KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Like any women’s basketball player growing up the past few decades, Brionna Dickerson had two people in the sport she admired: Dawn Staley as a player and Pat Summitt as a coach.
So Dickerson, now a senior guard at South Carolina, relished Sunday’s rare opportunity.
“Today was one thing to remember,” Dickerson said. “With coach Staley being on one side, and coach Summitt being on the other side, who could ask for a better matchup?”
She could, however, ask for a better outcome.
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The Gamecocks lost 68-56 to No. 13 Tennessee, the 36th consecutive loss to the Lady Vols. But the two-time defending champions’ margin of victory was the smallest against USC since 1996 and the smallest in Knoxville since 1989.
South Carolina (8-9, 0-4 SEC) led throughout most of the first half — its largest lead was eight — thanks to four 3-pointers from Dickerson.
Tennessee rallied to lead by three at halftime and opened the second half with a 17-4 run.
However, USC closed within seven with a few minutes left.
Staley said there were “no moral victories” from the performance. Of course, Staley, unlike current USC players, has had previous close battles with the Lady Vols. Her Temple team came within four points of Tennessee in 2004.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” said Dickerson, who had a game-high 17 points, including 14 in the first half. “We’re happy that we played them this close, but we’re also motivated knowing that we did play them this close.”
Staley was asked what her team needed to finish a win like that.
“A couple of players off Tennessee’s bench,” Staley said, smiling.
Then she grew serious, explaining that it comes down to players: They build tradition and win championships. There is talent at USC, the first-year coach said, just not enough.
“It will happen one of these days for us,” Staley said. “For now, with what we have, I’ll take the players that we have. They’re fighting; they’re trying to get better. They’re not fighting or bucking the system in any way. We’ll get better; we’ll get better in this particular system.”
Summitt, who is three wins from 1,000 in her career, earned her third win against Staley as a coach. Summitt pointed out that during Staley’s playing days at Virginia, she eliminated the Volunteers from the 1990 NCAA tournament, preventing them from playing in the Final Four at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“When I see her I have to get over that,” Summitt said. “Just watching Dawn as a player, she’s such a fierce competitor.”
Before the game Staley was looking out at the crowd with assistant Lisa Boyer. Could this happen in Columbia, Boyer asked Staley?
“One day. I believe one day,” Staley said. “I think winning will help. Bringing in great players will help. You never know. I don’t think Tennessee was Tennessee before they won as many national championships.”
Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.