Tennessee seized its first win on the road against a top five team since 2007 – the last time was when Candace Parker dunked on Connecticut – with the 76-74 victory over No. 4 South Carolina.
Tennessee (14-7, 5-3) took the lead in the fourth quarter and then held on against South Carolina (18-2, 8-1) at Colonial Life Arena.
Diamond DeShields and Jaime Nared combined for 47 points, and Nared sealed the game at the free throw line in front of a frenzied crowd of 13,360 in Columbia.
“She stepped up in pressure situations, the crowd was killing her, and she hit shots,” Coach Holly Warlick said.
Nared had hit a free throw in practice Monday with her eyes closed – something she attempts on a regular basis – but she keeps them open in the game. The junior forward said repetition – also known as repeatable shot form – is key.
“I work on it mentally,” said Nared, who seemed just as excited that the team would go get ice cream after the game for the first time this season. “Take your time and know it’s going in.”
Nared got to the line for the winning free throws with the game tied and 5.9 seconds left after a questionable blocking foul was called on Tyasha Harris, though Nared was tripped. However, with under three minutes to play and the Lady Vols up 69-62, DeShields sprinted on defense to knock away a sure layup by Alaina Coates.
Replays showed the ball went out on Coates, but it was awarded to South Carolina, and Coates found Mikiah Herbert Harrigan on the in-bounds play to cut the lead to 69-64. Both calls shifted momentum for the respective teams – and Nared, who hit Tennessee’s last basket to put the Lady Vols up 71-67 with 46 seconds left, seized her opportunity to win the game.
After the Lady Vols lost to Mississippi State in just the third game of the SEC season – leaving just Mississippi State and South Carolina undefeated in the league – Warlick acknowledged how hard it was to run the table in the SEC.
“It’s a tough league; it’s just a tough league. I don’t know if anyone can go through here undefeated,” Warlick said after the Jan. 8 game in Knoxville.
A week ago, South Carolina defeated Mississippi State, pinning the Bulldogs with their first loss. A week later, the Lady Vols took down the Gamecocks. No SEC team emerged unscathed in the month of January and the race for the top – and those coveted four byes in the SEC tourney – are up for grabs now.
“It’s a great win for our team,” Nared said. “It’s great for our confidence. We knew we could battle top teams. It was a fun game. We played hard the entire game.”
The Lady Vols took a 39-36 lead at halftime – aided by the stellar play of DeShields on both ends of the floor with 12 points, five boards, four assists, two steals and two charges taken in the first 20 minutes. Nared notched 10 points before the break, while Mercedes Russell added eight. The big three for Tennessee delivered for the Lady Vols.
South Carolina, meanwhile, was hindered after its one-two punch inside, Alaina Coates and A’ja Wilson, missed parts of the first half with two fouls – Coates played just four minutes, while Wilson logged 11. Wilson was 4-5 from the field before picking up her second foul. The Gamecocks out-rebounded the Lady Vols, 21-13, but it was guard Allisha Gray who did the most glass work before the break with six boards.
“When you don’t have your bigs out there, it’s hard,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said.
Wilson didn’t spend much time on the court in the third quarter after she was called for a foul on Nared and followed that with a technical – and her fourth foul – for protesting the call rather vociferously. Nared made all four free throws for Tennessee. But the Lady Vols went cold offensively in the third quarter – and, this time, it didn’t affect the defense. At the end of the third quarter, the Lady Vols trailed by just one point, 53-52.
DeShields got Tennessee the lead to start the fourth quarter with a jumper, 54-53, and the game seemed to be setting up the same as the last “Big Monday” matchup with a battle until the end. The Lady Vols built a 65-56 lead on a three-pointer by Alexa Middleton with 6:30 play and then a DeShields jumper to put Tennessee up 69-58 with 5:06 to play. But South Carolina surged, and Tennessee clung to its shrinking lead.
“We kept our composure the whole game,” Warlick said. “I can’t say enough about how hard our kids played.”
DeShields was swarmed by three defenders and found a wide-open Nared for the Lady Vols’ last bucket and the 71-67 lead with 46 seconds left. Just as she did against Notre Dame a week ago, Nared stuck the shot. However, a three by Bianca Cuevas-Moore tied the game at 75-75 with 15 seconds left. Then, it was Nared’s turn again at the line, and she sealed the win.
“Who better to put on the line than Jamie,” Warlick said.
DeShields and Nared went the distance, while Russell logged 38 minutes.
“It’s a mentality,” Nared said. “It’s not so much getting tired as wanting to get a win.”
Warlick especially was pleased that the Lady Vols executed the scouting report defense to the letter, especially DeShields’ pressure and energy.
“Her presence on the ball … when you have that stance and you’re athletic like that … her defense was outstanding,” Warlick said.
The head coach also praised how Jordan Reynolds ran the team overall – and didn’t let her missed shots affect her defense – and the effort of Russell inside, especially on the offensive glass.
“I think she did a heck of a job,” Warlick said.
Tennessee shot 49.2 percent (29-59) overall, 37.5 percent (3-8) from the arc and 71.4 percent (15-21) from the line. The Lady Vols had 14 assists, seven steals, two blocks and just nine turnovers.
Nared finished with a career-high 27 points and added five rebounds, three assists and three steals. DeShields notched 21 points with eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks, two steals and just one turnover. Russell added 16 points and completed the double-double with 10 rebounds. Middleton tallied eight points and logged 29 minutes with just one turnover.
South Carolina shot 45.9 percent (28-61) overall, 35.7 percent (5-14) from the arc and 76.5 percent (13-17) from the line. The Gamecocks had 10 assists, 13 turnovers, five steals and two blocks. South Carolina prevailed on the glass, 36-28.
Cuevas-Moore led South Carolina with 18 points, and Gray and Wilson added 14 each. Kaela Davis notched 15 points and connected on two three-pointers.
Tennessee has now beaten three top 10 teams this season, including the defeats of No. 6 Notre Dame on Jan. 16 and No. 10 Stanford on Dec. 18. The Lady Vols, however, have been out of the top 25 poll for nearly two months and will need to beat LSU at home this Thursday and Georgia on the road this Sunday to get back in it.
“We have to take this momentum and play like this every time we step on the court,” Nared said.
It’s a short turn-around to Thursday when the Lady Tigers come to Knoxville for the annual breast cancer awareness game. Champions for a Cause, the foundation set up by Warlick and LSU Coach Nikki Caldwell Fargas, is one of the breast cancer groups that will be in the spotlight for the “Live Pink. Bleed Orange” game.
But Warlick was going to savor the South Carolina win, at least for the evening before getting ready Tuesday for LSU.
“It was awesome,” Warlick said. “I am going to enjoy every minute of it.”