17-5 (6-3 SEC)
16-5 (7-1 SEC)
It's time to make the SEC a two-horse race.
As odd as it sounds, this is a must-win game for Tennessee. Not only do they need to keep within striking distance of Kentucky, but a loss opens the door for the Lady Vols to fall to third in the SEC by the end of the year. They only play South Carolina once, and an upset would leave a one-game difference. If Tennessee were to drop another (e.g. Kentucky), South Carolina would own the tiebreak if they win out. So while the odds are long for South Carolina, this game actually matters. If Tennessee wins, it's UT and Kentucky to the bitter end.
For those itching for the Kentucky rematch, this game should serve as a great omen. Last year, South Carolina struggled with a height problem in that they only had one 6-foot or above player (at about 6'-1"). The issue is better this year, but they are still very guard heavy, as the probable starting lineup indicates. The Lady Gamecocks love to run, press, and steal. They rotate constantly and have enough depth to take a lot of chances and absorb a lot of fouls. It's Kentucky on a less developed scale, and Tennessee has a chance to shut it down before the rematch.
South Carolina's rotation has some oddities. For example, Courtney Newton started all 20 games she played, but only averages 11.6 minutes per game. Meanwhile, perennial 6th man Aleighsa Welch has played all 22 games, never started, but is fifth on the team with 21.4 minutes per game (also ahead of starter Chareness Stephens). For that reason, it's not wise to read too much into the stats above. Dawn Staley balances her team to always have two or three scoring threats on the floor at a time, even if the starters are all resting. The concept is constant pressure, and to hope for a run against an opponent's bench (or against tired starters). So far, it's worked, and South Carolina is easily the most improved team in the conference.
South Carolina could easily have won several other games, including Penn State (55-50 at home), NC State (55-53 on the road), and even Kentucky (66-58 at home, but breaking late) with the only 'bad' loss against Auburn. They give good teams a run for their money, and for that reason the Lady Vols have to be prepared to take them seriously.
Ball control is key; if South Carolina can't get a lot of turnovers, they can't keep up. They average nearly 20 takeaways (forced and unforced) per game, and much of their scoring comes in transition. In the halfcourt, they do not have a strong interior presence and will struggle defending the post. They rebound better than expected because they crash guards to the rim after every shot, so Tennessee will have to box out aggressively and let their rebounders have room to operate.
All in all, Dawn Staley has done very well with a team that is traditionally terrible. They are contending for top four in the conference and the vital bye week in tournament play, and probably will make the NCAA tournament if they don't collapse. It's a team that can make a deep run if they avoid a #1 or #2 seed early on, and they should be fun to watch.
Tennessee is still far superior in terms of talent, and has the depth to keep up with (and even outlast) South Carolina. Glory Johnson will be completely unstoppable, and she has proven that we can expect her to bring it every night. With Taber Spani getting healthier, UT may finally have the three-point threat that can break zone or sagging man defenses. And if Shekinna has finally decided to play to her potential, then South Carolina is in deep trouble. Meighan Simmons has a great chance to earn some praise as well; while her speed is often a liability, she could potentially be the best pressure defender on the floor for Tennessee tonight. The Gamecocks rely on outrunning opponents, and nobody outruns Simmons (except for Simmons). If Meighan can keep composed on defense, she can prevent the drives that South Carolina must have if they wish to score from the half court.
On offense, Tennessee must get the ball inside. There's a reason that opponents only shoot threes about once every six shots against South Carolina: the weakness is the interior. Lob it to Glory, Vicki, and Elizabeth, and play inside out. South Carolina breaks down when they have to turn around.
Prediction: 75 - 63 Tennessee
BassWatch™: 10 minutes left in the first half. She's a good ball handler.