No win signaled the arrival of USC’s women’s basketball team among the SEC elite like last season’s stunning victory at Tennessee.
Thursday night, the No. 18 Gamecocks (12-1) will seek to prove last season’s victory was no fluke when they play host to the No. 12 Lady Volunteers (9-3).
“I think it made a statement for the nation,” sophomore forward Aleighsa Welch said of the 64-60 win in legendary coach Pat Summitt’s final season. “I feel like last year going into the game there weren’t too many people who expected us to even compete in it … and for us to come out and just grit out a win made a statement to the nation and it just reassured us how good a team we could be.”
The Gamecocks lost some of that luster when they lost to Tennessee in the SEC semifinals the following month, but regained some credibility by making a run to the Sweet 16.
This season, much has changed for the two programs. For USC, a large infusion of freshmen had the media picking the Gamecocks to finish seventh in the SEC and the coaches picking them to finish sixth. Meanwhile, former UT standout Holly Warlick succeeded Summtt as coach.
Yet here both teams are, ranked and in the SEC title mix once more.
“I think it’s a sign of Dawn and her ability to teach and get her young players to follow,” Warlick told a media gathering on Tuesday. “She stays on them, she’s demanding and they respond.”
Staley said she has seen a noticeable difference in the Warlick-led Volunteers from the squads of the Summitt era.
“They’re a lot different. They’re more athletic and they play man a lot more than they had been in the past,” Staley said. “They play pressure defense, and I think they will try to force us, disrupt our offense and makes us do things we don’t want to do.”
Tennessee will be without starting forward Cierra Burdick, who broke a bone in her right hand during practice on Monday. She was averaging 8.8 points and 6.5 rebounds. However, Warlick said Jasmine Phillips will play. Warlick considers the Hartsville native to be on of Tennessee’s best ball defenders, which will put more pressure on a USC team that also features strong defense, but struggles offensively.
“We both run the basketball and we both play hard on the defensive end, so I think it’s going to be a physical game,” Warlick said. “Very demanding.”
Regardless, Staley said this is the kind of game USC must win moving forward.
“We don’t want moral victories anymore,” Staley said. “We’ve come close to a lot of teams. I think it’s time for us to set the pace and let everybody know we’re here to win basketball games, not to come close and not to say ‘good game’ but we fell short.”
No. 18 GAMECOCKS VS No. 12 VOLUNTEERS
WHO: South Carolina 12-1, 0-0; Tennessee 9-3, 0-0
WHEN: Thursday, 9 p.m.
WHERE: Colonial Life Arena
RADIO: WISW 1320 AM
SERIES: Tennessee leads 43-2
COACHES: Dawn Staley (79-59 in five seasons at USC, 251-139 in 13 seasons), Holly Warlick (9-3 in one season at Tennessee)
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: This is the SEC opener for both schools. USC won their conference opener last season to break a streak of eight start seasons without a win in the opening game of conference play...South Carolina has only defeated Tennessee twice in history and one of those came last season in Knoxville. The last time the Gamecocks won on their home court was in 1980. The Vols avenged the regular season setback with a 16-point victory in the SEC Tournament ... Ieasia Walker became the 13th player in school history to surpass 200 career steals after recording five in the Gamecocks previous game....Since defeating the Vols last season, USC has been ranked in nine of the last 14 polls that were released...The Gamecocks have held 10 of 13 opponents to 50 points or less. They allow 45.5 points per game, which is third in the country...Tennessee is battling the injury bug. They have lost two starters to injury. The latest was Cierra Burdick, who broke a bone in her right hand on Monday. The Vols lost freshman Andraya Carter to shoulder surgery earlier in the season. That leaves them with the same number of players on the healthy roster as USC (9 players)....Two of the three losses by the Vols have been on the road. The other was to then No. 1 Stanford on Dec. 22.
- Chris Dearing