After they obliterated then-No. 3 LSU (25-1, 13-1) to hand the Lady Tigers their first loss, it seemed the fate of No. 1-ranked and undefeated South Carolina (27-0, 14-0) was sealed, with the Gamecocks destined to complete a perfect regular season on their way to a second-consecutive national championship.
But Ole Miss (20-7, 9-5) had other ideas, requiring South Carolina to earn their destiny.
Last Thursday, the Rebels pushed the Lady Tigers to the brink in Baton Rouge, falling 69-60. Hosting the Gamecocks on Sunday, the Rebels further certified their status as a rising threat in the SEC, with the potential to cause trouble in the SEC and NCAA tournaments. In his latest Bracketology, ESPN’s Charlie Creme categorizes Ole Miss as a No. 8 seed. This coming week, the Rebels complete their conference slate by welcoming Missouri and visiting Alabama, with a pair of wins giving Coach Yo’s squad 11 SEC wins, a likely 4th-place finish in the conference standings and a possible entry into the Top 25.
However, the Gamecocks eventually overcame the Rebel zone defense that provoked inefficient offensive outings from senior stars Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke, escaping Oxford with the 64-57 win. In overtime, South Carolina tapped into its experience executing in high-leverage moments, with a boost from Cooke’s tough shotmaking bona fides.
Heading into the last weekend of regular-season conference play, let’s take a look at the five other teams that sit in the conference’s top seven, since the teams sporting winning conference records are most likely to make noise in the SEC tournament and earn a berth to the NCAA tournament. South Carolina will face two of those teams — Tennessee and Georgia — as they strive to preserve their perfect record this weekend.
Two Bulldogs can secure tickets to the Big Dance
Like the Rebels, the Lady Bulldogs (19-9, 8-6) are on the rise. Since a mid-January loss to conference cellar dweller Texas A&M, Georgia has gone 7-1, with the lone loss a five-point defeat at LSU. On Sunday, the Lady Dawgs unleashed an authoritative fourth quarter to run away from the Razorbacks of Arkansas. To inspire more confidence in their postseason prospects, Coach Abe’s team must take care of Auburn at home on Thursday. And while they might not be able to topple South Carolina on Sunday, a respectable defeat would further bolster Georgia’s resume. Creme currently projects UGA as a No. 10 seed.
The conference’s other Bulldogs — Mississippi State (19-8, 8-6) — are slated as a No. 11 seed, one of the last four teams to make the 68-team field and, thus, face a play-in game. This past Sunday’s Senior Day win over Alabama strengthened MSU’s case for a more secure seed, and a win over LSU in Baton Rouge on Sunday certainly would. However, Sam Purcell’s team cannot afford a letdown loss to Arkansas on Thursday.
Confidence or concern for Lady Tigers and Lady Vols?
If one was skeptical about LSU’s early-season dominance over a soft non-conference slate, the Lady Tigers’ recent performances could validate that perspective. Not only did LSU suffer a shellacking against South Carolina, but, of late, Kim Mulkey’s troops have not found easy wins when facing the SEC’s middle- and lower-tier teams, despite the continued superstar stat lines turned in by Angel Reese.
While it likely will take a stronger performance versus the Gamecocks in a potential SEC tournament matchup to inspire full faith in the Lady Tigers’ national championship upside, taking care of business against a Vanderbilt team with only three conference wins on Thursday and against a Mississippi State squad eyeing an upset on Sunday should ease any concerns about LSU’s slightly-shaky status. Ranked No. 5 nationally, the Lady Tigers are targeted as a No. 2 seed — although possibly forced to earn a Final Four berth a long way from Baton Rouge in the Pacific Northwest — in the tournament.
Expected to be among the conference’s, and nation’s, elite, it has been a tumultuous season for Tennessee (20-9, 12-2) for a number of reasons. Nevertheless, Tennessee largely has won the games that, considering some of the challenges they have encountered, they should have won, only upset by Mississippi State by a single point. Yet, while putting together strong performances against the likes of Stanford and UConn, the Lady Vols have not managed to take down a favored foe. Thursday night, they have a final opportunity to earn such a victory, when the Gamecocks arrive on Rocky Top in all their unbeaten glory. Whether or not it punctures South Carolina’s perfection, Tennessee must close out the season with a win at Kentucky in order to maintain, or improve upon, its projected No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The quiet competence of the Tide
Like Tennessee, Alabama (20-7, 9-5) lacks a signature win, compiling a resume that, until a subpar performance in last Sunday’s loss at Mississippi State, lacked any glaring blemishes. Kristy Curry and company seemingly deserve a bit more attention for their solid season, one that has them as a No. 8 seed in the latest Bracketology.
An SEC or NCAA tourney upset, of course, would direct more eyes to the Tide. As the most prolific and accurate 3-point shooting team in the SEC, they have the ingredients necessary to pull off this feat. But first, Alabama will aim to certify its fourth-place spot in the conference standings. This coming Sunday’s aforementioned matchup with similarly aspirational Ole Miss is the most consequential contest on the final day of regular-season conference action.