David Cloninger

Lady Vols have chance to steal USC women’s basketball’s thunder

As our photographer, Tracy, pilots the rental sled through the fog, rain, leftover snow and ice and whatever else the Mount Rushmore State can throw at us …

Still shocked that South Carolina lost Friday. Looking back on it, the key play in that game was the second foul on Tiffany Mitchell. Forced to back off and not be her usual fearless, drive-the-lane-in-a-big-moment self, the Gamecocks settled into shooting 3 after 3 after 3.

Nobody else wanted to drive, and nobody else seemed to grasp the concept of, “Hey, the big girls got us here. Why don’t we throw it to them?” Perhaps A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates could have done a bit more – put Wilson at the high post, maybe, and give her the option of playing face-up, driving for a shot or a dish to Coates on the block? – but the main factor was the Gamecocks were dared to beat Syracuse from outside and they unwisely accepted.

That game film will be dissected several times over the next year, until the Gamecocks get a chance to get back to the NCAA Tournament (and hopefully in a spot closer to home that they clearly earned). They’ll spend an offseason wondering why they didn’t grasp the solution when there was time to solve the problem.

And they’ll also watch a team try to reclaim a glory that’s been sidetracked, partly by USC putting it on the sideline.

I’m sure you all saw Tennessee blitz Ohio State Friday, putting the Lady Vols one win from the Final Four. I talked with many of the Lady Vols before Friday’s game, aiming for a preview story, but the main gist of it was what changed from then to now.

Then, Tennessee was coming off back-to-back losses to LSU and Alabama. It was setting all the wrong kinds of records for a program that has known nothing but success. The Lady Vols had lost 12 games and were stumbling into the SEC Tournament as a seventh seed.

The online cries for Holly Warlick’s job were beginning to deafen. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was among the first to defend her, which Warlick mentioned in her post-game comments Friday.

What changed is Tennessee decided to let the past be the past, and just play basketball. Forget systems and play-calls and what’s already happened, and just play. Since, the Lady Vols have won six of seven, the only loss in the SEC Tournament when they were playing their third game in three days, and are a favorite to get back to the Final Four.

As USC has become the league’s premier program over the past three seasons, it’s been Tennessee that has suffered. The Lady Vols have still been good, really good – as a colleague said of last year’s UT team, it had no business winning 30 games but somehow did – but they haven’t been dominant.

It was always tricky describing the Gamecocks’ place in the world, since no matter what they did, they didn’t have Tennessee’s eight national titles and cupboard-full of SEC and Final Four trophies. Yet over the past three years, it wasn’t wrong to say USC had become the SEC’s best team, not supplanting Tennessee but at least holding the spot and about to make it their own.

Now, the Lady Vols could be reclaiming the position. In five years, nobody’s going to remember that USC won every SEC game it played and tied a conference record for being one of two teams to ever go 19-0 in the league (guess the other one). It will remember, if it happens, that Tennessee was the one who did the most in March.

I’m probably over-thinking it. Tennessee wasn’t destitute the past few years; it’s that USC was simply better.

Nobody wants to work so hard to earn something and then give it away. Tennessee has felt like that for the past few years, still playing well but seeing a challenger rise to overtake them. The Gamecocks definitely earned their place, progressing from solid to great to juggernaut.

But they gave away a chance to keep the Lady Vols behind on Friday. Tennessee has a chance to get right back where it was, and at USC’s expense.

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