KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – At the beginning of the season, the Tennessee Lady Volunteers said they wanted to win a championship in honor of coach Pat Summitt. Instead, they're just finding new ways to frustrate her and the rest of their coaches.
"We knew what they could do. We just were flat, and I don't have an answer for it. I don't have an answer for it," associate head coach Holly Warlick said, shaking her head.
Tennessee (16-6, 7-2) boasts the toughest schedule in the nation this season but has been flat against many of the stronger opponents it has faced in the first season since Summitt announced she'd been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.
Already this season, the Lady Vols ended their two-year SEC winning streak with a loss at Kentucky. They suffered their second-worst margin of defeat and logged their lowest point total ever in a loss at Notre Dame.
Tennessee hadn't dropped a SEC game at home since a loss to LSU on Feb. 14, 2008, and hadn't lost to South Carolina since a 56-52 victory on Jan. 23, 1980, when Warlick was a point guard for Tennessee. The Lady Vols had won 40 straight meetings since then, the second longest streak by one team over another.
"I'm just glad our players got a chance to experience this experience, knowing the tradition of Tennessee," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "By far, this is the biggest win of my career."
During the team shootaround on Thursday, Staley, South Carolina assistant coach and former Lady Vol Nikki McCray and the rest of the Gamecocks presented to Summitt's son Tyler a $20,000 check to the Alzheimer's Association in honor of the Hall of Fame coach.
The Gamecocks (18-5, 7-3) were down 60-55, when Ashley Bruner hit a layup with 3:18 to play. The basket launched a 9-0 South Carolina run to close out the game, and Ieasia Walker hit the go-ahead layup with 2:15 to play.
The Lady Vols had led 57-50 with 5:02 to play in the back-and-forth game, but a layup by Walker and a 3-pointer by Grant, one of seven by the senior, fired up the Gamecocks bench. Tennessee remained flat the rest of the way and missed five shots during South Carolina's game-ending run.
In the final three minutes, the Gamecocks forced a turnover by point guard Ariel Massengale and tied the ball up twice. South Carolina gained possession on the second jumpball, preventing Tennessee a chance at a game-tying shot with 47 seconds left to play.
"I really can't put it into words because I don't think it has hit me yet," Sutton said. "I'm really happy for our team, coach Staley, our coaching staff for preparing us and just every player who ever put on a Gamecock uniform."
Tennessee outshot South Carolina 41.4 percent to 39.4 percent and held a 44-36 advantage in rebounding but had little answer for the Gamecocks guards. La'Keisha Sutton added 12 points, and Walker had 11.
Glory Johnson scored 13 points in 26 minutes for Tennessee, but foul trouble kept her from being the force in the paint the Lady Vols have come to rely on. Ariel Massengale scored 12 points, and Shekinna Stricklen grabbed 10 rebounds.
"We have the fan support. We have home-court advantage. We're sleeping in our own beds before the game. We're having a great pregame meal. We're completely prepared with the scouting report from our coaches, so this loss is on us. There are no excuses," Johnson said.
South Carolina has been laying the foundation for one of its strongest seasons ever. It now owns the program's best record since the 2001-02 season which saw the Gamecocks finish 20-3 and reach the NCAA regional finals.
The Gamecocks have managed the feat with the same kind of sharp focus on defense that has been the hallmark of so many Summitt-coached teams. They entered the game ranked second in the nation in limiting opponents to 47.5 points per game and top in the nation with 20.1 3-point shooting defense.
That defense frustrated the Lady Vols all over the floor. They struggled to get second-chance points, hit just one 3-pointer and turned the ball over 11 times.
"We didn't have an answer for them the last four minutes of the game. We didn't have an answer for their runs," Warlick said. "We continue to let star players put up big numbers against us, and that's been a focal point for us, but obviously it hasn't been good enough."