COLUMBIA, S.C. — Tennessee made shots all night long on Thursday, operating its offense strictly within the proverbial zone.
It took some strategy to get to a similar place on defense.
The combination allowed the Lady Vols to turn a close game into a 73-53 SEC women’s basketball victory over South Carolina before a crowd of 3,939 at Colonial Life Arena.
Taber Spani and Isabelle Harrison led No. 12 Tennessee (10-3, 1-0 SEC) with 18 points apiece.
Along with tying her career scoring high, Harrison also had career highs for rebounds (14) and blocks (seven).
“It starts with my defense,” Harrison said. “I love it when we’re energetic and passionate about it.”
Spani, meanwhile, matched her career high for 3-pointers (four).
Overall, Tennessee shot 50 percent from the floor (28 for 56) against a team that had been holding its opponents to 32.9 percent accuracy. Tennessee’s points surpassed what South Carolina typical allows by 28.
“I was concerned they would force us to quick-shoot the basketball,” UT coach Holly Warlick said. “I thought we took good shots. Offensively we stuck to our game plan. We didn’t take ill-advised shots.
Tiffany Mitchell led No. 18 South Carolina (12-2) with 14 points. The Gamecocks couldn’t match UT’s accuracy, not by a long shot. They finished at 29 percent (20 for 69).
In a game that featured three ties and nine lead changes, the Lady Vols went exclusively to a zone alignment early in the second half. While the Gamecocks were missing 10 consecutive shots, the Lady Vols parlayed several transition opportunities into a 14-point scoring run and a 53-40 lead with 11:33 left.
“They were just being big,” Gamecocks guard Ieasia Walker said. “They were forcing us to shoot the outside shot. It wasn’t our night.”
Harrison scored from all points on the floor in hitting six of her first seven shots and scoring 12 in the first half. UT shot 54.2 percent from the floor (12 for 22) in the first 20 minutes.
The Gamecocks kept pace by dominating taller UT on the boards. They were within 32-31 at halftime on the strength of 11 offensive rebounds, which translated into a 12-0 edge in second-chance points.
If the Gamecocks weren’t benefiting from their quickness, they simply outfought the Lady Vols for the ball. Their final trip up the floor was extended by three offensive rebounds and ended with two free throws by Ashley Bruner.
“We had a good talk at half,” Warlick said. “We can bottle that talk, but we can’t repeat it.”
Along with thwarting South Carolina’s drives to the basket, the Lady Vols’ zone also enabled them to regain control of the boards. After being outrebounded 21-9 in the first half, they closed the final deficit to 40-39.
“South Carolina is a great penetrating team and a great offensive rebounding team,” Spani said. “We had to pack it in. I thought that helped our rebounding.”
Burdick Update: While there was no official update from UT about Cierra Burdick, the sophomore forward said on Twitter on Wednesday night that she hopes to return in a month after suffering a fractured right hand on Monday.