The South Carolina women’s basketball team learned Saturday that getting a first-round bye in the SEC tournament is crucial.
Playing in their third game in three days, the No. 25 Gamecocks were outgunned and outmuscled by a fresher Tennessee team avenging a month-old loss that gave USC its first victory over the Volunteers in 32 years.
No. 13 Tennessee, the tournament’s second seed, was playing in its second game of the weekend and had an extra gear to turn a six-point halftime lead into a 21-point margin that swept away USC.
South Carolina fell 74-58 to the Volunteers in the Gamecock program’s first SEC tournament semifinal. The Gamecocks tied for the fourth-best league record but landed the sixth seed after losing tiebreakers.
“I told them how important it was to be one of four (seeds) that gets a bye, because today will be our championship game,” USC coach Dawn Staley said. “It’s really hard to play all these games just mentally and physically.”
The players realized they paid a price for having to play an extra game. South Carolina (23-9) was the only seed that did not earn a first-round bye to reach the tournament semifinals.
“A month ago we had two or three days to prepare and rest for Tennessee, whereas today we came in from a game yesterday against Georgia,” said senior guard La’Keisha Sutton, who scored 10 points. “We just weren’t fresh.”
The Gamecocks won their quarterfinal game against No. 16 Georgia on Friday despite shooting 37 percent, but they could not get away with that against Tennessee on Saturday.
The Gamecocks shot 35 percent, letting opportunities to close the gap on the Volunteers rattle off the rim.
“Maybe the fact that we’re not familiar with this arena,” Sutton said about the team’s shooting woes. “But, I don’t know, we took shots with our offense, they just weren’t falling.”
Unlike a month ago in Knoxville when USC won 64-60, the Gamecocks could not get their perimeter game on track. And against the taller and energized Volunteers, South Carolina found few points inside.
USC forwards Ashley Bruner and Aleighsa Welch, who combined for 21 points in beating Georgia, were held to three points.
Tennessee (23-8) did not play a crisp game in the first half, turning over the ball and missing too many shots from close range — a result of a tough USC defense. But the Volunteers earned a 28-22 lead on South Carolina’s 29 percent shooting.
As the second half opened, the Gamecocks could get few stops. Tennessee hit 57 percent of shots to close the game and gained momentum midway through the second half after two fast-break baskets off blocked South Carolina shots that electrified the crowd in Bridgestone Arena.
While the SEC tournament was held at the neutral site in Nashville, the crowd was predominantly adorned in Volunteer orange — giving the game the feel of a home contest for Tennessee. The Gamecocks were not able to take the crowd out of the game like they did at Thompson-Boling Arena in February.
“A month ago, we just had a type of mojo about us going into Knoxville,” said guard Markeshia Grant, who scored 13 points on Saturday after getting 27 in the first meeting. “I think we were just hitting shots, winning the hustle plays, out-playing them. Today, I think we did the same. But I think we just came up short.”
Tennessee used a zone defense to cut off USC’s athleticism, which allowed the Gamecocks to steal critical rebounds at the end of the game last month. Then the Volunteers started mixing defenses — going man-to-man and adopting different zones — to keep the USC guessing, associate head coach Holly Warlick said.
Tennessee players had a simpler explanation for their good showing. “We wanted revenge,” forward Vicki Baugh said. “I think that was our motivation stepping into this tournament.”
South Carolina is using the experience this week for its next step — an expected NCAA bid. The Gamecocks are all but assured their first berth in nine years after finishing the season with 20-plus wins and a top-35 RPI ranking.
The Gamecocks’ good run this week should give them a higher seed when the NCAA bracket is announced on March 12.
Their three days in Nashville provided a glimpse of what they might face in a first-round NCAA game on March 17.
“I think playing in front of a crowd like this is very much like the NCAA tournament,” Staley said. “It may be very similar in that you could be put in a region where you’re playing on somebody’s home floor. Tennessee and their fans gave us an opportunity to play in a situation like that.”
SOUTH CAROLINA (23-9)
Stephens 1-3 0-0 2, Newton 0-0 0-0 0, Walker 5-13 2-4 13, Grant 4-12 2-2 13, Sutton 4-13 1-2 10, Sellers 1-1 0-0 2, Wilson 0-0 0-0 0, White 0-3 0-0 0, Bruner 0-5 1-2 1, Roy 4-8 0-0 10, Welch 1-3 0-0 2, Ibiam 2-2 1-2 5. Totals 22-63 7-12 58.
Manning 3-5 0-0 7, Baugh 4-8 0-0 8, Johnson 7-14 9-14 23, Bass 0-1 0-0 0, Stricklen 5-10 4-4 16, Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Massengale 3-6 0-0 6, Simmons 2-4 0-0 5, Burdick 1-2 2-2 5, Spani 1-2 0-0 2, Harrison 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 27-53 15-20 74.
Halftime: Tennessee 28-22. 3-Point Goals: South Carolina 7-22 (Grant 3-9, Roy 2-4, Walker 1-4, Sutton 1-5), Tennessee 5-12 (Stricklen 2-4, Manning 1-1, Burdick 1-2, Simmons 1-2, Massengale 0-1, Bass 0-1, Spani 0-1). Fouled Out: None. Rebounds: South Carolina 30 (Welch 5), Tennessee 38 (Baugh, Johnson 10). Assists: South Carolina 6 (Sutton, Walker 2), Tennessee 8 (Massengale 3). Total Fouls: South Carolina 14, Tennessee 10. Attendance: 11,029.