GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Anriel Howard and Jazzmun Holmes wanted to make sure they were ready to lead No. 5 Mississippi State, no matter how early they had to wake up.
Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer gave players the option to sleep in or attend the 6:40 a.m. shootaround on Friday. Howard and Holmes both got up to prepare -- and that paid off in a big way for Mississippi State at the Southeastern Conference women's tournament with an 83-68 win over Tennessee.
Howard led on offense with 26 points while Holmes keyed the defense with five of the Bulldogs' nine steals and added 16 points.
"My team goes as I go," said Holmes, the senior point guard who finished a point shy of her season high.
So when Schaefer encouraged her to wake up late for the noon start, Holmes wouldn't hear it.
"Uh-uh," she told her coach. "We're not doing that."
Holmes helped Mississippi State (28-2) force 26 turnovers and turn a close game into a runaway with a 24-7 surge over the final eight minutes of the second quarter. The Bulldogs take on Missouri in Saturday's semifinals. The Tigers topped No. 13 Kentucky 70-68 in overtime Friday.
Mississippi State's SEC player of the year Teaira McCowan had her 25th double-double of the year with 17 points and 13 rebounds.
Howard, a Texas A&M graduate transfer, hit 11 of 15 shots, continually driving in for layups against the Lady Vols (19-12).
Evina Westbrook had 19 points to lead Tennessee.
"We played hard," Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick said. "We didn't play smart at times."
Especially in that second quarter. Tennessee was ahead 25-19 on Westbrook's jumper with 8:31 to play in the second quarter. That's when Mississippi State turned up the pressure and took control, outscoring the Lady Vols 26-9 in the period.
"That second quarter, obviously, was really special," Schaefer said.
Tennessee, which came in averaging 15.6 turnovers a game, had 15 in the first 20 minutes as Holmes and Howard pushed the pace and forced the Lady Vols' guards into quick, sloppy decisions.
Bre'Amber Scott, a sophomore who's averaged 11 minutes off the bench for Mississippi State, closed the run with a driving layup followed by a 3-pointer with 0.1 seconds left to send the Bulldogs into the break ahead 43-32.
Tennessee: It's cross-your-fingers time for the Lady Vols, who have played in all 37 NCAA women's tournaments dating back to 1982. Yet they came into the SEC Tournament tightly clutching the bubble. The latest ESPN projections had Tennessee among the last four in. But much can change in the 10 days until the NCAA pairings are announced.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs won the past two SEC regular-season crowns, but have never won a league tournament. They've been runner-up four times, including the past three to South Carolina, which was upset by Arkansas on Friday. Mississippi State took a strong first step toward changing that history.
Both Tennessee's Warlick and Mississippi State's Schaefer believe the Lady Vols belonged in the NCAAs. The Lady Vols were 57th in the RPI heading into the game. The at-large team with the highest RPI in last year's NCAA Tournament was Nebraska at 60. "I don't have any friends on the (NCAA) committee," Warlick joked. "I wish I did."
Schaefer was concerned about his team's energy and motivation after wrapping up a 15-1 SEC regular season last Sunday at South Carolina, and knowing it will be a high seed no matter what happens this week. He said his team's practice Wednesday was awful. Things began to jell Thursday in plenty of time to play Tennessee. "We just have to stay level-headed," Holmes said.
Tennessee: Will wait to see if it makes the NCAA Tournament.
Mississippi State: Faces Missouri on Saturday.