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Whatever happens in NCAA title game, SEC comes out a winner

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South Carolina fans rocking during a double Final Four weekend (0:38)

The South Carolina men's and women's hoops teams are still playing, much to the enjoyment of Gamecocks fans in Columbia, SC. (0:38)

DALLAS -- She was a legendary competitor, but also someone always cognizant of the big picture. So what would the late Pat Summitt think about an all-SEC women's national championship game -- South Carolina versus Mississippi State -- that did not involve Tennessee?

"Oh, my gosh, she would be so happy," said South Carolina assistant Nikki McCray-Penson, who played for Summitt at Tennessee from 1991-'95. "She'd see it as good for women's basketball. To see how fans have embraced these programs, that's something Pat would be proud of."

For decades, Tennessee was the flagship program of SEC women's basketball, and the only league team to win a national championship while part of the conference. (Texas A&M did it in 2011, while still in the Big 12.) The SEC has long been a powerhouse league in women's hoops. But there wasn't another SEC team that broke through for an NCAA title, something Tennessee did eight times.

Georgia and LSU both went to the Women's Final Four five times. Auburn went three. Vanderbilt, Alabama and Arkansas went once. South Carolina currently is on its second trip; Mississippi State its first.

In many ways, Tennessee was the best thing to happen to SEC women's basketball, bringing media coverage and gravitas to the conference and the sport. But the Lady Vols also squashed the championship dreams of more than a few of their league counterparts over the years. That included Tennessee victories in the Final Four over fellow SEC foes Auburn (1989), Georgia (1995, '96), Arkansas (1998) and LSU (2004, '08).

But Tennessee hasn't reached the Final Four since 2008. There was an SEC drought until 2015, when Dawn Staley led South Carolina to the national semifinals.

Now, it's assured another SEC team will win the NCAA championship. South Carolina and Mississippi State were, too often, afterthoughts in their own league for many years. Yet here they are, the last two teams standing after the Gamecocks beat two-time champion Stanford, and the Bulldogs defeated 11-time champion UConn in Friday's national semifinals.

"It's quite incredible," Staley said. "I think sometimes we lose sight of how good women's basketball is because of UConn's dominance. But there's going to be a first-time national champion."

Staley played in three Final Fours (1990-92) when she was in Virginia. McCray-Penson played in one Final Four with the Lady Vols, losing the NCAA final to UConn her senior year in 1995.

Staley and McCray-Penson first got to know each other when both were on the U.S. national team that traveled for several months before the 1996 Olympics.

"I did not want to be a coach then," McCray-Penson said, chuckling. "And I think it was far from Dawn's mind, too."

But then Staley was persuaded to take over the women's basketball program at Temple, in her hometown of Philadelphia, in 2000 while she was still playing in the WNBA. She was there for eight seasons before deciding she'd probably taken the Owls as far as she could.

The South Carolina job opened in 2008, and presented what Staley saw as a great opportunity. It was the home state of her parents, it was in a power conference, and it was a chance to grow a fan base in the mold of Tennessee's.

At the time she took the job, Staley didn't quite realize how much talent she would have to recruit and develop locally. But players from South Carolina, such as Aleighsa Welch, A'ja Wilson, and Alaina Coates, and players such as Tiffany Mitchell from just north of the state border in Charlotte, North Carolina, helped provide critical building blocks for her program.

"When we signed Aleighsa Welch is when things seemed to take off," Staley said of the forward from Goose Creek, South Carolina, who finished her career in 2015 in a national semifinal loss to Notre Dame. "It felt like our culture was taking place. We finally got the majority of players believing in our vision."

Vic Schaefer has done similar things at Mississippi State. He had been in the SEC before, as an assistant coach to Gary Blair at Arkansas, where they took the Razorbacks to the Final Four in 1998 as a No. 9 seed. Then Schaefer went with Blair to Texas A&M in 2003, and they won the national championship in 2011.

Blair would often talk about how good a head coach Schaefer could be if he got another chance; Schaefer had done that at Sam Houston State from 1990-97. Blair didn't really want to lose Schaefer, but felt like he was more than ready to run his own program again.

Now in Schaefer's fifth season, his team has already knocked off two No. 1 seeds, Baylor and UConn, and now has to try to beat one more. Mississippi State will face South Carolina for the third time this season, having lost 64-61 in late January and 59-49 in the SEC tournament final in early March.

"I'd rather be playing someone else, to be honest," Schaefer said. "I'd rather be playing somebody that might not know me as well."

Staley and Schaefer have worked very hard to win fans' hearts in their respective communities. South Carolina has led the nation in attendance the past three years, averaging 13,486 for home games. Mississippi State averaged 6,641, with a season-high 10,500 on Feb. 26 against Tennessee.

That game turned out to be a disappointment; with a chance to possibly clinch a tie for its first SEC regular-season title, Mississippi State faltered. The Bulldogs lost to the Lady Vols 82-64, bringing back memories of Tennessee's dominance against Mississippi State. The Lady Vols won the first 36 games of the series -- dating back to 1986 -- before Mississippi State finally won for the first time: Jan. 28, 2016, in overtime.

The Bulldogs also beat Tennessee in the SEC tournament last year, but then -- as you've no doubt heard -- had their NCAA tournament come to an end with a 60-point loss to UConn in the Sweet 16.

The Bulldogs purged that demon with their national semifinal win over the Huskies on Friday. And if you look back to that loss a little over a month ago at home to Tennessee, you'll see a necessary lesson there, too, for the Bulldogs. They probably weren't ready for the moment that day. Friday, facing a much bigger moment against a team that was on a 111-game winning streak, they were prepared.

As Schaefer said, now they face a team that knows them inside and out. But the same could be said in reverse. Schaefer hasn't beaten Staley since he got to Mississippi State -- going 0-8 -- but considering his team just upset UConn, no one will underestimate the Bulldogs.

And whatever happens, the SEC comes out of it a winner. Tennessee carried the torch for a very long time. That program has gone through a tragedy in losing Summitt, who was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, in 2011, and died last June.

The Lady Vols -- who lost in the NCAA tournament's second round this year -- have faced some tough, tough times. But as McCray-Penson said, Summitt would be pleased to see the conference she loved putting forward two worthy competitors in the last game of the women's basketball season.

"When I played, the SEC was so difficult, too," McCray-Penson said. "Vic has done a really good job with that program in a short amount of time. The toughness they showed to stick with their game plan against UConn was SEC basketball.

"It's going to be a physical, grind-out game. It's what we both know. But these are two programs that have come a long way. They were down on the bottom at one point, and have both put themselves on the map."