WBB: SEC play begins with the standard

When: 9 p.m. today
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
TV: SportSouth
Tickets: Available at the box office
Tennessee's probable starters: G Ariel Massengale 5-6 So. (8.1 ppg, 2.5 rpg); G Meighan Simmons 5-9 Jr. (16.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg); F Cierra Burdick 6-2 So. (8.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg); F/C Bashaara Graves 6-2 Fr. (14.0 ppg, 8.8 rpg); C Isabelle Harrison 6-3 So. (10.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg)
South Carolina's probable starters: G Ieasia Walker 5-8 Sr. (8.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg); G Sancheon White 5-10 Sr. (5.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg); G Tiffany Mitchell 5-7 Fr. (11.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg); F Aleighsa Welch 6-0 So. (12.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg); F Ashley Bruner 6-0 Sr. (9.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg)
Notes: Each team begins SEC play. … Tennessee leads the series 43-2 but one of the Gamecocks' two wins came last year in Knoxville. The other was in 1980. … The first SEC opener in 38 years for Tennessee without coach Pat Summitt on the bench. … South Carolina is third in the country in scoring defense while the Lady Vols are first in the SEC in scoring. … Walker crossed the 200-steal mark in her last game and is just 55 points away from 1,000 for her career. … Welch has six double-doubles this year, the most in the league. … The first of six straight home-away SEC two-game swings for the Gamecocks. … Stanford beat each of tonight's teams, while Tennessee also lost to Baylor and Chattanooga. … USC is No. 15 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll.
Next game: USC tips off at Mississippi State at 3 p.m. on Sunday.
South Carolina felt like it left one on the floor in a four-point loss to then-No. 1 Stanford. The Gamecocks played well, they fought hard, but they lost - the time for moral victories, if there ever was one, was way past.
"We're here to win basketball games, not to come close, and not to say good game, but we fell short," coach Dawn Staley said. "Hopefully we get it done."
As agonizingly close as the game was, USC (12-1) wasn't hurt by the loss. The Gamecocks have risen steadily in the national polls, and loss or not, it wasn't going to determine the season. Besides, USC knew that with its conference slate, another chance to really let the nation know what it had in store was just around the corner, and those were the games that would determine SEC tournament seeding and just how good a situation could be gained in that other postseason tournament.
The first of those chances are here. Feel like the Gamecocks had enough to beat Stanford, and just couldn't quite find the big basket or stop?
Try it against Tennessee.
"We need it to kind of boost our SEC season the most," sophomore Aleighsa Welch said. "To have this win and to start it off right would be the greatest confidence-booster for us the rest of the SEC season."
The conference season begins tonight, with quite a doozy. The No. 12 Lady Volunteers (9-3) come to Columbia to take on the Gamecocks, a game that is only one notch in the conference schedule but may be a large step come March.
This is the only time the two meet in the regular season, due to the rotating schedule. It may come in handy as a tiebreaker later on, but for the immediate, both teams want to win for several reasons.
Tennessee, in its first year under coach Holly Warlick after the wildly successful reign of Pat Summitt, wants to prove that it can still win the same way it has for so long. The Lady Vols began the year with a shocking loss to Chattanooga, but their only others are to Baylor and Stanford. They, like everybody else in the league, don't want to be playing catch-up at any point in the race for the SEC title, because there are now two more teams to deal with and still only four first- and second-round byes in the conference tournament.
USC wants to win for tournament seeding and a whole lot more. "One, it's the start to SEC season," Staley said. "Two, it's a home game, where you do have to take care of home. Three, I think it would be a great win for our program, to win last year and to win this year, and I think it sets a tone for where we want to be, as far as in this league, and nationally."
That may be the key. Before last year, USC knew that it may play Tennessee close, but it was still Tennessee. There was a darned good reason why the Lady Vols led the all-time series 42-1.
But then the Gamecocks won 64-60, at Thompson-Boling Arena for the first time ever, and although UT returned the favor at the SEC tournament, it didn't diminish the significance. USC had won where it had never won. The monkey had disappeared.
What better time to play the Vols again, than with several players who were on the court that day, making history?
"I think it always helps when you know that you can beat somebody," Staley said. "I think it helps with your preparation, helps with your psyche, helps that we know that we did something that hasn't been done in a really long time. But we haven't done that (in Columbia) in 33 years."
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