KNOXVILLE — For just a moment, Kellie Harper allowed herself to break COVID-19 protocol. The hug she got from Tennessee men's basketball coach Rick Barnes was just too important to pass up.
Harper was celebrating the biggest win in her two-year tenure as head coach of the 21st-ranked Lady Volunteers, a 75-67 upset of No. 2 South Carolina on Thursday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Rennia Davis scored all 24 of her points in the second half to spearhead the dramatic victory, and Harper pointed toward a "fiery" halftime address that fueled the recovery.
"Coach said we were playing soft," Davis said. "I take that personally, not just because I didn't score. I thought we grew up in the second half."
Said Harper: "I told them to put their big girl pants on."
Tennessee (13-5, 7-3 Southeastern Conference) recovered from a 12-point halftime deficit to pull off the stunner. Rae Burrell scored 19 points and Jordan Horston added 11 for the Lady Vols.
South Carolina (17-3, 12-1) had its 31-game SEC winning streak snapped. The last regular-season SEC loss for the Gamecocks had been on March 3, 2019, to Mississippi State. Aliyah Boston had 17 points and 16 rebounds to lead the Gamecocks, while Zia Cooke and Destanni Henderson each scored 15.
"Tennessee took it to us in the third and fourth quarters," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "We had nothing to answer them. We couldn't make basketball plays. We couldn't make reads."
Trailing by three a couple minutes into the fourth quarter, the Lady Vols reeled off nine straight points and went up 68-62. Tennessee never took its foot off the gas.
South Carolina's 12-point halftime lead evaporated in the third quarter, when Davis had 13 points to get the Lady Vols going. Tennessee took the lead with 2:05 left when Davis drained a 3-pointer.
Leading by two midway through the second quarter, South Carolina went on a 15-1 run and headed into halftime on top 37-25. Boston had four points in that spurt and grabbed 10 rebounds in the first 20 minutes. Henderson scored 10 points in the first half.
Burrell scored Tennessee's first eight points of the game and had 12 at the break.
It's been an interesting few days for Harper and her alma mater. After Sunday's loss at Texas A&M, the Lady Vols were stranded by the winter storm that ravaged Texas.
They didn't return to Knoxville until Tuesday night, when they were supposed to play at Mississippi State in a game that was postponed because of the same winter weather. Getting ready for a Thursday meeting with the No. 2 team in the country two days later was difficult.
"It was the least prepared we've been for a game this season," Harper said. "We told them to go out and be the best us we can be. Go out and let the players play."
Despite this setback and a recent nonconference loss to Connecticut, the Gamecocks are on track for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament next month. With four players averaging points in double figures — Cooke (15.8), Boston (13.7), Henderson (11.6) and Victaria Saxton (10.0) — they have enough offensive weapons to cause teams trouble.
The Lady Vols have a spot in the NCAA bracket all but secured, but what they're playing for now is seeding, with the next step Sunday's game at No. 22 Georgia, which beat Tennessee 67-66 on Jan. 14 in Knoxville.