TV: ESPN2 and virtual ESPN2
Thing that plays radio when all you need are visuals: everything is terrible, even the ESPN thing that decides you really need to hear the audio when you already have audio
First, the good news: Tennessee has played an inspired 60 minutes since Isabelle Harrison's torn ACL, blowing Kentucky out across the second half of their game and then doing what they normally do to Alabama.
South Carolina is way better than both of these teams, and this game isn't in Knoxville. The Lady Vols will be faced with the best team they've played all season with the best interior players, and they're down their best interior player. They'll take a reduced bench (no Harrison, plus Jasmine Jones and Mercedes Russell are both done for the year) on the road against one of the deepest teams they've played all season.
Somehow, if they manage to win this game, they'll be in good shape for a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament and will, barring something weird happening in the last week of season, win the SEC regular season and secure the 1-seed into the SEC Tournament. Lose and it's twos all around: a 2-seed in the SEC Tournament, 2nd place in the SEC, and a likely 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
South Carolina represents the type of team Tennessee's going to have to beat in order to make the Final Four this year, and while neutral site games aren't quite neutral site games thanks to Tennessee fans traveling well, it isn't Knoxville. Going into Columbia and coming out with a win will be the toughest thing they've done all year.
If it's going to happen, this is how:
- Nia Moore plays the game of her life. Moore stands a good chance of being physically pushed around in this game-she's a lot of things, but an interior boss isn't on that list-but she can block shots and score a little bit. I suspect some of the block totals are from defenders going at her so it's a function of opportunity, but six blocks against any team isn't anything to neglect.
- Pace: excruciating. WBBState has been our go-to site for stats the last couple of years; one of their box score indicators is a descriptor of the game's pace. Contain your shock, but Tennessee has typically shown up in the "slow" category in most games. They'll have to do one better here, dragging out possessions and limiting South Carolina's offensive possessions (strong, but not at Notre Dame's level). Forcing turnovers and limiting offensive fouls will help.
- Find an extra 15 points from somewhere. We already covered Moore above, but this doesn't happen without everyone. Ariel Massengale has stepped up, but it'll take more than just her this game. Whether that means Cierra Burdick turns in a 20+ point game, Bashaara Graves gets 16 points on six shots-seriously, her game-by-game points per weighted shot has some hilarious entries in it-Andraya Carter finds her shot, or the rest of the bench chips in 10+, someone will need to step up and surprise.
- Ball denial. Graves is a decent defender and Burdick's fine, but South Carolina's interior game might be the best in the nation. (With a fully healthy interior, Tennessee would be in that conversation and this game is much different.) A'ja Wilson has been a revelation, Alaina Coates is a plus scorer, and Aleighsa Welch has been effective against mismatches. I have no idea how Tennessee's going to keep them all off the scoreboard, but an easier-said-than-done way to do that is to not let them get the ball in the first place. That looks like denial of entry passes and controlling the defensive glass. Tennessee is okay at the former and fine enough with the latter, but again: adjust expectations accordingly.
PREDICTION: 74-66 South Carolina. Tennessee stays close, but what looks like a one-to-two possession game during most of the evening gets a bit expanded thanks to late free throws. Hooper's going with 69-58 South Carolina.
MORE TIME FOR MOORE: 17 minutes, and somehow she'll need to toss up a 9-point, 5 board, 3 block performance in there. No pressure.
ODDS ESPN SPENDS HALF THE GAME TALKING ABOUT SOUTH CAROLINA-UCONN: Waaaaaay over 80%.
ODDS ESPN SHOWS HARRISON'S INJURY: Close to 100%, and DO NOT WATCH IT AGAIN. Seriously.