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This week in the SEC: SEVEN-time Freshman of the Week Rhyne Howard is the motor making the No. 16 Wildcats go

Against Arkansas last week, Howard’s double-double — and a big steal with just seconds left on the clock — got Kentucky the 61-59 win. She and Wildcats face No. 13 South Carolina tonight on the road. Plus, Mizzou’s inconsistency, games of the week, Player of the Week and more!

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Star freshman Rhyne Howard will try to lead Kentucky over South Carolina tonight.
Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With just over a minute left in regulation against Arkansas last week, No. 16 Kentucky Wildcats guard Rhyne Howard released a pull-up jumper that rattled around the rim before dropping in to break the 59-59 tie. With time still left on the clock, Howard stole the ball on a Razorbacks’ inbound pass to seal the deal: 61-59, Wildcats.

Howard’s team-high 18 points and game-high 14 rebounds in that game put her at five double-doubles for the season; she also recorded a game-high 4 assists and 3 steals. And with that dominant performance, Howard earned the SEC Freshman of the Week award — for the seventh time this season.

The Wildcats struggled to establish an offensive rhythm for much of the game, with Kentucky’s play being “jagged,” according to Howard. Instead of hanging their heads, the Wildcats took care of defense and the game took care of itself.

“We just tried to stay focused on the defensive end to get our engines going,” Howard said.

Next up, Howard and her Wildcats face No. 13 South Carolina tonight on the road. Here’s what you need to know:

No. 16 Kentucky Wildcats (21-5, 8-4) at No. 13 South Carolina Gamecocks (19-6, 11-1)

When: Thursday, Feb. 21, at 7 p.m. ET

Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia, SC

How to tune in: SEC Network

Notes: South Carolina clings to second place in the SEC, just behind Mississippi State (also 11-1 in SEC competition), with Kentucky in third place. But the distance between the second-place Gamecocks and first-place Mississippi State is far narrower than the distance between the Gamecocks and the third-place Wildcats. Thus, South Carolina will try to close in on Mississippi State, while Kentucky will strive to squeeze the Gamecocks in their second-place spot. To get it done, the Wildcats will have to rely on their stalwart defense, which allows just 58 points per game this season. The Wildcats also will need freshman phenom Rhyne Howard to have a big game.

Let us not forget: The Gamecocks overcame early-season struggles to rise from the bottom of the SEC pack to second place, from nearly dropping out of the AP Top 25 to holding steady in the teens for several weeks. The Gamecocks are solid and looking to pull off an upset for the top seed in the conference. Also working in South Carolina’s favor are: an 11-2 record at home, Kentucky’s middling 4-3 road record and a 74-70 win over the Wildcats in the teams’ first meeting on Jan. 31.

It’s either team’s game to win (or lose), but the Gamecocks have the edge.

Is Mizzou a real contender or just a pretender?

A dominant 75-67 win over the No. 6 Mississippi State Bulldogs (then No. 5) last week generated a lot of buzz about the Missouri Tigers’ capabilities. Behind senior guard Sophie Cunningham’s 24 points, the Tigers got the Valentine’s Day victory on the Bulldogs’ court — for the first time in Mizzou program history.

Yet, the Tigers followed that big win to a highly-ranked team with a two-point loss to the unranked (and struggling) Tennessee Lady Volunteers. Looking to redeem themselves after a rocky season, the Lady Vols wanted this one more and were willing to dig deep to get it.

Though not of the six-game-skid variety experienced by Tennessee at one point, Mizzou has had struggles of its own. In a postgame interview following the win over Mississippi State, Cunningham referred to the Tigers’ season as “rocky, up-and-down.” She also said, “We’re fixing ourselves and we’re fixing our body language, and this train’s moving.”

But the loss to Tennessee three days later exemplifies Mizzou’s “up-and-down” pattern: winning against tougher, ranked opponents, but losing to weaker, unranked competition. On Feb. 4, Mizzou suffered a 10-point loss to unranked LSU, but bounced back Feb. 7 with a five-point overtime win over then-No. 18 Texas A&M.

So, to have a chance at contending in the SEC, the Tigers must work on consistency.

Last ranked in the AP Poll on Jan. 20, Mizzou did receive votes last week following the Tigers’ upset of the Bulldogs (29). But to regain a place in the top 25, Mizzou will have to beat the lesser teams, too.

Other game of the week

Missouri Tigers (19-8, 8-5) at Auburn Tigers (19-7, 7-6)

When: Sunday, Feb. 24, at 3 p.m. ET

Where: Auburn Arena, Auburn, AL

How to watch: SEC Network Plus

Notes: In the first battle of the SEC big cats on Jan. 27, Mizzou got the 74-65 win at home. Mizzou averages just 65 points per game to Auburn’s 74.3, in near-identical alignment to the score in the these teams’ first meeting, though in reverse. On defense, Mizzou allows just 57.2 points per game and Auburn allows 64.3. So, this is an even match between two teams who still have lots to prove as SEC play winds to a close.

To check out the other SEC teams in action this week, review the complete schedule.

Elsewhere in the SEC:

  • Tennessee’s Rennia Davis is the SEC Player of the Week. She recorded double-doubles in both of the Lady Volunteers’ games last week, averaging 15.5 points and 10.5 rebounds per game.
  • In Mizzou’s upset over Mississippi State last week, Sophie Cunningham reached 2,000 career points. She is just the third player in program history to reach that impressive milestone.
  • Against Texas A&M last week, Mississippi State’s Anriel Howard scored 19 points and grabbed 13 rebounds to put her career double-double total at 39.
  • Mississippi State’s Teaira McCowan is a Senior CLASS Award finalist.
  • South Carolina’s Dawn Staley and Carolyn Peck sat down for a discussion on being the only African-American head coaches to win Division I women’s basketball titles.
  • A clear-bag policy is in place for the SEC championships. Here are the rules.