NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Whether it's a down year or an up year for women's basketball in the Southeastern Conference, Tennessee weathers the storm.
The third-ranked Lady Volunteers (26-3) have won 17 straight, including a perfect 14-0 run through the SEC, since a pair of one-point losses to No. 1 Connecticut and now-No. 5 Texas.
It's part of an up year for the SEC, with seven teams in the top 25 and three in the top 10. Five teams already have 20 wins. Georgia and Vanderbilt need one win at the SEC Tournament, which starts Thursday at the Alltel Arena, to reach the same mark.
"This is going to be an incredible tournament," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "There's not going to be an easy game for anyone."
Vanderbilt, the defending tournament champion, seeks that 20th win against Florida in the last game Thursday and with a victory would play Georgia on Friday.
Tennessee has won 12 regular-season titles, including the last six, and 10 tournaments. However, the Lady Volunteers have swept both titles just six times and in the past two years they've lost to Vanderbilt and LSU in the semifinals.
"We hadn't been able to really compete in the tournament at the level we would like to," Summitt said. "The team has talked about that. We have not gone in and competed with great intensity. It's almost like we've showed up and played average. I think this team has a great challenge in front of them to be able to change that."
Tennessee plays the winner of Auburn-Kentucky at noon on Friday.
After what the coaches called a down season last year, women's basketball in the Southeastern Conference is back. Seven teams have been ranked in the Top 25 for seven weeks since Jan. 20, when Georgia climbed into The Associated Press poll.
That week, Tennessee, LSU and Arkansas gave the SEC three in the top eight. The Lady Razorbacks lost seven of their last 11 and now are the lowest ranked team at No. 23.
No team among the top seven - Tennessee, LSU, Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Arkansas - lost more than twice on their home court, combining for an 89-8 home record. Every home loss came against one of the other seven.
"I think that right now the SEC is flooded with talent across the board, every single team," said first-year Florida coach Carolyn Peck, who coached Purdue to the 1999 NCAA championship. "That has made the SEC regain its status as the best women's basketball conference in the country."
No. 10 Mississippi State (22-6) closed the season on a six-game winning streak to join Tennessee and No. 6 LSU in the top 10. The Lady Bulldogs' run included wins at Arkansas and at home against Georgia after a 1-4 start against ranked teams in the SEC.
"You can't fear losing or get tight at that moment of winning," Mississippi State coach Sharon Fleming. "They have a look of a winner and an expectation when they walk on the floor (to win)."
Arkansas, the seventh seed, stopped a four-game losing streak and picked up its 20th win in the regular-season finale against 10th-seed Alabama. Three of those four losses were on the road. The Crimson Tide and the Lady Razorbacks meet again at 2:30 p.m. Thursday.
Arkansas coach Gary Blair said he hopes the Lady Razorbacks (20-9) can take advantage of a home-court advantage as Vanderbilt did last year when the tournament was held in Nashville.
"We need to be a little bit more consistent on the court," Blair said Monday. "Our fans will be consistent off the court, but it's up to us right now. We just haven't been playing with the same emotional level.
"We've got to be a smarter basketball team, particularly when you're playing in March. It's time not to make the unforced error."
Blair was not present when his team worked out Wednesday at Alltel Arena. His mother is ill in Dallas and he had to leave, the university said. It wasn't known if he would return in time for the Alabama game.
The tournament starts with eighth-seed Auburn (17-10) kicking off its quest to give the SEC eight spots in the NCAA Tournament against ninth-seed Kentucky (11-15) at noon Thursday.
Fifth-seed South Carolina (21-6) faces 12th-seed Ole Miss (12-15) at 6 p.m., and the first round concludes with sixth-seed Vanderbilt (19-8) playing 11th-seed Florida (9-18).
The quarterfinals will be played Friday at noon, 2:30 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday's semifinals will be at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., and the final will be at 3 p.m. Sunday. The winner receives an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
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