Lady Vols unable to stop South Carolina’s sweep of SEC titles

AP photo by Mic Smith / South Carolina's Aliyah Boston holds up the SEC women's basketball tournament championship trophy after the top-ranked Gamecocks defeated Tennessee 74-58 on Sunday in Greenville, S.C.
AP photo by Mic Smith / South Carolina's Aliyah Boston holds up the SEC women's basketball tournament championship trophy after the top-ranked Gamecocks defeated Tennessee 74-58 on Sunday in Greenville, S.C.

GREENVILLE, S.C. — South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley hugged her players and took photos with fans Sunday evening, even posing with cheerleaders and the pep band.

"Winning championships," Staley said. "It never gets old."

Staley and the top-ranked Gamecocks won their seventh Southeastern Conference tournament title in the past nine seasons, pulling away from Tennessee in the final two quarters for a 74-58 victory at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.

Zia Cooke scored 24 points, Aliyah Boston added 18 and Kamilla Cardoso had 13 as South Carolina (32-0) continued its perfect season and headed into the NCAA tournament as the clear-cut favorite for a second straight national championship.

The victory was a measure of redemption for the Gamecocks, who were beaten by Kentucky in last year's SEC final in Nashville. They haven't lost since, a 38-game winning streak they'll try to continue in March Madness.

Selection Sunday comes next weekend, and although there's no doubt about South Carolina being the No. 1 overall seed among the 68 teams, it will be another step of the process in their bid to repeat.

"The mentality we have to win all over the court — this means a lot, but we're not done yet," Cooke said.

When this part of the journey was over, South Carolina players came out to hug each other as a large group of fans — the arena is about 90 minutes away from the Gamecocks' campus — cheered the latest success.

Boston, who was named MVP of the tournament, said it's been a total team effort to put together this type of run, from the most experienced starter to the freshmen who don't get the court as much. Staley said Boston gave her all-tournament team trophy to teammate Laeticia Amihere, a fellow senior who tallied 37 points and 13 rebounds in the Gamecocks' three games in Greenville.

"Everyone is buying into the process," Boston said.

  photo  AP photo by Mic Smith / South Carolina's Zia Cooke (1) shoots while surrounded by Tennessee defenders during the SEC tournament title game Sunday in Greenville, S.C.

Not that the program's latest SEC title came easily. Third-seeded Tennessee (23-11), sky high after taking down No. 4 LSU in Saturday night's semifinals, drew within 39-36 on Rickea Jackson's 3-pointer early in the second quarter.

The Gamecocks — who had beaten the Lady Volunteers 73-60 on Feb. 23 in Knoxville on their way to the SEC regular-season title — answered with a 16-4 burst powered by Boston and Cooke to take control.

Tennessee was playing in its first SEC final since 2015 and figured to be physically and emotionally exhausted after rallying from 17 points down to stun the Tigers. Instead, the Lady Vols — whose 17 SEC tournament titles remain the conference's standard — went toe to toe with the league's reigning powerhouse.

Boston made her first five shots of the opening quarter, yet Tennessee answered every one, including a basket by a falling Jordan Horston to keep things tight at 21-19 after the first 10 minutes. When South Carolina scored 12 straight points to lead 33-21, Horston had three more baskets and Sara Puckett a bucket off the glass to get to halftime down just 37-31.

But the Gamecocks' third-quarter push was too much for Tennessee. Horston led the Lady Vols with 19 points, but only five of those came after halftime. She also had nine rebounds, three assists and a steal.

"We were definitely a little low in the tank," said Tennessee's Kellie Harper, who's in her fourth season as coach at her alma mater.

Jackson scored 60 points in her first two games at this SEC tourney, but she had just 16 on 7-of-19 shooting against South Carolina. She added nine rebounds, two assists and a block.

Jillian Hollingshead scored nine points for Tennessee, which went 22-for-60 (36.7%) from the field.

The Gamecocks played without point guard Kierra Fletcher. The graduate transfer from Georgia Tech had started 29 games this season, but she hurt her left ankle after a hard fall in the semifinal win over Ole Miss on Saturday. Fletcher wore a boot on the affected area, but she'll have nearly two weeks before the Gamecocks open NCAA tourney play at home.

The Lady Vols showed they won't be overlooked in the postseason after handling Kentucky, rallying past LSU and making South Carolina work for its trophy. A top-four seed in the big bracket and a chance to host the first two rounds would be a huge step for a team that was just 7-6 after a loss at Stanford the week before Christmas.

Horston said they'll learn from Sunday's defeat and bounce back to excel in March Madness, having proven something to themselves against the Gamecocks.

"We've got what it takes to beat them," Horston said. "We've got what it takes to beat anybody."