Tournament play over Thanksgiving weekend revealed a lot about some of the most watched teams in the SEC, with the resurgent No. 11 Tennessee Lady Volunteers showing they’re in a serious quest to emerge conference champs, the No. 6 Mississippi State Bulldogs keen to thwart their hopes and the No. 25 Kentucky Wildcats looking to improve upon a 7-0 record and rise in the AP rankings.
Undefeated in the SEC
To climb in the AP rankings, the No. 25 Kentucky Wildcats only need to stay the course. Last week, they were unranked, but rose into the top-25 thanks to a three-game sweep of the Island Tournament at the Paradise Jam. Kentucky got past then-No. 17 South Florida on Thanksgiving Day, 85-63, secured a one-point overtime victory against UCLA on Friday, Nov. 23, and clinched a healthy 10-point win over North Carolina on Saturday, Nov. 24, with freshman guard Rhyne Howard notching a 25-point and 12-rebound double-double. Next up, the Wildcats face Morehead State on Wednesday and Rhode Island on Dec. 6 — two games that should sharpen their claws ahead of their first major test of the season: the Louisville Cardinals at home on Sunday, Dec. 9. After this week, at least, if Kentucky can avoid complacency, the Wildcats should improve to 9-0.
On Wednesday, the No. 6 Mississippi State Bulldogs have a chance to improve to 7-0 on the season and take the top spot in the SEC (if the Wildcats lose to Morehead State on the same day). For Mississippi State, the midweek game against 2-3 Little Rock, at home, should be no big deal for this defense-feisty team. However, things get interesting over the weekend when the Bulldogs face the No. 10 Texas Longhorns on Sunday in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge. The Bulldogs have issued some bone-crushing defeats to opposing teams this season (like the 67-point drubbing of Jackson State on Saturday), but none of their matchups have come against ranked teams. Texas, like Mississippi State, has a 6-0 record for the season, and both are second in their respective conferences. So, if nothing more, this SEC-Big 12 Challenge should be an exciting contest, with the Bulldogs — as the runner-up in the 2018 NCAAW Tournament — having more to prove than the Longhorns.
The No. 11 Tennessee Lady Volunteers are third in the SEC with a 5-0 record following a winning performance in the Junkanoo Division of the Junkanoo Jam. The Lady Vols got a 12-point victory over Clemson on Thanksgiving Day and a 73-69 overtime win over the UAB Blazers on Saturday, Nov. 24. Next up, Tennessee will face Oklahoma State on the road in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge — a game the Lady Vols probably should win. However, Tennessee will have its mettle put to the test on Sunday Dec. 9 against Texas in its first game against a ranked team this season. Hopefully, the Big 12 Challenge against Oklahoma State this weekend will ready them for harder contests to come.
Elsewhere in the SEC
Where do the No. 18 South Carolina Gamecocks go from here?
What a difference a few years make. In 2017, the A’ja Wilson-led South Carolina Gamecocks were celebrating their NCAAW Championship. Wilson, of course, packed her bags for Las Vegas as the No. 1 WNBA Draft pick by the Aces, and the University of South Carolina implemented plans to build a statue in her honor. Meanwhile, Gamecocks Head Coach Dawn Staley was left with the daunting task of extracting championship performances from a phenom-free squad.
In 2018, however, then-No. 2 South Carolina made it all the way to the Final Four in the NCAAW Tournament before they were stopped by UConn in a 94-65 blowout loss. The Gamecocks entered the 2018-19 season at No. 6 in the rankings, but fell out of the top-10 following an ugly loss to the now-No. 7 Maryland Terrapins. Although South Carolina recovered nicely with a 101-55 drubbing of East Tennessee State at the Vancouver Showcase over Thanksgiving weekend, the team lost the next two games in the showcase: 68-70 against No. 9 Oregon State and 85-90 against unranked Drake, in overtime.
In both games, junior guard Te’a Cooper came up big, dropping game highs in scoring in both contests — 22 points against Oregon State and 31 points against Drake. Senior guard Alexis Jennings has been clutch in scoring at key moments, with 12 points in the loss to Oregon State and 10 in the loss to Drake (featuring late-game heroics that came a bit too late).
Tyasha Harris, meanwhile, had played with the Staley-coached USA Women’s National Team leading up the FIBA World Cup in September and was considered a key factor in the Gamecocks’ new up-tempo offense. Harris leads the team in assists and steals per game — with 3.5 and 2.3, respectively — but she is averaging just under 10 points per game this season and she scored only 4 points in the loss to Drake. So, at this critical time in the Gamecock’s season — with the No. 4 Baylor Lady Bears rolling into Columbia on Sunday with their sights set on a post-Thanksgiving poultry feast — greater production out of Harris would be a difference-maker for this struggling squad, which is now eighteenth in the standings behind a 3-3 record.
What more must Mizzou do?
Last week, the Missouri Tigers were No. 21 in the rankings but have since fallen out of the top-25. The Tigers lost their first game in the Gulf Coast Showcase to Michigan, in a 70-54 blowout. In the defeat, senior guard Sophie Cunningham scored just nine points, and that was a team high. But Mizzou bounced back to win the next two games: On Saturday, Nov. 23, the Tigers got the 65-51 win over Quinnipiac and on Sunday, Nov. 24, Mizzou defeated Duke, 62-54.
In the victory over Quinnipiac, Cunningham returned to winning formation, scoring a game-high 26 points. She also grabbed 10 rebounds (also a game-high) for a double-double. Against Duke, redshirt junior Hannah Schuchts went off for 25 points. If the Tigers can hold off West Virginia on Sunday in their SEC-Big 12 Challenge, their fortunes — and ranking — should rise. The Mountaineers also dropped from the top-25 to start the week, so it should be GAME ON in Morgantown, if for no other reasons than ranking and pride.
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The SEC in action this week
Here are the biggest matchups in the weekend’s SEC-Big 12 Challenge:
No. 6 Mississippi Bulldogs at No. 10 Texas Longhorns
When: Sunday, Dec. 2, at 2 p.m. ET
Where: Frank Erwin Center, Austin, TX | TICKETS
How to watch: Check back for viewing information.
Notes: The Bulldogs face their first ranked team of the season and, therefore, their first real test of contention. Mississippi State has a deep bench and stalwart defense that have obliterated their unranked competition this season. But the undefeated No. 10 Longhorns will come ready for battle. The Longhorns, however, will be without the services of senior guard Lashann Higgs, who is done for the season following an ACL injury in the Longhorns’ Nov. 23 game against Quinnipiac. Higgs, who was averaging 13.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2 steals per game, will be a big loss. But the Longhorns have been able to rely on senior forward/center Jatarie White for double-digit scoring and rebounds this season, so if she takes on a bigger scoring role, the Longhorns have a chance to get past the reigning NCAAW Championship runner-up Bulldogs.
No. 18 South Carolina Gamecocks vs. No. 4 Baylor Lady Bears
When: Sunday, Dec. 2, at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia, SC | TICKETS
How to watch: ESPN2
Notes: The Gamecocks enter their Big 12 Challenge on a two-game losing streak, following a poor showing at the Vancouver Showcase over Thanksgiving weekend. With one of the losses handed to them by an unranked team (Drake), and the Gamecocks sitting on a 3-3 record following losses to two other losses to ranked teams (Maryland and Oregon State), this one will probably go to the 6-0 Lady Bears — unless head coach Dawn Staley can work transformative miracles between now and Sunday. The concern, of course, is whether the two narrow losses in Vancouver will fuel the kind of frustration that spurs winning or spiral the team into the type of dejection that leaves them resigned to a losing fate. Those in Gamecocks’ country don’t want to see the latter, so, lucky for them, if anyone can right this ship it’s a Hall of Fame coach like Staley.
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