OPPORTUNITIES TO win the Southeastern Conference's women's regular-season title don't come around often for teams not named Tennessee or LSU. So after preseason favorite Vanderbilt lost its second league game, at Mississippi State on Feb. 5, Commodores seniors Jen Risper and Christina Wirth laid down the law. They kicked the team out of its palatial locker room and banished it to Memorial Gym's cramped visitors' quarters. After Vandy won its fourth straight game last Thursday, beating then No. 3 Auburn 73--70 to draw even, briefly, with the Tigers (26--2, 11--2 in the SEC through Sunday) in first place, the seniors relented and let the players return to their comfy couches, flat-screen TVs and video-game consoles.
"It was a wake-up call that we have to take care of business," says Wirth, a 6'1" guard who was averaging 15.0 points for the 19th-ranked Commodores (21--7, 10--3). "We have a chance to make history here."
Vanderbilt has won five SEC tournament titles and been to a Final Four, in 1993, but it has never won the regular-season title. Auburn hasn't won one in 20 years. In fact, no program besides Tennessee, LSU and Georgia has won it since 1992, and no team with more than one conference loss has won it since 1985. This year's winner will look different, in name and record. As both defending national champion Tennessee (19--8, 6--6) and frequent Final Four participant LSU (15--9, 8--4) struggle to rebuild after losing their entire starting lineups to graduation, every other team in the conference has improved. "People think because Tennessee and LSU are down, the whole league is down," says Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb. "But I think from top to bottom the conference is tougher than it ever has been."
Consider Florida. In just her second season after taking over a 9--22 team, coach Amanda Butler has the Gators on the verge of an NCAA bid with a 23--5 record (9--4 in the SEC). The undersized team, whose tallest starter is 5'11" forward Marshae Dotson, makes up for its lack of height with a high-flying offense that averages a league-high 6.7 threes a game.
Perhaps the most underrated team in the conference is sixth-place Mississippi State (19--7, 6--5), which hasn't finished higher than third in 26 seasons. The Lady Bulldogs added depth and height this year with the addition of three junior college transfers originally from the Congo, including 6'5" forward Chanel Mokango, who is averaging 10.5 points and 3.3 blocks a game. "They can play," says Auburn coach Nell Fortner, whose team escaped Starkville with a 63--58 win on Feb. 15. "I really hope we don't have to face them again."
Surely the feeling is mutual. Once a powerhouse, Auburn was the national championship runner-up in 1988, '89 and '90 but hasn't made it to the Sweet 16 since 1996. The resurgent Tigers feature an all-Alabama starting lineup of one sophomore and four seniors, including point guard Whitney Boddie, whose 8.1 assists a game leads the country, and SEC player of the year favorite DeWanna Bonner, a willowy 6'4" guard who leads the conference in scoring with 20.7 points a game.
With Auburn ahead of Vanderbilt by one game through Sunday, the battle for the regular-season title might very well come down to the last day of the season. Vanderbilt, which beat Tennessee 74--58 at home on Jan. 11, has to travel to Knoxville on March 1 to face a team that's desperate to avoid making history of its own. No Lady Vols team has ever lost more than four SEC games in a season—or lost to the same team twice in the regular season.
ONLY AT SI.COM
More on the SEC in Tracy Schultz's Power Rankings.
JOHN REED/US PRESSWIRE (BONNER AND BODDIE)
NEW ORDER Bonner (44) and Boddie trigger the Tigers, while Wirth (below) propels Vandy.
JOE IMEL/AP (WIRTH)
[See caption above]