(2) USC Holds Off (6) Tennessee for a 71-66 Win
COLUMBIA, S.C. – Led by senior Aleighsa Welch‘s 19 points and 14 rebounds, including nine on the offensive end, No. 2/2 South Carolina withstood a late run to remain unbeaten in conference play in a 71-66 slugfest against No. 6/6 Tennessee on Monday night at Colonial Life Arena. The Gamecocks (26-1, 14-0 SEC) captured their first win over the Lady Vols in Columbia since 1980 and their first in the series since a road win in 2012. Fast-paced from the tip, the teams settled into the marquee match-up. After a missed 3 on their first possession, the Gamecocks scored on their next four with Elem Ibiam getting things started with a turnaround on the block. Tiffany Mitchell snatched the defensive rebound on the other end and raced back to drain a pull-up jumper from the free throw line. Ibiam added another bucket in the post and after making a move on Bashaara Graves. Khadijah Sessions made the score 8-4 after Welch tipped a missed shot over to her for a layup. The lead ballooned to eight at 20-12 with 12:40 to play thanks to six unanswered points from Ibiam and Welch that forced a Tennessee timeout. The Lady Vols began to chip away, cutting the Gamecock lead to one at 24-23 with 6:57 on the clock after four straight points from Cierra Burdick. A few trips down the court later, Welch was on the other end of a Bianca Cuevas lob into the paint to break a nearly four-minute scoring drought, but with five minutes before the break, Ariel Massengale tied the game at 26-26 with a 3 from the right corner. Back on offense, Ibiam again went to work as the Gamecocks built a small cushion. The senior kept one possession alive with two offensive rebounds before finding the bucket. Mitchell grabbed a Tennessee miss and took it the length of the court, circling defenders in the lane before putting it up and in. Taking advantage of her size, Ibiam turned a miss into points on the next possession to push the score to 32-26 and force another Lady Vol timeout with 3:45 to play. Tennessee limited the Gamecocks to just two more baskets before halftime, and pulled back within three at 36-33 with an Andraya Carter layup on their final possession of the period. Out of the break, Massingale drained a 3 from the left wing to tie the game at 36-36, but Asia Dozier responded on the other end with a 3 of her own to put the Gamecocks back on top. Locked in on defense, the Gamecocks held Tennessee without a basket for almost four minutes and built the lead back to eight thanks to Welch, who seemed to be everywhere. Welch worked the offensive glass to deliver points out of a miss and drew the foul for a conventional three-point play. Welch cleaned up another miss two possessions later and found the basket yet again, this time with a jumper set up by Dozier to make the score 48-40 with 13 minutes to play. Burdick scored five quick points on a 3 and a layup, to keep the Lady Vols within striking distance. South Carolina answered again. First, Mitchell drained a long jumper, then, Sessions found Welch for another basket and Mitchell added an off-balance jumper. Wilson gave the Gamecocks a double-digit lead for the first time with a lunging layup to make the score 58-47 with 9:57 to go. Tennessee took the punch and came roaring back with eight, hard-fought points from Carter and Graves. During the stretch, Mitchell hit a pull-up jumper and Wilson netted a pair of free throws to keep the Gamecocks ahead, but Burdick again flexed her muscle scoring over Coates and draining a fall-away jumper to draw the Lady Vols within five at 57-62 with seven minutes remaining. Alaina Coates responded for the Gamecocks, hitting a jumper over Burdick, despite a foul, and finishing off the three-point play. Sessions went back to Coates the next trip down the court and the sophomore pushed the advantage back to 10 at 67-57, forcing another Tennessee timeout with 5:15 to play. The Lady Vols scored the game‘s next seven points on jumpers from Jordan Reynolds, Carter and a three-point play from Graves, pulling within three at 67-64 with just over a minute to play. Coates drew a foul, but missed the front end of a one-and-one. Welch was there to grab her ninth offensive rebound of the night to extend the possession. Tennessee put Mitchell on the line, but she missed the front end of her one-and-one, which Tennessee corralled. Graves brought the Lady Vols to within one with a contested layup with just 20 seconds to go. On the inbounds play, the Gamecocks found Mitchell. This time, the All-American hit them both for South Carolina‘s first points in five minutes to push the lead back out to three. Tennessee looked for Burdick under the basket, but Mitchell forced her out of bounds and Dozier was good on a pair of free throws to seal the 71-66 win. Welch‘s 19 points and 14 rebounds are both season highs and delivered the 21st double-double of her career. Mitchell added 16 points and seven rebounds while adding a team-high four assists in 38 minutes of play. Ibiam dominated early, scoring all 12 of her points in the first half. The senior grabbed eight boards, including five offensive. Sessions also posted a team-high four assists. GAMECHANGER After the Gamecocks missed the front end of two one-and-one opportunities that allowed the Lady Vols to close in at 67-66 with 20 seconds to play, Mitchell stepped to the line and drained a pair of free throws to extend the lead back out to three with 17 seconds to play. The points were the first in nearly five minutes for South Carolina. KEY STAT Led by Welch‘s 19 boards, the Gamecocks out-rebounded Tennessee 46-33. Welch was everywhere on the offensive glass, corralling nine and helping South Carolina to a 21-11 edge in offensive rebounding. The extended possessions led to a 21-8 advantage in second-chance points. NOTABLES “¢ Aleighsa Welch notched the 21st double-double of her career and her second of the season. She is now tied with teammate Alaina Coates in the program‘s all-time top 10 in the category. “¢ The Gamecocks had defeated Tennessee in Columbia just once before tonight (1980) and after a win on the road in Knoxville in 2012, now own three wins over the Lady Vols all-time. “¢ South Carolina has now won 14 SEC games for the second time in as many seasons and in school history. “¢ The teams combined for just 11 turnovers. “¢ The Gamecocks got just 15 points from the bench, matching a season low originally set in the season opener vs. Southern Cal and again vs. Kentucky. “¢ South Carolina snapped Tennessee‘s 20-game SEC win streak. The Lady Vols had not lost a conference game in over a calendar year. QUOTABLES South Carolina Head Coach Dawn Staley On the performance of Aleighsa Welch… It was one of her best games. I thought she came out with a certain focus and determination to not let us lose this game. She played like it every minute that she was on the floor and when she wasn’t on the floor she was cheering and willing our team to a victory. On takeaways from the game… We are a good basketball team. For us to continue to move toward where we want to go, you have to keep getting better. I learned that we had more in the tank to give and more room to get better. Obviously, after the UConn loss, I thought we really concentrated on certain things. For us to go out and get 21 offensive rebounds was key for us to win. Our players, led by Aleighsa Welch, wanted to win. UP NEXT The Gamecocks will honor their seniors prior to tipoff in the final regular-season home game of the season against No. 14/16 Mississippi State on Thu., Feb. 26, at 7 p.m. on FSN. Next, South Carolina travels to Kentucky for the regular-season finale on Sun., Mar. 1, on ESPN2 at 5 p.m.