March 8, 2015
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - No. 3/4 South Carolina claimed its first ever SEC Tournament championship with a 62-46 win over No. 5/5 Tennessee Sunay afternoon at Verizon Arena behind a Tournament MVP performance from Aleighsa Welch and a game-high 17 points from SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell. The Gamecocks opened the game well with smothering defense that held the Lady Vols in check. In the second half, Welch and SEC Freshman of the Year A'ja Wilson created separation with relentless work in the post.
South Carolina's starters dominated the first half with Mitchell and Welch getting early outside help from Khadijah Sessions. Both team were hitting from outside early, trading the lead 10 times in the first 14 minutes of the game. After Wilson hit a free throw to knot the game at 21-21 with 6:18 on the clock, a spate of Gamecock turnovers threatened to allow the Lady Vols to push their lead. South Carolina defended the miscues well early as Wilson and Alaina Coates cleaned up the defensive glass. Tennessee eventually got back-to-back scores to take a slight 26-21 lead with 3:56 to play in the half.
After Gamecock head coach Dawn Staley called a timeout, her defense allowed no more and turned the tables on the Lady Vols with transition and attacking the rim. Welch started the momentum swing with a putback, and she hit a short jumper two possessions later to pull within one at 26-25 with 2:03 to go. Another Tennessee turnover sent the Gamecocks back on offense where Wilson drove hard through the lane to finish at the rim. Both teams misfired on their next possessions, but Sessions pulled down the defensive rebound and found Wilson in transition for a 29-26 lead that the Gamecocks would take into the locker room.
After a defensive effort that limited Cierra Burdick to just six points in the first half, Welch dominated the second half early. Her aggressive play delivered six points and three rebounds in the first 4:33 of the period. She and Mitchell accounted for the first 11 points of the period, but the Gamecocks were clinging to their three or four point advantage throughout the first 10 minutes of the period. Up 41-38 after an inside basket from Alexa Middleton, South Carolina went inside to Wilson who hit a baseline jumper and two possessions later scored off an in-bounds play to stretch the lead to seven at 45-38 with 9:55 on the clock.
Both teams went cold from the field as the defenses locked down. The Lady Vols looked to make some headway at the free throw line, but hit just one of their three opportunities over the next four minutes of play. Meanwhile, Wilson and Welch were finding room to work on the baseline. Wilson made a patient move inside and, following her defensive rebound, Welch hit a baseline jumper as the shot clock was winding down for a 49-39 South Carolina lead, the largest for either team on the night, that forced Tennessee to call a timeout with 5:50 to play.
The break did not help, only further fueling a flying Gamecock defense that hounded the Lady Vols' top scorers into tough shots throughout the night. Meanwhile, Sessions established herself as an offensive threat, hitting a runner to answer Jordan Reynolds' turnaround. Coates supplied great defense in the post on the next two possessions and the stuck back an offensive rebound on the other end for a 12-point advantage. Mitchell kept her foot on the gas, grabbing a defensive rebound and converting it into a basket on the other end. Tennessee went to the free throw line late in the game, but could not convert. Sessions put the final dagger into the Lady Vols' hearts with a 3 from the left corner at the end of the shot clock to make it a 58-42 contest with 2:06 to go. Mitchell again turned a defensive board into a layup, and the Lady Vols could not close the gap.
South Carolina shot 53.8 percent in the second half while allowing Tennessee just 26.7 percent in the period to pull away from the Lady Vols. Welch's 14 eight rebounds included five offensive, and she finished with 14 points, including eight in the second half. Of Mitchell's 17, 11 came in the second stanza as the junior played all but one minute of the game, shaking off a tough semifinal with a stellar performance in the championship game. Coates, who joined Welch on the All-Tournament team, tied Welch for game-high rebounding honors with eight, while Wilson finished with 11 points and three blocked shots.
After Tennessee had closed within three at 41-38 with 11:33 on the clock, the Gamecock defense, especially Alaina Coates and Tiffany Mitchell, turned up the pressure to hold the Lady Vols to just a free throw over the next six minutes. The result was an 8-1 run that built a 10-point lead from which Tennessee would not recover.
South Carolina's defense held Tennessee to just 46 points, the lowest SEC Tournament output ever for the Lady Vols, who shot just 26.7 percent in the second half.
The Gamecocks await their seeding and opponent in the NCAA Tournament. The selection show airs Mon. March 16, at 7 p.m. ESPN. Plans for a fan gathering to come next week.
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