South Carolina shot out of the starting blocks with 20 points in the first seven minutes Thursday night, creating an instant replay for Pat Summitt.
“Didn’t it remind you of our last game?” the Tennessee women’s basketball coach asked.
The resemblance was uncanny, considering Oklahoma did likewise Sunday night.
In this case, the Lady Vols weren’t saved by their scoring as much as their defense in a 79-62 SEC victory over the Gamecocks.
But No. 4 Tennessee (13-1, 1-0 SEC), which had shot better than 50 percent from the floor for the past three games, cooled to 36.7 percent accuracy in the second half and scored just 32 points. UT’s defense moved to center stage for the closing act, limiting South Carolina (7-7, 0-2) to 10 second-half field goals.
Better late than never for the Lady Vols, who were inspired by something they’ve seen before.
“Well, Coach Summitt’s look stirs a fire in us,’’ said center Kelley Cain, who had six blocks. “We just came together and decided that they weren’t going to beat us in our house, especially not when we had fans come out despite the bad weather.”
The Gamecocks had three players score in double figures, led by guard Valerie Nainima’s 16 points. Furthermore, they didn’t let their size disadvantage prevent them from staking a claim to the foul lane, where they had a 28-26 scoring advantage and were narrowly outrebounded by UT, 38-37.
Combine those feats with their 20-16 lead at the outset and it was clear the Gamecocks meant business.
UT likely benefited from rallying under similar circumstances for Sunday’s 96-75 victory over the Sooners. However, they didn’t appear to be better for the experience at the beginning.
“Everyone that we have played is coming in and just running it up our backs,’’ Summitt said. “Obviously, what other teams are seeing is that our weakness is our transition defense.”
Conversely, UT’s strength is Bjorklund, who scored 11 of her game-high 23 points during 15-point flurry that gave Tennessee the lead for good, 31-20.
Bjorklund shot 9 for 15 from the floor and was 5 for 8 on 3 pointers.
“She feels like every time she shoots the ball it is going to go in,’’ Summitt said. “Believe it or not, I’m starting to think like her. That’s a good feeling.”
While Bjorklund was heating up, Cain was recording two of her blocks. One looked more like a steal as she all but plucked the ball out of La’Keisha Sutton’s hands.
“I think we improved our man-to-man defense,’’ said Stricklen, who had three blocks, along with 21 points and six assists. “If they get by us, Kelley was right there blocking shots, which really helped us. Stopping penetration is our weakness right now and that’s what we have to work on.”
South Carolina, on the other hand, needed a second scoring wind and couldn’t find it.
“We got tired,’’ South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “I guess they tired us out.”