Alex Fuller didn’t mind that the jersey was a bit small. It fit her intentions perfectly.
Tennessee’s senior forward made a touching fashion statement for an SEC women’s basketball game against South Carolina on Sunday afternoon. She shed her usual No. 44 and pulled on Lady Vols guard Cait McMahan’s No. 2 jersey, honoring a teammate who opted last week to forgo playing the rest of the season because of a balky right knee. Fuller will wear No. 2 for the season’s duration.
“I decided to do it because Cait means a lot to me in my life,’’ Fuller said. “There is a lot of heart in the No. 2 jersey.”
On this day, there was a lot of production from the new player wearing it. Fuller led Tennessee with 14 points and had eight rebounds as the Lady Vols scored a 68-56 victory over the Gamecocks.
Freshman guard Shekinna Stricklen added a double-double with 13 points and a team-high 10 rebounds for No. 13 Tennessee (14-3, 3-1 SEC).
There was a Lady Vols precedent for Fuller’s act. She remembered former Lady Vol Shanna Zolman donning teammate Sidney Spencer’s No. 1 jersey on Feb. 24, 2005, after Spencer went down with a season-ending knee injury.
“I just wanted to show her my appreciation as well as the team’s and kind of let her know that we do care about her a lot,” Fuller said of McMahan, “that she is still part of this team and that she will be on the court with us at all times.”
When asked about McMahan’s response, Fuller said, “She said ‘I’m going to cry.’ ”
Fuller’s gesture set a feel-good tone. It was amplified by former Lady Vol Nicky Anosike, the reigning NCAA woman of the year, being recognized beforehand and a turnout of 16,413 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Feeling good about the game took more time and Tennessee effort. South Carolina (8-9, 0-4) shot out to an early advantage and led 24-17 after Brionna Dickerson’s 3-pointer with 9:36 left in the first half.
At that point, Dickerson had four treys, and the Gamecocks were converting at a 60 percent-plus clip.
“It took a while for us to show how important our commitment to defense would be,’’ UT coach Pat Summitt said.
Going with a bigger lineup turned out to be a limited option. Forward Vicki Baugh saw her first action since suffering a sprained left knee Jan. 1. But she looked uncomfortable and played just three first-half minutes. Center Kelley Cain, who suffered irritation in her right knee during Thursday’s game at Mississippi State, didn’t play at all.
The best big option was putting the 6-foot-2 Stricklen on Dickerson. Although she finished with a game-high 17 points, Dickerson scored just five points after her scorching start and ended with 6-for-19 accuracy from the floor.
“At the beginning of the game, I wasn’t composed on my defense and I wasn’t working hard enough,’’ Stricklen said. “In the second half, my teammates carried me and we just came out and stopped her.”
Stricklen could’ve been speaking on behalf of the team. The Lady Vols regrouped before halftime, holding South Carolina to four points during the final eight-plus minutes and 26 for the second half.
“I think it was just that everybody sold out to play defense and everyone sold out to each other,” Fuller said. “We didn’t want to let each other down. We got rid of the drive and had the rotation down. I think it was just that everyone had a different mindset in the second half.”
While the Lady Vols didn’t muster overwhelming firepower, they were too much for the Gamecocks, who fell behind 50-34 at the start of the second half and couldn’t recover.
Besides Dickerson, no South Carolina player scored in double figures. The Gamecocks collectively shot 5-for-13 from the free-throw line.
“We do have some talented players at South Carolina,’’ Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said, “we just don’t have enough.”