WHILE EATING A pregame meal with her road roommate Elem Ibiam in Knoxville, Tenn., USC senior guard La’Keisha Sutton made a prediction:
“Whether we win or lose, it would come down to me.”
Trying to hold a slim lead in the final minute over No. 8 Tennessee, Sutton grabbed two rebounds — one on each end of the floor — before sinking a pair of free throws with 12 seconds left that sealed USC’s 64-60 upset win.
“I wish I could stay longer. I feel like we’re peaking,” said Sutton, one of Dawn Staley’s first recruits four seasons ago.
The Gamecocks got the program’s first victory in Knoxville and have a four-game winning streak. Even with a week-long break, Staley said her 24-hour rule about celebrating wins and bemoaning losses still applies.
“You got be somewhat (concerned about) our team thinking that this is the pinnacle of our season, which it isn’t,” she said. “This is a point in our journey.”
South Carolina (18-5, 7-3 for third place in the SEC) appears to be in good shape to earn its first NCAA berth in nine years.
“That I don’t even want to harp on that right now,” Staley said. “We have six more conference games left.”
The Gamecocks travel to Arkansas on Thursday and play at home again on Feb. 12 in a nationally televised game versus Florida. They also face No. 21 Georgia and visit No. 6 Kentucky before the SEC Tournament in Nashville.
Still, the win over Tennessee — USC’s second in 44 meetings with women’s basketball’s most dominant team — will impact the program.
“We’re changing generations,” Staley said. “The next generation of Gamecocks can look at it a little bit differently, and feel like that history favors us.”
But Staley wants more.
“I hope we give them more memories, like winning a national championship,” she said.
It’s our ball
Probably as much as late-game rebounding, the Gamecocks stayed in the contest by taking care of the ball. USC had a season-low four turnovers against Tennessee, which forces an average of 12 miscues per game.
The Gamecocks finished with a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. And the Volunteers did not have a steal after getting nine per game this season. Staley said the Volunteers did not put much pressure on the Gamecocks, which allowed guard Ieasia Walker to run the transition offense.
Meanwhile, South Carolina recorded seven steals and caused 11 Tennessee turnovers. The “The turnovers for us resulted in layups for them,” Volunteer associate head coach Holly Warlick said.
As part of her care with the onset of Alzheimer’s, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt does not handle postgame news conferences, though she talks for a radio show.
“To say we didn’t play particularly well for 40 minutes tonight would be an understatement but you have to credit South Carolina for that,” she said.
The Volunteers “looked like we couldn’t find” USC guard Markeshia Grant, who scored 27 points, Summitt said.
She groused at how Tennessee failed to capitalize on its height advantage in the paint.
“For whatever reason, (forwards) Glory (Johnson) and Shekinna (Stricklen) just never seemed to get going, and we count on them so much.”
Repeat after me
Grant had a mantra going through her head while she fired away seven 3-point baskets — tied for third best in team history.
“I heard (associate head coach Lisa) Boyer in the back of my head, ‘Toe the line,’ ‘Toe the line,’ and my teammates found me numerous times,” the senior said. “I was just confident in my shot, and I locked it down.”
The phrase has a simple meaning, she said: “Be ready to shoot on the 3-point line.”
Grant is averaging 20.7 points in her past three games, including 14-for-26 (53.8 percent) from 3-point range.
Walk this way
Walker shines against Tennessee. The junior guard posted her first game in double figures (11 points) in nearly four weeks.
She averaged 20 points per game versus the Volunteers last season. Walker also dished a game-high six assists.
She is averaging 6.3 assists in her past three games.
Yes, but ...
The Gamecocks’ historic win still came with hiccups in categories where they are last among SEC teams. Grant accounted for all of the 3-point scoring, while her teammates went 0-for-10, including Walker missing all five of her long-range tries.
At the foul line, USC went 5-for-14 (35.7 percent).