COLUMBIA, S.C. — Shekinna Stricklen had 18 points and a career-high 16 rebounds to help No. 5 Tennessee win its 39th straight over South Carolina, 71-56, on Thursday night.
The Lady Vols (18-2, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) haven’t lost to the Gamecocks since 1980 and didn’t look like they’d have much trouble in this one as they led 57-45 with 6:44 to go.
But South Carolina (10-9, 2-4) scored seven straight points to cut into Tennessee’s lead.
That’s when Meighan Simmons regained control for Tennessee with a pair of foul shots that started a closing 14-4 run. Simmons had 16 points, all in the second half.
Stricklen posted her sixth double-double of the season and third in four games.
Ieasia Walker had 24 points to lead South Carolina. She also had eight rebounds before fouling out in the final minutes.
Simmons missed her two shots in the first half as Tennessee struggled to get clear of the Gamecocks. When she finally got going, however, so did the Lady Vols. Simmons, who coach Pat Summitt calls the fastest player she’s ever had, scored 10 points as Tennessee opened a 54-42 lead midway through the second half.
And Simmons was there again after South Carolina’s final run, beating the defense into the lane and getting fouled to start Tennessee’s closing push.
Kelley Cain also had a double-double for the Lady Vols with 11 points and 11 rebounds.
Tennessee has had its way in the series for more than three decades since last losing to South Carolina nearly 31 years ago. But the Lady Vols got a huge walk up call here a year ago when the Gamecocks scored the game’s first 13 points and led for 35 minutes before Tennessee rallied to a 60-55 victory.
The margin was the closest in the series since 1990 and seemed to signal a new rival for the powerhouse Tennessee.
The offseason, though, was not kind to the Gamecocks, who saw SEC newcomer of the year in 6-foot-5 Kelsey Bone transfer to Texas A&M. More recently, the Gamecocks lost another highly regarded prospect in freshman Kayla Brewer to Texas.
Still, South Carolina threw all it could at the Lady Vols.
The Gamecocks led 12-4 as La’Keisha Sutton continually beat Tennessee’s players downcourt for easy buckets.
The Lady Vols’ size—they started four players 6-1 or taller; South Carolina has no one on the roster taller than that—gradually wore down the Gamecocks.
Tied 26-all with three minutes in the half, Tennessee closed with 7-0 run. Stricklen and Alicia Manning had close-in baskets and Angie Bjorklund hit a 3-pointer as time ran out for a 33-26 lead.
The Lady Vols outrebounded South Carolina 25-13 over the first 20 minutes.