COLUMBIA, S.C. - Despite scoring the first four points of the second half to take a three-point lead, No. 18/15 South Carolina (12-2, 0-1 SEC) did not have enough against No. 12/13 Tennessee (10-3, 1-0 SEC) down the stretch and fell to the Lady Vols 73-53. Freshman guard Tiffany Mitchell led the Gamecocks with 14 points in her SEC debut. Senior guards Ieasia Walker and Sancheon White tallied a team-leading seven boards each in the contest.
Walker also added 10 points on the night, while senior forward Ashley Bruner scored 12 and added six rebounds. The Gamecocks out-rebounded the Lady Vols 40-39 after pulling in 21 on the offensive side to Tennessee's 10. The advantage on the offensive boards created 12 second-chance points.
Four Lady Vols reached double figures. Sophomore center Isabelle Harrison turned in a line of 18 points, 14 rebounds, seven blocks and two steals. Senior guard Taber Spani also logged 18 points for Tennessee. Sophomore guard Ariel Massengale and junior guard Meighan Simmons had 13 and 10 points, respectively.
"I think it was just a half [that was a problem for us]," South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. "If you look at the score in the first half, it's a ballgame. But, in the second half, you can't allow a team like Tennessee that likes to play in transition [to get] easy buckets, and that's what we did. Our inability to score - they capitalized on, and in a big way. That stretch made it really hard for us to get back in the game."
The home team took an early 5-2 lead when sophomore forward Aleighsa Welch scored an easy bucket on a touch pass from Bruner. Tennessee responded with a Spani 3-pointer to take a 7-5 lead.
A second Spani 3-pointer put the Lady Vols up 18-13 with 11:13 remaining in the first half, and the Gamecocks responded with six unanswered points to take their first lead since an early 5-4 score. Walker assisted on the first two baskets, finding White in transition and Bruner under the basket, and took the third bucket herself to make the score 19-18.
Tennessee came right back at South Carolina, scoring six unanswered points of its own to hold a five-point advantage, the largest of the first half. The back and forth action of the half continued as the clock ran down. Walker hit two 3-pointers in the last 3:08 of the period to pace the Gamecocks.
Trailing 32-31 at the break, South Carolina scored the first four points out of the locker room to take a three-point lead just 1:17 into the half, forcing Tennessee to call a timeout to stop the surging Gamecocks. The teams traded baskets out of the timeout, scoring quickly for the next several possessions.
Down 40-39, the Lady Vols put together the decisive 14-0 run with Simmons scoring eight of her 13 points in the stretch. After over five minutes without a score, Bruner stopped the bleeding for the Gamecocks with a basket in the post. Tennessee proved to be too much, going on a 16-3 run in response and was able to hold for the season's first conference win.
"I told our players it was a tale of two halves," Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick said. "I was really concerned about coming in here and playing South Carolina. [They are] a hard-nosed, athletic, very well coached team. And the first half was just my expectations of the physicalness of both teams. I was obviously concerned at halftime with their offensive rebounding. We had a good talk at half. I said we could bottle that half, but we could not repeat it. I am just proud of our effort against a good South Carolina team."
The Gamecocks head to Starkville, Miss., to take on Mississippi State on Sun., Jan. 6 at 3 p.m. in their first SEC road contest of the season.