Kentucky women expect fierce fight for SEC tourney title

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 6, 2013 

  • Next game

    SEC Tournament at Duluth, Ga.

    When: Friday, 6 p.m.

    Opponent: Winner of Thursday's Missouri-Vanderbilt game

    TV: Fox Sports South

Only one team in the Southeastern Conference has strung together more than two straight wins down the stretch.

And somehow, that team, Louisiana State, is only the No. 6 seed in the conference tournament this week.

None of the tournament's top five seeds, all ranked in the top 20 nationally, has been immune to an upset or two in the final weeks of the regular season.

That illustrates how balanced the league has been and how wide open its tournament, which started with one game Wednesday night in Duluth, Ga., could be.

"There were very, very few games where the margin of victory was such where you would say we felt like we were going to automatically win going into the game," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said this week. "Those games just didn't exist. It was a very, very tough schedule."

No. 7 Kentucky is the highest-ranked team going into the tournament.

Each of the four teams that received first-round byes is ranked, but those positions on the bracket, which often seem like free passes into Saturday's semifinals, are hardly golden tickets.

Top seed Tennessee, winner of the SEC regular-season title, limps into the tournament with injuries to key players and a recent loss to the Cats. No. 3 seed Georgia had a loss two games ago at the tournament's No. 12 seed, Mississippi State.

No. 4 seed Texas A&M won all but one of its first 12 league games but has gone 1-4 down the stretch.

"There's nothing wrong with us," Aggies Coach Gary Blair said he told his team. "What we've got to do is be more consistent, play harder, play smarter.

"We've got to get that feel-good feeling again and convince our kids we don't need to go into the shop for total repairs. We just need some Band-aids and an attitude adjustment."

An SEC Tournament trophy would go a long way toward helping the Aggies cure what ails them.

"When you can get a streak going in February and March and win more than three games in a row, you've done something," said Blair, just a couple of years removed from winning a national championship.

The team with the hottest streak going into the tournament is LSU, which has won six straight games and is doing it despite having just eight players on its active roster. Coach Nikki Caldwell said the team has developed the mantra "eight is enough" as it has made its push toward March.

Since Feb. 1, the Tigers have picked off ranked foes Georgia, Kentucky and Texas A&M.

Even underdogs like No. 10 seed Missouri, which faces Vanderbilt on Thursday for a chance to tussle with Kentucky on Friday, take an air of confidence into the event. The Tigers upset Tennessee a few weeks ago.

"There's that upper echelon, there's no doubt about it, but you've seen night in and night out that anything can happen in this league," Tigers Coach Robin Pingeton said.

It makes calling any team a favorite tough to do.

"There are so many good teams," UK's Mitchell said. "It's really, really difficult. You look at LSU, which is a six seed and I could see them winning the tournament. ... Vanderbilt's the seven seed, I could see them winning the tournament. There are a number of teams who can win it."

There are other dangerous teams like No. 17 South Carolina, which earned the No. 5 seed in the tournament, and will have to win four to take the title. Coach Dawn Staley still likes the chances of her team, which suffered all but one of its five league losses by four points or fewer.

"We feel like we can play with anybody in the country because we're able to defend," said Staley, whose team leads the league and is sixth in the nation in scoring defense, holding opponents to less than 50 points a game.

Not being able to repeat as regular-season champions this season has Mitchell's team thinking about claiming a different title on Sunday night. "They missed out on that regular-season title and now the chances to be champions start to dwindle," he said.

The Cats, who handily beat the top-seeded Lady Vols on Sunday, want to be the ones cutting down nets at the end.

"I feel like the team, we're definitely coming in confident," junior forward DeNesha Stallworth said. "Just being strong knowing that if we play our best, if we do our best, we can definitely win the championship."


NEXT GAME

SEC Tournament at Duluth, Ga.

When: Friday, 6 p.m.

Opponent: Winner of Thursday's Missouri-Vanderbilt game

TV: Fox Sports South

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241 Twitter: @jenheraldleader Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com

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