COLUMBIA, S.C. — Say this for Tennessee: the Lady Vols weren’t careless with a lead.
Then again they didn’t have much in the way of an advantage against South Carolina on Sunday afternoon. The scoreboard tilted their way one time for all of 29 seconds before a Kelley Cain layup with 1 minute, 57 seconds remaining.
Given a second chance, the Lady Vols protected their second lead like a Marines detail, closing out a 60-55 SEC women’s basketball victory over the Gamecocks before a crowd of 7,122 at Colonial Life Arena.
“There was never any quit,’’ UT coach Pat Summitt said.
Instead, there was poise and determination after Cain’s basket provided a 56-54 advantage. The Lady Vols didn’t allow a South Carolina basket thereafter. The Gamecocks only point down the stretch was a Jewel May free throw.
After a tough jumper by Angie Bjorklund, the Lady Vols forced a crucial turnover when Alicia Manning tipped an inbounds pass with 20 seconds left. Freshman Kamiko Williams caught the deflection and closed it out with two free throws.
Williams finished with a season-high 17 points and a team-high four assists. Alyssia Brewer converted 6 of 8 shot attempts and scored 13 off the bench as Tennessee’s reserves outscored South Carolina’s 32-6.
Starter Cain had 10 points.
“I think we had the mentality we weren’t going to lose this game, no matter what situation we were in,’’ Brewer said.
No. 5 Tennessee (19-2, 7-1 SEC) found itself in a host of predicaments. Led by La’Keisha Sutton’s 19 points and 16 from Valerie Nainima, South Carolina (11-10, 4-5) wasn’t thinking loss either in bolting to a 13-0 lead inside the first four minutes. UT starters Glory Johnson, Angie Bjorklund and Shekinna Stricklen struggled for any scoring traction, combining for 18 points when they usually supply about 41 on average.
Whenever the Lady Vols drew close, the Gamecocks responded. After Brewer’s basket gave UT a 48-47 lead with 7:53 left, Sutton answered with a driving layup at 7:24.
“It was a strong 37 minutes,’’ South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “But to beat a team like Tennessee you need to play the full 40.”
Summitt wasn’t accounting for UT’s minutes in the same fashion, especially not Stricklen’s. The Lady Vols starting point guard was yanked six minutes into the first half and didn’t return until after halftime. Summitt said that she was “absolutely upset” with Stricklen’s start.
“If you’re running a basketball team, you have to bring the intensity and you’ve got to raise everyone else’s level of play through your play,’’ Summitt said.
Stricklen’s absence afforded Williams an opportunity and she seized it, playing a season-high 29 minutes and scoring 10 first-half points as UT whittled the deficit to 26-25 at the break. She said a Summitt history lesson resonated with her.
“Coach gave us this speech saying we’d never lost to South Carolina . . . in a while,’’ Williams said. “We didn’t want to be the team that lost to them.’’
The reference was to Tennessee’s 37-game winning streak in the series, which dates back to 1980. Williams was essential to victory No. 38 in the run, hitting an assortment of bank shots and layups. She swished her first 3-pointer of the season and scored on an acrobatic driving shot in the second half that led to a conventional 3-point play.
“It’s a luxury to not have your starting point guard play well and bring Williams off the bench,’’ Staley said. “She was a matchup problem for us.”
As previously noted, South Carolina created its share of problems for Tennessee, too. The Lady Vols solved them with little time or lead to spare.
“We did not cave in to fatigue,’’ Summitt said. “We fought through some adversity. (The players) pulled together . . . just trying to find a way to win.”