 25 points and had a career-high 13 rebounds.
BEST/WORST SIGN: Depending on your point of view. "We want the Vols." Displayed by a member of the Auburn pep band.
BEST PROP: A cardboard box placed on the floor during the announcement of starters for South Carolina. The box, which is decorated in South Carolina's colors, was found and brought to the team by assistant coach Tammy Holder as a reminder to the team to box out against the Gators on Feb. 12. South Carolina won that game on the scoreboard, 81-63, and on the boards, 43-33. The box became a sideline fixture after that.
BAD CALL: An official standing on the baseline who missed a Mississippi State player's foot touch the line in the closing seconds of the first half as she grabbed a loose ball.
BEST EYES: Florida coach Carolyn Peck, who was patrolling the sideline near the end of the bench, and saw the player's foot. She appealed to the official to no avail.
BEST SHOT: Taken a few seconds later by Florida's Brittany Davis. With the clock nearly showing all zeros, Davis shot a three-ball while falling backward toward center court. She fell to the floor, and the ball banked in to give the Gators a 47-39 halftime lead.
WORST FOUL: By Davis in the second half. She cleared out in the lane while Mississippi State's Mamie McKinney was swishing a shot. The Lady Bulldogs got the ball and another bucket from McKinney to cut the lead to 59-50.
BEST FOUL: Davis taking a charge a few minutes later in the lane to force a Mississippi State turnover. Florida hit a three-pointer to push the score out to 72-57.
WORST STREAK: Lady Bulldogs coach Sharon Fanning got win No. 499 on Jan. 8 against Ole Miss. Since then her team has lost 13 straight games, the worst losing streak in school history. Win no. 500 will have to wait until next season.
BEST CONVERSATION: The one Davis, a senior from Gainesville, and McKinney, a senior from Tallahassee, were having at the free throw line in the closing seconds of the game. The two players were sharing smiles and laughter. It definitely wouldn't bother the shooter. Florida is hitting 73.8 percent from the line as a team, which would surpass last season's program-best 72.5 percent.
SECOND-BEST SHOT: The one McKinney hit seconds after the conversation – a banked-in three just to the right of the top of the floor from about 22 feet away. It was only the fifth three-pointer of her Lady Bulldog career.
BEST NUMBERS: Florida senior point guard Sarah Lowe has a GPA of 3.9 and an assist average per game of 3.8. The co-captain will graduate this spring with degrees in political science and Spanish.
SECOND-WORST FOUL: The one by Vandy's Dee Davis on a layup attempt by Alabama's Camilla Blands as time expired in the first half. Blands made one of two to cut Vandy's halftime lead to one, 37-36.
THIRD-WORST FOUL: The one by Vandy's Rachel Brockman in the last 45 seconds of the second half. She was going for the ball but missed with the swipe and came across the face of Alabama's Kate Mastin, who somehow banked in the layup anyway.
BEST REACTION: Brockman, who immediately went to the baseline to check on Mastin. She was OK but missed the one part of the ‘and-one.'
PLAYED TO SUCCESS: Four current coaches also played in the SEC. Peck of Florida played at Vanderbilt; Ross and Chatman coach at their alma maters; and Gardner of Arkansas played at Georgia.
PLAYER SUCCESSION: Vanderbilt junior Carla Thomas now has 1,173 points and is in 19th place on the school's career scoring list. The player above her is Peck, who scored 1,240 points at Vandy from 1985 to 1988.