South Carolina (18-5, 7-3) had just defeated Tennessee (16-6, 7-2) for the first time since 1980, and the Lady Vols had sustained their first defeat at home in the SEC in four years. LSU was the last league team to claim a win in Knoxville in 2008.
"To say we didn't play particularly well for 40 minutes tonight would be an understatement but you have to credit South Carolina for that," Coach Pat Summitt said. "They executed a great game plan from start to finish and showed it over and over and over for 40 minutes."
The Gamecocks took a page out of Summitt's book and won the game with offensive rebounding, none bigger than the one at the end of the game that allowed South Carolina to seal the win at the line and keep the ball away from Tennessee.
The Lady Vols prevailed overall on the boards, 44-36, but both teams had 13 offensive ones and South Carolina got 14 second-chance points to 12 for Tennessee.
"It's a combination of mixed box-outs, hustle plays, long boards, and I think South Carolina wanted the ball more, especially at the end," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said.
"The last play, we had a chance to get a rebound and they got to the ball before we did. It was just effort. Rebounding is heart and effort, and if you don't have that, you're not going to be a great rebounding team.
"I didn't think we rebounded with a lot of passion tonight."
Tennessee had trailed for much of the game and was down 29-28 at halftime because South Carolina's Markeshia Grant was 6-9 from the floor and had 15 points by the break.
"My teammates La'Keisha (Sutton) and Ieasia (Walker) found me numerous times, and I was just confident in my shot, and I knocked it down," Grant said.
Grant wasn't done. She added 12 more points in the second half, including a three off a Tennessee turnover to pull South Carolina to within two points, 57-55, with 3:57 to play.
"Obviously, it looked like we couldn't find her," Summitt said. "Give Markeshia credit for knocking down seven three-pointers and her teammates for getting the ball to her. She gave her team a lot of energy."
Grant easily escaped the defense of Tennessee's perimeter defenders – she hit three treys in the first six minutes of the second half – before Kamiko Williams entered the game and shut Grant down for a 10-minute stretch.
"(The coaches) told me to face guard her, limit her touches, don't let her get jump shots off, and I did the best that I could do," Williams said. "At the end she had 27."
Only three of those points came when Williams guarded her and that was in transition when Williams went deep into the paint, and Grant spotted up for a three and nailed it.
"We lost Grant, she hit a three, so now they're back in the game," Warlick said.
The Lady Vols had seemingly seized control of the game with a 57-50 lead after Williams was stopped on a drive and then swished a turn-around jumper with 4:58 left in the game.
"We took a seven-point lead with five minutes to go, and we just couldn't capitalize on it," Summitt said. "We are extremely disappointed in the play of our team tonight."
Tennessee was still in control, 60-55, after Glory Johnson got a stick-back with 3:37 to play, but Ashley Bruner got an offensive putback to trim the lead to 60-57, and Aleighsa Welch converted a layup off a Tennessee turnover to cut the lead to 60-59 with 2:57 to play.
"The point guard can't have four turnovers in the game and just credit their defense, because they made plays when they needed to," Ariel Massengale said, referring to her shaky play down the stretch.
South Carolina took the lead, 61-60, on a layup by Ieasia Walker and converted three free throws for the final 64-60 margin. La'Keisha Sutton swished the final two with 12 seconds to go.
"I felt pretty confident," Sutton said. "I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous, but my team kept telling me you're a good free throw shooter, and we believe in you and that just gave me more energy and motivation to really knock those free throws down, not only for myself, but for my team and the whole program of South Carolina."
The Lady Vols went over three minutes without scoring – and missed two layups over that stretch – and failed to box out on the defensive end, which gave South Carolina second chances.
"Hats off to South Carolina," Warlick said. "I thought they had big plays when they needed to, hit big shots. We get everybody's best, no matter if we're home or away.
"We didn't have an answer for them the last four minutes of the game. We didn't have an answer for their runs."
Warlick and the players mentioned the team's lack of energy to start the game, a situation they never cycled out of and South Carolina capitalized.
"We just weren't disciplined tonight," Warlick said. "We weren't disciplined to force them to their weak hand. We weren't disciplined to stay on our feet inside the post. We gave up too many and-one plays. You could just keep going down the line.
"To me, we were flat. We were not very inspired. Teams come in here to give us their best shot, and we can't be average and expect to win. We just can't do it."
South Carolina took full advantage of its scouting report as the play was to get Johnson in foul trouble and get the posts off their feet.
"We needed Glory Johnson not to play as many minutes because we know she is a difficult matchup for us," South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said. "We wanted to go at her and draw some fouls, just put her back on her heels a little bit, and I felt we accomplished that once we stuck to the game plan.
"Our game plan was to get her off her feet by pump faking twice, and finally, we got our players to lock in on that in the second half and we drew some fouls, and she didn't play as many minutes as she usually plays."
Johnson, who logged 26 minutes, offered no excuses for the poor performance after the game.
"We have the fan support," Johnson said. "We have home-court advantage. We're sleeping in our own beds before the game. We're having a great pregame meal. We're completely prepared with the scouting report from our coaches, so this loss is on us.
"There are no excuses. I can't think of one thing that I could give you an excuse for why we lost this game, but we just weren't ready to play. Our defense was awful."
South Carolina was led by Grant with 27 points. Sutton also reached double figures with 12 points and Walker added 11.
The Gamecocks shot 39.4 percent (26-66) overall, 31.8 percent (7-22) from the arc and 35.7 percent (5-14) from the line. South Carolina had 12 assists, four turnovers, seven steals and two blocks.
Staley and her team presented Tyler Summitt with a check for $20,000 for the Alzheimer's Association that they raised via donations and pledges after the team participated in a fund-raiser walk last fall. Tennessee native and South Carolina football Coach Steve Spurrier, who was in attendance Thursday and is a close friend of Summitt's, made a major contribution.
The Gamecock players also wore "We Back Pat" T-shirts in warm-ups.
"She just said great job," Staley said when asked what Summitt said after the game. "She did come up to us before the game and thanked us for backing her.
"It is truly our pleasure, and I'm glad our players got a chance to experience this experience, knowing the tradition of Tennessee and by far, this is the biggest win of my career."
Tennessee was led by Johnson with 13 points and nine boards. Shekinna Stricklen added eight points and 10 rebounds, while Massengale reached double figures with 12 points.
Tennessee shot 41.4 percent (24-58) overall, 12.5 percent (1-8) from long range and 73.3 percent (11-15) from the line. The Lady Vols had seven assists, 11 turnovers and six blocks.
The Lady Vols will return to practice Friday. They host Auburn on Sunday at 2 p.m. Eastern (TV: SEC Network).
"We'll see tomorrow at practice if we will learn from this loss," Summitt said. "To be honest, this is a very difficult loss to think about right now."
INSIDE TENNESSEE'S TAKE
The Lady Vols have devoted considerable practice time to defense after the Christmas break and the result has been three more losses, largely due to the inability to stop the other team's best player.
The latest opponent to light up Tennessee was South Carolina's Markeshia Grant, who hit seven three-pointers and was 10-21 overall for 27 points.
It is not a problem with an easy solution, either. Tennessee has struggled to find combinations that can play on both ends of the floor all season. The better defenders leave the team vulnerable on offense, and the better scorers leave the team vulnerable on defense.
Kamiko Williams is one of the players who can be effective on both ends, but she is still getting in game shape after ACL surgery last summer. She can't play extended minutes yet, but she does help Tennessee when she is on the court.
After Grant ran roughshod over several defenders, Williams entered the game and did a much better job of not letting her catch the ball where she wanted to receive it.
"I just thought when she went in, she made a difference," Holly Warlick said. "Her stamina, she's not quite there in the conditioning part, so we were trying to play her sparingly and use her (as needed).
"I thought she stepped up big for us. She had big baskets. We need her presence, so we need her to get healthy and we need her to get in better shape."
If Williams can get up to speed, she also can relieve Ariel Massengale at the point spot for a few minutes. Massengale went 40 minutes and her shooting line – 4-14 – reflected it, as did her uncharacteristic late turnovers, one of which shifted the momentum back to the Gamecocks late in the game.
"Doing OK, caught a few cramps toward the end of the second half," Massengale said when asked about going the distance. "Jenny Moshak is one of the best, and she took care of me and told me to push through it and just try to play hard for my team.
"(That's) something that I'm going to have to do. It's getting towards the end, so we've just got to push through."
If Williams, an excellent ball handler with experience at the point and a proven scorer, can work her way back into the regular rotation, Massengale won't have to push through it and can get a few minutes of relief.
But Williams isn't the only X factor if Tennessee is going to get a chance to fulfill any of its goals this season. Taber Spani, who is just now getting back from a bone bruise injury, logged 31 minutes for the Lady Vols. That was the good news.
But she has been out of practice for a month, and her shot is rusty. That is the bad news.
However, Spani has shown the ability to find her stroke with little practice before, and she has the month of February to sort that out.
Meighan Simmons has shown the ability to score in the open floor and needs to use her speed on both ends. When Simmons plays with high energy on defense, she creates scoring chances for herself and her teammates.
A consistent lineup to start the game might help overall, but Tennessee is dependent on matchups right now.
For example, South Carolina was a bad matchup for Vicki Baugh. She tends to struggle against small, pesky teams who get their hands on the ball in the paint, and she did so Thursday. Baugh logged just nine minutes, and Isabelle Harrison, a good post defender who has struggled all season with ball security, didn't enter the game. The Gamecock guards would have feasted on the ball every time it was dribbled and stripped it clean inside.
That is the predicament the Lady Vol coaches have right now. If they address one area of concern, another issue arises. They also haven't been able to find a starting combination that plays with consistency on both ends of the court.
They did have it at the beginning of the season, but injuries to Spani and Massengale caused the lineup and rotations to shift.
The Lady Vols have been looking for some stability ever since and it shows in how the defense breaks down and the offense stalls.
The one consistent performer on both ends has been Glory Johnson, whose frustration with teammates not following the scouting report seems to be escalating. Grant was the latest beneficiary of the Lady Vols inattentiveness or unwillingness to play defense.
"One thing I think we stressed on, the coaches stressed on, in the scouting report was force her left, and she was hitting a lot of jump shots," Johnson said.
"Whenever she put it down with her right hand, she would pull up. A player like that can't come to Tennessee and have 27 points on our floor. She basically led her team to the victory tonight."
One solution might be to put Johnson on the other team's best player, whether a post or a guard. She is the team's one defensive stopper. But if she gets in foul trouble, Tennessee is in big trouble, as was evident against South Carolina.
It's the story of the season. Every possible solution creates another problem to address.
The Lady Vols have only one course of action right now.
"Back to work," Johnson said. "It's not the end of our season, so focus on the next game. Be ready for the next game."
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Kamiko Williams, Glory Johnson, Ariel Massengale
Coach Dawn Staley, Markeshia Grant, La'Keisha Sutton