For USC, victory over Tennessee sets stage for more

Goose Creek native Aleighsa Welch and No. 2 South Carolina can clinch at least a tie for the SEC title Thursday night against No. 11 Mississippi State. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)

COLUMBIA — The final buzzer brought a sigh of relief, understandable given how a once-secure lead had been alarmingly reduced to free throws and a last-gasp possession. But after the hugs and the handshakes and the congratulations from the crowd of over 14,000 at Colonial Life Arena, Aleighsa Welch was at last able to let the gratification sink in.

With good reason. South Carolina’s women’s basketball team has just three victories in its history against Tennessee — and the senior from Goose Creek has now been a part of two of them.

“To be able to have one win my senior year and one win my freshman year, it’s a big deal,” Welch said after scoring a season-high 19. “It’s just adding to things I can check off my bucket list since I’ve been here. It’s been a great ride as far as the things we’ve been able to accomplish. It’s not over yet, but when you do get a win over a great Tennessee program like that, it means a lot.”

No question, Monday’s 71-66 victory over No. 6 Tennessee was a watershed moment for second-ranked South Carolina, which had lost three straight and 43 of its previous 44 games to the Lady Vols. Even last season, when USC won its first SEC championship and earned its first No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, Tennessee stole a sliver of the spotlight by beating the Gamecocks during the regular season and winning the conference tournament crown.

So indeed, any victory over Tennessee, winners of 17 SEC championships and eight national titles, is a big deal around Columbia. But Monday’s victory wasn’t notable just for snapping the iron grip the Lady Vols have long held on the Gamecocks — it also placed USC on the brink of another SEC title, and perhaps foreshadowed the kind of games South Carolina will have to win if it hopes to reach the program’s first Final Four.

The last time South Carolina (26-1, 14-0 SEC) had played on such a national stage, the outcome was a 25-point loss at Connecticut, which claimed the Gamecocks’ No. 1 ranking as a result. To be certain, Monday brought friendlier confines and a Tennessee team missing its best player, but also a savvy opponent still likely to win its final two conference games and claim a top seed in the NCAA tournament.

“For us to continue to move toward where we wanted to go, you have to continue to get better,” said USC coach Dawn Staley. “I learned that we have more in the tank to give, and more room to get better. Obviously after the UConn loss, I think we really concentrated on some things, and for us to go out and get 21 offensive rebounds was key for us to winning.”

That inside game was vastly improved from the Connecticut loss, and will certainly benefit the Gamecocks over a stretch where they could face ranked opponents in four of their next five games — culminating with a potential rematch against the Lady Vols in the SEC tournament final in North Little Rock, Ark., on March 8.

“You’re entering into the latter stages of the season. Next weekend we’re going into the (SEC) tournament, and at that point in time you’re at a win-or-go-home stage,” Welch said. “So to see that level of consistency, to see we’re playing better basketball every time we step onto the court, that’s a great thing to see at this point of the season.”

Led by Welch’s 21st career double-double, South Carolina dominated Tennessee on the boards and in the paint. The Lady Vols played without leading scorer and rebounder Isabelle Harrison, who is out for the season with a torn ACL in her right knee, and whose 6-3 presence, 12.8 points, and nine boards per game certainly would have come in handy Monday night.

“We’re missing our best player, and I think one of the best players in the country,” said Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, “but we have to move on.”

South Carolina moves on to Thursday night’s home finale against No. 11 Mississippi State, where the Gamecocks can clinch at least a tie for the SEC title. Since head-to-head tiebreakers only impact conference tournament seeding, USC will likely have to win out to claim the championship for itself. Tennessee finishes against unranked Georgia and Vanderbilt, while South Carolina closes against the Bulldogs and at No. 13 Kentucky on Sunday.

“It’s not the stopping point of our season,” Welch said. “It’s not something we look at as, now that we’ve beaten Tennessee, OK, we’re good. We still have two games that are very important. ... We still have business to handle if we want to outright win the regular-season title. This was something we had to accomplish to accomplish another of our goals, which was repeating as regular-season SEC champs.”