Early losses by Lady Vols, Kentucky suggest possibility of wide-open race for SEC title

A surprising first week of competition in the Southeastern Conference women's basketball team has left the league with no obvious front-runner.

Tennessee and Kentucky, who have combined to win the conference's last four regular-season titles, lost their SEC home openers. Tennessee, the defending league champion, fell 80-77 to LSU on Thursday to end a string of 16 straight victories in conference openers. Kentucky lost 83-73 to Florida on Sunday to fall at home to an unranked foe for the first time since Jan. 9, 2011.

Those surprising early-season results suggest the SEC could have a much more wide open race than usual this season.

"Coaches were telling us it's a long year, it's a long basketball season," Tennessee guard Ariel Massengale said. "It's anybody's game in the SEC."

That hasn't always been the case.

Since the 1985-86 season, only once has the SEC's regular-season champion lost more than two conference games. That happened in 2012, when Kentucky won with a 13-3 league record. During that stretch, only six schools - Tennessee, Kentucky, Auburn, Georgia, LSU and Mississippi - have captured regular-season titles.

But there's a sense the conference may be deeper this year. Florida coach Amanda Butler cites Mississippi's 87-80 nonconference loss at No. 7 Baylor last month as evidence. SEC media and coaches picked Mississippi to finish 13th out of 14 teams in the league this season, yet the Rebels led Baylor by 10 in the first half and only trailed by one point in the final three minutes.

"I think that's why our league is the best in the country," Butler said. "It's not because of the teams that are ranked in the top 10 or that sort of thing. Go all the way through, to all our league sisters. Anybody is capable."

The SEC has no teams ranked sixth or better, but it has four schools in the top 12: No. 8 Tennessee, No. 9 Kentucky, No. 10 South Carolina and No. 12 LSU.

Although traditional powers Tennessee and Kentucky remain dangerous, both have faced adversity. Tennessee has committed 20 turnovers in each of its first two conference games. Kentucky played five games this season without star forward DeNesha Stallworth, who had arthroscopic knee surgery last month. Stallworth returned to action Sunday but played only seven minutes.

"I'd say before anybody played a game, I knew it was going to be a tough league, a tough conference," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "These games are very difficult every Sunday and every Thursday, and so it's going to be a long 16-game schedule. You've going to have to work really, really hard to rise to the top here."

The losses by Tennessee and Kentucky leave Florida and South Carolina atop the league standings for now with 2-0 conference records. Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M are 1-0 in league play. Texas A&M won last year's SEC tournament in its first year as a league member, ending a string of three straight tournament titles for Tennessee.

Yet South Carolina coach Dawn Staley believes Tennessee and Kentucky remain the favorites. Staley's team hosts Kentucky on Thursday.

"No matter how they start, they always find themselves at the top of our league," Staley said. "As far as I'm concerned, they're the teams to beat night in and night out because they've proven (it). History shows they've been the ones that have won the conference. ... I think there's a little more parity in our league, but until we dethrone those two from constantly winning regular-season championships and tournament championships, those are always going to be the teams with the target on their backs."


AP Sports Writers Gary Graves in Lexington, Ky., and Mark Long in Gainesville, Fla., contributed to this report.