Bulldogs advance to SEC Tournament semifinals

Published 6:24 pm Friday, March 8, 2019

GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — 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 basketball tournament with an 83-68 win over Tennessee on Friday.

Howard led on offense with 26 points while Holmes keyed the defense with five of the Bulldogs’ nine steals. Holmes added 16 points.

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“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.

Missouri knocked off No. 4 seed Knetuck 70-68 in overtime Friday. Sophie Cunningham scored 29 points, including seven in overtime.

Missouri handed Mississippi State one of its two losses this season, 75-67 on Feb. 14 in Starkville. Now in the SEC Tournament semifinals for the first time, the Tigers will look for a second upset and a trip to Sunday’s championship game.

“Whoever it is tomorrow will be another rival game in this conference,” Schaefer said after the Bulldogs won, but before Missouri and Kentucky took the floor. “We have 16 rival teams. It will be a well-coached, highly-skilled team. We’re just excited to be a part of it and glad that we can be a part of that game. That’s the only thing we’re thinking of.”

SEC player of the year Teaira McCowan had her 25th double-double of the year with 17 points and 13 rebounds for Mississippi State against Tennessee (19-12).

Howard, a Texas A&M graduate transfer, hit 11 of 15 shots, continually driving in for layups.

Evina Westbrook had 19 points to lead Tennessee, which is in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever. Tennessee has played in every NCAA women’s tournament since the event was started in 1982. The latest ESPN projections had Tennessee among the last four teams in.

“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. 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.

Scott finished with 12 points.

“Bre’Amber Scott off the bench was probably as big as anything, as well,” Schaefer said. “Teaira did have a double-double. We’ve become so accustomed to that, 13 rebounds, 17 points, one block, one steal, 36 minutes. Bre off the bench, 5 out of 10, really, really good for us, helped us defensively. Gives us a bigger, longer guard out there that can help defend.”

• Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPNU
• Missouri vs. Mississippi State
• SEC Women’s Tournament semifinals