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When the final buzzer sounded after a Tennessee missed 3-point shot, South Carolina players rushed the Thompson-Boling Arena court, where they quickly formed a tight group hug and chanted, “We’re all, we need.”
The Gamecocks had upset the No. 8 Volunteers 64-60 in a gritty contest that came down to who wanted the last rebound most. USC had not beaten Tennessee since 1980, snapping a 40-game losing streak to the nation’s most dominant women’s basketball program.
Senior forward Ashley Bruner ran over to a small contingent of garnet and black clad South Carolina fans — some wearing T-shirts that said “I Believe” — and screamed, “It’s for real! It’s our time!”
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USC athletics director Eric Hyman, who came to Knoxville with football coach Steve Spurrier, hugged guard Markeshia Grant on the court and told the game’s high scorer, “What a wonderful night. I’m so proud of you.”
Grant, who has become the team’s offensive force, scored a career-high 27 points — including seven three-pointers. Her final long-range shot was part of a rally from a seven-point deficit by South Carolina (18-5, 7-3) with five minutes left.
"The morale was a little low, but it only takes a basket,” USC coach Dawn Staley said she told the team during a timeout before the run. “I just told our players that we really concentrated on scoring in our offense, but our best offense was transition.”
Right after the timeout, an up-and-under, no-look layup by Ieasia Walker started USC on the final path to victory. Walker, who averaged 20 points in two losses to Tennessee last year, started the game by missing her first six shots but made five of her final nine attempts for 11 points.
After Grant’s 3-pointer cut the defict to two, Tennessee (16-6, 7-2) stretched its lead again when forward Glory Johnson put back a rebound off a missed free throw.
Then the Gamecocks started dominating on the glass against the taller Volunteers. Bruner caught Grant’s missed 3-point attempt and scored an easy layup. She missed the free throw after getting fouled.
Bruner made up for her struggles from the line, where she made one of five attempts, by stealing the ball from Tennessee freshman point guard Ariel Massengale. Bruner ran up the court before making a quick pass to Aleighsa Welch for a layup that closed the gap to one point.
Then came the game’s most critical play. Welch rebounded Massengale’s missed 3-point shot and got the ball to guard La’Keisha Sutton, who missed a jumper. USC forward Charenee Stephens outfought two Volunteers for the rebound and passed the ball to Walker, who drove to the basket. Her finger roll gave USC a 61-60 lead with 2:15 left.
The Volunteers would not score again. They missed three shots on the next possession, including a layup. Johnson would miss another layup as the Gamecocks hit free throws to finish the scoring.
"This is a resilient group of players,” Staley said. “Truly, truly in every aspect — from the things I put them through in practice, from our coaching staff to us losing three basketball games consecutively. We’ve been in situations where we had to dig ourselves out of a hole, and it was really nothing new.”
Staley’s college coach at Virginia, Debbie Ryan, spoke to her team before the game about believing in themselves.
“I had former players, former Gamecock players text me today, and they all believed that this would take place today,” Staley said. “So it was incredible belief on a lot of levels.”
USC’s hustle around the glass was the difference. A year after Tennessee grabbed 42 more rebounds in two win over USC, the Gamecocks outrebounded the Volunteers six to three in the final 3:38 of the game when South Carolina was down five points.
“We can’t be average and expect to win,” Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick said. “I think South Carolina wanted the ball more, especially at the end.”
Tennessee was coming off three road games last week, including a loss at No. 2 Notre Dame. “It felt unusual for us to be at home,” Warlick said. “To me, we were flat. We were not very inspired.”
But she gave Staley credit for the win and improvement in the program over four seasons. Staley has gone from 10 to 18 wins in her tenure in Columbia.
“She’s got players who believe in her system,” Warlick said. “I thought they were outstanding tonight. They never backed down.”
Grant’s outburst was a huge source of frustration for the Volunteers.
“One thing I think we stressed on in the scouting report was to force her left. Whenever she put it down with her right hand, she would pull up,” Johnson said. “A player like that can’t come to Tennessee and have 27 points on our floor.”
Before the game, Staley gave Summitt’s son, Tyler, a $20,000 check to the Alzheimer’s Association on behalf of the Hall of Fame coach who revealed before the season that she was suffering from the onset of the disease.
“She did come up to us before the game and thanked us for backing her,” Staley said. “It is truly our pleasure, and I’m glad our players got a chance to experience the tradition of Tennessee.”
Summitt told the player she recruited out of high school in Philadelphia nearly 25 years ago, “Good game,” after the upset.
“I think anytime when you have an opportunity to play Tennessee year in and year out, you keep measuring yourself, you keep trying to find game plans that will put you in the best possible situation to win,” Staley said. “I thought coming into this particular game with how we were playing, it was our best shot, and we did it."
Gamecock players understood what a victory over Tennessee means for the program that appears headed for its first NCAA appearance in nine years. Staley called the win the biggest of her 12-year coaching career, and two players tried to mark it by giving her a midcourt Gatorade shower. They stopped just before before pouring it over their coach when they learned the tub was filled with ice.
“I’m really happy for our team, coach Staley, our coaching staff for preparing us and just every player who ever put on a Gamecock uniform,” Sutton said. “It is for everybody at the University of South Carolina."
SOUTH CAROLINA (18-5)
Stephens 1-2 1-1 3, Bruner 2-10 1-5 5, Walker 5-15 1-2 11, Grant 10-21 0-2 27, Sutton 5-12 2-2 12, White 0-1 0-0 0, Roy 0-2 0-0 0, Welch 3-3 0-2 6. Totals 26-66 5-14 64.
Burdick 1-2 2-2 4, Stricklen 3-7 2-4 8, Johnson 6-11 1-1 13, Massengale 4-14 4-4 12, Simmons 2-8 0-0 4, Williams 3-3 1-1 7, Spani 3-9 1-3 8, Manning 2-3 0-0 4, Baugh 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 24-58 11-15 60.
Halftime: South Carolina 29-28. 3-Point Goals: South Carolina 7-22 (Grant 7-12, Roy 0-1, White 0-1, Sutton 0-3, Walker 0-5), Tennessee 1-8 (Spani 1-1, Simmons 0-1, Stricklen 0-2, Massengale 0-4). Fouled Out: Johnson. Rebounds: South Carolina 36 (Welch 9), Tennessee 44 (Stricklen 10). Assists: South Carolina 12 (Walker 6), Tennessee 7 (Massengale 3). Total Fouls: South Carolina 15, Tennessee 12. Attendance: 15,021.
Video highlights from the SEC Digital Network