South Carolina, Mississippi State meet – once again – in SEC tournament final

The rivalry continues

GREENVILLE, S.C. – There will be a mix of maroon and garnet inside Bon Secours Wellness Arena on Sunday, so it’ll hard to tell fans apart – at least until they cheer.

After two semifinal blowouts, No. 1 seed South Carolina and No. 2 seed Mississippi State will meet in the SEC tournament title game for the fourth time in five years.

South Carolina won four straight from 2015 to 2018. Mississippi State won its first tournament title last year with a 31-point win over Arkansas. The Bulldogs will defend its crown vs. the Gamecocks at 2 p.m. on ESPN2.

It’s going to be another exciting final, if the last time the two schools met was any indication: South Carolina won 81-79 after being down 9 points early in the fourth quarter.

“We’re going to have a lot of people in the same, similar colors tomorrow in the arena. They’ll be in their, I believe it’s garnet, and we’ll be in our maroon,” said Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer. “The arena ought to look similar. Should be a great atmosphere for women’s college basketball.”

Let’s take a look at how each team made it to the final.

‘They have no holes’

There was no repeat of Arkansas’ 2019 upset of South Carolina in the SEC tournament.

This year’s magical Razorbacks run ended when it ran into the brick wall that is the 2020 version of the Gamecocks and fell 90-64. Not only did Arkansas play the No. 1 team in the country, it did so for its third three game in three days. Head coach Mike Neighbors said his team, which is known for running and shooting, was tired. To him, it’s clear when transition offense is slow.

“So much on day three of the tournament for our team is about how we’re going to find our spark,” Neighbors said. “Then you have to hope that when you’re playing the No. 1 seed, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, maybe they don’t have their best game.”

Amber Ramirez went 6-for-9 from three, and finished with 18 points; Makayla Daniels had 16 points and Chelsea Dungee, 12. South Carolina led 48-29 at halftime, but in the third quarter Arkansas cut that lead to 7. Then, the Gamecocks ramped it up again.

Destanni Henderson had a game-high 21 points off the bench, along with 4 assists and three rebounds. Four other Gamecocks scored in double digits and the team had eight blocks.

Points from turnovers and fast breaks were about equal, but South Carolina outrebounded Arkansas 60-33, finished with 24 second chance points to UA’s 9, and outscored them in the paint 40-24.

“They have no holes. There was no holes,” Neighbors said. “There’s nothing you can watch, glean. They’re as complete a team as we’ve had to face,” he paused. “I was going to qualify it, but probably the hardest team we’ve had to play against anyplace I’ve ever coached.”

Staley doesn’t agree, and won’t reveal what her team’s weaknesses are until the season’s over, but she says her team’s strongest quality is having a team of competitors who want to win things as specific as each matchup.

“I do think we have some weaknesses, but the weakness that we do have are strengths on the other side of the ball,” she said. “I think what we do a really good job is we camouflage it with our ability to defend and rebound.”

Staley wasn’t fazed during Arkansas’ third quarter run – they weren’t expecting it – and told her players during a media timeout they shouldn’t be startled either.

Arkansas now awaits its NCAA tournament fate. The latest High Post Hoops projected placed the Razorbacks in the Dallas region as the No. 8 seed.

The Gamecocks will now face the Bulldogs in the SEC tournament final.

“Whoever we play we know we’ll have some competition that’ll push us to the very end,” Staley said following her game, before the other half of the final was decided.

Rickea Jackson’s world

Rickea Jackson was feeling it from midrange, specifically the left elbow.

She scored the first 8 of Mississippi State’s 10 points, and finished with 29 points on 11-for-16 shooting. She also grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked a shot to power No. 2 seed Bulldogs to a 77-59 win over No. 3 seed Kentucky in the SEC tournament semifinals.

“My thoughts on the way I played is I played my game,” she said. “Let it come to me, let my teammates find me in open spots, and I just made the shots.”

Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell said his team moved a half step too slow and “couldn’t get it done.”

“Real proud of our team for all they accomplished this SEC season. It was a tough, tough year,” Mitchell said. “We overcame a lot of adversity throughout it. I hate we came up short today, but really proud of our team.”

SEC Player of the Year Rhyne Howard scored 26 points – 9 in the second half – and her touches were greatly limited by a team effort led by Jordan Danberry.

“I really just wanted to deny her the ball a lot. If she didn’t get the ball, she couldn’t make plays really,” Danberry said. “I really was just trying to stay at the line, make her be a passer, play her for her right hand.”

Schaefer said Yemiyah Morris – who finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks – was the difference maker in the game.

“I thought this kid right here by far had the best game of her career,” Schaefer said. “She plays 25 minutes, has a double-double, 11 and 10, and five blocked shots. Probably altered two or three more. I just thought she was really a big key to our success tonight. Came off the bench.”

Aliyah Matharu finished with 15 points, Danberry had 10 and 7 assists.

Now, the Bulldogs head to defend their tournament title with another matchup with South Carolina.

“It’s nice to be able to have another opportunity, this will be five years in a row, the fourth time we’ll have to play South Carolina here at home tomorrow,” he said. “Should be a great atmosphere for women’s college basketball.”

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