COLUMBIA, S.C. — After the 40 minutes of sloppy basketball and the media interviews, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt could finally smile when she started signing autographs.
Before that, it was scowls and icy stares as No. 5 Tennessee stumbled its way to a 60-55 win over South Carolina on Sunday, its 38th straight win over the Gamecocks.
The Lady Vols (19-1, 7-1 SEC) fell behind 13-0 and never led until 7:53 was left in the game. Their three best scorers—Angie Bjorklund, Glory Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen—combined for just 19 points, 22 below their combined average this season.
“This team has to make up its mind if it’s going to be a 40-minute team all the time,” said Summitt, whose team finally kicked in during the last five minutes of the game.
The Lady Vols trailed 54-52 before Kelley Cain got consecutive lay-ups to take a two-point lead with 1:57 to go.
The (11-10, 4-5) Gamecocks had their chances down the stretch. La’Keisha Sutton missed two free throws with 1:20 to go that could have tied it, and South Carolina would miss its final six shots and turn the ball over twice in the final four minutes, squandering the team’s best chance to beat the Lady Vols in 30 years.
“We don’t want to live on the edge like this,” Summitt said.
Freshman Kamiko Williams led SEC-leading Tennessee with a career-high 17 points. Alyssia Brewer added 13 and Cain had 10.
After watching her perimeter game struggle for the first 30 minutes, Summitt decided to go to the paint. Brewer’s short jumper gave the Lady Vols their first lead at 47-46, and Brewer would give Tennessee the lead again on a short jumper with 5:12 to go. Cain’s two lay-ups put her team up for good.
It looked like Colonial Life Arena would see its second epic upset in five days for much of Sunday. Tennessee has won every game over South Carolina since January 1980—the last 17 wins have been by at least 12 points. But the Gamecocks have already doubled their SEC win total from last year, and coach Dawn Staley insisted they had the talent to beat the Lady Vols.
The Gamecocks showed their confidence from the start. Sutton buried two open 3-pointers and Valerie Nainima added a 3 of her own as the Gamecocks stormed out to a 13-0 lead.
The Lady Vols then cranked up the defense, though, and the Gamecocks scored just five points in the final 10 minutes of the half to hold on to a 26-25 lead at halftime.
The game went back and forth for most of the second half, but South Carolina couldn’t get the big play at the end. Down by three, the Gamecocks threw away an inbound pass with 21.8 seconds to go. They made 7 of 16 3-pointers, but Nainima missed two 3s late that could have cut the deficit to two.
“We have a lot of young players who have never been in that position,” Staley said. “And sometimes when you can win a game like this, you start thinking instead of just reacting.”
Sutton led South Carolina with 19 points, while Nainima scored 16 and Kelsey Bone added 11.
Staley isn’t accustomed to losing to anyone. She turned Temple into a winner in her eight years at the school, and already has led the Gamecocks to one more win than last season’s 10-18 squad. She reminded her team of its 37-game losing streak against Tennessee during practice before the game, telling them that’s the kind of win that can reverse a program’s fortunes.
South Carolina has just two winning SEC seasons since joining the league in 1991.
“We were hoping to change that,” Sutton said. “We’ll probably see them on down the road in the SEC tournament.”
Summitt waited until she called her first time-out with her team down 10-0 to remind them of their dominance over South Carolina, Williams said, staring down her team and saying, “We don’t want to be the team who loses to them.”
And for the 38th time, she was right.