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Shakira Austin’s stock rising: What I learned from the SEC tournament

Ole Miss' Shakira Austin impressed WNBA coaches with her performances at the SEC tournament. (Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

NASHVILLE — From competitive early rounds to a thrilling finish in the championship game Sunday, the SEC women’s basketball tournament delivered.

Here are my main takeaways from four days spent watching some of the best in the sport before the NCAA Tournament begins.

Kentucky shocked us all

Every program in the country strives to do what the Wildcats have accomplished these last few weeks, playing their best basketball at the right time. Kentucky bounced back from an underwhelming campaign to end the regular season and conference postseason on a 10-game win streak and stun No. 1 South Carolina for the program’s first SEC tournament championship in 40 years. The only people who believed they could win the SEC Tournament were the Wildcats themselves.

Rhyne Howard certainly did not need to prove her greatness in Nashville, but to lead her team to a championship against all odds is next-level heroics. The 6-foot-2 senior guard earned tournament MVP honors after averaging 22 points in Kentucky’s four games, including a 32-point performance against LSU and a near triple-double against Tennessee.

The projected top WNBA draft pick has faced immense pressure these last two years. Howard not only brought a championship back to Kentucky, she also did it against the team that’s been ranked No. 1 in the country all season long and in front of nearly every WNBA franchise there to watch her. Regardless of where she goes in the draft, Howard’s impact on the game of basketball will span far beyond her collegiate career.

South Carolina’s “big” lineup is unbelievable

South Carolina took the loss Sunday, but Dawn Staley’s lineup of three to four post players will be difficult for any opponent to game-plan for in the NCAA Tournament.

When the 6-foot-4 Aliyah Boston and the 6-7 Kamilla Cardoso throw high-low passes to one another from the free-throw line, their length is nearly impossible to defend. And when you add 6-4 Laeticia Amihere and 6-2 Victaria Saxton to the mix, South Carolina has one of the biggest rotations in the country.

On the other end of the floor, Kentucky struggled to find looks at the basket against the pair, especially in the second quarter when they managed just three points. When you’re facing a lineup of that size, it’s easy to get in your own head and second guess your decision-making. The Gamecocks will be betting on that as they make a run at the national championship later this month.

Shakira Austin shows off pro-ready skills

Austin was named First Team All-SEC for the second consecutive season and solidified herself as one of the greatest players to ever wear an Ole Miss uniform. The senior center averaged 15.4 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks to lead Ole Miss to a 23-7 finish, its best record since 2006-07. Austin also elevated her play in the SEC tournament, averaging 21.5 points and 9.5 rebounds to lift Ole Miss to the semifinals.

Her 27-point, 13-rebound double-double against Florida in the quarterfinals in front of 10 WNBA teams was the highlight of the tournament. Austin is an automatic lottery pick in the upcoming WNBA draft and deserves to be in the conversation for No. 1 because of her pro-ready frame, athleticism and ceiling. For as good as she currently is, she will only get better as a pro. When you watch her 6-5 frame elevate over opponents, snag a rebound with power and proceed to advance the ball down the court, you realize her sheer potential might surpass any other prospect in this draft class.

The relentlessness of Florida

Florida has been one of the best stories of the college basketball season. This was a dormant program that overcame an early-season scandal and the transfer of their leading scorer earlier in the season and to earn five top-25 wins and a 21-10 finish. Kelly Rae Finley rightfully had the interim tag removed from her title last week, signing a five-year contract as head coach and solidifying her position as the leader of this program.

WNBA draft prospect Kiki Smith had a phenomenal season, averaging 14.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game before going down with a season-ending knee injury in Florida’s one-point win over Vanderbilt in the second round. When Smith hit the floor, the Florida team circled together and held hands in support of their leader. After the win, Finley’s eyes swelled with emotion as her players ran to the training room to be with Smith.

The following day, Smith joined her team on the bench in a different role, clipboard in hand as the Gators fell to Ole Miss, 70-60, and now await their NCAA Tournament fate. As outsiders, it’s difficult to understand everything this team has gone through in the last eight months. If they get a bid to the NCAA Tournament, their first since 2015-16, they’ll do so with a level of collective resolve that will be hard to count out.

Keep an eye on Vanderbilt

First-year head coach Shea Ralph took over a Commodores program that won just nine conference games in the last four seasons and led them to a 14-18 record, their best finish since 2015-16.

Vanderbilt has shown flashes of promise throughout the season, but none more clearly than in the last two weeks when the Commodores beat Florida on Feb. 24 and Texas A&M in the first round of the SEC tournament, 85-69. Vanderbilt was one point away from advancing to the SEC tournament semifinals, falling to Florida 53-52 last Thursday.

While the Commodores’ season could continue in the WNIT, the SEC has gotten the message: Watch out for Vanderbilt next year. Senior guard Jordyn Cambridge is expected to return following a strong season, and All-SEC Freshman honorees Iyana Moore (12.2 points per game) and Sacha Washington (seven) earned valuable experience. With top-100 recruits Ryanne Allen and Amauri Williams entering the mix next fall, Ralph’s team is on the rise.

Missouri’s rocky SEC finish

Aijha Blackwell did not play in three games in the final two weeks of the season, including losses to Kentucky and Georgia. The 6-foot guard leads Missouri in scoring and averaged 31 minutes per game this season, but she played just 11 minutes in Missouri’s 61-52 overtime loss to Arkansas in the first round of the SEC tournament. She remained on the bench in overtime as the Tigers fought to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive. A win would have nearly solidified an at-large bid, and yet head coach Robin Pingeton kept Blackwell sidelined.

No matter what was going on behind the scenes, Missouri will now have to wait patiently until Selection Sunday to find out if their 18-12 overall record, 7-9 SEC record, and 70-69 win over No. 1 South Carolina back on Dec. 30 will be enough to send them to the tournament.

Rachel Galligan is a basketball analyst at Just Women’s Sports. A former professional basketball player and collegiate coach, she also contributes to Winsidr. Follow Rachel on Twitter @RachGall.