Tennessee lost its second consecutive game on Sunday as No. 13 South Carolina stormed into Thompson-Boling Arena and beat the Lady Vols 82-67.
Cheridene Green got things going for Tennessee (17-10, 6-8 SEC) early, scoring its first five points of the game. Unfortunately for the Lady Vols, the offense wasn’t the problem to begin the game. It was their effort on the defensive end.
After trading buckets for most of the opening quarter, South Carolina (20-7, 12-2 SEC) closed the frame on a 13-0 run as UT didn’t score the final 3:31 of the quarter. At the end of one, the Gamecocks led 27-11.
“We dug ourselves into a hole in the first quarter, and they were more physical than us, and we just didn’t handle them,” Lady Vols head coach Holly Warlick said following the game. “We just have to start the game off better.”
The defensive struggles continued well into the second quarter. South Carolina stretched its lead to 20 with 8:37 remaining in the frame and didn’t allow Tennessee to come within 14 as it built a 43-27 halftime lead. In the first half, the Gamecocks shot 45 percent from the field. Senior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore had 18 at intermission on 7-of-12 shooting.
Cuevas-Moore would go on to finish with a game-high 28 points in the absence of former Lady Vol Te’a Cooper. Cooper – who transferred from Tennessee to South Carolina after reportedly getting into a fight with a teammate – did not play due to injury.
The effort was much better to begin the second half. Tennessee opened the half on an 8-4 run, and thanks to improved play on the defensive end, was able to cut the South Carolina lead from 18 points to nine points. The Gamecocks led 60-51 entering the fourth quarter.
“From the second through the fourth quarter, I loved our fight,” Warlick said. “We just battled all day because of the first quarter, and it was hard. South Carolina was not relinquishing how they were playing.”
Eight points would be the closest the Lady Vols could cut the lead to in the final frame. The two teams traded buckets for a large portion of the quarter, but Tennessee was unable to get any stops on the defensive end as South Carolina cruised to a win.
Here are our observations from today’s game.
First quarter woes
Once again, Tennessee came out of the gates slow.
It wasn’t the only time the Lady Vols have began a game slowly, but it really put them behind the eight-ball early on. Sparked by six turnovers, South Carolina led by 13 at the end of one thanks to a 13-0 run to finish the quarter.
With Tennessee struggling to finish the quarter in rhythm on offense, the Gamecocks shot nearly 60 percent from the field. The Lady Vols’ six turnovers helped South Carolina score 10 of its first 20 points on the fast break.
“Nobody was back on the press, so we had so many mental mistakes,” Warlick said. “You can’t blame it on youth; we’re playing five kids that have been mainly starting the whole year. We just cannot let us not making buckets dictate how we were playing on defense.”
The Gamecocks ultimately finished the frame on a 16-2 run despite Green and Meme Jackson combining for nine points.
Turnovers, Turnovers, Turnovers
Tennessee’s six first quarter turnovers turned into 16 turnovers for the whole game.
While 16 turnovers is a lot, it’s become normal for the Lady Vols to have so many turnovers. On 16 different occasions this season, Tennessee has turned it over at least 16 times. In 13 of 27 games, UT has had more turnovers than its opponents. The Lady Vols are averaging 15.6 turnovers per game.
“In the first half, we turned it over too much, we gave up too many layups, and we just mentally were not focused,” Warlick said.
Seven of the nine Lady Vols that played turned the basketball over. Evina Westbrook led the team with five turnovers, and Rennia Davis had four. South Carolina turned Tennessee’s 16 turnovers into 17 points.
Entering Sunday’s game and following a loss on the road to Texas A&M, the Lady Vols could make the NCAA Tournament one of two ways. Either they beat South Carolina on Sunday, or they beat Vanderbilt and Ole Miss to end the regular season and then win one SEC Tournament game. That is, according to ESPN’s Charlie Creme.
Following the loss to South Carolina, option A has been thrown out of the window. Now it’s on to option B and winning three consecutive games. According to Warlick, the Lady Vols are aware of the situation.
“It’s all over social media; they read it, so they know,” Warlick said. “They know, we all know.
“We got ourselves in this hole, so you have to climb out of it and you have to get these next two games, absolutely.”
Tennessee now turns its attention to Senior Night. On Thursday, the Lady Vols will face Vanderbilt (6-21, 1-13 SEC) at 7 p.m. ET in the final home game of the season.