Lady Bulldogs draw Vandy in SEC women’s tourney

When 14 teams come to Gwinnett Arena this week to begin the 2014 celebration of SEC women’s basketball, there will be few givens.

A top-seeded South Carolina team that looked dominant during the regular season finished with a lackluster 73-61 loss at No. 2-seed Tennessee (24-5) on Sunday, trailing start to finish, and that gave several teams new hope in the postseason tourney. It was only the second conference loss for the Lady Gamecocks, who had clinched the regular-season title.

It was a similar Sunday finish to last season. After clinching the SEC regular-season title, Tennessee went on the road and lost to 2011-12 SEC champ and preseason favorite Kentucky. This year, Tennessee was the defending regular-season champ and preseason favorite that closed the regular season by beating the team that had wrapped up the conference championship.

“We’re a lot more efficient basketball team than we displayed,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “We will learn from this.”

Teams that now see an opening include No. 3-seed Texas A&M (23-7) and No. 4-seed Kentucky (22-7). Those teams met a season ago in the SEC tourney finale at Gwinnett Arena, with Texas A&M winning in its first season in the league.

That stopped a nine-year domination of the event by either Tennessee or Vanderbilt. In fact, those two teams have combined to win 18 of the past 22 SEC women’s tournaments.

For the ninth-seeded Georgia Lady Bulldogs (19-10), the tournament represents a shot at salvaging a disappointing season that saw them finish in a group of five teams at 7-9 in the league. It won’t be an easy road. They will meet eighth-seeded Vanderbilt (18-11) to get Thursday’s games underway at noon. The winner of that game will play the top-seed Lady Gamecocks at noon Friday.

“The competitiveness of our league is illustrated perfectly in the final standings. I doubt that anyone would have believed prior to the season that this type of finish was possible,” Georgia coach Andy Landers said of the league’s parity. “It’s no secret that (Vandy) has been driven by excellent guard play so we’ll be challenged in that regard.”

The women’s tournament no longer is the event that the legendary Pat Summitt dominated as Lady Vols coach with 16 SEC tourney titles. Even the top four seeds this season aren’t guaranteed an easy trip into Saturday’s semifinals. The league has perhaps the most parity of any in the country with 11 teams claiming 17 or more regular-season victories, and four teams ranked in the top 17.

“It’s huge for us,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said of the victory heading into the tourney. “We talked a lot about seeding for the SEC tournament, talked a lot about seeding for the NCAA tournament. We thought it was really important for us to go out and make a statement.”

The tourney begins Wednesday night when No. 13 Mississippi State (18-12) plays No. 12 Missouri (17-12) at 6 p.m. and No. 11 Arkansas (19-10) plays No. 14 Ole Miss (11-19) at 8:30 p.m.

Then Thursday, the serious competition begins. Two days with four games each beginning at noon and running till nearly midnight.

After Georgia opens Thursday play, fifth-seeded Florida (18-11) plays the Mississippi State-Missouri winner at 2:30 p.m., No. 7 Alabama (14-15) plays No. 10 LSU (18-11) at 6 p.m., and No. 6 Auburn (14-15) meets the Arkansas-Ole Miss winner at 8:30 p.m.

The top four seeds have byes until Friday. Saturday’s semifinals are at noon and 2:30 p.m., and Sunday’s title game will be at 3:30 p.m.