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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The Southeastern Conference is flexing its muscles in the women's NCAA tournament.
This is the first year the SEC has sent at least five teams to the Sweet 16 since six of its schools got there in 1997, with Tennessee winning it all that year.
"I'm happy for our conference," Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. "I think it's back. The SEC is back."
The SEC can really show it's back by sending a team to the Final Four for the first time since Tennessee won the championship and LSU reached the semifinals in 2008, though Texas A&M captured the 2011 title as a Big 12 member. Before this five-year drought, the SEC had failed to reach the Final Four just twice since the NCAA started running the tournament in 1982.
South Carolina (29-4) and Tennessee (29-5) are No. 1 seeds, though they may have to beat regional hosts to make the Final Four. Kentucky (26-8), LSU (21-12) and Texas A&M (26-8) also remain alive.
"It's a testament to the commitment the SEC and the member schools make to women's basketball and the quality of players we have in the league," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "It's the most athletic and physical conference in the country, the teams are very well-coached and there's an extreme amount of talent from top to bottom."
LSU exemplifies the SEC's depth.
The Lady Tigers went 7-9 in SEC competition and had eight losses in their last 10 games — all against league foes — before beating NCAA tournament opponents Georgia Tech and West Virginia. LSU withstood injuries to starters Jeanne Kenney and Raigyne Moncrief.
"It's a tough conference," LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said. "You don't really get a full view of it unless you play in it. ... (At) the bottom of our conference, Ole Miss took us to the wire. Alabama beat us. So you can't just walk into an SEC game and say that that's going to be a win. It's so competitive, and obviously it's helped us prepare for NCAA, and that's a reflection of why we have so many teams that have moved on."
What the conference has lacked is the elite player who can carry a team to title contention. The SEC's last first-team Associated Press All-Americans were Tennessee's Candace Parker and LSU's Sylvia Fowles in 2008.
But it's made up for that with an abundance of promising underclassmen. Only two of the AP's seven first-team all-SEC selections were seniors. SEC coaches named South Carolina sophomore Tiffany Mitchell player of the year.
"I think it was deeper this year," said ESPN analyst Carolyn Peck, who played and coached in the SEC. "I think a lot of it has to do with the young talent that is being brought into the SEC. You look at LSU's win (over West Virginia). They lost a senior in Jeanne Kenney ... but you have Danielle Ballard as a sophomore and (Jasmine) Rhodes as a freshman who comes in and plays big minutes for LSU. You have Andraya Carter, who's a redshirt freshman at Tennessee, (freshman) Alaina Coates at South Carolina and sophomore Tiffany Mitchell.
"The talent is coming back into the SEC, and the success is showing up on the court."
LSU, Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas A&M benefited from playing their first two rounds at home. They won't have that luxury anymore.
The Lady Tigers play Louisville on the Cardinals' home floor in the Louisville Regional semifinal. Tennessee could face the same challenge in the Louisville Regional final. South Carolina might play Stanford at Maples Pavilion in the Stanford Regional championship. Kentucky could meet Notre Dame on the Irish's home court in the Notre Dame Regional final.
Regional rounds return to neutral sites next season.
"When it's the Final Four at stake, I think it should be at neutral sites," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "I think it should be in a position where it equals the playing field for all competitors."
The regionals also give the SEC head-to-head matchups with the Atlantic Coast Conference, another league often mentioned among the nation's best. Tennessee faces Maryland and South Carolina meets North Carolina in regional semifinals. A potential Kentucky-Notre Dame regional final matchup would create another SEC vs. ACC scenario.
That gives the SEC one more chance to demonstrate its superiority.
"The proof is in the pudding," Peck said. "When they're in conference, you're just playing against yourselves. Now, when you get to the NCAA tournament, now match up. Who are the better teams? ... It's the proof. It's not just the eye test."
AP Sports Writers Tim Booth in Seattle, Doug Feinberg in New York, Brett Martel in Baton Rouge, La., and Kristie Rieken in College Station, Texas, contributed to this report.