- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Tennessee's seniors had their moment Thursday in Knoxville, Tenn., when the Lady Vols clinched the program's 17th regular-season SEC title with a win over Texas A&M. Kentucky's seniors had their moment Sunday, when they defeated Tennessee in front of a packed Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky.
So which seniors will be the ones celebrating next Sunday in Duluth, Ga., at the conclusion of the SEC tournament? Those from Tennessee, Kentucky, or another school?
Tennessee, which showed terrific resilience all this season, still goes in the favorite, regardless of Sunday’s 78-65 defeat. While there's no such thing as a game you don't care about losing, this loss really doesn't mean anything to Tennessee.
The Lady Vols already have the No. 1 seed in the league tourney, which gets underway Wednesday with the No. 12-13 game.
Tennessee, picked by the league's coaches to finish fifth in the SEC in Holly Warlick's first season as head coach, was tripped up just twice in conference play.
Their first league loss was to Missouri on Feb. 3, which you might call quite improbable considering the Tigers finished their inaugural season in the SEC 6-10. But, in fact, Missouri proved itself a dangerous team when it was hitting 3-pointers; the Tigers set a league record with 253 this season. The previous mark was 248 by South Carolina in 1994.
The Lady Vols regrouped after that loss, just as they did in a season-opening stumble at Chattanooga. Which, let's be frank, was a blow to their pride. But it was also a good lesson for the young Tennessee players that nothing was going to come easy this season -- and it hasn't.
Like countless other squads, the Lady Vols have been very much affected by injuries. Among them is sophomore forward Isabelle Harrison, who has missed eight games, including Sunday’s contest; she suffered another injury Thursday after being out almost a month.
But with the steady improvement of freshman Bashaara Graves and sophomore Cierra Burdick (when she was healthy), the unrelenting competitiveness of junior Meighan Simmons, and the senior leadership of Taber Spani and Kamiko Williams, Tennessee has overcome a multitude of challenges. Spani and Williams, who left Sunday's game with an ankle injury, will be going for their fourth consecutive SEC tourney title. No program has ever won the event four times in a row.
The Lady Vols, who won their 17th SEC tournament last year, will open play at noon ET Friday against the winner of No. 8 seed Arkansas versus No. 9 Florida.
Kentucky is the No. 2 seed, and on Friday will face the winner of No. 7 Vanderbilt versus No. 10 Missouri. A'dia Mathies, who helped Kentucky make the Elite Eight as a freshman in 2010 and as a junior last year, went out of Memorial Coliseum for the last time as a winner, scoring 16 points Sunday.
The Wildcats were picked to win the SEC, but instead were second at 13-3. Their losses were at South Carolina (by five), at home to Georgia (by four), and at LSU (by four).
So might any of those three teams challenge for the SEC tournament title? And how about Texas A&M, which is in its first year in the league?
We'll start with No. 3 seed Georgia, the "home" team, so to speak, with the tournament in the Peach State. The question is, will Georgia bring its offense along on the hour's drive west from Athens to Duluth?
The Lady Bulldogs don't need a lot of points, as they are most comfortable with games in the 50s and 60s. But they can't afford a freeze-out like they endured at Mississippi State, with a 50-38 loss last Thursday. Georgia's last SEC tourney title came in 2001.
Texas A&M is the No. 4 seed, but the Aggies have been in a slump to close out the regular season, losing four of their last five. South Carolina, the No. 5 seed, got stung by a huge game from Missouri's Bri Kulas in a 65-58 loss last week. The Gamecocks, who have never won the SEC tournament, are 3-3 in their last six games.
The hottest team in the league is No.6 seed LSU, which has played its way into the NCAA tournament field with six wins in a row. Last year, LSU was the No. 4 seed and made it to the SEC final.
Tennessee won that matchup 70-58 and went on to the Elite Eight, where it fell to eventual NCAA champion Baylor.
The SEC tournament has been the domain of the Tennessee teams the last nine years, with either the Lady Vols or Vanderbilt winning. Will Tennessee's seniors make history with four in a row? Or are there a few upsets brewing?
Considering where they were picked, the Lady Vols have already overachieved this season. But with that program's history, that's not how they'll see it. They want yet another SEC tourney crown.