Seeding for the SEC tournament was secure, and nobody was going to sneak up and take a piece of the SEC regular-season championship. Fourth-ranked South Carolina had nothing to gain and nothing to lose in Sunday’s regular-season finale.
Didn’t matter. Ball was on the court, fans were in the stands. Game was on. Dawn Staley wanted to win.
When the Gamecocks didn’t, falling 73-61 to No. 10 Tennessee in a game where USC was knocked on its heels from the start, she wasn’t going to talk about how the game didn’t matter.
In her view, all games matter. And she didn’t want to see her team, champs or not, playing badly before the real tests begin – win-or-go-home March Madness.
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“Sometimes when you’re playing so well and efficiently, it’s hard to teach them,” Staley said. “This game is a teaching tool for our young basketball team and we’ll learn from it.”
With guard Meighan Simmons playing her Senior Day at Thompson-Boling Arena, the Lady Volunteers (24-5, 13-3 SEC) were flying from the tip. Their speed unsettled the Gamecocks (26-3, 14-2), keeping USC’s top-ranked SEC scoring defense from getting set and leading to a monstrous game from center Isabelle Harrison.
Harrison scored 10 of UT’s first dozen points. She finished with 20 and 15 rebounds, constantly slipping past USC’s interior defense for easy baskets or stick-backs. She was just as good on defense, pushing Elem Ibiam and Alaina Coates out of their comfort zones.
“We got to figure out a way in the next week, if we want to win an SEC tournament championship, to figure out how to slow her down and not allow her to be as efficient as she’s been the last couple of times that we’ve played them,” Staley said.
“She’s definitely a physical player,” said Ibiam, who finished with eight points and four rebounds. “She was getting a lot of shots early. I was, not to say not prepared, but mentally, I wasn’t in it.”
USC stayed in the game, as always, due to the never-say-die spirits of Tiffany Mitchell and Aleighsa Welch, who combined for 27 points. They had little help, though, and even they were forced into taking rushed shots as the Gamecocks’ preferred inside game was short-circuited.
Even with the Vols shooting an off 13-of-20 from the line, USC couldn’t take advantage. UT significantly cooled in the final 10 minutes but the Gamecocks couldn’t find an edge.
USC’s last gasp came with 10 minutes to play. Asia Dozier hit the Gamecocks’ first 3-pointer and Tennessee only got one free throw after a possession with three shots. Coates rebounded her own miss to cut the lead to six and the small but vocal USC section was getting loud.
Bashaara Graves twisted past Ibiam for a reverse layup. Mitchell rushed an open shot and missed. Dozier, selling out for the steal and break, didn’t get to an errant pass fast enough and Simmons dashed past for an uncontested jumper.
“I thought the pace of the game was a lot quicker than we like to play,” Staley said. “It forced us to play fast and probably take quicker shots than we normally take. That’s just really not our pace.”
USC lost for the first time since Jan. 16. The Gamecocks had to be sated that the giant SEC champions banner hanging in Thompson-Boling won’t be updated this year.
It wasn’t much compensation. As Staley said, winning the title was great.
But that’s over.
“We just got beat by a good team on their court,” Mitchell said. “We’re going to take this one and turn around and be ready for the SEC tournament.”
SOUTH CAROLINA (26-3)
Welch 7-19 2-5 16, Ibiam 4-10 0-1 8, Sessions 1-5 1-2 3, Mitchell 5-13 1-2 11, Dozier 1-3 0-0 3, Gaines 1-2 0-0 2, Montout 0-1 0-0 0, Davis 1-1 4-4 6, Roy 1-3 0-0 2, Coates 4-8 2-2 10. Totals 25-65 10-16 61.
Burdick 1-11 2-2 4, Graves 3-6 1-2 7, Harrison 9-11 2-4 20, Simmons 7-16 2-4 16, Carter 4-8 4-4 14, Reynolds 2-5 0-0 4, Moore 0-1 0-0 0, Jones 2-8 2-4 6, Russell 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 29-69 13-20 73.
Halftime_Tennessee 38-30. 3-Point Goals_South Carolina 1-8 (Dozier 1-2, Sessions 0-1, Montout 0-1, Mitchell 0-2, Roy 0-2), Tennessee 2-10 (Carter 2-4, Reynolds 0-3, Simmons 0-3). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_South Carolina 39 (Welch 9), Tennessee 48 (Harrison 15). Assists_South Carolina 10 (Sessions 3), Tennessee 14 (Reynolds, Simmons 3). Total Fouls_South Carolina 15, Tennessee 16. Attendance_14,072.