COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Aleighsa Welch thought No. 2 South Carolina learned many things from its humbling loss to No. 1 Connecticut two weeks ago. She said the Gamecocks applied those lessons in winning their latest showdown with sixth-ranked Tennessee.
Welch had a season-high 19 points and 14 rebounds to keep South Carolina perfect in the Southeastern Conference with a 71-66 victory over Tennessee on Monday night.
Welch, a 6-foot senior, said the players didn’t hang their heads or listen to outsiders fret that the season was over with their 87-62 loss to the Huskies on Feb. 9. Instead, the Gamecocks worked even harder to get back on track.
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”The biggest thing we did,” Welch said, ”we know how to turn the page.”
And perhaps start a new SEC chapter of South Carolina success.
The Gamecocks (26-1, 14-0 SEC) can clinch a share of their second straight league title with a win over No. 11 Mississippi State on Thursday night. After that, there’s even more to achieve, Welch said.
”It’s a good win for us,” Welch said. ”But it’s not kind of the stopping point of the season.”
Tennessee had long been a stopping point for South Carolina. The Gamecocks hadn’t beaten the Lady Vols at home since 1980 and stand 4-47 all-time against them.
Another loss almost happened.
South Carolina led 67-57 with five minutes left and a raucous crowd yelling to end a run of home losses to the Lady Vols. But Tennessee (23-4, 13-1) scored nine straight points and closed within 67-66 on Bashaara Graves’ basket with 20.2 seconds left. That’s when Mitchell hit two foul shots to extend the lead.
Cierra Burdick passed down low to Andraya Carter on Tennessee’s next possession. But Carter’s foot was on the end line for a turnover. Asia Dozier secured South Carolina’s victory with the final two foul shots.
Burdick explained the play was to find Ariel Massengale for a tying 3-pointer. ”South Carolina did a really good job denying that,” she said.
Graves had 20 points to lead the Lady Vols.
Mitchell had 17 points for South Carolina.
Tennessee was looking to keep up a mind-blowing run of dominance over South Carolina, having won 43 of the past 44 meetings. The Lady Vols hadn’t lost in Columbia in nearly two generations since a 56-52 defeat on Jan. 23, 1980.
These Gamecocks, though, are defending SEC champions, spent 12 weeks at No. 1 this season, and have a front line of 6-foot-5 A’ja Wilson, and 6-4 forwards Alaina Coates and Elem Ibiam.
Plus Tennessee was without its leading scorer and rebounder in 6-3 senior Isabelle Harrison, lost for the season with a torn ACL suffered two games ago.
”Yeah, we’re missing our best player and I think one of the best players in the country,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. ”But we have to move on. This is a solid team.”
South Carolina’s size took control early, the Gamecocks building a 20-12 lead behind Ibiam’s six points. Once the Lady Vols scratched back tying the game at 26 on Massengale’s 3-pointer with 5:21 left, it was Ibiam again asserting herself.
She scored six of the next eight points as South Carolina headed into the break up 36-33.
South Carolina opened an 11-point lead midway through the final period before Tennessee made its late run.
South Carolina usually gets a lift from its bench. This time, though, the subs struggled to make an impact. Wilson played just 12 minutes and had eight points. Sophomore Coates finished with seven points in 22 minutes. The two came in averaging 25 points a game combined.
South Carolina’s Dawn Staley is the only coach in program history with more than one victory over Tennessee. Her team broke a 40-game, 32-year losing streak to the Lady Vols in 2012 in Knoxville.
Tennessee: Harrison was a major factor in the Lady Vols’ last two victories over South Carolina. She has scored 38 points, grabbed 29 rebounds and added seven blocks.
South Carolina: Welch’s 14 rebounds against Tennessee lifted her to fifth all-time in South Carolina boards, surpassing Denise Nanney, who had 877 from 1975-77. Welch stands at 890 for her career.
Tennessee travels to Georgia on Thursday night.
South Carolina faces No. 11 Mississippi State on Thursday night.