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Top-ranked Gamecocks trash Tennessee, take stranglehold of SEC standings

South Carolina Tennessee Zia Cooke

Zia Cooke floated above Tennessee's defense on Sunday. Travis Bell/SIDELINE CAROLINA

COLUMBIA — It’s a constantly evolving process, although it hasn’t been a problem.

South Carolina’s the No. 1 team in the country, easily dispatched No. 22 Tennessee 69-48 for its seventh Top 25 win of the season Sunday and has a chokehold on the Southeastern Conference standings. A regular-season league championship and a No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament looks preordained.

But the Gamecocks didn’t get to this point by stopping to admire the flowers. Maybe they aren’t supposed to be here, or they have arrived earlier than expected.

Yet they are here.

“Obviously, we thought this was a really big game. We didn’t really pass that down to our players,” USC coach Dawn Staley said. “For us, you got to continue to jockey. There are teams in which one loss (to them), the picture looks a lot different than what it is today.”

That wasn’t happening Sunday. The Lady Vols (17-5, 7-2 SEC) were a game behind USC (21-1, 9-0) in the standings, but the Gamecocks took control of the conference with another dominant win.

The Gamecocks again unleashed their unmerciful defense, forcing 21 turnovers that led to 28 points, and were on Tennessee star Rennia Davis from the tip. Davis still got her averages, with 18 points and 10 rebounds, but she was 7-of-17 shooting from the floor and turned over the ball four times.

As they have all season, the Gamecocks ran right at the Vols, leaping to a 21-9 first-quarter lead and elevating it to a 15-point advantage at halftime. Even as Tennessee used a zone defense to limit USC’s post presence in the third quarter, once cutting the lead to nine points, the Gamecocks didn’t panic.

Senior point guard Ty Harris splashed a 3-pointer to break the skid, then Destanni Henderson rose off the bench for a 12-point spark. Staley has told Henderson she’s a starter that simply doesn’t start, but the sophomore hasn’t minded all season and surely didn’t mind on her birthday Sunday.

“Our coaches have been really pressuring us to disrupt the ball,” Henderson said. “I took that and tried to use it to my advantage.”

The Gamecocks re-elevated the lead and survived an injury scare to future freshman All-American Aliyah Boston, who left the court from a non-contact left leg injury and didn’t return. Staley said that Boston was fine, that if Sunday were the national championship game she probably would have come back in, which eased many minds going into another crucial game Thursday at Arkansas.

Freshman Zia Cooke scored 20 points, while Boston had 10. The Gamecocks were smaller than the Vols, but Tennessee had no answer for USC’s ability to weave through the trees.

“I saw their length, so we just tried to combat what gives length problems, and that’s speed,” Staley said. “And we had that.”

Bench strength

Without freshman center Laeticia Amihere, who’s again competing for Team Canada, the Gamecocks were thinner than normal but made up for it. As usual, the starting five staked a lead and subs such as Henderson and Victaria Saxton kept it.

Henderson added two assists and two steals to her totals while Saxton scored four points with four rebounds, three blocked shots and two steals.

On it

As she has all year, freshman Brea Beal asked for and received the assignment of guarding the opponent’s best player. She started against Davis.

Davis missed four of her first five shots, airballed her only 3-point attempt and turned it over once in the first 10 minutes.

Looking ahead

The Gamecocks tip off at No. 25 Arkansas at 8:30 p.m. Thursday.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.

From Rock Hill, S.C., David Cloninger covers Gamecock sports. He will not rest until he owns every great film and song ever recorded.

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