Buoyed by the return of star A’ja Wilson, South Carolina women’s basketball scrapped its way by Tennessee in the SEC tournament quarterfinals on Friday night, winning 73-62.
It was the first time in three meetings this season that the Gamecocks (24-6, 12-4 SEC) have defeated the Lady Vols (23-7, 11-5 SEC), and it just so happened to be the first time that Wilson, the national player of the year favorite, was healthy enough to play UT.
Ascoach Dawn Staley put it, “any time you get a chance to play A’ja Wilson, you got a shot at winning the basketball game.”
Wilson finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds, her 20th double-double of the year, in 19 minutes of play, despite dealing with symptoms of vertigo all week. She was a game-time decision for Staley, and she came off the bench, mostly in short spurts, but her presence not only gave USC its prime scoring threat back, but also visibly seemed to lift the team’s morale. She finished with a plus/minus of +20.
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“My biggest thing when I come off the bench is how am I going to flow, how can I play my game but still flow within the lineup, and they did a great job, and I just kinda slipped in there,” Wilson said.
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks dominated inside thanks to the stellar play of Wilson and fellow forward Alexis Jennings, who had 11 points and 9 rebounds before the first 20 minutes had passed. She also ended up with a double-double of 19 points and 12 rebounds, fulfilling a challenge Staley had issued to her post players before the game: at least two needed to have double-doubles.
“I thought (Alexis) played like a grown woman in the first half. We just fed off what she was giving us on both sides of the ball,” Staley said. “And she was rebounding the ball, she was scoring. And then we insert A’ja into the game, and she’s a difference-maker.”
Defensively, USC threw down 10 blocks and held every Tennessee player to no better than 33 percent shooting, including stars Mercedes Russell, who had just 12 points and four rebounds on 5-of -15 shooting, and Jaime Nared, who had 15 points on 5-of-19 shooting.
“I’m an undersized post, let’s be honest,” the 6-foot-3 Jennings said, comparing herself with the 6-foot-6 Russell. “Coach just told me to wall up and stay in her space. She’s a very long player, and I’m not very long, but I felt like as long as I was able to stay in her space, she wasn’t able to get a good shot off.”
Of course, it helped that Tennessee often seemed incapable of scoring a basket, shooting just 27 percent from the field. All told, USC outscored UT 26-12 in the paint in the first half and 46-36 for the game. The Gamecocks also won the rebounding battle 50-43.
“The last two games we played them, we were outrebounded,” Jennings said. “So that was definitely an emphasis — just rebounding and boxing out, and then pounding it inside.”
However, the one area Staley emphasized as an area of concern for the Gamecocks coming into the game, turnovers, remained a sore spot.
After a clean start in which South Carolina did not turn the ball over once in the first seven minutes, it reverted to its inability to hang onto the basketball, turning it over 11 times before halftime, finishing with a season-high 27 turnovers. Tennessee, however, could convert that into only 27 points.
“We did have a lot of turnovers, but they had a lot of turnovers too, and I think we defended our turnovers,” sophomore guard Tyasha Harris said. “And that was a big key before the game was just to defend all our turnovers, especially live-ball (ones).”
In the third quarter, Tennessee came back rejuvinated, going on a 10-4 run early and then an 8-2 run at the end of the period to close within five points. In that time, Wilson disappeared into the locker room.
“I just needed to gather myself,” Wilson said of the break. “There was a lot going on for me, and I kind of got thrown off a little bit, so I had to gather myself, and the medical staff came and I was fine.”
She returned before the end of the quarter, and South Carolina responded with an 11-0 run to start the fourth that, effectively, put the game away, punctuated by a 3-pointer from junior Doniyah Cliney, the lone field goal from a USC guard all night.
“It helped a lot,” Cliney said of that shot. “I just felt like nothing was going to go in for me, but I had to just keep pushing, pushing. They kept telling me to shoot it, so I shot it.”
USC will face Georgia at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. The Bulldogs defeated Missouri 55-41 Friday night.
TENNESSEE (24-7)—Jackson 2-13 0-0 5, Nared 5-19 4-7 15, Russell 5-15 2-2 12, Davis 2-7 0-0 5, Westbrook 4-15 0-0 8, Dunbar 0-0 0-0 0, Green 0-2 0-0 0, Kushkituah 0-0 0-0 0, Hayes 5-15 7-7 17, Totals 23-86 13-16 62.
SOUTH CAROLINA (24-6)—Herbert Harrigan 7-10 1-1 15, Jennings 7-11 5-5 19, Cliney 1-6 3-6 6, Harris 0-7 4-6 4, Jackson 0-6 0-0 0, Grissett 2-4 1-2 5, Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Wilson 9-12 6-6 24, Patrick 0-0 0-0 0, Totals 26-56 20-26 73.
3-Point Goals—Tennessee 3-11 (Jackson 1-3, Nared 1-3, Davis 1-3, Westbrook 0-1, Hayes 0-1), South Carolina 1-7 (Cliney 1-3, Harris 0-3, Jackson 0-1). Assists—Tennessee 11 (Hayes 4), South Carolina 17 (Harris 8). Fouled Out—Tennessee Davis, Rebounds—Tennessee 43 (Nared 13), South Carolina 50 (Jennings 12). Total Fouls—Tennessee 22, South Carolina 13. Technical Fouls—Tennessee TEAM 1