Triple crown for Gamecocks

South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson, who scored 25 Monday, guards Tennessee’s Diamond DeShields in USC’s 62-56 victory Monday night. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

For the South Carolina women’s basketball team, trips to Tennessee once meant a pummeling. They would venture over the Appalachians and return home humbled by 36, 43 or 54 points. At the height of the Lady Vols’ program under Pat Summitt, winning here for the Gamecocks seemed about as realistic as winning on the moon.

But Monday night, something very different happened, and in the same place where the Gamecocks once lost 20 straight games. Third-ranked USC didn’t just beat No. 24 Tennessee, 62-56, for just its second victory ever in Knoxville, it also clinched at least a share of a third straight SEC title, and on the home floor of the program which for decades set the standard in the conference.

Things have changed so much that clinching a title didn’t even merit a celebration — or barely an acknowledgement. “That’s something that we really didn’t talk about,” said USC forward A’ja Wilson, who led all scorers with 25. “But we’re aware of it now.”

Tiffany Mitchell scored eight of her 12 points after halftime as the Gamecocks became just the third program to win three or more consecutive SEC championships. South Carolina (24-1, 12-0 SEC) can clinch the title outright at home Thursday against Georgia, but regardless will be the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament in Jacksonville next month.

Monday’s victory was the Gamecocks’ third straight over the Lady Vols, but only their fifth against Tennessee all-time and just their second in 23 games in Knoxville. Tennessee once so dominated this series that it won 40 straight over USC, which Monday joined Auburn (1987-89) and Tennessee (1993-95 and 2000-04) as the only programs to win three or more consecutive crowns.

“The more opportunity you get to play a team, it increases your chances of winning,” said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley. “We’re just under that umbrella of having the luxury of playing them more than once a year. When you do that, you can scout a little bit, you can try to throw some wrinkles in there to throw them off a little bit. It helps to play programs like this multiple times.”

Khadijah Sessions added 13 points and Tina Roy struck for a pair of late 3s which sent fans streaming for the exits. USC forced Tennessee (15-10, 6-6) to turn the ball over 19 times, crucial in a game where neither team shot well from the field.

“When you play a team like South Carolina,” said Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick, “your margin for error in really, really small.”

USC frustrated Tennessee with a zone, and Wilson and Mitchell took over in the second half. Mitchell scored six straight to ignite a 10-2 run late in the third quarter which gave the Gamecocks the lead for good. It was a stark contrast to her first half, when the All-American guard missed four of her first five shots.

“I think I was kind of pressing early on,” she said. “I had some looks and I took some contested shots. I tried to find the easier shot, and that’s what happened.”

And it opened the door inside for Wilson, who scored 14 in the second half when she was able to consistently get to the free-throw line. It was a necessary effort on a night when fellow inside starter Alaina Coates went scoreless for the first time all season, although she did corral 10 rebounds.

“I was really just kind of taking what the defense gave me,” Wilson said. “My teammates found me at the right place at the right time.”

Diamond DeShields scored 21 to lead Tennessee, which has lost six SEC games for the first time ever. “We’re in uncharted waters right now for us,” Warlick said.

In a close game before a hostile crowd of 12,014, with all those national championship and Final Four banners hanging in the rafters, it was the Gamecocks who delivered the knockout punch.

And in the process, earned not just a third straight SEC title, but a school-record 11th victory against a ranked opponent. For South Carolina, winning at Tennessee once seemed unthinkable. Monday, it felt routine.

Times have changed indeed.

“We’ve got seniors who have played a lot of basketball for us in a lot of tough environments, and it’s familiar to them,” Staley said. “We don’t fret about being down or being in close games. I think we play our best basketball in the fourth quarter when the game is on the line.”