The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference
The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

SEC Live Blog: Women's Basketball Tipoff

57 days ago
By Kevin Scarbinsky
Photo: SEC

All of the league's 14 coaches and 28 of its players are gathering today at SEC Tipoff 20 in Birmingham to discuss the season ahead. Check back for updates throughout the day.

6:30 PM CT: The more experienced Florida Gators are poised to defy the polls

Cam Newbauer understands. He's heading into just his third season as head coach at Florida, but it doesn't take long to grasp how competitive SEC women's basketball is.

So excuse him if he's not terribly bothered that the Gators were picked 12th in the preseason media poll.

"It's still top to bottom the best league in the country," he said. "There are no gimmes. It doesn't matter who's picked where."

The Gators were a young work in progress a season ago, but they gained valuable experience going through the rugged SEC schedule. Newcomers accounted for 70 percent of Florida's minutes and 60 percent of its scoring last season, but almost all of that production returns.

"We got to see what it's like in the SEC," said redshirt junior guard Kiki Smith.

The 5-10 Smith was one of those newcomers as a junior college transfer. She started all but one game and led the Gators in steals and assists while serving as the team's primary ballhandler. Her growth was evident from non-conference play to conference play as she increased her scoring average and her 3-point shooting by 30 percent.

"I want to start this season the way I ended last season," she said. Her expectations, based on preseason practice with all those other returning players and the best recruiting class of the Newbauer era, are that the Gators are poised for a leap forward.

"It's just the way we're practicing now," Smith said. "The competition is different. The girls are faster, stronger and quicker."

Which is what's required in the SEC.

6:00 PM CT: It's a hopeful homecoming for Kellie Harper at Tennessee

When Kellie Harper got the phone call from Tennessee Athletics Director Phillip Fulmer, telling her she was the choice to become head coach of the Lady Vols, she had to take a moment. It would be overwhelming for almost anyone to take over one of the most storied traditions in women's college basketball.

It was more personal for Harper, a Tennessee native and alum who helped build that tradition as a player under the legendary Pat Summitt. Harper, then known as Kellie Jolly, was the point guard for three straight national championship teams at Tennessee from 1996-98.

"It was a little surreal," Harper said of the moment she learned she'd gotten the job. "It's the University of Tennessee. The brand is amazing. There's so much pride in our program. It's not lost on me. I completely feel that and understand the position I'm in."

That said, it's not Harper's job to live in the past, a message she shares with her players. She's a Summitt student, to be sure, but she's learned a lot in her time away from Knoxville. Her post-UT education started as an assistant to Auburn legend Joe Ciampi.

"You talk about a brilliant basketball mind," Harper said. "I learned so much from him. Here was a successful guy doing it different than Pat did it."

Harper continued to evolve as an assistant at Chattanooga and head coach at Western Carolina, North Carolina State and Missouri State, each of which she led to the NCAA Tournament. Last season, she took the Lady Bears on a rare trip to the Sweet 16. Then Tennessee called.

"The goal at the University of Tennessee, we're talking national championships," Harper said. But ...

"I keep talking about not worrying about the big picture but about how good we can be today."

5:40 PM CT: The more experience the better for Alabama

If you see Alabama coach Kristy Curry smiling, you'll know why. The Crimson Tide returns 11 players from last year's roster, tied for tops in the SEC with Kentucky, but wait. There's more.

Those returning players include four of five starters and nine of the team's top 10 scorers, who were responsible for 84 percent of Alabama's points.

"This is a league of experience," Curry said. "That's why we're so excited."

The excitement on the court for the Crimson Tide starts with what Curry called "a pretty special backcourt" of Cierra Johnson and Jordan Lewis. All Johnson did last season in leading the team in scoring was put up 457 points, the most by anyone in the program in a single season since 2010-11. She's one of only two Alabama players to score 450 points or more since the 2000 season.

"She's an impact scorer for us," Curry said. "Putting her back in her natural position should help."

Johnson was forced to switch to point guard last season after Lewis, in the midst of a 27-point explosion against Virginia, suffered a season-ending broken wrist.

"It was very frustrating," Lewis said, "but everything happens for a reason."

While rehabbing, she was able to complete her undergraduate degree in marketing and is now working on her MBA. She's also returning as another weapon for a team ready to move beyond milestones such as beating Tennessee five straight times to make a run at the NCAA Tournament, where Alabama hasn't been since 1999, the longest drought in the league.

"I'm excited about what we can accomplish," Lewis said. "I'm not going to make any predictions. I try to live in the present."

5:20 PM CT: If Arkansas scorer Chelsea Dungee is better this year, watch out

Oklahoma transfer Chelsea Dungee put together what might be considered a dream season in her first year on the court at Arkansas. She shattered the school scoring record, which had stood since 1988-89, with 759 points.

She was even better in the SEC Tournament, scoring a record 103 points to lead the Razorbacks to the tournament championship game for the first time. She became the first Razorback to be named to the SEC All-Tournament Team since 2002.

That splashy debut has earned her preseason recognition as first-team All-SEC and a vote for SEC player of the year, but Dungee sounded unimpressed.

"Last year was last year," she said. "It was fun and I accomplished a lot, but there's more to accomplish."

A scary thought for SEC opponents from Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors: "I could argue with you that she's our most improved player."

Wait. What?

"I can't tell you she'll have the same numbers," Neighbors said. "She had an incredible year. I think she'll be more efficient, more impactful and help us win more close games."

How? By dishing out of a double-team and avoiding a charge. By not trying to exceed her personal high of 19 half-court dribbles in one possession. By firing up fewer crazy heat-check jumpers when she's on a roll.

Dungee said she's also working on displaying "better body language when things aren't at their best. I was a good teammate last year. I want to be a better teammate. I want to give good energy all the time."

5:00 PM CT: A big decision brings back one of South Carolina's key players

Mikiah Herbert Harrigan has been at her best for South Carolina in some of the biggest moments. As a junior last season, she averaged more points and rebounds against ranked opponents than unranked teams, and she led the Gamecocks in scoring in the postseason at 17 points a game en route to the Sweet 16.

That came on the heels of her being named to the SEC All-Tournament Team as a sophomore. The ability of the 6-foot-2 senior to raise her game has earned her preseason All-SEC second-team recognition.

"She wants to complete the task of putting an entire season together," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "You'll see her play with more consistency this year."

Herbert Harrigan, known to her teammates as Kiki, said she and Staley "are in a much better place now" than at the end of last season. Herbert Harrigan put her name in the transfer portal, but after a sit-down with Staley, decided to return to South Carolina for her senior season.

"It was just about me accomplishing my goals," Herbert Harrigan said. "I just had to figure out what was best for me."

After a disappointing end to last season, Herbert Harrigan said, after South Carolina welcomed the nation's No. 1 recruiting class, she's looking forward to ending her college career on a high note with the Gamecocks.

"I've been working on keeping my emotions under control, going out there every night and performing," she said. "It's my final season. I have a lot of goals set for myself. I still have to go out and prove myself."

4:10 PM CT: Missouri knows a few things about winning

Challenges come in different forms. For Missouri coach Robin Pingeton, after four straight NCAA Tournament trips, it starts with replacing four-year starter and superstar Sophie Cunningham.

"It's interesting to see the dynamics when you lose a superstar like Sophie," Pingeton said.

Ask senior leader Amber Smith, and she'll tell you, "It's next man up. It's an opportunity for the rest of us to step up."

Another challenge for Pingeton and the Tigers will be keeping an incredible win streak alive for freshman Hayley Frank, who went unbeaten in her final 115 high school games, which covered three-plus seasons and four straight state titles under her father, Steve, at Strafford (Mo.) High School.

"It brings a lot of pressure to me," Pingeton said. "I told Hayley during recruiting I could never replace her dad. That's an incredible record."

Smith, who led Mizzou in rebounds and double-doubles last season, said it makes her a little nervous to think about keeping Frank's streak alive with the Tigers. "I've never played with someone who doesn't lose," Smith said.

Frank and fellow freshman Aijha Blackwell from Berkeley, Mo., are both top 30 national recruits, part of the highest-ranked recruiting class in program history at No. 12. They should help pick up where Cunningham left off.

"They both can score at all three levels," Pingeton said. "They both have a chance to make a huge impact as freshmen. I wouldn't be surprised if both of them were in contention for SEC freshman of the year."

No wonder Pingeton said, "We do not look at this as a rebuilding year."

3:20 PM CT: One last go-round for LSU star Ayana Mitchell

Ayana Mitchell has earned plenty of accolades during her LSU career. She earned first-team All-SEC honors last season and was named to the preseason All-SEC first team this year.

She averaged a double-double last season, leading the Tigers in scoring (13.5 ppg) and rebounding (10.5 rpg). She's 12 points away from reaching 1,000 points for her career and has a chance to finish with 1,000 rebounds as well.

"The first thing I try to do is focus on my rebounding," Mitchell said. "The scoring is something that'll come. Rebounding and defense win championships. That's all about effort and heart. I never want anyone to question my effort."

The senior owns another rare distinction. She attended SEC Media Days Thursday for the third time.

"It's a blessing to have Coach Nikki (Fargas) think that highly of me," Mitchell said.

Fargas said what impresses her about Mitchell goes beyond her ability to score and rebound.

"She's also selfless," Fargas said. "She'll do anything and everything that's asked of her. She's one of those special players. If you could see the impact she's had on our community, it's a tribute to the person Ayana Mitchell is. She's a great ambassador for our institution."

2:40 PM CT: Mariella Fasoula has unfinished business at Vanderbilt

Mariella Fasoula could've turned pro. After playing two years at Boston College, transferring to Vanderbilt, sitting out one year and playing last season there, leading the team in scoring and rebounding, she could've moved on.

The 6-5 redshirt senior, a member of the All-SEC preseason second team, said she never considered it.

"I knew I was going to finish at Vanderbilt," she said. "You want to leave a place better than you found it. We've seen the program at the bottom, and we don't want to leave it like that."

There seems to be a new energy at Vanderbilt in the fourth season under Stephanie White, who took a different approach in the off-season. She let her upperclassmen go home for May and June while focusing on individual development with her younger players, which include a talented infusion of seven freshmen. That made the veterans like Fasoula and junior guard Chelsie Hall hungry to return.

"We're a completely different team," Fasoula said. "We finally found that aspect of culture and chemistry we didn't have. I'm excited to play with this group."

After an injury-plagued season for the Commodores as a team, White is excited to have Fasoula back for her redshirt senior year as the centerpiece of "the most competitive, fun group we've had since I've been here."

"It's huge for us to have her back," White said. "We're going to have team success because Fas understands how to make other players better. We're going to have team success because we have more weapons around her. She's always been the best player on the floor. Now she's being challenged every single day."

1:45 PM CT: Texas A&M's Chennedy Carter tries to take her game to the next level

What do you do for an encore when you've played two years of college basketball and been named a first-team All-SEC performer and an All-American both years? That's the challenge for Texas A&M junior guard Chennedy Carter.

The SEC preseason player of the year already owns the top two scoring seasons in school history at 22.7 points a game as a freshman, when she was the unanimous national freshman of the year, and 23.3 points a game as a sophomore. She's third in career NCAA Tournament scoring at 31 points a game after two straight trips to the Sweet 16.

"Chennedy has taken her game to the next level," Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. "She's playing the best defense she's ever played in her life. The country needs to get to know her as an individual and not just a player."

The Aggies are the only Sweet 16 team from a year ago to return all five starters. That explains why they were picked to finish second in the SEC in the preseason poll and have been ranked as high as No. 4 in the preseason national polls.

Especially since one of those returning starters is Chennedy Carter. She said being named SEC preseason player of the year "is a blessing but I'm not worried about the accolades. I'm trying to win."

Carter said the Sweet 16 loss to eventual national runner-up Notre Dame, a team led by seniors headed to the WNBA, motivates the Aggies to take the next step this season.

"That made us grow," she said. "That'll make us better."

For this Texas A&M team, she said, "anything is possible."

1:00 PM CT: Georgia believes in the two-sport athlete

You think it's difficult being a student-athlete in one sport in the ultra-competitive SEC? Try two. The Georgia women's basketball team is rare in that it has not one but two two-sport athletes.

Freshman Chloe Chapman is playing with the Georgia soccer team. Senior Stephanie Paul will throw the discus in the spring for the Bulldog track team.

"If it's our job at the University of Georgia to help them realize their dreams, let's do what we can to make it happen," Georgia coach Joni Taylor said. "Not everybody can handle that challenge. They've both proven they can do it."

Paul won three state titles in high school in the discus and two in the shot put but put aside her track career to focus solely on basketball. She decided that, after her final college basketball season, she would return to the discus in the spring.

"I've always wanted to do both," Paul said, but adjusting to college basketball and dealing with injuries prevented it. "People stayed in my ear about it, and I didn't want to have any regrets."

But there's no question where her focus lies at the moment. It's helping Georgia basketball bounce back from a down year to be the kind of team it was two years ago in winning 26 games.

"I have a passion for track, but I love basketball," she said. "I love the team aspect of it. I love the sisterhood we have at Georgia."

12:35 PM CT: Jordan Danberry's back and Mississippi State's thrilled

It would be hard enough to replace Teaira McCowan, SEC player of the year and consensus All-American. Mississippi State's attempt to become the third SEC program in history after Tennessee and Auburn to win a third straight conference title would get more challenging without versatile guard Jordan Danberry.

But she and her teammates spent the summer awaiting word on whether the NCAA would grant her a fifth year of eligibility. That was in doubt because of the unique circumstances of her 2016 transfer from Arkansas to Mississippi State.

In August, State coach Vic Schaefer broke the good news to Danberry that she is eligible to play this season, "and I think we were both in tears." The coach then called the rest of the team into his office, and Danberry emerged to share her joy with her teammates.

"We were ringing those cowbells," Schaefer said.

"There was definitely a celebration," teammate Chloe Bibby said.

Danberry ranked third on the team in scoring and second in assists and steals last season as State won the SEC and reached the Elite Eight.

"It means a lot to me to get out there again," said Danberry, who's working on her MBA. "We have some unfinished business to take care of" after coming up short in the national championship games in 2017 and 2018 and the Elite Eight last season.

Schaefer was disappointed that Danberry wasn't named to the preseason All-SEC team.

"She understands what it takes to win," he said. "If she's not one of the 10 best players in our conference, you gotta be kidding me."

12:00 PM CT: Kentucky's Jaida Roper stands tall for the Wildcats

Kentucky senior Jaida Roper is listed at 5-foot-6.

"Listed at 5-6," she said. "In my mind, I'm 6-8. You can't tell me any different."

That answer captures Roper's spirit, which Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell called "vital" to UK's continued success coming off a 25-win season.

"So proud to see her growth over her four years," Mitchell said. "I think her senior year is going to be the culmination of a great career. Her basketball IQ, her intelligence ... is really unmatched. She has a great mind."

Roper said she's able to see plays develop in advance. Combine that foresight with her toughness despite her size, and it explains why she's a key veteran with 95 college games on her resume, a clutch player who hit the game-winning shot last year against Tennessee.

"Grit and grind," she said. "I'm from Memphis. That's what we do."

Roper originally signed with Louisiana Tech but after a coaching change there - with Kentucky needing to add players after some departures - she became a Wildcat. Her coach appreciates that fortuitous set of circumstances.

"It's one of those silver linings in the cloud that you come across someone like Jaida Roper," Mitchell said. "She's made a big impact on our program far beyond what her stats may show. You'd never know she's the smallest player on the team."

11:15 AM CT: Ole Miss sharpshooter Torri Lewis ready to aim and fire

Does Torri Lewis have a green light? Can the Ole Miss senior sharpshooter let a 3-pointer fly whenever she likes?

"Absolutely," Ole Miss coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin said. "When she wakes up, she has the green light."

Lewis appreciates that confidence from her coach but understands it comes with a certain responsibility. Or, in her word, "pressure."

"It feels amazing, but it does come with a lot of pressure," Lewis said. "You have to make shots."

Lews has done that. She owns the school record of 10 made 3-point shots in a single game. Two years ago, 45 of the 50 field goals she made, an incredible 90 percent, were from beyond the arc.

Teammate Mimi Reid described Lewis' shooting as "lights out."

Lewis is anxious to prove she hasn't lost her shooting touch after redshirting last season for the birth of her son, AJ, who turned 13 months old Thursday. She wasn't sure she wanted to come back and play her final college season, but the support from her parents in helping take care of her son and from her coach convinced her to come back.

"Coach Yo is extremely supportive," Lewis said. "She's always asking about AJ. She's brought the love for basketball back for me and the whole group."

10:50 AM CT: Unique Thompson gives Auburn a unique post presence

The true back-to-the-basket post player has become a rarity in college basketball, but not at Auburn, where 6-foot-3 junior Unique Thompson has established herself as a true presence for the Tigers.

Last season, Thompson averaged a double-double with 12.2 points and 10.3 rebounds a game. She was the first Auburn player to achieve that since 1993 and just the fifth in school history.

"We tell her we think she's padding her stats by just throwing it up there and going and getting it," Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy joked. Getting serious, Williams-Flournoy said, "It's something she knows she has to do."

Averaging a double-double, Thompson said, "is something I take pride in. If I can throw it up and go get it, I will do it."

Thompson, who earned preseason All-SEC second-team honors, is working on elevating her game by improving her mid-range jumper, which the young Tigers may need. After reaching the NCAA Tournament three times in the last four years, they introduced a crowd of newcomers to the roster during a summer exhibition tour of Italy.

The best part of the Italy trip beyond the team-building experience? Thompson and teammate Daisa Alexander agreed. It was the gelato.

Alexander called it "the best ice cream I've ever had in my life."

10:00 AM CT: USBWA honors SEC legend Tamika Catchings

The United States Basketball Writers Association has honored an SEC legend by naming its annual recognition of women's national freshman of the year the Tamika Catchings Award.

Catchings was the consensus national freshman of the year in 1997-98, when she helped lead Tennessee to a 39-0 national championship season.

"I am extremely honored," Catchings said. "You don't go into the game to gather awards. You go into the game to leave a presence."

Catchings gathered plenty of awards during her distinguished career. When she retired in 2016 after 16 seasons with the WNBA's Indiana Fever, she was the league's all-time leader in rebounds, steal and free throws and second in points. She was a five-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, the league MVP in 2011 and WNBA Finals MVP in 2012.

She also earned four Olympic gold medals playing for Team USA at the 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

But she's just as proud of her work off the court. She and her sister established the Catch The Stars Foundation to help disadvantaged youth reach their dreams by promoting fitness, literacy and youth development.

"Sports will only get you so far," Catchings said. "What happens when the air comes out of the ball?"

If you're Tamika Catchings, you become a role model to young women the way the late UT legend Pat Summitt was to her. The USBWA's Most Courageous Award is named after Summitt.

"The standard she set," Catchings said, "is what everyone still tries to reach."