On a day where a trio of Lady Vols were celebrated, freshman Rennia Davis shined the brightest.
Following a rough first half on the offensive end of the floor, Davis sparked No. 15 Tennessee to a 22-4 run to begin the second half on its way to a 65-46 upset win over No. 7 South Carolina.
“Rennia (Davis) had a great game,” Lady Vols head coach Holly Warlick said following the game. “She is just so solid right now. She does things to get her easy looks. She gets position. She had 10 rebounds and five on the offense boards which allowed her to score.”
The Florida native chipped in nine points in the third quarter alone to spark her team on the offensive and defensive end of the floor. Davis drilled a deep three-pointer from the corner as time expired to cap an explosive third quarter from the Lady Vols (23-6, 11-5 SEC) in which they out-scored South Carolina 29-9.
“We didn’t even run the play right,” Davis said after the big win. “I was just happy the shot went in, really. I just think it was a spark for us along with the defense. I think we started hitting shots in the third quarter. Obviously, that was a big shot for us.”
Davis would go on to finish with 18 points and 10 rebounds, recording her eighth double-double of the season. She now sits sixth on the list for most double-doubles recorded by a Lady Vol freshman.
Along with Davis’ nine first half points, senior Mercedes Russell helped carry Tennessee in opening half to keep the Gamecocks (23-6, 12-4 SEC) within reach.
With her mom in Knoxville for the first time to watch her play, Russell scored eight points on 3-of-6 shooting from the floor in the first half on her way to her 14th double-double of the season. Russell, a native of Oregon, finished with 16 points and 12 boards on the afternoon.
“It was awesome,” Russell said of her mother being in the stands. “Obviously, a lot of emotion just being the last home game as a senior in the SEC. Hopefully we get to host in the NCAA (tournament). She was excited, obviously very emotional like I said, but really happy.”
Defense wasn’t the problem in the first for the Lady Vols, as they were able to hold South Carolina to just a 26-21 halftime lead despite shooting 27 percent and turning the basketball over 10 times.
Strong defense play continued over into the second half, which led to good looks on the offensive end that allowed Tennessee to shoot 65 percent in the third quarter.
“We made some adjustments and attacked the basket; that’s what we did, and our defense got going,” Warlick said. “Our players love to press. I don’t have to beg them to press.”
If you look at the stat line, Jaime Nared – the other piece to the dynamic senior duo with Russell – didn’t have greatest of games. But according to Warlick, Nared’s impact was felt far beyond the stat sheet.
“Her (Nared) presence on the press, it’s just awesome,” Warlick said of Nared. “That got the momentum to go our way, just by her presence on the ball.”
Nared’s defensive presence allowed Tennessee to start the second half on a 14-0 run that ultimately grew into a 22-4 run, thanks to five South Carolina third quarter turnovers.
“Live ball turnovers and rebounding,” Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley said when asked if turnovers were the biggest issue for South Carolina in the third quarter. “They just out-hustled us.”
South Carolina was without All-American and two-time SEC Player of the Year, A’ja Wilson, who missed Sunday afternoon’s game due to vertigo. It was the second straight game against Tennessee in which Wilson did not play due to injury. Wilson missed the Jan. 14 game in Columbia against the Lady Vols due to injury, a game in which Tennessee won 86-70.
As for now, the Gamecocks are in wait-and-see mode as to if Wilson will play in the SEC Tournament.
“I’ll be on bended knees, hoping that she will be back Friday,” Staley said when asked about when Wilson is expected to be back. “I don’t know. I think, first and foremost, is her health and making sure that she is healthy. We are going to take it day-by-day.”
South Carolina kicks off its SEC Tournament run Friday evening, in what could be its third game against the Lady Vols this season. Tennessee who is a No. 7 seed in the tournament, will face ten-seed Auburn on Thursday night at 7 p.m. ET. The winner would face the Gamecocks the next day.
“I hope we get to play them (South Carolina),” Warlick said when asked on the possibility of playing the Gamecocks in the SEC Tournament. “Auburn is who we are looking at (first). We’ve, at time, struggled with Auburn.
“They (Auburn) press. We press too, so it could be an up-and-down, fun game to watch, or it could be two teams struggling to get it past half court.”
Davis, who will be playing in the tournament for the first time, is excited to prove not only herself, but her team’s worth with the NCAA Tournament right around the corner.
“When we’re getting defensive stops, and we’re running in transition, we’re one of the better teams in the SEC,” Davis said. “When we sag off and play casual on defense, it’s not as good for us. Going into the tournament, I think for us, we just gotta stay defensive minded as a team.”
Edited by Seth Raborn
Feature image courtesy of Tennessee Athletics