This was never going to be easy. South Carolina had too much, did too much, and a severe offensive drought for the Tennessee Lady Vols did them in. The Gamecocks pulled down their first SEC Tournament Championship after a 62-46 win and are officially in a golden age for their program now. Hard-fought balls in the first half turned into delays in the second half as a worn-down Tennessee squad struggled to stay with the deeper Gamecocks, and South Carolina capitalized, turning what was a 4-8 point game in the second half into a score that looks like a blowout.
Kadijah Sessions, who averages just over 4 points per game and shoots sub-30% from beyond the arc, hit two threes early and finished on 12 points. Aleighsa Welch, Tiffany Mitchell, and A'Ja Wilson carried most of the rest of the offensive load, scoring 38 points combined.
For Tennessee, they looked as much out of gas as anything. Ariel Massengale struggled, the entire team--who go down as the best free throw shooting team in Lady Vol history--couldn't hit a free throw, and there was little-to-no offense in the second half. As good as the defense was, sub-30% shooting numbers in the second half will never win.
Tennessee--well, both teams probably--were helped by soaking clock on basically every possession, as both teams frequently didn't set up offense until 10-12 seconds had elapsed. South Carolina likes to play a little slower, which negated some of their bench advantages. Also negating their bench advantage: Jamie Nared, who has stepped up in the last few games. Nia Moore provided some good, tough minutes, not really showing up on the score sheet, but playing South Carolina's post game to a standstill. That alone deserves commending.
Something we haven't talked about much this season--or at all--is Tennessee's fast break defense. This might be one of the best fast break defenses I've seen, as this was the second straight day that the Lady Vols were able to get back on defense and limit easy points (most notably on a Jordan Reynolds sequence where the 5'9" point guard blocked 6'4" A'ja Wilson's shot and put it off of her for Tennessee ball).
Bashaara Graves picked up two fouls in the first five minutes on a touch call from Mark Zentz and a charge call from Tina Napier where a third help defender slid in and wasn't in position at the time of contact, and I'm leaving the refs' names in here intentionally. (I haven't had much issue with Napier this season, but that particular call was terrible.) Graves on two fouls sat her down for the rest of the first half and she struggled to find her rhythm in the second half. Tennessee did well in her absence to keep the game at a near-draw, trailing 29-26 at the break.
Congratulations to South Carolina, who notched two wins over Tennessee in the same year in what I assume is the first time ever in their history. The Gameoccks are deep, they're talented, and they have every right to think they'll make it to Tampa.
What's next? Selection Monday is in a couple of weeks and Tennessee is in the discussion for the last #1 seed. Based on what we know so far, Tennessee will close with the #1 RPI, #1 SOS, and a 10-5 record against the RPI top 50. Five losses is a lot for a 1 seed--Maryland at 31-2 at least looks like a nicer number--so if Tennessee can overcome the losses and lack of individual title against a Maryland squad that won both the B1G regular season and tournament titles, that'll be a good sign. Carolyn Peck, at least, is all in for Tennessee as the fourth #1 seed.
In the meantime, Tennessee gets a couple of weeks to get back to full health, get a few practices in, await to see who shows up in their mini-regional, and then see if they'll get shipped out to Spokane (good!) or stay on the East Coast (bad!).