Mississippi State wants to follow the same postseason path as the last Southeastern Conference women’s basketball team to finish a regular season unbeaten.
The second-ranked Bulldogs (30-0, 16-0 SEC) are the first SEC team to go undefeated in the regular season since the 1997-98 Tennessee squad went 39-0 and won the national title. The next step for Mississippi State is to make it unscathed through the Southeastern Conference Tournament that begins Wednesday in Nashville, Tennessee.
”We know what’s in front of us,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. ”We’re not afraid of it. We’ve not shied away from talking about winning championships. We’ve talked about that since Day One, and we’re not going to shy away from it now.”
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Mississippi State hasn’t lost since falling to SEC rival South Carolina in last year’s NCAA championship game . South Carolina (23-6, 12-4) enters this tournament as the No. 2 seed behind Mississippi State, but the eighth-ranked Gamecocks’ chances could depend on the health of three-time SEC player of the year A’ja Wilson .
A case of vertigo prevented Wilson from accompanying her teammates to their regular-season finale Sunday at Tennessee (23-6, 11-5). Without the 6-foot-5 forward in the lineup, the Gamecocks posted their highest turnover total and lowest point total of the season in a 65-46 loss to the Lady Vols .
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said after the game that Wilson’s status for this week was up in the air.
”I’ll be on bended knee, hoping that she’ll be back Friday,” Staley said at the time. ”I don’t know. I think first and foremost is her health and making sure that she’s healthy. We’re just going to take it day by day obviously because vertigo isn’t anything you play around with.”
Because they’re among the top four seeds in the tournament, Mississippi State and South Carolina earned byes into Friday’s quarterfinals. No. 19 Georgia (24-5, 12-4) and No. 24 LSU (19-8, 11-5) also aren’t opening tournament competition until Friday.
Wednesday’s first-round games have 11th-seeded Florida (11-18, 3-13) facing 14th-seeded Mississippi (11-18, 1-15) and 12th-seeded Vanderbilt (7-23, 3-13) meeting 13th-seeded Arkansas (12-17, 3-13).
This conference features seven Top 25 teams and boasts enough depth that Tennessee heads into the postseason as the No. 12 team in the country and the No. 7 seed in this tournament.
”The SEC’s the best league in the country for women’s basketball,” Tennessee forward Rennia Davis said. ”We get reminded of that every night by every team we play.”
But there’s no doubt that Mississippi State is the team to beat. The Bulldogs welcome that challenge.
”I think they’ve got a hunger and a real desire now to continue on this special trip that we’re on,” Schaefer said.
Some other things to watch in the SEC Tournament.
SELECT COMPANY: Mississippi State is one of three women’s basketball teams ever to enter an SEC Tournament unbeaten. The others are Tennessee’s 1997-98 national champions and the 1988-89 Auburn squad that finished 32-2. That Auburn team lost to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament final and the NCAA championship game.
RANKED TEAMS: SEC teams in the Top 25 include Mississippi State, South Carolina, Tennessee, No. 14 Missouri (23-6, 11-5), No. 15 Texas A&M (22-8, 11-5), Georgia and LSU. Texas A&M is seeded fifth and Missouri is seeded sixth this week.
NOT MUCH OF A BUBBLE: There won’t be much bubble talk in Nashville this week. The SEC’s seven ranked teams have pretty much locked up NCAA bids. Auburn (14-14, 5-11), Kentucky (14-16, 6-10), Florida, Vanderbilt, Arkansas and Ole Miss won’t earn NCAA berths unless they win the SEC Tournament. The only SEC team remotely on the bubble is eighth-seeded Alabama (17-12, 7-9), which severely damaged its at-large hopes by ending the regular season with overtime losses to Georgia and LSU .
COLOSSAL QUARTERFINAL: Consider it a testament to this conference’s strength that it could feature a quarterfinal between two top-12 teams in South Carolina and Tennessee. The Lady Vols first must beat Auburn on Thursday. Tennessee won both of its regular-season matchups with South Carolina by double digits, though Wilson didn’t play in either game.
CROWDED AT THE BOTTOM: If Auburn loses to Tennessee and Kentucky doesn’t reach the championship game, the SEC likely will have a league-record six teams finish the season below .500.
AP Sports Writer Gary Graves in Lexington, Kentucky, contributed to this report.
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