Gamecocks Fight to the Finish

The South Carolina women's basketball team put up an impressive fight against #5 Tennessee, but the severely undersized Gamecocks fell short against the Lady Vols, losing 71-56 at the Colonial Life Arena. Ieasia Walker scored a game-high 24 points in the loss.

Last season it was Kamiko Williams. This season it was Meighan Simmons. For the second consecutive year, it was a freshman guard that provided the spark that the Tennessee Lady Vols needed to defeat South Carolina. Simmons scored 16 points - all in the second half - as the fifth ranked Lady Vols erased an early 12-4 deficit and a late comeback effort to beat the Gamecocks, 71-56, Thursday night at the Colonial Life Arena on the strength of a 51-31 rebounding difference.

"It just came down to hitting shots," Gamecock head coach Dawn Staley said. "I thought our defense was pretty good. Even with the rebound difference, we turned them over to get some of those possessions back. We just didn't hit shots when we needed to hit shots. That's what it came down to."

As was the case last season, the Gamecocks came out and hit the Vols right in the mouth. Carolina built an early 12-4 lead in front of a smaller, yet energized crowd of Gamecock fans. La'Keisha Sutton got the scoring going as she knocked the ball away from Tennessee's Angie Bjorklund and sprinted down court for the uncontested layup. After Bjorklund tied the game on a jumper, Ieasia Walker drilled a three-pointer to give the Gamecocks a 5-2 lead that forced Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt to call a timeout after her team committed three early turnovers. That didn't appear to help as a Simmons turnover led to another Sutton layup and a 7-2 lead. Tennessee finally took advantage of their large size advantage by finding Kelley Cain inside who turned and banked it off the class to trim it to 7-4. A Courtney Newton mid-range jumper made it 9-4 and Ashley Bruner closed out the run with her first of two old fashioned three-point plays to close out the run.

"The biggest thing was that they were pushing tempo and they were running the ball right up our backs," Summitt said. "In terms of the teams we've played this year they are probably in the top two of teams that push off everything. They just really ran and ran after us. I thought we adjusted, but it took us a while to adjust."

From there the Gamecocks would go nearly seven minutes without a point as the Lady Vols went on an 11-0 run capped by Taber Spani three-pointer - her second of the run - as the Lady Vols took their first lead of the game, 15-12. On the Gamecocks' next possession Valerie Nainima drilled a three-pointer to tie it and Walker converted on another fastbreak layup to give the Gamecocks the lead back at 17-15 with 8:31 to play in the half.

After trading several baskets, Spani hit another three-pointer to give the Vols their biggest lead of the half at 24-20 with 4:38 left in the half. The Gamecocks wouldn't allow the Vols to pull away just yet as a Markeshia Grant layup tied it at 26-26 with 2:22 left to play. It was at that point that the Lady Vols began to pull away. Back-to-back baskets from Shekinna Strickland and Alicia Manning gave the Vols a 30-26 lead and Bjorklund nailed a long-distance three to end the half and send the Vols to the locker room with a 33-26 lead.

"I thought that was an important turn for us just to be able to go in with a little bit of space," Summitt said. "It wasn't easy - South Carolina played really tough."

In the second half, the Lady Vols slowly began to pull away behind the play of Simmons. A three-point play by Simmons gave the Vols their first double-digit lead of the game at 40-30. She would end up scoring seven straight points for the Vols in that stretch before Cain converted a three-point play to give the Vols a 47-33 lead as the Gamecocks struggled to put the ball in the basket.

"I was trying to get our players to push the ball up the floor and score early before their height came into play," Staley said. "It bothered us in some of the halfcourt sets, but we still got shots at the basket. The gameplan was executed - we just didn't make shots."

Though the Gamecocks appeared to be running on fumes, Walker put the team on her back. Walker scored 19 of her game-high 24 points in the second half as the Gamecocks began to slowly cut into the large deficit. A Walker three-pointer followed by a Grant steal and layup trimmed the lead to 57-52 with just under five minutes to play.

"She's been playing great basketball for us on both sides of the basketball," Staley said of Walker. "When (someone) scores almost half of your points, you want them taking shots. I liked her effort and what she gave us - we just needed some other players to hit some timely shots."

However, the size advantage of the Vols proved to be too much down the stretch as Strickland, Cain, and Glory Johnson - all of whom are taller than the entire Gamecock roster - scored 10 of the final 14 Volunteer points to pull away at the end.

Walker had eight rebounds, two blocks, and three steals to go along with her 24 points and Sutton added 11 for the Gamecocks. Bruner scored all eight of her points in the first half before going 0-for-6 in the second half.

Stricklen and Cain each had double-double's to go along with Simmons' 16 points. Stricklen had a team-high in both points and rebounds, scoring 18 and pulling down 16 boards. Cain had 11 points and 11 rebounds as the duo nearly finished with as many rebounds as the Gamecocks did as a team.

The Gamecocks are now 10-9 on the season and 2-4 in SEC play, while the Volunteers improved to 18-2 and a perfect 5-0 in SEC play. The Gamecocks return to action Sunday afternoon, hosting Alabama with tipoff at 2:00.

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