No. 4 South Carolina ready for No. 10 Lady Vols
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The lone regular-season matchup between No. 4 South Carolina and No. 10 Tennessee won’t have any impact on the Southeastern Conference championship.
South Carolina (26-2, 14-1 SEC) clinched its first SEC title Thursday with a 67-56 victory over Georgia. That removed any league championship implications from Sunday’s meeting with Tennessee (23-5, 12-3) at Thompson-Boling Arena.
But the Gamecocks and Lady Vols say there’s still plenty at stake in the regular-season finale for both teams. South Carolina is on a 10-game winning streak, while Tennessee has won nine of its last 10 games.
”We’re trying to impose our will in this game,” South Carolina point guard Khadijah Sessions said. ”We’ve got to make sure we send the message that we’re the best team in the SEC.”
South Carolina is aiming for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Tennessee wants to improve its NCAA tournament position and is seeking to clinch the No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament that starts Wednesday at Duluth, Ga.
Tennessee and No. 17 Texas A&M (22-7, 12-3) are tied for second place in the conference, but Tennessee owns the tiebreaker advantage after winning its only head-to-head meeting with the Aggies.
”We’re playing for an NCAA seeding right now, so that’s our goal,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. ”We obviously wanted to win the regular season. That’s not going to happen. … You can’t lose two (conference) games at home and win the SEC. You’ve got to take care of your home floor, and we didn’t do that. But this is a seeding factor for us and a pride factor.”
Tennessee, the preseason SEC favorite, would love to beat South Carolina to reclaim its home-court dominance. The Lady Vols are 12-3 at home this year with losses to LSU, Notre Dame and Kentucky. They haven’t lost as many as four home games in a season since 1982-83, when their home floor was the Stokely Athletics Center.
The Lady Vols are seeking their first victory over a top-five opponent in five attempts during Warlick’s two-year tenure. Tennessee has lost eight straight games against top-five foes since beating No. 3 Stanford 82-72 in overtime on Dec. 19, 2010.
”It’s a big opportunity for us,” Tennessee forward Cierra Burdick said. ”We’re focusing on getting the best seed we can for the NCAA tournament. And obviously, we want to close out the regular season with a win. And what better opportunity than to beat the regular-season champs at our house? That would be huge for us as far as the NCAA committee and what games they’re looking at – head-to-head matchups.”
This scenario to end the regular season is familiar to Tennessee.
Last year, after clinching the SEC title, the Lady Vols closed the regular season by going on the road to face preseason favorite and defending league champion Kentucky. Tennessee lost 78-65.
”We haven’t played South Carolina all year, so it’s just a big, big pride factor for us,” Warlick said. ”To get a win going into the SEC tournament would be huge for us.”
This also represents a chance for South Carolina to make a statement against a longtime nemesis. South Carolina beat Tennessee 64-60 two seasons ago in its last trip to Knoxville, but the Lady Vols lead the all-time series 46-3.
”I think it will be a huge letdown not to come out with the same focus and intensity that we’ve had all season long,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. ”Because when you do that, sometimes it’s contagious, and you don’t want to take that into the SEC tournament.”
AP Sports Writers Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, S.C., and Brett Martel in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report.