Most of the drama happened before the opening tip for South Carolina women’s basketball’s regular season finale against Tennessee on Sunday.
First, Georgia won early in the afternoon, assuring the No. 7 Gamecocks the second seed in the SEC tournament. Then, USC announced star A’ja Wilson would be out for its matchup against the Lady Vols due to vertigo.
In the end, the game itself had no impact on the standings, but it did showcase how lost the Gamecocks (23-6, 12-4 SEC) can look without their best player, as they fell to UT (23-6, 11-5 SEC) on the road, 65-46.
“We knew Georgia won. That was good, we had our eye on that because that particular game was the deciding factor. It was good to come into this game without any pressure,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “But in the back of my mind, I’m thinking about what does this do to us as far as the NCAA selection committee?
“I hope they don’t hold our two losses against (Tennessee) against us, not having A’ja. I hope they take that into consideration.”
In an ugly first half that featured 21 turnovers between the two teams, South Carolina outshot the Lady Vols 38 percent to 27 percent. Tennessee’s issues shooting the ball were especially bad early, as Holly Warlick’s squad missed its first six field goal attempts and just two players made a shot in the first quarter.
“We gotta start the game off better,” Tennessee coach Warlick said. “But, it was a great sign that our offense did not affect our defense.”
USC did struggle to create much separation from UT, leading by only five points at the half, due in part to Tennessee’s defensive execution, but also sloppy play on its own, keeping the game close.
Things changed for South Carolina in the third quarter, as Tennessee’s press defense continued to create problems for the Gamecocks, while the Lady Vols offense started to have shots fall. USC was outscored 29-9 in the quarter, committing five turnovers and shooting just 23 percent.
“They came out ready to attack, and they kinda put us on our heels ... and went on a run,” sophomore guard Tyasha Harris said. “They just kept on going with the run, and it just went down from there.”
Into the fourth quarter, the Gamecocks seemed to have little fight left, struggling even against Tennessee’s backups and getting outscored 15-11. Three Lady Vols ended up scoring in double figures, and they dominated down low, outscoring USC in the paint 48-22.
“I thought we competed, we just didn’t execute. We had too many live-ball turnovers. If we can set our defense up, we actually look pretty good. It’s just the live-ball turnovers that create easy baskets,” Staley said. “And then taking care of the rebounding. We didn’t do a great job of that in the second half.
All told, South Carolina committed 21 turnovers, a season high, which Tennessee converted into 18 points. UT also won the rebounding battle, 46-31, with a 27-12 edge in the final two quarters.
“They just out-hustled us, and when we’re undermanned like that, we have to win the hustle plays. We have to box out,” Staley said. “It doesn’t matter if we score a lot of points, we just can’t allow them to have multiple opportunities at the basket.”
Sophomore forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who started in place of Wilson, led USC with 17 points, her most in SEC play, but had just two boards. Harris, after scoring 28 points in the first matchup with the Lady Vols, scored just two points on 1-for-6 shooting on Sunday.
“They locked in more on me and they denied me the ball a lot,” Harris said. “I didn’t look for my shot that much either. My teammates took care of me and got their shots up, so that was good. That was a good that came out of it.”
South Carolina opens SEC tournament play in Nashville, Tennessee, on Friday, March 2, as the No. 2 seed and will play the winner of a second-round game between No. 7 seed Tennessee and No. 10 seed Auburn. Wilson’s status for the tournament is still unclear, Staley said.