GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — Mississippi State’s Jordan Danberry knows her team has started slowly so far at the SEC Tournament. She also knows that can’t happen next time out.
The ninth-ranked Bulldogs took control in the second half and the defending champions defeated No. 16 Kentucky 77-59 to reach the SEC championship finals for the fifth straight season. Waiting for them is No. 1 South Carolina, riding a 25-game win streak and eager to regain the tournament crown it last won two years ago.
Rickea Jackson had 29 points and another Mississippi State freshman, Aliyah Matharu, added 15, 13 of those in the third and fourth quarters.
Danberry believes her team will have be sharp immediately to take down South Carolina.
“We have to come out, punch first, be very focused,” Danberry said. “They’re the number one team in the nation. We know we have to go out there and play our game from the jump.”
That’s not the way things have gone for the Bulldogs (27-5) so far. They outscored LSU 53-24 in the final two quarters after leading by a point at half.
Against Kentucky (22-8), they trailed 35-32 at the break before finding their footing and rolling into another SEC final.
Asked why his team has started so slowly, Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said simply, “I have no idea.”
What matters more, he said, is how they finish — and that’s usually very strong.
One of the most notable exceptions this season was against the Gamecocks in January when the Bulldogs held a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter, yet lost 81-79.
“We’ve just got to play our game and we’ll be good,” Jackson said.
Jackson, Matharu and the Bulldogs played their game the final two quarters, outscoring the Wildcats 45-24.
Danberry also put the defensive clamps on Kentucky’s leading scorer Rhyne Howard in that stretch. Howard had 26 points with just nine of those coming in the final 20 minutes.
The Bulldogs were down 35-32 at the half and still behind when Rhyne Howard’s jumper put Kentucky in front 39-37.
But Matharu had three straight baskets to put Mississippi State ahead for good and Jackson, another freshman, pushed the pace to make sure Kentucky could not rally.
Schaefer said his young players are aware of the hype of South Carolina’s freshman starters in Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal. “I don’t know how much they care,” Schaefer said.
South Carolina reached the finals for the fifth time in six seasons by defeating No. 25 Arkansas 90-64 earlier Saturday.
Mississippi State lost the tournament title to the Gamecocks three straight years from 2016-2018, the last one when it came in as the No. 1 seed.
Chasity Patterson’s 3-pointer with 4.5 seconds before the break gave Kentucky the 35-32 lead, the fourth time in the past eight games the Bulldogs trailed at halftime. They have rallied to win three times, including this one.
Patterson said Mississippi State ramped up its game in the second half. “We really couldn’t get the ball stopped and they were putting it down our throats in transition,” she said.
THE BIG PICTURE
Kentucky: The Wildcats came out hot and seemed locked in — until the final two quarters. When Howard missed shots, Kentucky could not find enough scoring to keep close to Mississippi State. The Wildcats will need to spend time finding others to step forward offensively before the NCAA Tournament.
Mississippi State: People have raved about South Carolina’s freshman trio in starters Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal. But Jackson and Matharu are close behind, if not the equal. Mississippi State is a powerhouse team when those two are active and involved.
Vic Schaefer believes the young talent that will take the floor in Sunday’s championship is a testament both to the Southeastern Conference’s emphasis on women’s hoops and family members who invest in those young players’ college dreams.
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said he won’t spend time lobbying for his Wildcats to gain a top-four seed, allowing them to host the first two NCAA Tournament rounds at home. “No matter what seed we are, I think we can be a very dangerous team,” he said.
Kentucky will await its NCAA Tournament destination with a chance to open at home as a top-four seed.
Mississippi State will face No. 1 South Carolina for the SEC Tournament title Sunday.