What began in promising fashion collapsed like a 2-3 zone on an unsuspecting dribble drive to the basket.
In fact, that’s exactly what happened to the USC women’s basketball team.
When 12th-ranked Tennessee abandoned its traditional man-to-man defense in favor of a 2-3 zone that would make Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim smile, the 18th-ranked Gamecocks went poof.
Tennessee’s dominating 73-53 victory at Colonial Life Arena on Thursday night was triggered by a massive 28-2 run in the second half in which the Gamecocks went scoreless five minutes, then another seven.
“I think it just wasn’t our night,” said sophomore Aleighsa Welch, who was held to six points by the taller, faster Volunteers.
By the time Asia Dozier’s 3-pointer rattled in at the 4:30 mark, USC had seen its 40-39 lead devolve into a 67-42 deficit. During the spree, the Volunteers scored in every way imaginable, denting the Gamecocks in transition, with dribble drives and from beyond the 3-point arc.
“They played a zone a lot more than we were probably anticipating,” USC coach Dawn Staley said. “Still, we couldn’t get any bucket to go.”
The Gamecocks shot 39 percent for the game and 21 percent during the second half. Just as Tennessee couldn’t miss from anywhere, the Gamecocks couldn’t connect. They missed all but one of their 11 3-point attempts and hit 5-of-11 free throws as the second half turned into a rout.
“They were just being big and forcing us to shoot the outside shots,” said senior guard Ieasia Walker, who had 10 points. “Our shots were being altered and it affected us a lot.”
By going to the 2-3 zone, Tennessee effectively halted USC’s ability to drive to the basket. With a baseline trio of 6-1 Taber Spani, 6-3 Isabelle Harrison and 6-2 Bashaara Graves, Tennessee suffocated Welch and all comers to the basket.
For the game, Tennessee blocked 11 shots, including a career-best seven by Harrison.
It was a significant turnaround from a highly competitive first half when twice Tennessee appeared ready to go on a tear only to be reeled in by the Gamecocks.
With foul trouble sending Welch to the bench, Ashley Bruner answered the bell with 10 first-half points.
Bruner’s pair of free throws sent both teams to halftime with Tennessee nursing a 32-31 lead.
USC then jumped out to a 35-32 lead on two buckets by Welch and Tiffany Mitchell, forcing Tennessee to call a timeout.
The two teams traded the lead four times before a media timeout. When action resumed, only the Volunteers reappeared as the rout was on.
Meighan Simmons was the primary instigator, scoring eight of the first 12 points of Tennessee’s decisive run. After that, everyone got in the act and the game quietly passed into the Gamecocks’ loss column.
After grabbing nine rebounds, including no offensive boards in the first half, Tennessee outrebounded USC 30-19 in the second half.
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said she spent the halftime break getting on her team for the lack of rebounds. Then, when it appeared USC’s transition baskets and dribble drives were threatening to steal the game, the switch to the zone saved the day.
“I love playing pressure man-to-man (but) they were getting the ball pretty easy inside, so we went to a zone,” Warlick said. “I’m going to do whatever I feel we need to do to win the game.”
Harrison finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds. Spani also had 18 for Tennessee (10-3). Tiffany Mitchell led USC (12-2) with 14 points. Bruner finished with 12. Guards Walker and Sancheon White led USC in rebounding with seven each.
“We lost one game. The bottom didn’t fall out,” Staley said. “We are who we are.
“We’re a very good defensive basketball team that struggles at the free throw line and struggles to score some times. When you play a team like Tennessee, you have to find ways to put the ball in the hole.”
The Gamecocks will head to Mississippi State on Sunday before returning home for Vanderbilt on Jan. 17.