From the beginning of the game, it appeared South Carolina might snap the program's longest losing streak against #5 Tennessee. The Lady G's had the lead for nearly 37 minutes, and had most of the 7,123 fans anticipating the program's biggest win. However, in the end it was a familiar name with a W, as the Vols extended their winning streak to 38 in a 60-55 win Sunday afternoon in Columbia.
You couldn't have scripted a better start if you were a South Carolina fan. After a Kelsey Bone jumper inside the lane gave Carolina a 2-0 lead, the Gamecocks appeared to be ready to run away with it, literally. After a Jewel May block, Samone Kennedy got the ball, sprinted down court and found La'Keisha Sutton wide open in the corner for a 3-pointer. After a Shekinna Stricklen missed 3-pointer, Kennedy again got the ball in transition. Once again, she found Sutton wide open in the same spot and the Gamecocks had an 8-0 lead. After another Tennessee missed 3-pointer by Angie Bjorkland, Kennedy decided to take it herself and went in for an uncontested lay-up to give Carolina a 10-0 lead and forced Pat Summitt to call a timeout. Two possessions later, it was Valerie Nainima that drilled another 3-pointer to stretch the lead to 13-0.
"I thought we started off the game really hot," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said after the game. "We took shots that were there, and I think we played off the atmosphere very well."
From that point on, Tennessee slowly battled its way back. An Alyssia Brewer jumper finally got the Vols on the board 4 minutes into the game. After Charenee Stephens put the Gamecocks back up by 13, Bjorkland drained her first 3-pointer of the game to cut it to 10 and started a 23-11 Tennessee run to end the first half. The Vols had 2 opportunities at the end of the half to take the lead, but could not convert and the Gamecocks took a 26-25 lead at halftime.
Vol coach Pat Summitt was obviously not pleased with her team's start. "I was really disappointed in how we started the game. We've had some slow starts. We've also had some really fast starts. This team has got to make up their mind if they want to be a 40-minute team or not. That's the one thing that probably bothers me and our coaching staff the most."
In the second half, the teams came out of the locker rooms and went shot for shot for the first 7 minutes. With the Gamecocks leading 37-34, Nainima nailed a 3-pointer to give the Gamecocks a 6-point lead, their largest lead since 9 minutes left in the first half. Back-to-back baskets by Stricklen quickly put the Vols back to within 2. As was the case for most of the night, Carolina just seemed to have an answer for everything the Vols threw at them. A Nainima 3-pointer, followed by a Sutton lay-up gave the Gamecocks a 47-41 lead, with just under 10 minutes left in the game. Tennessee answered with a 7-0 run that culminated in a Brewer jumper inside the paint to give the Vols their first lead of the game, 48-47, with 7:53 left in the game.
At that point, it appeared like Carolina might have run out of gas. The energetic Gamecock crowd was in stunned silence and the silent Vol fans were suddenly very vocal. However, on the very next possession, Sutton drove the lane and threw up an acrobatic shot off the glass amidst Tennessee's trees to quickly give the Gamecocks the lead back. Bone followed that with a lay-up of her own, giving Carolina a 51-48 lead. After the teams traded baskets for several minutes, Kelley Cain gave the Vols their second lead of the game, 56-54, with less than two minutes left. The remaining 2 minutes will haunt Gamecock fans for a long time.
After a 30-second timeout, Staley drew up a play that left Nainima wide open in the corner for a 3-pointer. Her shot was a bit long, but Sutton was there for the offensive rebound and was fouled putting the ball back up. Sutton, who had made her only 2 free throws, missed both and Tennessee grabbed the rebound. After running the shot clock down, Stricklen missed a 3-pointer and Jewel May was fouled on the rebound and sent to the line for a one-and-one with 51 seconds remaining. May hit the first to cut it to 56-55, but missed the second and the Vols got the rebound. Again, after running the shot clock down, it was Bjorkland that ended up with the ball with Sutton defending. After going through a screen, Sutton was able to get a hand in Bjorkland's face, but Bjorkland knocked down the fade-away jumper to give Tennessee a 58-55 lead, it's largest of the game at that point. Staley again used a timeout after crossing half-court with 22 seconds to set up her last play of the game.
"It's a play we go over a lot in practice,” Staley said of the final play. It was something that we have gone over and I felt comfortable with [Lauren Falohun]. We were trying to get a 3-point look for Valerie."
Tennessee knew the ball was going to Nainima and had her covered tightly. In the process, it left Sutton (who was 3-3 from behind the arc) wide open in the corner for what would have been a game-tying 3-point attempt. Falohun never saw her and tried to force a pass to Nainima that was tipped and ended up in the hands of Tennessee's Kamiko Williams. Williams knocked down both free throws to give Tennessee the 60-55 win.
"We had run that play before in other games," Nainima said of the final play. "La'Keisha ended up getting open in the corner, but unfortunately [Falohun] didn't see that. The play was meant for me to get open for a 3. They [Tennessee] did a good job."
Staley, while never happy with "moral victories," believes there's a lot of good that came out of this along with the bad.
"I think the last three minutes we didn't get the shots that we needed," Staley said. "I thought we worked it a lot and tried to get it into people's hands. In the last minutes of the game, we needed to get it into the players' hands who are shooting and we didn't. The good thing is that the crowd was great. The players really got into the game plan and executed well. There were 37 strong minutes, but against a strong team like Tennessee, you need to play for 40 minutes.”
This is statistically the best team in our conference, and if we can clean up the last three minutes of the game, then we are going to win a lot of basketball games. We can learn from our mistakes and take that on the road to Auburn and Georgia."
The Gamecocks, now 11-10 (4-5 SEC) will travel to Auburn Thursday night in a rematch of Carolina's 63-49 win earlier this month. After Auburn, Carolina will travel to Athens to take on #8 Georgia next Sunday. The Gamecocks will need to win at least of those two games to keep alive any hope of an NCAA Tournament bid.