SEC contenders aim at defending NCAA champ Gamecocks
Tennessee coach Kellie Harper hasn’t forgotten the recipe for success she learned as a three-time NCAA champion for the late Pat Summitt: Put aside past accomplishments and continue striving for more.
Harper and the rest of the Southeastern Conference are on the other side of that these days, chasing down the league’s powerhouse program — and reigning national champion — in top-ranked South Carolina.
As much as Harper believes her program can compete with anyone, she knows there are plenty of steps along the way before reaching the championship stage. You can’t worry about April in October, Harper says.
“Speaking from experience, you can’t skip steps, you can’t,” said Harper, whose team starts the season ranked fifth. “You just have to enjoy each and every day. You have to enjoy the journey together, the ups and downs because that’s what builds championship teams.”
Tennessee was 18-1 and on top of the SEC last season before injuries cost them, the biggest one to its top player Jordan Horston. The Lady Vols finished 7-8 and were beaten in the Sweet 16.
Horston is healthy and among four starters back this season.
LSU’s Kim Mulkey was named AP national coach of the year for leading the biggest turnaround by a first-year coach in SEC history. Mulkey was hired before the 2021-22 season after LSU went 9-13. The Tigers finished 26-6 this past season.
Mulkey lost 80% of the team’s scoring from last year and hit the transfer portal. She brought in Angel Reese from Maryland, LaDazhia Williams from Missouri who played at South Carolina her first two seasons and Last-Tear Poa, considered the country’s top junior college transfer.
“We lost a tremendous senior class last year, a lot of points and a lot of production,” Mulkey said. “So we had to fill a lot of needs and we did that.”
South Carolina was not invincible last season, losing the SEC Tournament title to Kentucky, 64-62, prior to NCAA play. Wildcats coach Kyra Elzy said that success brought her returning players confidence and more attention from talented recruits.
“It’s a lot easier to go into a recruit’s house when you’re winning and you have a (championship) net around your neck,” Elzy said.
ABOUT THOSE GAMECOCKS
South Carolina returns four starters from last year’s NCAA Tournament winners, including consensus player of the year and Final Four most outstanding player in Aliyah Boston. The Gamecocks have won two NCAA crowns, six SEC Tournament titles and six league regular-season championships since 2014.
The SEC will be missing one of its all-time greats in Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard, who was twice the coach’s pick for SEC player of the year. Howard was the No. 1 overall pick by WNBA’s Atlanta Dream and the league’s rookie of the year. Elzy said it’s impossible to replace Howard, but the Wildcats will try with a group effort this season.
There are four SEC schools with new coaches although not all of them are strangers to the league. Georgia’s Joni Taylor moved to Texas A&M to replace retired national champion Gary Blair. Katie Abrahamson-Henderson took Taylor’s spot with the Bulldogs. Kelly Rae Finley was Florida’s interim coach last season and earned full-time job after the Gators’ went 21-10. At Mississippi State, longtime Louisville assistant Sam Purcell will lead the Bulldogs.
South Carolina, Tennessee and LSU were 1-2-3 in the SEC preseason poll. Arkansas was fourth, followed by Mississippi, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Georgia and Alabama, Texas A&M was 11th followed by Missouri, Auburn and Vanderbilt. The Gamecocks’ Aliyah Boston was chosen preseason player of the year and part of the all-SEC first team along with teammate Zia Cooke and three Tennessee players in Jordan Horston, Rickea Jackson and Tamari Key.
There will be several must-see early matchups: The Gamecocks will play No. 17 Maryland and No. 2 Stanford in November, then have a NCAA title game rematch with No. 6 UConn in February. Tennessee plays No. 14 Ohio State and No. 11 Indiana in the first month with games against Stanford, UConn and No. 13 Virginia Tech down the road. Arkansas has consecutive games with No. 21 Creighton and No. 20 Oregon in December.
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