Going into Saturday, the Big 12 had won the first three editions of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. In 2015-16, the Challenge moved to late January for the first time and all ten games were played on the same day. The two leagues split the first six games of the day at 3-3 but the Big 12 claimed the four evening games to win the Challenge 7-3.
Things were expected to go about the same way in 2016-17. Entering the day, oddsmakers in Las Vegas had the Big 12 team favored in seven of the ten games — and if you had known that one of the SEC’s three favorites would lose, you probably would have thought that the SEC had lost for the fourth year in a row.
Perhaps, the first game of the day set the tone for the rest of the day. Texas A&M entered as a 15-point underdog against West Virginia, and early on it looked like the Mountaineers would run away with it, building a 45-29 lead at the half. But the former Big 12 team clawed back late, pulling within two points with 15 seconds left, but the comeback attempt was foiled when the Aggies took too long to foul West Virginia’s Esa Ahmad, who calmly drained two free throws to give West Virginia an 81-77 win. While Texas A&M committed 23 turnovers against “Press Virginia,” they stayed alive with 10-of-21 shooting from beyond the arc and 24 points from Admon Gilder, who played all 40 minutes, as well as 19 points and 18 boards from Tyler Davis.
In the early afternoon window, Texas Tech easily dispatched LSU 77-64, sending the Bayou Bengals to their seventh consecutive loss, but the SEC managed to pull even regardless. Florida was a somewhat expected winner against Oklahoma; the Gators came in as a three-point favorite, yet nobody saw the 84-52 margin over the Sooners coming, as the Gators smothered Oklahoma and held them to 27.7 percent shooting from the floor. And, in the battle of the bubble teams, Tennessee built on its win over Kentucky earlier in the week by beating another set of Wildcats in a 70-58 win over Kansas State. Freshman Grant Williams — who, perhaps, has been the most surprising freshman in the conference -- led the Vols with 17 points and six rebounds.
The late afternoon saw the one real snoozer of the day, as Oklahoma State crushed Arkansas, 99-71, but the SEC pulled ahead in the Challenge with a pair of comeback wins. Vanderbilt fell behind early, but rallied to take a 14-point lead before testing the strength of its fans’ heart medications, surviving in an 84-78 win over Iowa State. The Commodores got 21 points from Luke Kornet and 20 from Nolan Cressler. In Athens, Texas built a nine-point halftime lead, but the Georgia Bulldogs erased it with an 8-0 run to start the second half and held on late for a 59-57 win. Yante Maten had 21 points and seven boards, or as he calls it, just another day at the office.
And the SEC’s coup de grace came in the evening session. Austin Wiley, who was in high school a month and a half ago, scored 25 points on 11-of-13 shooting, and Auburn went on a 25-2 run midway through the second half before holding on for an 88-80 win at TCU. Auburn came in as a ten-point underdog, and the Tigers’ win gave the SEC a 5-3 advantage and for a brief moment it looked like the SEC might win the Challenge for the first time. But after building an early lead against Baylor, Ole Miss couldn’t hold on late as the Bears pulled out a 78-75 win. And in the evening’s marquee game, Kansas caught Kentucky midway through the second half and handed the Wildcats their second straight loss, 79-73. Those final two results of the night allowed the Big 12 to pull even, and the two leagues settled for a 5-5 draw. Of course under Ryder Cup rules that meant that the trophy stays with last year’s winner, but it was still helpful for the much-maligned SEC.
That turned what would have been a great day for the SEC into merely a good day. Arkansas probably did damage to its NCAA Tournament resume — a loss to Oklahoma State by itself wouldn’t be bad, but the fact that the game was never competitive is a black mark. But Georgia managed to stop the bleeding, and Tennessee added to a quietly solid resume; and Florida has some margin for error, but didn’t hurt themselves.
On this day, the two conference games were almost an afterthought, but we’ll acknowledge them: Braxton Key had 19 points and nine rebounds as Alabama used a late rally to improve to 6-2 in the SEC with a 71-62 win over Mississippi State. And I feel bad for you if you watched South Carolina take down Missouri: the Gamecocks and Tigers combined for 40 fouls, 29 turnovers, and 73 missed shots in a 63-53 South Carolina win. The Gamecocks moved into a tie for first place in the SEC with a 7-1 record, while Mizzou fell to 0-8 in conference play and dropped its twelfth in a row overall.