Thunderdome: Lady Vols 73, South Carolina 61

Because I can't use a picture of Thunderdome. - Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

South Carolina locked up the SEC regular season crown on Thursday. They never led in their only game against Tennessee.

Enter Thunderdome at your own peril. As we were hoping in the preview, the refs let both South Carolina and Tennessee play. The end result: the Lady Vols' best game of the season, a dominating wire-to-wire win over a South Carolina team ranked in the top 5 and on the inside track for a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Today was Tennessee's first win over a top-five team since 2010 and Holly Warlick's first win over an elite team. Incidentally, the same story goes for Meighan Simmons, who had a ....decent? day. The stat line doesn't do her a lot of credit - 7/16, 0/3 from beyond the arc, 16 points, 3 assists - but she opened up trying a bit too hard before settling in a little bit late into the second half. Today was a lot of missed bunnies, though; I don't have too many problems with her shot selection.

Oddly enough - or not, given, you know, THUNDERDOME - the player of the game was Isabelle Harrison and it wasn't even close. 20 points and 15 boards on 9/11 shooting. Harrison's always been capable of throwing up lines like this, but for some reason - whether her own head, foul trouble, or some other external factors - it doesn't happen as often as we'd like. Today, with the entire focus inside the paint, Harrison thrived, scoring 10 of the first 12 points and entering the "we know where you are at all times" group.

Still, you don't beat a top-5 team wire-to-wire without a plus team effort, and Harrison, Simmons, and Andraya Carter did enough to counteract some bad shooting performances from Cierra Burdick (1/11, stuck in midrange hell because of all the paint traffic), Jasmine Jones (I mean ....well, yeah), and Mercedes Russell (1/3, but not really needed; THUNDERDOME is trouble for a true freshman in her first year in a weight program).

How much was the game over? South Carolina started fouling with three minutes to go and Nia Moore got into the game. Sadly, she didn't enter Club Tril (one board, one foul), but ...I mean, there are worse fates.

Tennessee closes the regular season on a 10-1 run and locks down the 2 seed for the SEC Tournament, on the same side as Texas A&M and opposite South Carolina and Kentucky. I can only hope we get this game again next Sunday, because this game was a lot of fun. If you didn't get a chance to watch it, go watch it. ESPN3 archives games. No excuse.

Other bullet points:

  • Yeah, Ariel Massengale didn't play but did take warmups. Hopefully we'll see her on Friday.
  • It's tough to assess Carter's job in Massengale's absence, but she's done well. Common wisdom was - or should've been - that she was capable of this, but she was going to struggle for PT this year unless, well, something like this happened. Massengale's still an improvement, but there's much less of a dropoff between Carter and Massengale than anyone would've thought in December.
  • Bashaara Graves' sophomore slump continued: 7 points on 3/8, 7 boards. And yes, she's so talented that 7/7 is a slump. I'm starting to think that we need to consider post play in total because Graves is going to have games like this if Harrison goes off; even fi there's a logjam in the post there's only so much space. The same mostly applies to Russell, who did decently covering in defense but will enjoy this game a lot more next year.
  • South Carolina has one of the best post games in the country. Tennessee outrebounded South Carolina by 12 and only one player - Alaina Coates - averaged more than a point per shot. This is included in case anyone forgot how good Tennessee's post game can be. They also did this to Texas A&M. Post games shouldn't scare this team; I don't know who can hang with this post game.
  • Tennessee went 29-69 from the field, rebounded 12 misses (30%), and had 14 assists (48%). Equally importantly: 7 turnovers on the game. In the biggest game of the SEC season, Tennessee threw up a 2 A/TO. How on earth.
  • This absolutely helps Tennessee's seeding for the NCAA Tournament. Pretty much only a Friday exit will dump Tennessee to the 3 line at this point (what up, Baylor and Duke losses); the odds of jumping to the 1 are slim (unless Louisville and Stanford both skid out hard) but where the 2 seed ends up would make a bit of a difference. This also by proxy puts this team's ceiling right in that Elite Eight-ish range, which was kind of where we were looking at the beginning of the season.
Next game is on Friday. In the meantime, we'll have previews up leading into the tournament. In the secondary meantime, go watch this game again.
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