January 3, 2013

WBB: Lady Vols throttle USC in SEC opener



South Carolina is built on its defense. Mostly because the No. 18 Gamecocks are blessed with so many similar players - not necessarily tall, but lengthy enough to go high or low, knock the ball away and get to it before the opponent does.

And also because USC, as talented as it is, simply does not have the kind of scorers that can take over a game by themselves, which was the difference as No. 12 Tennessee ripped a 14-0 run in the second half to dispatch the Gamecocks 73-53 in the SEC opener for both teams on Thursday.

"Our half-court defense was fine," coach Dawn Staley said. "We just put too much pressure on it by not scoring. We are what we are. We just have to find ways to score. That has been our nemesis all season long -- we've got to find a way to score."

As it goes through the SEC, USC will be shorter than most every team it plays. Staley is fine with that, reasoning that five players of the short-and-quick variety are better, because with tall players in the women's game, "tall" often equals "slow."

Not so with the Lady Vols. They're recruited to Tennessee as the cream of the crop. Their height, notably 6-foot-3 Isabelle Harrison and 6-1 Taber Spani, denied USC the inside attack and the Gamecocks missed several first-half chip shots, and guard Meighan Simmons was more than happy to take the caroms, streak downcourt and use the glass as her front door.

The Gamecocks (12-2, 0-1 SEC) hung with Tennessee for the first 25 minutes, trailing by one at halftime and always answering when the Lady Vols (10-3, 1-0) threatened to pull away. But just as USC was given another challenge, it couldn't find the solution.

Following a flurry of possessions, where the lead changed hands five times in 71 seconds, Tennessee held a 41-40 lead with 15:57 to go. Sancheon White picked up a steal at the top of the key and raced downcourt, but Simmons was right there with her and got her arms in White's face just enough so that the shot was missed.

Ashley Bruner, trailing the play, grabbed the rebound and was fouled. A bad free-throw shooter on a bad free throw-shooting team who had nonetheless stroked her first four attempts of the game, Bruner bricked both.

Simmons shot down the court and tried to kiss another shot off the glass, but missed. Harrison was there to clean it up. The smoke cleared several minutes later on a five-minute scoring drought for USC and what ultimately became a 28-2 Tennessee run to easily put the game away.

"That stretch in the second half, when they got a flurry of uncontested baskets," Staley said. "You can't give a team like Tennessee that kind of advantage, because they'll take advantage.

"We couldn't get any buckets to go. We couldn't finish. If we could finish a couple of those shots like we did in the first half, we'd have a different ballgame."

USC ended with a horrid 29 percent shooting performance from the field, forced to try to hoist 3-pointers to get back into the game and sinking a mere 4-of-18. Tennessee scored on half of its shot attempts, Spani and Harrison scoring 18 points each and Simmons finishing with 10.

The Gamecocks were led by 14 points from Tiffany Mitchell and 12 from Bruner. Leading scorer Aleighsa Welch, with two fouls in the first half, never got on track and finished with six.

"It just wasn't my night," Welch said. "We needed to be a little bit more aggressive on our half-court sets. We're going to run into teams bigger than us, but that's not something that we can just use as a crutch to deal with. We have to take it and run with it. I think tonight, we weren't as aggressive as we normally are."

USC has 15 more SEC games, none against Tennessee but plenty against the league's other heavyweights. There is plenty of time to erase Thursday and keep striving for a top-four finish in the league, which would mean a bye for the first and second rounds of the SEC tournament, or even more. That process begins tomorrow, when the team practices for Sunday's game at Mississippi State.

Staley is happy with the shot selection, and knows that the Gamecocks have been playing with a little bit of fool's gold, to use a term from men's coach Frank Martin. They haven't been a great shooting team all year, but their defense was so nasty at forcing turnovers and hitting fast-break layups that it was overlooked.

"We hid it by winning," Staley said. "We've just got to find a way to score. Our defense is going to be fine. We took 13 more shots. Not only did they two us, they 3'ed us. It's hard for us, if we're not scoring, to keep up with that pace."

Box score



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