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SEC Tournament: No. 1 South Carolina, No. 8 LSU on collision course for title

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — This year's SEC Tournament is likely to come down to Dawn Staley's daycare and Kim Mulkey's defending champions.

No. 1 South Carolina, at 29-0 the only undefeated program in men's or women's Division I, and No. 8 LSU (26-4) are the top two seeds and strong favorites to play for a title this week at the SEC Tournament in Greenville.

The Tigers have experience and talent in SEC player of the year Angel Reese and highly productive transfers in Hailey Van Lith and Aneesah Morrow. But Staley is proud of how her her young, untested players handled every challenge this season — even when she was certain they were too green to know what they were doing.

The difference between South Carolina's undefeated regular-season team last year and this year is the difference between a doctorate program “and they're going to hate me for saying this, and daycare,” Staley said.

“There’s so much talking about nothing. At the beginning of the season, we’d say to be quiet, but now it’s really who they are,” Staley said.

The tournament starts Wednesday with two first-round games. The second round takes place Thursday before the quarterfinals on Friday and the first postseason games for South Carolina and LSU.

There's high-quality experience with the Gamecocks, too. Senior Kamilla Cardoso led South Carolina in scoring and rebounding and was named the SEC defensive player of the year. Oregon transfer Te-Hina Paopao, also a senior who announced this week she will return in 2024-25, leads the country in 3-point shooting, making nearly 50% of her long-distance shots.

Raven Johnson, Bree Hall and Saniya Feagin are all productive juniors, backups from the group led by All-Americans Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke that reached three Final Fours and won the 2022 national title.

But Staley has not been shy about letting her young players push the pace. Sophomore Ashlyn Watkins and Chloe Kitts and freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley have combined for 34 starts and 30 points a game.

LSU has won its past eight games, yet fell to the Gamecocks 76-70 in overtime as Staley's team rallied from 11 points down.

“We’re not (regular season) champions, and that’s what you want,” Mulkey said. “South Carolina won it. I guess the next best place to be is second place, and we’ve done that again three years in a row.”

She and the Tigers hope to finish on top this week.

IF NOT SOUTH CAROLINA or LSU ...

Mississippi (22-7) comes in as third seed after going 12-4, the most SEC wins in program history. Alabama (23-8), seeded fourth, beat Louisville in pre-conference play and won 20 games for the third straight seasons and fifth time in the past eight years. Watch out for Vanderbilt (22-8), a 20-game winner for the first time since 2013.

TENNESSEE'S DROUGHT

The once dominant Lady Vols (17-11) have not won an SEC Tournament title since 2014, although they did reach the finals a year ago by beating LSU in the semifinals before falling to South Carolina 74-58 in the championship game. Tennessee coach Kellie Harper likes her team's fight this season and believes they are ready for the postseason. “We've been trending upward,” she said.

SEC AWARDS

LSU's Reese won SEC player of the year and Staley won her third straight SEC coach of the year. Cardoso earned the league's defensive player of the year while Reese's teammate, Mikaylah Williams, was SEC freshman of the year. Florida's Leilani Correa earned sixth woman of the year.

LSU with Reese and Morrow and Mississippi with Marquesha Davis and Madison Scott had two players each on the all-SEC first team. South Carolina's Cardoso, Tennessee's Rickea Jackson, Alabama's Sarah Ashlee Barker and Auburn's Honesty Scott-Grayson made up the rest of the group.

EXPANSION

The tournament returns to Greenville in 2025, the last of a three-year run that began last season. When it does, the SEC will welcome Oklahoma and Texas to the postseason party. The SEC has not yet picked a host site for 2026. The event, only about 100 miles from South Carolina's campus, has gotten a boost from the Gamecocks large, loyal fan base. Last year's tournament drew 57,801, the most ever.

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