USC Women's Basketball

USC women top Tennessee for third consecutive SEC regular-season championship

VIDEO: Dawn Staley, players after win over Tennessee

A'ja Wilson, Tiffany Mitchell and Dawn Staley after winning the SEC championship against Tennessee on Monday, Feb. 15, 2016.
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A'ja Wilson, Tiffany Mitchell and Dawn Staley after winning the SEC championship against Tennessee on Monday, Feb. 15, 2016.

USC coach Dawn Staley said that South Carolina was heading to Tennessee to play history.

Instead, the Gamecocks made it.

Third-ranked USC is returning to Columbia with its third straight SEC regular-season championship, earned with a 62-56 win over the No. 24 Lady Volunteers on Monday. The Gamecocks won for just the second time in Knoxville and joined Auburn and Tennessee as the only SEC teams to win three straight titles.

USC (24-1, 12-0 SEC) can clinch the undisputed title with a win over Georgia on Thursday, but regardless, USC is the No. 1 seed in the SEC tournament and would hang a banner and receive a trophy even if somebody tied them for the championship.

As unlikely as that is to happen, Staley made it clear afterward – they’re not done.

Staley wants to be the second 16-0 team in SEC history (2010-11 Tennessee), a mark that eluded her by one game last year. After handing the Lady Vols (15-10, 6-6) their fourth home loss for the first time since 1982-83, and their sixth SEC loss for the first time ever, Monday was just the start of historical marks USC hopes to accomplish.

“I want to win all of them,” Staley said. “Have I looked at the history and seen what kind of programs have done it? And would we like to be in that number? Absolutely.”

To say the game was ugly was an insult to ugliness, but the result was beautiful for the Gamecocks. A contest where they couldn’t score early, didn’t play smart late and featured the third career scoreless game from center Alaina Coates was sometimes hard to watch. Yet USC hung around, the Vols also unable to shoot or keep the ball in their hands, and saw their break.

As she seemingly always does, senior Tiffany Mitchell started the surge after her first two-and-a-half quarters were rather forgetful. The Lady Vols took a 35-32 lead on free throws from Diamond DeShields and seemed poised to take control. There were 13 minutes to play.

Thirteen minutes too many.

Mitchell finally connected on a 3-pointer, then Jordan Reynolds turned the ball over to start a Mitchell scoop-and-score. She hit a free throw to make it six points in 62 seconds and USC had finally slipped its offensive shackles.

“There’s not a player on our roster that can do the things that Tiffany Mitchell does, and has done for our program,” Staley said.

A’ja Wilson continued to pad a monster game of 25 points and five blocks, and while Coates didn’t score, she snared 10 rebounds and had four steals. Mitchell finished with 12, while Khadijah Sessions had 13.

The Vols, suffering through their worst season in decades, shot 34 percent and turned it over 19 times. Holly Warlick pointed out that it’s hard to beat anybody with those kinds of slippery hands, and with the margin of error against USC already close to zero.

“They sped us up a little bit, and I think that was the biggest thing, just rushing into shots and turning the ball over,” Wilson said. “I thought once we kind of got adjusted to it, we just went off and started playing South Carolina basketball.”

The kind of basketball that has ruled the SEC for three straight seasons.

TURNING POINT

Mitchell’s spurt in the third gave the Gamecocks a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. The run sent USC to its third straight win over Tennessee when it had won twice in 47 previous tries.

3 POINTS

Star of the game: Wilson was the only player who could consistently score, so USC wisely kept feeding her the ball. Her game was hampered early, but fouls forced the Vols to back off and she took over.

Play of the game: Tina Roy took two steps and with a hand in her face, stepped back and threw a laser at the rim. It went to beat the halftime buzzer. The Gamecocks had their biggest lead at three points and it seemed to tell the Lady Vols something – you can get close, but you won’t win.

Stat of the game: The Volunteers had 19 turnovers. USC scored 16 points off them.

FROM THE BASELINE

Looks be a lady: Back during the A’ja Wilson Recruiting Watch, a guy showed me a picture taken during Wilson’s trip to Tennessee. It was Wilson clad in a Lady Vols uniform with that smile of hers seeming wider by the pixel.

The guy mentioned, “She REALLY liked the way she looked in that uniform.”

I’m sure the Vols are wishing she liked it just a bit more.

The Ocho: USC’s eight-point bonanza in the first was its third eight-point quarter in a week. The Gamecocks would do well to make them their final ones of the season.

UP NEXT

Who: South Carolina vs. Georgia

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Colonial Life Arena

Follow on Twitter at @DCTheState

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SOUTH CAROLINA (24-1)

Cliney 1-4 0-0 2, Sessions 2-4 8-11 13, Wilson 8-15 9-11 25, Mitchell 4-12 3-4 12, Coates 0-1 0-2 0, Cuevas 0-4 2-2 2, Roy 3-7 0-0 8, Imovbioh 0-2 0-0 0, White 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-49 22-30 62.

TENNESSEE (15-10)

Graves 2-6 9-10 13, Carter 1-5 2-2 5, Cooper 2-6 0-0 4, Russell 2-8 1-4 5, Nared 1-3 0-0 2, Reynolds 1-4 0-0 2, Moore 2-3 0-0 4, DeShields 7-17 5-6 21, Dunbar 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 18-53 17-22 56.

3-Point Goals_South Carolina 4-13 (Roy 2-4, Sessions 1-2, Mitchell 1-5, Cuevas 0-1, Cliney 0-1), Tennessee 3-14 (DeShields 2-7, Carter 1-2, Graves 0-1, Cooper 0-1, Dunbar 0-1, Reynolds 0-2). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_South Carolina 30 (Coates 10), Tennessee 43 (Graves 10). Assists_South Carolina 10 (Roy 3), Tennessee 6 (Cooper, DeShields 2). Total Fouls_South Carolina 20, Tennessee 21. Technicals_South Carolina Bench, Tennessee Bench. Attendance_12,014.

THE NUMBER ONES

USC’s SEC champions (*SEC tournament, all others regular season):

Baseball: 2000, 2002, 2004*, 2011

Men’s basketball: 1997

Women’s basketball: 2014, 2015, 2015*, 2016

Women’s golf: 2002*

Women’s soccer: 2009*, 2011

Equestrian: 2013, 2014

Women’s outdoor track and field: 2002, 2005

Softball: 1997, 1997*, 2000*

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