JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) Victoria Vivians climbed into the stands after her huge performance, shook hands, posed for pictures and hugged anyone who asked.
One group of fans tried to get her to dance.
She refused – at least for a night.
”If we win,” she said, before quickly correcting herself. ”Well, when we win.”
Vivians scored 30 points, her most since mid-December, and No. 16 Mississippi State beat Tennessee 58-48 in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference women’s tournament Saturday.
The Bulldogs (26-6) won their fifth in a row and advanced to the title game against top-seeded and league-unbeaten South Carolina. The third-ranked Gamecocks beat No. 13 Kentucky 93-63 in the other semifinal.
This one was considerably closer until late.
Although Vivians single-handily turned a tight game into a double-digit lead in the third quarter, No. 7 seed Tennessee (19-13) rallied in the fourth and made it 43-41 with about 8 minutes to play.
But Mississippi State – mostly Vivians – responded.
After Morgan William and Dominique Dillingham hit baskets, Vivians scored five straight points to push the lead to 52-43 with 3:16 remaining.
”When Victoria got hot, you start pulling out your play card, you start trying to find everything you can run to get her a shot or a look,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. ”They were guarding her extremely hard in the half court. But we were getting her some stuff in transition. Our kids were really setting some good stuff for her.”
Vivians finished 11-of-20 shooting, including 5 of 10 from behind the arc, and had nine rebounds. The rest of the Bulldogs were 6 of 33 from the field.
”We didn’t have an answer for her,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. ”We did everything we could to keep her in check, and we couldn’t.”
Diamond DeShields led Tennessee with 22 points on 8-of-20 shooting.
DeShields was good, but not nearly as good as Vivians.
With the Bulldogs leading 25-22, Vivians made her first five shots of the third quarter. She hit two jump shots, a layup, a 3-pointer and another jumper to put the Bulldogs ahead 36-26.
Although the 10-point lead didn’t hold, it was the key to keeping the Bulldogs ahead down the stretch.
Tennessee’s bigger problem was shooting 28.1 percent and missing countless close-range shots, many of them after 20 offensive rebounds.
”We couldn’t hit a shot tonight,” said Lady Vols forward Jaime Nared, who scored 12 points before fouling out with 2:07 to play. ”We missed a lot of easy layups. We gave someone 30 points. It’s something we can fix. It’s hard to win basketball games when you can’t hit a shot or give someone that many points.”
Take out DeShields and the Lady Vols were 10-of-44 shooting (22.7 percent). The Bulldogs were even worse aside from Vivians. The rest of the team shot just 18.2 percent.
Tennessee: Failed to reach 20 wins and will need to win a game in the NCAA Tournament to extend its impressive streak to 40-consecutive seasons with at least 20 wins. … Had advanced to the SEC title game in each of the previous two seasons. … DeShields left the game briefly in the second half after hard contact in the lane. She got some padding wrapped around her left shin and returned.
Mississippi State: Vivians scored her most points since finishing with 36 against Louisiana Tech on Dec. 13. … Advanced to the SEC final for the first time since 2000. Lost to Tennessee that year. … Improved to 3-0 in Jacksonville this season. The Bulldogs beat South Florida at Veterans Memorial Arena in late December.
Tennessee awaits its NCAA Tournament seeding and pairing.
Mississippi State plays South Carolina in the SEC final Sunday.