Lady Vols sputter against South Carolina

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - The Lady Vols’ offense sputtered while South Carolina ratcheted up its defense to claim the Gamecocks’ first SEC tourney championship. Go inside for game analysis and player video interviews from the locker room.

Tennessee (27-5) had its SEC tourney run stopped by South Carolina (30-2) with a 62-46 loss to the Gamecocks at Verizon Arena on Sunday.

The Lady Vols offered no excuses after the game, but the loss of Bashaara Graves five minutes into the first half with two fouls dealt Tennessee, already playing with a razor-thin margin of error, shorthanded against a deep, post-laden South Carolina team.

Graves sat in a chair in the locker room with her head covered by a towel after she handled press interviews. The two foul calls were atrociously bad - and very few whistles blew against either team after that - and gutted Tennessee’s already depleted post game with 15 minutes left in the first half.

The Lady Vols weathered it, for the most part, thanks to the efforts of Nia Moore, Jaime Nared and Alexa Middleton off the bench, but the toll on Cierra Burdick was underway before halftime.

Burdick, who noted she gave up 30 to 40 pounds to the South Carolina posts, was forced to stay inside and logged 20 minutes in the first half. The senior shot 3-9 from the floor and spent most of the game in collisions with either Gamecocks or the court.

“They’re a physical team across the board, their guards, posts, ’tweeners,” said Burdick, who went the distance of 40 minutes. “Then, the fact they can continue to sub in and out and have a revolving door, that hurts.”

South Carolina’s guards logged extensive minutes, but the Gamecocks rotated four posts, and it wore down Tennessee. The Lady Vols are without senior Isabelle Harrison - who had owned South Carolina in her career - because of a career-ending ACL tear.

Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood stood in a quiet locker room and noted that the title game showed what the staff already knew - the Lady Vols have to overcome depth issues with precise execution on both ends.

Sophomore guard Jordan Reynolds, who helped the Lady Vols get out to a 26-21 lead with 3:59 left in the first half and had 10 points by the break, agreed Tennessee didn’t close out the half well - South Carolina led 29-26 - and sputtered in the second half.

“I tried to stay in attack mode for my teammates just to take some of the pressure off of them,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds, who is 5-11, finished with 17 points and had the highlight of the game when she blocked the 6’5 A’ja Wilson at the rim, grabbed the ball out of the air and threw it off Wilson to create a turnover.

Andraya Carter chipped in with seven points, as did Graves, and Jaime Nared added six points, as did Burdick. Both Reynolds and Burdick were named to the All-Tournament Team.

But the Lady Vols, who had been scorching the nets, shot just 33.3 percent (18-54) overall and 50 percent (6-12) from the line.

Saturday’s semifinal was a physical brawl with Kentucky, and the Lady Vols were leaving shots short on Sunday - an indicator of fatigue.

“I thought Tennessee played a lot of minutes against Kentucky,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “For us, we were probably a lot fresher because we were able to use a lot of different people over the past three days.

“We just tried to keep fresh legs on them. We tried to contest all of their shots. We just tried to make them work extremely hard for everything that they got.”

Tennessee missed at the rim and missed box-outs - though the Lady Vols stayed close on the boards at 38-32 in South Carolina’s favor. It took a toll, and the Gamecocks took advantage, especially by scoring 19 second-chance points to nine for Tennessee.

“We missed layups, and we missed free throws,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “If you don’t get stops at key moments, you don’t keep them off the boards, that’s key, too.

“We needed to make shots that were open, get stops. It boils down to those very simple things. We didn’t.”

The Lady Vols kept turnovers under control at 10 but had just eight assists on 18 made baskets. Reynolds noted player movement was sluggish at times, and cuts were not sharp enough.

One positive Tennessee can take back to Knoxville is the emergence of Nared, who has proven herself to be a gamer. The freshman forward can score at the rim, plays scouting report defense and is an excellent passer.

“I thought she did some really good things,” Warlick said.

Warlick was asked post-game about the national chatter that the Lady Vols were a two seed in the NCAA tourney, and she pulled no punches with her answer.

“We can have the number one RPI, the second-toughest schedule in the country, and it doesn’t matter,” Warlick said. “It doesn’t matter what I think and how hard these kids play.

“I don’t know what we’re going to get. We’re going to take whatever they give us. Seeding and schedule, I’m not convinced that comes into play anywhere. So, we’re going to take what we get.”

The women’s basketball bracket will be unveiled in one week on March 16. The Lady Vols will definitely host the early rounds and have the resume for a one seed.

“All I know is we can take what we get, then we’ll prepare and battle for it,” Warlick said.

Tennessee will benefit from the two weeks between tournaments. The Lady Vols are banged up - Carter spent three days in Little Rock getting floor burns and tweaked her knee and ankle - and ready for some rest. Warlick planned to take off two days and then get back on the court.

“We’re hurting right now, but I know this team,” Warlick said. “I know what Tennessee teams do: We go back to work. We’re going to learn from this. We’ll be a better team because of it.”

GAME HIGHLIGHTS FROM UTSPORTSTV

INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO

Bashaara Graves

Jaime Nared

Jordan Reynolds

Andraya Carter

Alexa Middleton

Ariel Massengale

Cierra Burdick

Dean Lockwood


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