COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Tennessee coach Holly Warlick has sweated out plenty of Southeastern Conference openers during her assistant's career alongside school great Pat Summitt. The Lady Volunteers made sure Warlick wouldn't have to worry over the ending of her first SEC game as the team's head coach.
Isabelle Harrison tied her career best with 18 points and set career highs with 14 rebounds and seven blocks as No. 12 Tennessee rallied with a big second half to beat No. 18 South Carolina 73-53 to start SEC play Thursday night.
Tennessee (10-3) hadn't lost its opening SEC game since 1997, yet they trailed 35-32 after Tiffany Mitchell's bucket early in the second half. That's when Warlick's group cranked things up and took control with a 35-7 run the next 13 minutes.
It gave Warlick her first SEC victory and another moment to treasure as she takes over for her friend, Summitt.
"I've worked with Pat for so long and I'm just trying to continue what a legendary coach has started," Warlick said.
Harrison, a sophomore, gives Warlick's club a strong foundation to build on. Harrison took control of the middle, swatting down Gamecock attempts and grabbing most loose balls.
It was the defense, Warlick said, that turned things around in the game-breaking run.
Ariel Massengale tied the game at 35-all with a 3-pointer before Harrison's inside basket put the Lady Vols in front. Meighan Simmons' layup gave Tennessee the lead for good, 41-40. Harrison put back Simmons' miss on the next possession and the rout was on.
When Taber Spani connected on her second 3-pointer, Tennessee led 67-42.
"The first half was nerve-wracking for us," Warlick said. "Then we settled down and decided to play defense."
Mitchell led the Gamecocks (12-2, 0-1) with 14 points.
Spani finished with 18 points on 4 of 5 shooting from behind the arc for Tennessee. Massengale scored 13 and Simmons finished with 10 points, eight of those in those in the second half.
The Gamecocks had no answers for the 6-foot-3 Harrison, who made 9 of 12 baskets and had her way with South Carolina's post players in Ashley Bruner and Aleighsa Welch — both 6-foot.
South Carolina struggled from the field, shooting 29 percent (20 of 69) for the game. None of the Gamecocks' nine players finished over 50 percent shooting. Welch, the team's leading scorer coming in, was just 3 of 7 for six points, less than half her average.
South Carolina point guard Leasia Walker said Tennessee was able to shut down the Gamecocks and break free for easy shots. "It's tough because it's a game of runs and the momentum was all on Tennessee's side in the second half," she said.
Tennessee and South Carolina both entered the matchup trying to regain their strides after some high-profile defeats. The Lady Vols had won two straight since dropping games to defending national champ Baylor and then-No. 1 Stanford before Christmas. The Gamecocks had their program-tying best-ever start at 10-0 ended by Stanford two weeks ago and have since rebounded with blowout victories over South Carolina State and Western Carolina.
The Lady Vols haven't lost in Columbia since 1980 and are 43-2 all-time against South Carolina coming in. One of those defeats, though, came last February in Knoxville, ending Tennessee's 40-game series win streak.
The Lady Vols erased that defeat a month later, upending the Gamecocks in the SEC semifinals on the way to the league tournament title.
Tennessee's height proved critical early on as Harrison was not challenged underneath. She made 6 of 7 shots, mostly all from close in, as the Lady Vols opened a 32-29 lead in the final minute of the opening half. Bruner's two foul shots with 2.8 seconds remaining before the break, though, drew the Gamecocks within a point, 32-31.
Harrison also had two of Tennessee's three blocked shots in the opening period and seven of the team's 11 overall.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said her team's problems came from missing shots, not from faltering on defense. The Gamecocks led the SEC in scoring defense coming in and had only twice had opponents score more than 50, but they're 11th in league shooting percentage.
"We just hit that through winning," Staley said with a laugh.
The Lady Vols were playing without injured starter Cierra Burdick. The team announced Tuesday she was out indefinitely with a broken bone in her right hand. Burdick started 11 of the first 12 games and was averaging 8.8 points and 6.5 rebounds.