JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Mississippi State slowed the Tennessee train at the SEC women's basketball tournament, but a bigger locomotive is still coming down the tracks.
Top-seeded South Carolina, looking downright scary Saturday, will take on No. 3 seed Mississippi State for the championship and accompanying NCAA automatic bid Sunday (ESPN, 2:30 p.m. ET). The Bulldogs will be underdogs, but they kind of relish that. It's just the program's second trip to the SEC final -- the other was in 2000 -- and it's a milestone for them to get this far again.
They aren't done, but they'll have to take on a Gamecocks team that lived up to its themed nickname this season, "The Show," in a 93-63 semifinal demolition of Kentucky.
"They've got so many weapons," Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said of the Gamecocks. "We've got our hands full, no doubt about it. But we've played them once, and really competed hard with them."
South Carolina won a grind-it-out game at Mississippi State 57-51 on Jan. 24. Now we'll have the rematch, which was set up when the Bulldogs clamped down on Tennessee's offense 58-48 in Saturday's second semifinal. The Lady Vols had looked very good in victories over Arkansas and Texas A&M the previous two days but were held to 28.1 percent shooting by Mississippi State.
Though Tennessee has been plagued at times this season by not playing hard enough, that wasn't the case Saturday. The effort was there. But the Lady Vols never got their offense clicking against the Bulldogs, who had 30 points and nine rebounds from sophomore star Victoria Vivians. Now Tennessee, which definitely has improved its NCAA tournament seeding, will regroup for that tournament.
"Tonight we gave it all we had," said Diamond DeShields, who led Tennessee with 22 points. "We're going to stay together and keep moving forward."
Tennessee would have loved a chance at winning the program's 18th SEC tournament title. Instead, Mississippi State -- which lost the 2000 final to the Lady Vols -- will try to win its first. That's a very tall order against the defending champion Gamecocks, who went undefeated in SEC regular-season play, yet never looked better than they did Saturday.
"We don't always shoot the greatest from outside. But we had such a tremendous shooting night; it was a confidence-booster for our guards and the whole team." South Carolina's Alaina Coates
Kentucky's scouting report should have warned the Wildcats: Look out for some very fired up Gamecocks. South Carolina wanted to make a statement, and did that with a whole lot of 3-pointers, a whole lot of assists, and whole lot of "OK, hush up, critics."
Subpar guard play? Inability to be very effective scoring from the perimeter? Putting too much pressure on their inside game? The Gamecocks heard and read it all, and then they shut up everybody with their most impressive performance of the season.
It was the third time the Gamecocks have hit the 90-point mark in 2015-16, but the first two were in November against overmatched opponents. This was against a Kentucky team that had won eight in a row and is ranked No. 13 in the country.
"We did play our best in this game," South Carolina senior Tiffany Mitchell said. "I think everyone's on the same page. We were all synced up."
And they were sinking shots from all over the place; the Gamecocks shot 52.9 percent overall, and 54.5 from 3-point range. Their 12 3-pointers weren't just the most this season but also the most in coach Dawn Staley's eight years at South Carolina. The last time the Gamecocks made more from long range was in 2001.
And the treys were spread out, too: Mitchell had four, Bianca Cuevas and Tina Roy three each, and Khadijah Sessions two. In all, South Carolina's perimeter players accounted for 57 of its 93 points. Which is the same number of points the whole team had Friday in a 57-48 quarterfinal victory over Auburn.
This was a perimeter tour de force, with Mitchell finishing with 20 points, and fellow guards Cuevas 15, Sessions 10 and Roy nine. Guard/forward Asia Dozier had a career-high nine of South Carolina's 23 assists.
"We were so excited to play today, and so energized," Cuevas said. "We felt like a lot of people were doubting us."
Mitchell didn't like that, but she also knew why observers were questioning South Carolina's offense, particularly on the perimeter.
"We really haven't been playing good basketball, but we always found ways to win," Mitchell said. "So we understand why they kind of think we're an inconsistent team. But we used all that motivation and the negativity, and turned that around toward a positive."
South Carolina has reached a level where it is being judged by the highest of standards. When people are critiquing the Gamecocks, it's never only about the game they just played. But also whether they look to be national-championship caliber.
And Saturday, they did. Sure, there are qualifiers -- starting with the fact that they weren't playing No. 1-ranked UConn, the only team to beat the Gamecocks this season. And you could say Kentucky's defense appeared weary after three games in three days.
But this performance was a legitimate big deal, especially because there have been times this season where it seemed as if South Carolina should have looked better in victories but didn't.
Admittedly, the Gamecocks are now in exclusive territory in women's basketball: where you get picked apart even when winning. It might not feel good, but they should recognize that's the ultimate sign that they really are one of the nation's top teams.
Oh, and consider this: We've come this far and not yet mentioned South Carolina's post players, who had a pretty fine game. SEC player of the year A'ja Wilson had 18 points, 6 rebounds and 4 blocked shots. Alaina Coates had her 17th double-double of the season with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Sarah Imovbioh came off the bench with five points and five boards, and brought her usual injection of energy. Not that the Gamecocks were lacking that Saturday.
"It definitely felt good," Coates said. "We don't always shoot the greatest from outside. But we had such a tremendous shooting night; it was a confidence-booster for our guards and the whole team. To see our guards making those shots that we know they can hit, it elevated the level of energy that was out on the floor."
Staley says she hopes the Gamecocks can keep that going for one more day.
"When everyone's number was called, people came in and impacted the game," Staley said. "I want to bottle it up and take it into the championship game."