Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer is looking for another first at the Southeastern Conference women's tournament.
His fifth-ranked Bulldogs won at South Carolina for the first time in Schaefer's seven seasons as coach this past Sunday to claim a second consecutive SEC regular-season crown. He's hoping Mississippi State can add the league tournament to its list of never-been-done accomplishments this week in Greenville, South Carolina.
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The Bulldogs (27-2, 15-1) will probably have to go through the 12th-ranked Gamecocks (21-8, 14-2), the four-time tournament defending champs, to do it.
"I hope we're fortunate enough to be in that game on Sunday," Schaefer said. "But we'll have to beat two really good teams on Friday and Saturday."
The tournament starts Wednesday with two games, although the top four seeds — No. 1 Mississippi State, No. 2 South Carolina, No. 3 Texas A&M and No. 4 Kentucky — won't start play until Friday.
Mississippi State has endured its share of disappointment against the Gamecocks in recent years. They've lost three straight SEC Tournament finals to South Carolina, including last year after going 16-0 in the league and winning 32 straight overall.
And, of course, there was that stinging loss to the Gamecocks in the 2017 national championship game after the Bulldogs had upset heavily favored UConn, which had won its past 111 in a row.
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"There's going to be some heartache," Schaefer said. "I believe that just gets you tougher, gets you ready for the next opportunity."
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley is also itching for another chance. Her team started 4-4 in its first season without All-American A'ja Wilson, but has won 14 of its past 17 games and came within a late rebound of taking down Mississippi State a few days ago.
"We always think we've got a shot at winning," Staley said. "No one's running away with the SEC and no one's running away with the SEC Tournament. We feel good about where we are."
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Tennessee, seeded eighth, plays for its NCAA Tournament life when it opens against LSU (16-12, 7-9) on Thursday. The Lady Vols (18-11, 7-9) have been part of the NCAAs since the tournament began, but are not projected to be in the field. Their only path to keep their streak alive might be winning the SEC Tournament, something they last accomplished in 2014. "It's been ups and downs, but we've got to cherish the moment," Tennessee guard Meme Jackson said. "There's been games we've lost, but we've just got to keep our head up, continue to move forward and focus on the next game ahead."
Anyone seeking an alternative to the top seeds — Mississippi State and South Carolina — might look to No. 15 Texas A&M (23-6, 12-4), fourth-seeded and 13th-ranked Kentucky (24-6, 11-5) and fifth-seeded Missouri (21-9, 10-6). The Aggies enter having won five of six, but took a hit Tuesday when they announced Chennedy Carter, the SEC's top scorer at 22.5 points per game, would miss the SEC Tournament with injured finger. Carter is expected back for the NCAAs.
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Kentucky missed the NCAAs last year, but has rebounded strongly including a win over South Carolina last month. Missouri beat Mississippi State last month, the Bulldogs' only SEC loss the past two regular seasons.
It will be the final time in SEC play for some of the league's most dynamic stars like Teaira McCowan and Anriel Howard of Mississippi State, Sophie Cunningham of Missouri and Caliya Robinson of Georgia. McCowan has averaged a double-double this season while Howard has been an integral piece for the Bulldogs as a Texas A&M graduate transfer. Cunningham has been one of the SEC's most fearsome competitors while Robinson was twice named to the SEC's all-defensive team.
BACK TO GREENVILLE
The tournament starts a three-year run at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena, nicknamed The Well. It was previously played there in 2005 because the league needed a replacement site after its Atlanta site that year got the NHL All-Star Game. In 2017, the SEC Tournament became the first pre-determined championship to locate in South Carolina when it came back to Greenville following the removal of the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds.