football Edit

WBB: Carolina topples Tennessee

No. 2 South Carolina defeated No.6 Tennessee 71-66 in a thriller Monday night. Aleighsa Welch led the Gamecocks with 19 points and 14 rebounds.
It was the game of the year in the SEC. The two teams everyone expected to battle for the conference crown, both undefeated in league play, Top 6 in the nation, fighting it out for conference supremacy. And boy did it deliver.
South Carolina never trailed, and took a slim 36-33 into halftime. It looked like South Carolina had taken control when it went on a 12-5 run midway through the second half. Welch scored six points during the run, Tiffany Mitchell had four, and A'ja Wilson capped the run with a layup after she got a block on the defensive end. The run put South Carolina up 56-45, with the 11-point lead, the largest of the game.
Tennessee battled back, but Alaina Coates scored five straight points to give the Gamecocks a 10-point lead with 5:03 left in the game. Holly Warlick called a timeout, and the momentum shifted entirely to the Lady Vols. The Gamecocks started trying to milk the shot clock, and shots stopped falling.
"We continued to fight, and that's Lady Vol basketball," Cierra Burdick said. "We're not going to lay down."
The low point for South Carolina came with 1:38 left when Mitchell drove the baseline, got an open look at the rim, and her easy layup rolled out of the rim. As Mitchell hung her head, Bashaara Graves made two free throws to pull Tennessee within three points.
Staley called a timeout, but on the next possession Coates and Mitchell both missed the front end of a one-and-one. Graves drove through the defense for layup, and it was a one-point game with 22 seconds left.
Tennessee fouled Mitchell on the inbounds and she walked slowly to the line. The crowd murmured nervously, but she sank both free throws to put South Carolina back up three.
The Lady Vols called their final timeout with 13.5 seconds left. The play called was designed to set up a three, but the Gamecocks sniffed that out. Then Burdick saw Andraya Carter open cutting along the baseline. The pass was good, but Carter stepped on the baseline before she could put up a shot.
There were still eight seconds left, and Tennessee fouled Asia Dozier on the inbounds pass. Dozier, who had attempted just six free throws all season, calmly sank both free throws to secure the win. Dozier also grabbed the rebound on Tennessee's final desperation shot attempt. She finished with seven points and three rebounds, the type of quiet but reliable performance Staley expects of her.
Welch scored a season-high 19 points, and was dominant on the glass, tying her season-high with 14 rebounds. Mitchell added 16 points and seven rebounds, and Coates had seven points and six rebounds off the bench.
Elem Ibiam carved up Tennessee in the first half. She scored 12 points and grabbed five rebounds and was virtually unstoppable. But she went scoreless with three rebounds in just five minutes in the second half, a victim of her own aggressive play.
"We talk about exhausting our opponent's post players," Staley said. "But El exhausted herself in the first half."
Befitting the final score, the game was statistically even in nearly every category except one. And that one was the killer. South Carolina simply dominated Tennessee inside, taking advantage of the absence of Tennessee's injured center Isabelle Harrison. South Carolina had a 44-30 edge in points in the paint, but more importantly, a 21-8 edge in second chance points. South Carolina outrebounded Tennessee 46-33 and grabbed 21 offensive rebounds.
"Rebounding was our demise tonight," Warlick said. "We talked about the first shot's not going to hurt you. It's the second and third shot. And that's what happened."
Graves led Tennessee with 20 points, also adding seven rebounds. She and Burdick, who scored 16 and grabbed 10 boards, made key shot after key shot to keep Tennessee in the game in the second half.
South Carolina did not get the sellout crowd it had hoped for, but with a 9 pm tip on a Monday night, that was always a long shot. But the crowd of 14,390 made its presence felt throughout. In the second half, the fans would roar to life every time the Gamecocks were on defense, and then go totally silent on offense, seemingly exhausted from trying to will their Gamecocks to victory.
"If this game was not played in Colonial Life Arena we would not be sitting here as the victors," Staley said. "I'm just happy the game was played here. I can't say it enough about the crowd and how supportive they've been. They find a way to help us."
"Our fans were unbelievable," Welch agreed. "That game could have went either way if we didn't have the fans and the support that we had."
The atmosphere made an impact on Tennessee as well.
"It's a credit to women's basketball," Burdick said. "We're making great strides in how we play, the way we play, and credit to these fans because they're committed to this program. This was a fun environment to play in. This is why you sign that National Letter of Intent to play for the University of Tennessee or South Carolina."
For the Gamecocks, the win meant more than just one game. It was a win for the history books. It was the first time they had beaten Tennessee at Colonial Life Arena, the second time in Columbia, and the third time ever. Staley, Welch, and Ibiam can now lay claim to two of those victories.
"At the end it was a sigh of relief," Welch said. "You've played this hard, you've exerted this much energy and it resulted in a win. I've had a lot of games where you played that hard and it didn't come out with a win."
It was the type of game that, in years to come, may be looked back on as a turning point in the women's basketball hierarchy. Granted, Tennessee was missing it's best player, but South Carolina was bigger, stronger, and deeper than Tennessee. This was no upset. It was two elite teams going toe-to-toe.
One of the enduring images from the game is sure to be Mitchell cramping at the end. She began to suffer cramps in her left leg on defense on Tennessee's last turnover. She refused to go to the bench, and stayed in the game for the final two possessions. As soon as the game ended she collapsed on the court. Khadijah Sessions and Coates tried to help her up, but Mitchell couldn't stand even with their help. So Coates picked Mitchell up and carried her piggyback to the bench to celebrate with her teammates.
Carter and Jordan Reynolds each added 10 points for Tennessee, who essentially played only six players. ... Wilson had eight points off the bench. ... Bianca Cuevas had a miserable night. She went 0-6, despite none of her attempts coming outside the paint. She also had a rebound, an assist, and a steal. ... The score was tied three times, but Tennessee never took the lead. ... Dozier made the only three-pointer of the game for South Carolina. ... South Carolina returns to action Thursday night against Mississippi State. It is the final home game of the season.
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