The SEC regular season title race was neck and neck coming into Monday night’s match-up in Columbia. In the end, it was South Carolina who prevailed, beating the Lady Vols, 71-66. With the win, the Gamecocks now lead the conference as the regular season dwindles down before tournament time.
South Carolina (26-1, 14-0) held the lead all night, with Tennessee tying the game numerous times. The Lady Vols (23-4, 13-1) rallied with five minutes left in the game, going on a 9-0 scoring run to get within one point at 67-66. A foul on Jordan Reynolds would send Tiffany Mitchell to the line for the Gamecocks. After making both free throws, South Carolina would not let the Lady Vols make any strides in the remaining seconds. Asia Dozier sealed the deal with two more successful free throws on a Cierra Burdick foul, giving South Carolina the win.
With senior Isabelle Harrison out for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL, the big question coming into the game for the Lady Vols was who would step up and take the reigns for this squad against the number two team in the nation? The answer to that question came in the form of the 6’2″ junior forward, Bashaara Graves. Graves scored 20 points while recording seven rebounds and one assist. Coach Holly Warlick praised Graves for the work and improvement she has made since Harrison’s injury. “I think she’s worked on her game and extending her range and becoming a better free throw shooter,” Warlick said. “She’s going to have to step up and she knows it.”
Warlick also mentioned how she’s not putting all of the pressure on Graves’ shoulders to carry the team. In Harrison’s absence, it is going to take a collective effort to collect the points and rebounds that would be collected by a player who Warlick not only considers to be the best player the Lady Vols have, but one of the “best players in the country.”
In terms of scoring, the Lady Vols struggled – shooting 43 percent from the field and 23 percent from beyond the arc. The same can be said for the Gamecocks, who shot 43 percent from the field and only 12 percent from 3-point range.
Warlick mentioned that rebounding was the Lady Vols’ “demise” last night, and she was absolutely correct. South Carolina outrebounded Tennessee, 46-33. “We’re usually getting a lot more second chance points,” Warlick said, “but I thought, when we needed a bucket, it seemed like we came up with the ball on the offensive end.” The Lady Vols had 11 offensive rebounds and 22 on the defensive side.
For South Carolina, it was a big night for Aleighsa Welch, who scored a season-high 19 points while also racking up 14 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal and a block.
While this loss did snap a 20 game SEC win streak for the Lady Vols, Warlick still has a lot of hope for the team. “We’re in the game. It’s just a matter of having to get it done, and they’ll just have to go back to work.”
“They’re a close team, and they work their butts off. I’m excited for what we have down the road.”
The Lady Vols will head to Athens next to take on the Georgia Bulldogs on Thursday night. That game will be aired on the SEC Network with tip-off at 9 p.m.
Edited by Cody McClure