"I'm just going to enjoy this win," said coach Holly Warlick, who seemed both thrilled and relieved in the post-game press conference. "I hope we get to the finals, if they're still in, to play again.
"The SEC tournament, you couldn't decide who was going to be what number until after today's game, so it ought to be fun. It ought to be a fun tournament."
The Lady Vols will next play at the Arena at Gwinnett Center at 6 p.m. Friday against the winner of Thursday's game between LSU and Alabama. The Tigers and Crimson Tide played Sunday, with Alabama handing LSU its sixth straight loss.
It was that kind of season in the SEC – LSU dominated in January, including a win over Tennessee in Knoxville, and then limped through February. The trophy in Duluth is literally up for grabs with several teams having a legitimate shot at the hardware.
Tennessee's focus was narrowed Sunday – get the win to claim the No. 2 seed and honor Meighan Simmons on Senior Day. The format was slightly different in past years in that Simmons was honored about 12 minutes before tipoff with her family and coaching staff.
"I thought I was going to cry, but I didn't," Simmons said. "I was strong enough to hold my tears back. But it was very exciting to have my family out there, but I knew a lot of people were saying, ‘This is your day. This is Senior Night,' but tonight really wasn't about me, it was about this team.
"It was about us getting a W and taking care of business and trying to think about the future. As I say, this may have been my last home game in the regular season, but we still have a lot more games to play."
After the ceremony, the players went through another warm-up session of shooting and free throws. That approach seemed to get them squarely focused on the game, especially Isabelle Harrison, who scored the game's first six points followed by a jumper from Simmons for an 8-2 lead just two minutes into the game.
Harrison, who was 9-11 from the field for 20 points, scored at the rim and with an assortment of post moves, including a shot fake that allowed her to easily slip past the defender.
"Dean (Lockwood) told us that before the game that they have very good posts, but we have a good first step," said Harrison, who completed the double-double with 15 boards. "He told us to shot fake and go around, and it worked."
The Gamecocks have a formidable frontline that likes to score in the paint and block shots. However, South Carolina swatted just five against Tennessee and met resistance inside. The Gamecocks got 46 of their 61 points in the paint – the offensive approach was to attack and get fouled – but the Lady Vols did an excellent job of challenging those shots. South Carolina shot 38.5 percent (25-65) overall and 12.5 percent (1-8) from long range.
"We are a lot more efficient team than what we displayed," Coach Dawn Staley said. "Part of it is the faster pace of the game. They forced us to play fast and take quicker shots than we would normally take.
"Tennessee had a lot to do with it because they wanted to get up and down in transition. We just tried to keep up with their pace."
Warlick kept the turnstile spinning at the scorer's table by design as the pace was up-tempo and the play was physical, especially on the glass.
"I think we had to use our bench because it was fast. It was physical," Warlick said. "We got a little tired, had to give everybody a little breather and the people that came in – Jasmine Jones was just incredible. I thought she was going to hit her head on the rim a couple of times rebounding.
"But she and Jordan (Reynolds) and Mercedes (Russell), they all came in and did their part. They did their part. They maintained what we got off to a great start on."
Jones' athleticism was on display on both ends – she drained two picture-perfect jumpers – and she got on the boards and fought for the ball. She also pestered the South Carolina ball handlers, and Tennessee's posts credited the guards for their defensive work. The Gamecocks rarely got an open look from the perimeter.
"I think we really did our job tonight, especially from the guard position," Harrison said. "We really frustrated the outside game, as well, so they really had to depend on the inside. I think we took care of that as well."
South Carolina won the SEC by being stingy on defense and balanced on offense. The Lady Vols saw plenty of that defense and struggled at times to find the net – they shot 42.0 percent overall and 20.0 percent from long range – but three players reached double figures and Tennessee maintained control of the game from tip to final buzzer.
The crowd of 14,072 clearly enjoyed the game – when not screaming at the officials – and gave Simmons a standing ovation when she departed with 1:28 left to play. They also stood for the final 30 seconds and chanted "it's great to be a Tennessee Lady Vol."
Tennessee dropped home games to LSU and Kentucky this season, thus the two seed, and seemed ready to send a statement that while South Carolina won the SEC, the Lady Vols were still a factor.
"I think it was a huge opportunity," Andraya Carter said. "It was a great game for us, and South Carolina is a great basketball team. They showed it. Their ranking showed it."
South Carolina is ranked No. 4/5, while Tennessee checked it a 10/9. It was the Lady Vols' first win over a top five opponent since a defeat of Stanford on Dec. 19, 2010.
"It's huge for us," Warlick said. "We talked a lot about seeding for the SEC tournament. We talked a lot about seeding for the NCAA Tournament, and we thought it was really important for us to go out and make a statement and I thought obviously we did."
Tennessee led at halftime 38-30, and the lead remained in single digits for most of the second half, with Tennessee making some crowd-pleasing plays. When Simmons got blocked on the perimeter by Aleighsa Welch, who grabbed the carom for a fast break, Simmons sprinted down to challenge the layup. Welch missed, and Carter, who also scooted down court, grabbed the defensive board. She found Cierra Burdick on the baseline for a reverse layup and a 47-38 lead.
The Lady Vols kept the up-tempo pace – handled well by Carter and Jordan Reynolds – and pushed the lead to double digits for good, 57-47, on a Simmons jumper. One of the highlight reel plays came when Simmons found Mercedes Russell in stride for a layup and a 65-51 lead.
The pass was indicative of the evolvement of Simmons game. When the defense came, instead of trying to force a shot, she fired the ball to Russell.
Simmons scored 16 points and had three assists and a steal in her final regular season game at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"I can only imagine the type of pressure she feels, but she delivered," Warlick said. "The only senior and I thought she delivered today. I thought for the most part she took good shots. She played solid defense. She passed the ball.
"I thought it was another great game for Meighan and I think she's hitting full stride right now."
Simmons' teammates surrounded her after the framed jersey presentation and the senior was all smiles.
"I wanted to play hard for Meighan, it being her senior night, and we had to protect our house," Harrison said.
The Gamecocks, which had a loud pre-game cheering section, were gracious after the game.
"We just got beat by a good team on their court," said Tiffany Mitchell, who tallied 11 points and eight boards. "We are just going to take this and turn around and be ready for the SEC tournament."
Ariel Massengale warmed up with the team, but there were no signs that she was any closer to returning to the court. The junior point guard has now missed 10 consecutive games. The Lady Vols went 9-1 over that time, thanks to Carter, Reynolds and Simmons.
Carter played 32 minutes Sunday and was the third player to reach double digits for Tennessee with 14 points.
"I can't say enough. She's a competitor," Warlick said. "When you have a competitor and an intelligent player … I think Andraya gets better and better each game. She's stepped up.
"She and Jordan have stepped up, and they've been big for us. They run their team out on the floor. They're vocal. They're leaders and we've needed that. They've just been big for us; they really have."
Massengale's official status remain days to day, but the Lady Vols are likely preparing for postseason with Carter at the helm. The redshirt freshman guard had two assists and no turnovers against South Carolina and has shown the ability to run the team and take care of the ball. Carter and Reynolds have combined for an outstanding 121 assists and 69 turnovers.
As a team, Tennessee had just seven turnovers against the Gamecocks.
"That was a huge deal because as everyone knows we've struggled with turnovers a little bit this season," Carter said. "The fact that we had seven turnovers against a top five team and a great defensive team, it's huge for us.
"South Carolina is so athletic. They're known for their defense. We took care of the basketball, which is something we know we have to do in postseason."
Harrison set the tone to open the game. The junior forward had a stellar game last season in Columbia, and she continued that in Knoxville.
"The thing about Isabelle is that she is a real tough matchup for us," Staley said. "We have to figure out what to do if we want to win an SEC Tournament championship. We have to learn how to slow her down and not allow her to be as efficient as she has been the past couple of times that we have played her.
"Our bigs had a tough night tonight. We can use this as a teaching tool for our basketball team. We will learn from this."
One game after pouring in a career-high 22 points against LSU, Burdick was 1-11 against the Gamecocks. But the junior forward grabbed eight boards – Tennessee prevailed 48-39 on the glass and allowed just eight offensive boards for South Carolina – and tallied two assists.
Bashaara Graves added seven points and seven boards and had some beast mode plays that the Lady Vols will need in postseason.
"When she's in the game we feed off of each other so well," Harrison said. "I see her easily in the post, and she sees me easily in the post. I tell her I'm going to pass the ball to her, just go to work and that's what we do. I just love playing with her."
The Lady Vols next go to work in Duluth. They didn't get the regular season trophy but they got a measure of redemption in the head-to-head matchup.
"It was a pride factor today," Warlick said. "We're going to compete and I thought we did that today."
Game highlights via utsportstv
Senior Day for Meighan Simmons via utsportstv
Andraya Carter, Meighan Simmons, Isabelle Harrison
Dawn Staley, Tiffany Mitchell, Elem Ibiam