For USC women, path to SEC title still goes through Lady Vols

Tiffany Mitchell (right) and A'ja Wilson lead South Carolina against Tennessee on Monday. (AP Photo/Gareth Patterson)

COLUMBIA — They may have been in the same conference, but they certainly weren’t in the same league.

For years — actually, make that decades — the South Carolina women’s basketball team met with only futility when it faced mighty Tennessee. The Lady Vols once won 40 straight against the Gamecocks, a run of dominance that began in 1980, continued through the SEC’s addition of USC, and wasn’t snapped until three years ago. It makes the men’s current 15-game skid to Tennessee look like a pittance by comparison.

Even now, as USC enjoys its greatest success in women’s basketball, Tennessee looms like a giant that must still be brought down. The Gamecocks are 2-45 all-time against the eight-time national champions, and have lost three straight to the Lady Vols entering Monday’s 9 p.m. showdown at Colonial Life Arena — with the SEC championship likely at stake.

“It’s a statement game,” said USC coach Dawn Staley. “If you want to play with the big girls, you’ve got to beat the big girls. And Tennessee has been the champions of our league for a very long time.”

The Gamecocks may be the higher-ranked team and the reigning SEC champions, but the path to the league title still goes through the Lady Vols. No. 2 South Carolina (25-1, 13-0 SEC) and No. 6 Tennessee (23-3, 13-0) are the lone two teams unbeaten in conference play, holding at least a four-game lead over everyone else, giving the winner of Monday’s game a clear inside track to the SEC crown.

“It’s a big game for us. We’re all aware of it,” said USC senior forward Aleighsa Welch, a Goose Creek native. “We’ve always been for embracing challenges the whole season and knowing what we have to do leading up into this game. But there’s no doubt that everybody knows the significance of this game going into it.”

Tennessee will be without senior forward Isabelle Harrison, the Lady Vols’ leading scorer and rebounder who will miss the remainder of the season after tearing the ACL in her right knee last week. Harrison, who was averaging 12.8 points and 9.1 boards a game, scored 20 and pulled down 15 rebounds in Tennessee’s 73-61 victory over South Carolina last season in Knoxville.

From a USC standpoint, “nothing has changed,” Staley said. “They still came out to play against Alabama. They beat them pretty bad.” Even without Harrison, Tennessee routed Alabama, 77-56, on Thursday. Like the Gamecocks, the Lady Vols have a wealth of depth in the post.

“She’s a big part of what they do, and I think everybody knows the impact she makes,” Welch added. “It’s the same thing with every team — when somebody goes down, you have to make adjustments. When they played Alabama … they had a lot of people step up. They’re the kind of team with the talent to do that.”

They have been for a long time, through 17 SEC titles and eight national crowns under former head coach Pat Summit. Now, South Carolina tries to turn the tables on the program which once dominated the Gamecocks for so long.

“I think with what we’ve been able to accomplish, and the fans that have come out and supported us, we are doing what Tennessee has done to so many,” Staley said, “which is create a home-court advantage and make it virtually impossible for people to win on our home court.”