South Carolina, Tennessee headline SEC Tournament

Published 4:00 pm Wednesday, March 4, 2015

NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — For all that South Carolina has achieved under coach Dawn Staley, there’s a glaring absence on the school’s resume.

It’s an omission the No. 3 Gamecocks, who have risen from near the bottom to become one of the Southeastern Conference’s elite programs in seven seasons under Staley, hope to rectify at this week’s league tournament.

The tournament begins Wednesday night, featuring five ranked teams and the usual host of other NCAA Tournament hopefuls from one of the nation’s deepest leagues.

For South Carolina (27-2), which opens on Friday, this week is about more than just preparing to enter the NCAA Tournament on a high note after a setback at No. 12 Kentucky over the weekend. It’s about putting the exclamation point on the school’s back-to-back regular-season SEC championships by winning its first tournament title.

“We’ve played great basketball because we were challenged every single night,” Staley said. “And to rise to the challenge of this league, it puts you in position to have some success … It’s hard when it’s the best league in the country.”

The Gamecocks were ranked No. 1 this season before an 87-62 loss at top-ranked Connecticut on Feb. 9. And while they are widely projected as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, even after the loss against the Wildcats, that could hinge on they play this week — particularly with defending tournament champion Tennessee once again in the mix.

Like South Carolina, the No. 5 Lady Vols (25-4) lost only once in conference play this season — a 71-66 setback against the Gamecocks two weeks ago that left Tennessee as he second seed in this week’s tournament.

The Lady Vols have won the tournament 17 times in 35 years, including seven of the last 10, and they would love nothing more than to make their case as an NCAA Tournament top seed than by adding to their postseason domination this week.

“It’s anybody’s championship,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said.

Some things to watch as South Carolina and Tennessee look to hold off the challengers in North Little Rock’s Verizon Arena:

HOMESTATE HOPES: Arkansas (16-12) enters the tournament as the No. 9 seed, but that hasn’t stopped the Razorbacks from being projected as an NCAA Tournament team by many under first-year coach Jimmy Dykes. Led by sophomore Jessica Jackson’s 14.6 points per game, Arkansas — which has played with only nine players this season — faces eighth-seeded Mississippi (17-12) on Thursday.

FAMILIAR FACES: Arkansas has played a game already this season in Verizon Arena, defeating Oklahoma 71-64 there on Dec. 21, but it’s not the only SEC team to have played in North Little Rock. No. 18 Texas A&M (22-8) also played there on the same day as the Razorbacks, losing 67-65 to Texas on a layup with 4.2 seconds remaining.

CHAMPIONSHIP DROUGHT: Long regarded as the top conference in women’s college basketball, no SEC team has won a national championship since Tennessee in 2008. Also, no league team has made the Final Four since that season, when LSU joined the Lady Vols. Texas A&M won the national title in 2011, but it did so as a member of the Big 12 Conference.

OVERCOMING INJUIRES: Several top performers in the SEC have suffered season-ending injuries this season, including Tennessee center Isabelle Harrison — who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee last month. Others out for the season, possibly impacting how the league does in the NCAA Tournament, include Kentucky point guard Janee Thompson (broken leg) and Georgia’s Shacobia Barbee (broken leg).

LEAGUE AWARDS: South Carolina guard Tiffany Mitchell was named the SEC’s Player of the Year for a second straight season on Tuesday, doing so after averaging 14.8 points per game. One of Mitchell’s teammates, guard A’ja Wilson, was named the league’s Freshman of the Year over Mississippi State forward Victoria Vivians, who leads the SEC with an average of 15 points per game.