Gamecocks on brink

South Carolina forward Aleighsa Welch (24) reacts after a play during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Tennessee on Monday, Feb. 23, 2015 in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina won 71-66. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)

COLUMBIA — Every time South Carolina needed an answer, Aleighsa Welch was there to provide one.

The Goose Creek native saved her best game for South Carolina’s biggest conference contest of the season, scoring a season-high 19 points and tying a season high with 14 rebounds to power the second-ranked Gamecocks past No. 6 Tennessee 71-66 Monday night with potentially the SEC championship in the balance.

“It was one of her best games,” USC head coach Dawn Staley said of the senior forward. “She came out with a certain focus and determination to not let us lose this game. She played like it every minute she was on the floor. When she wasn’t on the floor, she was cheering and willing our team to a victory.”

With the victory before 14,390 at Colonial Life Arena, USC ran its home winning streak to 31 games, and more importantly snapped Tennessee’s 20-game streak against league foes. South Carolina and Tennessee had been the lone two unbeaten teams in SEC play, and the Gamecocks (26-1, 14-0 SEC) can clinch at least a tie for their second straight conference title with a victory Thursday at home over No. 11 Mississippi State.

Tiffany Mitchell added 16 for USC, while Elem Ibiam scored 12 and Bashaara Graves led Tennessee with 20. Welch surpassed a previous season-best of 17 points amassed most recently at No. 1 Connecticut, and matched a season-best of 14 rebounds recorded most recently at Georgia.

“I knew personally coming into the game I wanted to be more aggressive than I’ve been,” Welch said. “The previous games before this game I’ve kind of been really passive, not my usual self as far as aggression. And I knew this was a big game for us. ... I just wanted to make sure in some way, shape or form, I was positively impacting every play.”

Welch anchored a USC inside game which scored 44 points in the paint and outrebounded Tennessee 46-33, including 21 offensive boards for the Gamecocks. “It was the difference in the game,” said Tennessee coach Holly Warlick. “We didn’t have an answer for Welch on the boards, and it just got magnified.”

Welch was never bigger than during a second-half stretch where she helped thwart a Tennessee comeback almost by herself. She converted a three-point play after the Lady Vols (23-4, 13-1) had trimmed the lead to one, then batted an offensive rebound to teammate Asia Dozier for a jumper, and then hit two consecutive baskets to stretch the Gamecocks’ advantage to eight.

“I’ve got a lot of healthy respect for her as a ballplayer,” Tennessee forward Cierra Burdick, who had 16 points and 10 rebounds, said of Welch. “She knows her strengths, she knows her role, and she plays to them.”

South Carolina built the lead to 10 with 5:15 remaining, but the Lady Vols — winners of eight national titles and 17 SEC crowns for a reason — didn’t go down easy. USC missed its final six field goal attempts, turned the ball over on an errant baseball pass, missed the front ends of two one-and-ones, and suddenly Graves had cut the lead to one on a jumper with 22 seconds left.

But Mitchell made two free throws to give USC a three-point edge with 17.7 ticks remaining, and on the ensuing possession Tennessee’s Andraya Carter stepped on the end line trying to receive a wide pass from Burdick under the basket. Dozier then went to the line for two free throws with seven seconds left, and sank both to at last put the Gamecocks a game ahead of the Lady Vols in the SEC standings.

“I was relieved,” Staley said. “Obviously, Tennessee is a great team that’s going to come in here and fight, and they played tremendously. ... They displayed the type of will it takes to be successful in this league. Overall, if this game was not played in Colonial Life Arena, we would not be sitting here as the victors.”

The loss snapped Tennessee’s eight-game win streak dating back to a setback at No. 4 Notre Dame on Jan. 19. The victory was just USC’s third ever against the Lady Vols, which had won three straight over the Gamecocks and entered the game with a commanding 45-2 edge in the series.

Tennessee was without senior forward Isabelle Harrison, the Volunteers’ leading scorer and rebounder, who was lost for the season when the tore the ACL in her right knee during a game against Kentucky on Feb. 15. The 6-3 Harrison, who averaged 12.8 points and 9.8 rebounds, scored 20 and pulled down 15 boards in a victory over the Gamecocks last season in Knoxville.

South Carolina and Tennessee entered the game with a four-game lead over third place in the SEC. While the Lady Vols finish against unranked Georgia and Vanderbilt, the Gamecocks play No. 11 Mississippi State at home Thursday before closing the regular season Sunday at No. 13 Kentucky.

No wonder then, despite the magnitude of Monday’s victory, Staley was already looking ahead.

“It’s the type of game where you want to enjoy it, but you want to talk about Mississippi State on Thursday,” she said. “If we don’t win that game, that nullifies this win. We talked about that with our players. You did what you were supposed to do up until this point — let’s not let up.”