Florida looking for first first-round win in Peck era

LITTLE ROCK -- Florida's six league losses are too many to
qualify for a bye in the SEC women's basketball tournament, but the Lady Gators have victories over top seeds LSU
and Tennessee and are the hot team entering play Thursday.

The tournament, to be played in North Little Rock, begins with
four games Thursday. Fifth-seed Florida (20-7, 8-6) takes on
Mississippi State (6-21, 1-13), which has a 12-game losing streak.
The winner advances to play fourth-seeded Kentucky (20-7, 9-5).

Other games Thursday at North Little Rock's Alltel Arena feature
Arkansas-Ole Miss, Alabama-Vanderbilt and Auburn-South Carolina.

Tennessee (25-4, 11-3), seeded second and now No. 8 in the latest AP Top 25, heads to the
tournament after losing to an unranked opponent at home for just the second time in school history. Florida beat the Lady Vols Sunday, also marking the first time Tennessee has lost to two unranked opponents in the same season.

Kentucky also beat Tennessee this year, as did No. 3 LSU (25-2,
13-1), the tournament's top seed.

"We've just been a very poor defensive team in a lot of
games,'' Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said Monday in an SEC coaches
conference call. She said defense and turnovers are her top
concerns before the tournament.

Florida re-entered the AP poll on Monday, tied at No. 23 with

Florida coach Carolyn Peck noted that, in her four years leading
the Lady Gators, the team has never won a first-round game in an
SEC tournament.

"You've got to play to stay,'' Peck said. "We're going to have
to be focused and intense. Starting in the tournament, you've got
to set your goals and refocus.''

Peck said she discussed with her players how they needed to keep
their feet on the ground after upsetting LSU this month. The high
talent level of teams in the SEC makes it tough to advance, as does
the intensity of first-round games, she said.

"Teams are playing on passion and emotion and they really turn
up their focus. That's what makes [for] such great games when you
get to the SEC Tournament,'' Peck said.

Georgia coach Andy Landers, whose team is 20-7 and 10-4, said
the emotion in the early rounds can change outcomes.

"I think there will be surprise or two,'' Landers said.

South Carolina (17-10, 7-7) is the one team that might play its
way into the NCAA Tournament with a good showing at Alltel Arena.

"I like being the bubble team,'' coach Susan Walvius said. "If
the NCAA committee will look at our last 10 games, I think we have
a very good chance to get in.''

South Carolina plays Auburn (13-14, 4-10) in the opening round,
and Vanderbilt (19-9, 8-6) faces Alabama (9-18, 3-11) on Thursday.

"I think we played well down the stretch,'' Vanderbilt coach
Melanie Balcomb said. "Our guards need to be more aggressive and
drive more from the perimeter.''

Balcomb said she wants her team to attack and create more
turnovers: "a go-for-it mentality instead of trying not to lose
and not make mistakes,'' she said.

Arkansas (13-14, 5-9) has lost eight in a row, and its most
recent defeat was against Mississippi (15-12, 5-9), the team it
will play in Thursday's opener.

" Mississippi State coach Shannon Fanning has been stuck at 499 career victories through her 12-game losing streak with the Lady Bulldogs.

" The last time Tennessee lost three SEC games in a season was 1996-97, an 8-4 league campaign.

" LSU clinched the SEC regular-season title and top seed in the SEC tournament for the second straight year. And the last time the tournament was held in North Little Rock (2003), LSU won it.

" Including victories over No. 3 LSU and No. 8 Tennessee, Florida is 5-2 against ranked opponents this season. But the Lady Gators have still managed to lose seven games.