Another SEC showdown is looming at the league tournament this week between undefeated No. 1 South Carolina and one-loss, No. 4 LSU.
The teams met on Super Bowl Sunday in a highly anticipated game featuring two of the game’s biggest stars in reigning AP player of the year Aliyah Boston for the Gamecocks and the Tigers’ Angel Reese.
South Carolina shut down Reese — it was her only game this season without double figures in both points and rebounds — in an 88-64 victory.
The tournament opens in Greenville, South Carolina, on Wednesday. The top four seeds — South Carolina (29-0), LSU (27-1), No. 3 Tennessee (21-10) and No. 4 Mississippi (22-7) — don’t play until Friday. The semifinals will be Saturday, with the championship and the NCAA Tournament’s automatic bid at stake on Sunday.
The February beatdown by South Carolina left LSU coach Kim Mulkey a bit humbled. “It’s South Carolina, in my opinion,” she said, “and everyone else.”
At the moment, Mulkey has a much more modest goal for tournament play in her second year at LSU.
“I’ve never won an SEC Tournament game as a coach,” said Mulkey, whose team lost its opener a season ago to eventual champion Kentucky. “So our goal is to win one more in the SEC Tournament than we’ve done since this staff has been here.”
The Gamecocks have their own motivation from a year ago. South Carolina was heavily favored to win its seventh tournament crown in eight seasons. Instead, Kentucky rallied from eight points down in the fourth quarter for a 64-62 victory.
The Gamecocks haven’t lost in 35 games since, including a run to the 2022 national title.
South Carolina leading scorer Zia Cooke says that defeat is in the past and there’s no reminders or rallying cry.
“I think what happened last year is what happened last year,” she said. “We’ve moved on.”
Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley, whose team wrapped up its seventh regular-season SEC championship in the past 10 seasons, has seen her team step up to each challenge this year and doesn’t expect that to change.
“I know this team understands the path that’s in front of them,” Staley said. “They stay current with that, so I can only feel good about what they’ve done.”
There are six other 20-win teams in the SEC this season: the Lady Vols, Rebels, Mississippi State (20-9), Alabama (20-9), Georgia (20-10) and Arkansas (20-11). That group is a combined 0-14 against South Carolina and LSU this season.
SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Boston bested Reese for SEC player of the year, the conference announced Tuesday. Boston won the honor for the second straight year. She also earned her second nod as defensive player of the year. Boston and Reese, who leads the SEC in scoring (23.7 points a game) and rebounding (16) this season, were both named to the All-SEC first team.
DEFENDING TOURNAMENT CHAMPS
It would be an even bigger surprise if Kentucky won a second straight SEC Tournament title. The Wildcats enter as the 14th and last seed after going 10-18 and 2-14 in SEC play. This team lost centerpiece player Rhyne Howard to the WNBA and had 10 newcomers on their opening roster.
It can’t get much easier, at least logistically, this postseason for No. 1 South Carolina. The SEC Tournament is in the first of a three-year run in Greenville, about a two-hour drive from the Gamecocks’ campus. The first two rounds of the NCAAs almost surely will be on South Carolina’s home floor. Should the Gamecocks advance to the Sweet 16, they most likely will return to Greenville for a chance to get to a third straight Final Four. That will require a flight to Dallas.
The network will locate its “College GameDay” program at the SEC Tournament site this Sunday. It’s the last of three stops the program made to women’s basketball games, going to UConn’s game with Tennessee in Knoxville on Jan. 26 before going to Iowa City for the Indiana-Iowa game last Sunday.
___ AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
(Story via The Associated Press)