Davis and Russell shine on Senior Day, take down No. 7 South Carolina

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

Takeaways from No. 21 Tennessee’s win over South Carolina

After being out-worked in a loss to Missouri on Wednesday night, No. 21 Tennessee bounced back with an impressive road win over a tough South Carolina team Saturday evening. Lamonte Turner carried the Vols to the 70-63 win over the Gamecocks, while freshman Derrick Walker stepped up in a big way.

These are the biggest takeaways from Tennessee’s win over Frank Martin and South Carolina, as the Vols improved to 13-5 on the season and 4-3 in SEC play.

Lamonte Turner’s meal should be paid for all week.

Tennessee doesn’t beat South Carolina without the contributions of Lamonte Turner. The Alabama native was by far the best player on the court. Turner scored 25 points on 6-of-9 shooting and was 3-fo-3 from three, as well as a perfect 10-for-10 at the free throw line. Turner also hauled in an impressive six rebounds and assisted on two buckets.

With under 30 seconds remaining in the game and the game hanging in the balance, Turner drilled four free throws to seal the win. If Turner doesn’t make those free throws, there’s no telling what the outcome may have been.

Turner has struggled of late, speciallically on offense. Since the win over Georgia Tech nearly two months ago, the redshirt sophomore’s shot has been in a slump. On a night where Tennessee’s other primary guards were just 1-of-8 from the floor, Turner’s shot picked a great time to break out of its slump.

In college basketball, your primary ball-handlers have to produce. On Saturday, Turner did just that, turning the basketball over just twice in 32 minutes.

Derrick Walker steps up in a big way.

In Walker’s first six SEC games, the freshman out of Missouri scored a grand total of six points on five shots. Against South Carolina on Saturday, Walker scored a career-high 10 points on 5-of-5 shooting from the field in 25 minutes of play. Walker scored eight points in the first half alone, helping Turner carry the team in the midst of a defensive battle.

Walker’s productive minutes were as critical to the Vols success as anyone on the team against South Carolina. The production of Walker was able to mask early struggles from star forward Grant Williams, as well as Kyle Alexander’s lack of production.

Once the light bulb comes on for Walker and he figures out this college basketball thing, he’s going to be a problem for the rest of the SEC. During preseason camp, coaches thought Walker was good enough to start as a freshman. He’s starting to show why.

Tennessee doesn’t waver on the road.

Being a Frank Martin coached team is no small task no matter where the game is being played. To win it on the road in a hostile environment is even more impressive.

South Carolina fans flocked to Colonial Life Arena and packed the stands. The atmosphere was impressive and tough, but the Vols never wavered. It was one of the tougher crowds Tennessee has played in front of this season. South Carolina would punch Tennessee, but the Vols would punch right back.

In years past and even in losses to Arkansas and Missouri this season, the Vols haven’t punched back at all times. If the Vols can build off this, it’ll go a long way to reaching what they’re capable of reaching.

Yves Pons finally earns some minutes.

The highly-touted freshman out of France has struggled to find playing time this season in large part because of the learning curve he’s battling that other freshmen aren’t. That being that Pons doesn’t speak English very well.

We know about Pons’ athleticism, ridiculous dunks and impressive physique, but he’s struggled to adapt to college basketball to this point. However, due to improved play in practice over recent weeks and a lack of production on the wing of late, Pons received his opportunity to prove his worth against the Gamecocks.

It was a mixed bag of results for Pons. In 12 minutes, Pons scored two points, making his only attempt from the field with a thunderous dunk to show off his athleticism. On defense, he looked a tad bit out of place as he picked up three fouls, but that’s expected with freshman in the early stages of their career. He also hauled in two rebounds.

When Pons receives minutes, you can see glimpses of why many think he will be a special player at the collegiate level. Fans will have to be patient, but when the light comes on, Pons should be a big time playmaker for the Vols.

Edited by Seth Raborn

Feature image courtesy of South Carolina Athletics

No. 21 Tennessee picks up tough road win against South Carolina

After suffering a frustrating loss to Missouri in its last outing, No. 21 Tennessee (13-5, 4-3 SEC) traveled to South Carolina on Saturday evening and defeated the Gamecocks 70-63.

In the hard-fought win, Lamonte Turner led the way for the Vols, scoring 25 points, hauling in six rebounds and assisting on two buckets. In 32 minutes of play, the redshirt-sophomore turned it over just two times.

With the other primary guards struggling and just 1-of-8 from the floor, Turner picked up the slack. Turner was a perfect 10-for-10 from the free throw line, four of which came with the game on the line and under 30 seconds remaining. Saturday was the third time this season that Turner has come off the bench and scored at least 20 points.

Tennessee shot an impressive 58 percent from the field to start the game, but thanks to nine first half turnovers, it only led South Carolina 33-30 at halftime.

Along with Turner stepping up, freshman forward Derrick Walker stepped up as well. In the first half, Walker scored eight points on 4-of-4 shooting. He would finish a perfect 5-for-5 from the field for a career-high 10 points.

“When your name is called,” Walker said after the game. “You have to step up.”

“Derrick has responded this week, in terms of what we need to do,” Barnes said of Walker. “And his teammates have told him we need you. We need you to come in and play physical for us, be a guy that can help us with some possessions.”

South Carolina (12-7, 3-4 SEC) jumped out to an early lead, but Tennessee would take the lead and not relinquish it for almost 37 minutes of play.

The Gamecocks shot 36 percent from the field in the first half and struggled from the floor for most of the second half as well. However, South Carolina found success from beyond-the-arc to stay within striking distance in the second half.

The Gamecocks connected on six of their ten three-point attempts in the final 20 minutes of play. Due to Tennessee’s success in the paint though, the Vols were able to counter the Gamecocks success from distance. The Vols out-scored South Carolina 32-16 in the paint.

Tennessee was able to close out the win with strong defensive play. The Vols went on an 11-3 run – making six clutch free throws – as South Carolina shot just 1-of-11 from the floor during this stretch.

Justin Minaya and Wesley Myers led South Carolina, both finding success from three-point range and scoring 16 points. Tennessee was able to keep Chris Silva in check after his breakout performance against Kentucky earlier in the week. Silva committed four fouls and was held to just six points on 1-of-5 shooting.

For the Vols, Grant Williams scored 14 points. Admiral Schofield contributed 12 points, four rebounds and three assists.

After back-to-back road games, Tennessee will return home to face Vanderbilt on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET. The Vols will then travel to Ames, Iowa for the Big 12/SEC Challenge. They’ll take on Iowa State next Saturday at 4 p.m. ET.

Edited by Seth Raborn

Feature image courtesy of South Carolina  Athletics

No. 6 Lady Vols bounce back with win over No. 9 South Carolina

After a disappointing loss to No. 17 Texas A&M 79-76 in overtime on Thursday night, No. 6 Tennessee (16-1, 4-1 SEC) bounced back on Sunday afternoon, defeating No. 9 South Carolina 86-70 in Columbia.

Five different Lady Vols reached double-figures in scoring, as the Lady Vols bounced back from their first loss of the season with a win over the former national champions.

Once again, the Lady Vols veteran duo of Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared led the way in Colonial Life Arena. Russell tallied yet another double-double, scoring 16 points and hauling in 12 rebounds.

Nared added 21 points thanks to an impressive outing from the free throw line. The senior was 11-of-12 from the charity stripe while adding five rebounds and two assists.

Despite recent struggles, the Lady Vols freshmen trio of Evina Westbrook, Rennia Davis and Anastasia Hayes played vital roles in the Lady Vols second consecutive win in Columbia. The three combined to score 29 points in the final 20 minutes of play.

Westbrook shot 6-for-11 from the field to finish with 14 points. The former No. 2 overall player in the country added five assists, two blocks, two steals and three rebounds. Fellow point guard, Hayes, finished with 11 points, four rebounds and three assists. Davis would finish with 11 points as well – on 5-of-8 shooting – while hauling in five rebounds.

Tennessee swapped buckets with South Carolina to start the game, but thanks to a 14-4 run to finish the quarter, the Lady Vols led 21-14 at the end of one.

Lady Vols senior forward Kortney Dunbar sparked the team in the second quarter, knocking down a pair of 3’s within 26 seconds of checking in midway through the second quarter. The pair of buckets helped Tennessee build a 43-35 halftime lead.

On the afternoon, Tennessee shot 50 percent from three, knocking down six of its 12 attempts. Westbrook and Dunbar were a perfect 2-for-2 while Meme Jackson also drilled two three’s. The Lady Vols would shoot 56 percent from the field, their second-best outing on the season.

Tennessee dominated for much of the third quarter, as Westbrook led the way with seven points. Heading into the fourth quarter, the Lady Vols led the Gamecocks 68-57.

South Carolina was able to cut the lead to four with under six remaining. That would be all the Gamecocks could muster though, as a strong defensive effort from the Lady Vols allowed them to finish the game on a 16-4 run.

With star forward A’ja Wilson not playing due to injury, Tyasha Harris led the way for South Carolina (14-2, 3-2 SEC). Harris scored a game-high 28 points and added four assists. Alexis Jennings – sister of former star Tennessee wide receiver Jauan Jennings – finished with 12 points and seven rebounds.

The Lady Vols are now halfway through a brutal four-game stretch. After falling to No. 17 Texas A&M and No. 9 South Carolina, Tennessee will now travel to No. 2 Notre Dame on Thursday night before returning home to take on No. 4 Mississippi State next Sunday.

Tennessee and the Fighting Irish will tipoff at 7 p.m. on ESPN to conclude its three-game road trip.

Edited by Seth Raborn

Feature image courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

Previewing the South Carolina Gamecocks

This week the Tennessee Volunteers (3-2) take on the South Carolina Gamecocks (4-2). The Vols lost a close one last season at South Carolina, but Butch Jones hopes to gain some momentum in Neyland to get Tennessee back on track. Here are the key players for South Carolina and the main advantages they have on the Volunteers.

Quarterback

Starting quarterback Jake Bentley has thrown for 1,456 yards and 12 touchdowns so far this season, and showed a lot of confidence in his game last week against Arkansas. Last week’s game reinforced his starting position and leadership role on this South Carolina offense. Bentley was 16-for-31 with three touchdowns and no interceptions against Arkansas last week. The sophomore isn’t much of a runner with the ball, but the consistency in his throwing game is very strong and should be carefully examined by the Vols secondary and its coaches.

Running Back

The running game back room is shared by sophomore Rico Dowdle and redshirt sophomore Ty’son Williams. These two have contributed to South Carolina’s total offense by accumulating a combined three touchdowns and 468 yards on the season. That being said, their performance was not as strong as they would have liked it to be against the Arkansas defense last week. Dowdle only had 11 carries for 61 yards while Williams had 8 carries for 35 yards. However, Williams did score a receiving touchdown on a three yard pass in the end zone. These two have been known to make some quality catches, but their overall pass blocking skills behind the line have helped Bentley connect with his receivers and keep the offense moving.

Receivers and Tight ends

The receivers and tight ends have made a huge impact for the South Carolina offense this season, and hope to keep the momentum going against the Vols defense. The receiving core has amounted for 10 touchdowns this season and over 1,200 receiving yards. Some notable players are Bryan Edwards, Shi Smith and tight end Hayden Hurst. Edwards and Hurst had two of the touchdowns last week in their 48-22 win over the Razorbacks, so they will be looking to have another productive game to lead this offense. The injury that Deebo Samuel sustained was a bit of a shock after the loss to Kentucky, but head coach Will Muschamp is confident that the receivers will be just as effective.

Offensive Line

The offensive line has protected Bentley to the best of their ability all season, but they have been tested, giving up 16 sacks this season. The most notable mistakes were during their first game against North Carolina State and in the win over Arkansas, where they gave up a combined six sacks. This line is a very strong, experienced group of guys who have been improving week-to-week, but they need to be extra cautious of the Tennessee defense. Muschamp is happy to have these veterans protecting his quarterback, and believes they will continue to give this offense the push it needs to keep being successful.

Front seven

South Carolina’s defense is one the strongest in the SEC, and it shows with how many notable stats they have racked up this season. Linebackers T.J. Brunson, Skai Moore, and Bryson Allen-Williams have lead the defense with an impressive array of stats. Brunson leads the teams with 49 tackles, 28 unassisted and two fumble recoveries while Moore has 42 tackles, 27 unassisted, one sack and two interceptions. Allen-Williams has added 10 tackles, two sacks, and one interception. Along with these elite linebackers, the defensive line has made a huge impact this season as well. Senior Dante Sawyer and Sophomore D.J. Wonnum have a combined 47 tackles. Defensive coordinator Tarvaris Robinson was excited with how the defense performed last week, despite the 22 points that were given up to Arkansas.

Secondary

On top of a strong front seven, South Carolina’s secondary has been successful in high pressure situations. Defensive backs Chris Lammons and Rashad Fenton were productive during the offseason, and have already started to show their ability through the first six games. Lammons is an aggressive threat who has 37 total tackles this season, while Fenton has broken up passes on three separate occasions to go along with a fumble recovery. The only problem that has struck this defensive unit is their ability to stop offensive drives in the red zone. They hope to make the proper adjustments this week before they take on the Vols receiving corps.

Special Teams

Besides having a good defensive unit, the Gamecocks are also strong on special teams. Deebo Samuel had been an excellent asset on kickoff return with two touchdowns on the season, but of course his injury ended that. South Carolina is moving past this unfortunate loss and found the most suitable replacement in the receiver corps.

South Carolina’s punter Joseph Charlton has done well so far this season, averaging 49.5 yards per punt. Charlton has been able to place six punts inside the 20 yard line this season, which has allowed for South Carolina’s defense to capitalize on field position. This was proven last week when the Gamecock defense scored on three separate turnovers.

Featured image courtesy of UT Sports 

Edited by Seth Raborn

2016 SEC East Preview: South Carolina

South Carolina’s 2015 campaign featured many twists and turns, resulting in a season that was a far cry from the success they had experienced in the last decade.

The season began with its best win, a 17-13 neutral site victory over border rival North Carolina.  However, the Gamecocks went 2-9 to close the year with their only other wins coming against lowly UCF and Vanderbilt.

The 2015 Gamecocks had to deal with the mid-season retirement of legendary coach Steve Spurrier as well as a crushing 23-22 home loss to the Citadel.

Despite their poor record and losses to bad teams, South Carolina was competitive in most of their games and nearly pulled the upset of archrival and eventual national runner-up Clemson.

Strengths:

The strengths for this football team are few and far between, but there is promise in a few areas.

The value of Will Muschamp as a defensive mind is immense — despite his spotty track record as the head coach of the Florida Gators. South Carolina has struggled on defense for the past few seasons, and that should change under Muschamp.

Freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain could be a huge factor in how far South Carolina can go this season. He appears to be the future signal caller for the Gamecocks and his skill set looks like a perfect fit for the up-tempo scheme favored by new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.

Weaknesses:

This South Carolina team will face plenty of challenges and has significant weaknesses that it needs to overcome.

The Gamecocks lost their best playmaker from a year ago, Pharoh Cooper, a dynamic piece which made an impact in nearly every aspect of the game. Cooper was their leading receiver, one of the best kick returners in the country and even had the ability to line up in the backfield as a ball carrier. Replacing him is going to be nearly impossible.

South Carolina’s leading returning receiver, sophomore Deebo Samuel, only had 12 catches last season.  Finding a receiver in an unproven group of wideouts has to be the top priority for the new regime.

Finally, the Gamecocks’ defense has to improve, and the job didn’t get any easier when Skai Moore went down with season-ending neck surgery.  Moore was their most talented defensive player and Muschamp’s new squad does not feature anyone capable of replacing him.

Players to Watch:

QB Brandon McIlwain, Fr.- McIlwain finished as the last quarterback standing in Columbia this spring, literally. Incumbent starters Lorenzo Nunez and Perry Orth spent spring practice recovering from injuries.  McIlwain has high upside, but he is going to have to learn on the fly playing in the SEC.  South Carolina’s offense will take advantage of his athleticism, but he needs to show improvement as a passer.  It’s important that the team and fans stick by him in the “freshman” moments so he can properly learn how to develop in the nation’s premier conference.

RB David Williams, RS Jr.- Williams carried the ball only 83 times last season, but he should be the main workhorse in 2016. He has the size of a feature back, but has not yet shown the breakaway big-play speed that would complement the size and power he possesses.  The junior will also need his offensive line to open up holes, especially considering the stout defenses that the Gamecocks will face in 2016.

LB T.J. Holloman, RS Sr.- Skai Moore’s absence leaves a gaping hole at middle linebacker for South Carolina, and someone has to step up to try to replace him. Moore’s senior back-up, T.J. Holloman, is much larger, but he also is not nearly as athletic as Moore.  If Holloman starts in the middle for South Carolina, the Gamecocks have to be aware that teams may attack the less-athletic replacement.

Games to Watch:

Sept. 1 @ Vanderbilt- With wins at a premium for both teams, this season opener has higher stakes than most.  This game should be highly competitive and will provide a sense of what kind of season both teams will have.  Vanderbilt should have one of the best defenses in the conference, so stealing a win will not be easy for a team with offensive question marks like South Carolina.

Nov. 26 @ Clemson- As last year’s edition of this rivalry proved, nothing is a given when two teams that hate each other go head-to-head.  There is plenty of bad blood between these two teams and South Carolina would love nothing more than to spoil Clemson’s season.  Clemson may very well be undefeated (or at least in the College Football Playoff conversation) going into the final week of the regular season. The Gamecocks may not be bowl eligible, so they could treat this as their bowl game.

Season Prediction:

4-8

Losses: @ Vandy, @ Miss. St., @ Kentucky, vs Texas A&M, vs Tennessee, vs Mizzou, @ Florida, @Clemson

Edited by Jordan Dajani 

Featured image by Jason A G