COLUMBIA, S.C. — After the 40 minutes of sloppy basketball and the media interviews, Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt could finally smile when she started signing autographs.
Before that, it was scowls and icy stares as the Lady Vols stumbled their way to a 60-55 win over South Carolina on Sunday, their 38th victory in a row over the Gamecocks.
The Lady Vols (19-1, 7-1 Southeastern Conference) fell behind 13-0 and never led until 7:53 was left in the game. Their three best scorers — Angie Bjorklund, Glory Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen — combined for just 19 points, 22 below their combined average this season.
“This team has to make up its mind if it’s going to be a 40-minute team all the time,” said Summitt, whose squad finally kicked into gear during the last five minutes of the game.
The Lady Vols trailed 54-52 before Kelley Cain got consecutive layups for a two-point lead with 1:57 to go.
The Gamecocks (11-10, 4-5) had their chances down the stretch. La’Keisha Sutton missed two free throws with 1:20 to go that could have tied it, and South Carolina missed its final six shots and turned over the ball twice in the final four minutes, squandering the team’s best chance to beat the Lady Vols in 30 years.
“We don’t want to live on the edge like this,” Summitt said.
Freshman Kamiko Williams led Tennessee with a career-high 17 points. Alyssia Brewer added 13 and Cain had 10 for the SEC-leading Lady Vols.
After watching her team’s perimeter game struggle for the first 30 minutes, Summitt decided to go to the paint. Brewer’s short jumper gave the Lady Vols their first lead, 47-46, and Brewer put Tennessee up again on a short jumper with 5:12 to go. Cain’s two layups gave UT the lead for good.
Tennessee has won every game with South Carolina since January 1980 — the last 17 victories have been by at least 12 points. But the Gamecocks have already doubled their SEC win total from last year, and coach Dawn Staley insisted they have the talent to beat the Lady Vols.
The Gamecocks showed their confidence from the start. Sutton buried two open 3-pointers and Valerie Nainima added a 3 as South Carolina stormed out to the 13-0 lead.
The Lady Vols cranked up the defense, though, and the Gamecocks scored just five points in the final 10 minutes of the half to hold onto a 26-25 lead at halftime.
The game went back and forth for most of the second half, but South Carolina couldn’t get the big play at the end. Down by three, the Gamecocks threw away an inbound pass with 21.8 seconds to go. They made 7 of 16 3-pointers, but Nainima missed two 3s late that could have cut the deficit to two.
“We have a lot of young players who have never been in that position,” Staley said. “And sometimes when you can win a game like this, you start thinking instead of just reacting.”
Sutton led South Carolina with 19 points, while Nainima scored 16 and Kelsey Bone added 11.
Staley isn’t accustomed to losing to anyone. She turned Temple into a winner in her eight years at the school, and already has led the Gamecocks to one more victory than last season’s 10-18 squad. She reminded her Gamecocks of their 37-game losing streak against Tennessee during practice before the game, telling them that beating the Lady Vols would be the kind of win that can reverse a program’s fortunes.
South Carolina has just two winning SEC seasons since joining the league in 1991.
“We were hoping to change that,” Sutton said. “We’ll probably see them on down the road in the SEC tournament.”
Summitt waited until she called her first timeout with her team down 10-0 to remind them of their dominance over South Carolina, Williams said, staring down her team and saying, “We don’t want to be the team who loses to them.”
And for the 38th time, she was proved right.