KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – South Carolina coach Dawn Staley has a few new lessons for her Southeastern Conference championship squad as it heads into the postseason.
She can thank Tennessee for providing the teaching points
Isabelle Harrison had 20 points and 15 rebounds Sunday as No. 10 Tennessee defeated No. 4 South Carolina 73-61 to snap the Gamecocks' 10-game winning streak in the regular-season finale for both teams.
Tennessee (24-5, 13-3 SEC) clinched the No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament that begins Wednesday at Duluth, Ga. South Carolina (26-3, 14-2) already had wrapped up its first SEC title Thursday with a 67-56 victory over Georgia.
"We will learn from this," Staley said. "This was an opportunity for our bigs to see something they haven't seen all year long. I told them we may have an opportunity to play Tennessee again in the near future, and we will make some adjustments to be ready. They won't be as efficient as they were in the first half."
Tennessee shot 50 percent (18 of 36) in the first half and never trailed all day. Although the Lady Vols cooled off in the second half, they hung on to the lead by playing solid defense and committing a season-low seven turnovers.
The Lady Vols' efficiency was largely due to Harrison, a 6-foot-3 junior with a history of success against South Carolina.
In Tennessee's 73-53 victory at South Carolina last season, Harrison shot 9 of 12 and had 18 points and 14 rebounds. She shot 9 of 11 against South Carolina on Sunday. In the first half alone, Harrison shot 7 of 8 and scored 14 points.
"She is definitely a physical player," South Carolina center Elem Ibiam said. "She was getting a lot of shots early. I wasn't (unprepared), but she is very physical and a good player."
Harrison's performance helped Tennessee end an eight-game losing streak against top-five opponents. The Lady Vols hadn't beaten a top-five team since an 82-72 overtime victory over No. 3 Stanford on Dec. 19, 2010.
"It really got us back to where we need to be and showed us how when we play hard, who we can defeat," Harrison said.
This scenario was similar to the end of last year's regular season.
After clinching the SEC regular-season title last year, Tennessee went on the road and lost to 2011-12 SEC champ and preseason conference favorite Kentucky in its regular-season finale. This year, Tennessee was the defending champion and preseason favorite that closed the regular season by beating the team that had just wrapped up the conference championship.
"It's huge for us," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "We talked a lot about seeding for the SEC tournament, talked a lot about seeding for the NCAA tournament. We thought it was really important for us to go out and make a statement. Obviously, I thought we did."
South Carolina was attempting to beat Tennessee in Knoxville for a second straight time. Tennessee instead extended its commanding lead in this series to 47-3, including a 21-1 edge at Knoxville. The Gamecocks had beaten Tennessee 64-60 in their last trip to Knoxville on Feb. 2, 2012, after losing their first 20 road games against the Lady Vols.
Meighan Simmons scored 16 points and Andraya Carter added 14 points for Tennessee, which has won 10 of its last 11 games. Aleighsa Welch had 16 points, Tiffany Mitchell scored 11 and Alaina Coates added 10 for South Carolina, which shot 38.5 percent (25 of 65) overall and went 1 of 8 from 3-point range.
"We're a lot more efficient basketball team than we displayed," Staley said. "Part of it is I thought the pace of the game was a lot quicker than we'd like to play. They forced us to play fast and probably take quicker shots than we normally take. I think Tennessee had a lot to do with it because they want to get up and down in transition. We just tried to keep up pace with them, but that's just really not our pace."
Tennessee grabbed a 38-30 halftime lead by getting good shots against a South Carolina team that won the SEC title by playing outstanding defense. South Carolina entered the day atop the SEC in field-goal percentage defense (.342) and blocked shots (205).
After making half its shots in the first half, Tennessee shot just 33.3 percent (11 of 33) after halftime. But the Lady Vols stayed in front because South Carolina couldn't get its offense going all day.
"''We just got beat by a good team on their court," Mitchell said. "We are just going to take this and turn around and be ready for the SEC tournament."