Tennessee’s dominance of South Carolina continued with a 73-53 victory over the Gamecocks (12-2, 0-1) on Thursday at the Colonial Life Arena. Winners of 18 out of 19 games in Columbia entering the night, the Volunteers controlled the second half en route to a conference-opening win.
Four minutes into the second half, head coach Dawn Staley watched her team jump out to a one-point lead but the game quickly spiraled out of control. The Vols went on a 28-2 run over an 11-minute stretch to send the Gamecocks to a loss in the first game of Southeastern Conference play.
The Tennessee zone defense, coupled with easy points on the opposite end, translated into a forgettable second half for Staley’s bunch.
“We just couldn’t get any buckets to go,” Staley said. “I thought we took good shots. We took shots in the paint and couldn’t finish. If we could finish those shots and keep it closer, we have a different ball game. Tennessee makes you pay for it in transition.”
The Vols, which led the all-time series coming into the game by a 43-2 margin, held onto a multi-possession lead for a lot of the first half but the Gamecocks were able to make a run. Guard Ieasia Walker made a layup in transition to cap a 6-0 run to put her team on top 19-18 with just over nine minutes left in the first half.
The first half was a game of runs as Tennessee countered with a 6-0 run to reinstate its five-point lead. South Carolina’s 7-2 run leveled the score at 26 apiece with 2:51 remaining in the first half.
Despite the fact that South Carolina had not beaten Tennessee in Columbia since 1980, the Gamecocks were hanging tough with the No. 12 team in the country.
“It was a tale of two halves. I was really concerned about coming in here playing South Carolina,” Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick, in her first game as a head coach in the SEC, said. “They’re a hard-nosed, tough team. I was concerned at halftime about their offensive rebounding so we had a good talk at half. They responded and I’m proud of our effort here against a very good South Carolina team.”
The visitors hit 54.5 percent of their shots from the field in the first half and the Gamecocks were just 12-of-31 for 39 percent shooting but Tennessee only led by a point at the break. Forward Ashley Bruner led South Carolina with 10 points in the first half on 3-of-7 shooting while also knocking down all four shots from the free throw line.
South Carolina jumped out to an early lead in the second half but it didn’t take Tennessee long to respond. The Volunteers switched to a zone defense and stymied the Gamecocks from the floor.
“They were just being big,” Walker said. “They were using their length and forcing us to shoot the outside shot. This wasn’t our night; we were off.”
Walker hit a fastbreak jump shot to give the Gamecocks a 40-39 edge with 16:17 remaining in the game but that was the last time the home team would sniff the lead. UT guard Taber Spani spurred the run with 12 points. She put her team on top 69-45 after nailing a jump shot with 4:07 remaining in the game.
The Gamecocks were unable to make any sort of second half run and started the SEC season on the wrong foot dropping the first of 16 conference games.
“It brought our confidence down,” Walker said. “We were reluctant to shoot open shots. It’s a game of runs and momentum was all on their side the second half. We had to find a way to get buckets.”
Guard bTiffany Mitchell[/b] led South Carolina with 14 points on the night. After posting 10 points in the first half, Bruner had just two in the second half of play. Walker finished the game as the third double-digit scorer with 10 points. Walker and guard Sancheon White both grabbed a team-high seven rebounds.
For the Vols, post player Isabelle Harrison had a career night. She tied her career high with 18 points and set new career highs in rebounds (14) and blocks (7). Taber scored 18 points, which tied Harrison for a game high.
“We lost the game,” Staley said. “It was one game. The bottom didn’t fall out.”
South Carolina will travel to Starkville, Miss. on Sunday to take on Mississippi State at 1:30 p.m. EDT. The next home game for the Gamecocks is Thursday, January 10 at 7 p.m. against Vanderbilt.