"Overall, we struggled at times, but one thing that we did down the stretch is we found a way to win," Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt said. "Just executing and trying to free up our shooters and getting paint points, I thought we had a pretty good mix of that, which to me is a big difference."
When Alyssia Brewer hit a turnaround jumper at the 7:48 mark of the second half, it marked the first time Tennessee led in the game with the score 48-47 in favor of the Lady Vols. But it was short-lived as La'Keisha Sutton drove to the basket and Kelsey Bone slipped to the rim and the Gamecocks were back up 51-48.
Brewer had pulled Tennessee to within one, 42-41, after shooting over Bone, drawing the foul, and completing the and-one play at the line with 10:48 left in the game, but South Carolina extended the lead to six, 47-41, on a three-pointer from Valerie Nainima and transition layup from Sutton.
That led to a 30-second timeout from Summit, and the Lady Vols responded with Brewer cutting the lead to 47-43, and Kamiko Williams driving to the basket, drawing contact and flipping the ball in backwards for the basket and the foul. Williams completed the and-one play at the line and the Lady Vols were back within one, 47-46, before Brewer hit the jumper for the first Lady Vol lead.
It took one more comeback for Tennessee to get the lead for good. Shekinna Stricklen found Brewer inside to pull the Lady Vols to within one, 51-50, with 5:12 left in the game, and Bone hit one of two free throws after being fouled by Kelley Cain for the 52-50 lead. Williams knotted the score at 52-52 with another drive to the basket.
Charenee Stephens got a wide-open weak-side layup after Bone found her out of a double team, but Cain answered for Tennessee and the score was tied again, 54-54, with 2:47 left to play. Cain put Tennessee ahead for the second time, 56-54, on a feed from Brewer with 1:57 left, and the Lady Vols finally led for good.
Jewel May got South Carolina to one, 56-55, after hitting one free throw with 51 seconds left – Angie Bjorklund committed the foul trying to get an offensive rebound – but then Bjorklund hit a turn-around fade jumper from 16 feet with the shot clock winding down to stretch the lead to 58-55 with 27 seconds left.
"I think initially, the play was to get the ball inside," Bjorklund said. "The shot clock was running down, the play broke down. I just looked up at the shot clock and saw it going down.
"Coach said that if you get the ball, don't pass it. You're either looking to shoot or make an easy pass because I had a few turnovers. I think I saw the shot clock and just shot it."
That essentially sealed the game for Tennessee. South Carolina called timeout – Summitt inserted Alicia Manning back into the game for her defense – to try to get the ball to Nainima for a tying three, but Manning tipped the in-bounds pass from Lauren Falohun and stole the ball.
"It's a play we go over a lot in practice," Gamecocks Coach Dawn Staley said. "(Falohun) has the power to do the skip pass, but unfortunately it got tipped. It was something that we have gone over and I felt comfortable with her. We were trying to get a 3-point look for Valerie."
"We had run that play before in other games," Nainima said. "La'Keisha ended up getting open in the corner, but unfortunately (Falohun) didn't see that. The play was meant for me to get open for a three. They did a good job."
South Carolina fouled Williams, and the freshman made both free throws for the final 60-55 margin. It was appropriate that the first-year player was on the line to finish the game, as she provided the spark in both halves for Tennessee.
"When we were down, (Summitt) gave me the look like, ‘You better go out there and do something,' " Williams said. "I think that's what motivated me."
Williams scored a career-high 17 points and added four assists and two blocks in 29 minutes of play.
"I thought Kamiko was a difference maker," Summitt said during a phone interview on the team bus as the players boarded for the ride to the airport and a charter flight home to Knoxville. "She's six for 11, four of five from the free throw line, had four assists. Her stat line is really impressive. Three turnovers, but she was handling (the ball) a lot."
Williams relieved a reeling Stricklen in the first half, and Summitt left the sophomore on the bench until the start of the second half to underscore her displeasure with the way she started the game, which included an unforced turnover and not getting back in transition on defense.
"You've got to learn a lesson," Summitt said on her post-game radio show of her remarks to Stricklen.
Williams, who has had her share of lessons to learn this season, stepped into the void at point guard and played the best game of her young career. Williams and Stricklen were on the floor together for stretches of the second half – they both got reps at the point spot – and Williams' ability to create off the dribble kept the Gamecocks off balance.
"I'm excited that we have a guard that can be a difference maker and take some pressure off of Stricklen and Bjorklund and the rest of the team," Summitt said. "My ideal lineup is going to be her at the point eventually. I don't know when, probably sooner rather than later.
"That frees Stricklen up to play on the wing, and she can get better looks at the basket."
The game started just the way Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick had said it shouldn't with the Gamecocks nailing threes – back-to-back ones from Sutton to open the game – and getting open shots in transition.
The Lady Vols started the game by misfiring inside and out on their first eight shots. South Carolina, meanwhile, was shooting from various spots on the floor and led 13-0 before Tennessee finally connected with a Brewer drive to the basket. Tennessee got the lead to single digits when Manning hit a midrange jumper – the same shot she had worked on before practice Friday – to cut the lead to 17-9.
Tennessee kept chipping away in the first half – Williams accounted for 10 points before the break, including a three-pointer – and managed to trail at halftime by just one point, 26-25. The bench accounted for 16 of Tennessee's 25.
"This is a team that came in and wanted to defend their home court," Bjorklund said. "They wanted to come beat us. I think we just needed to be ready. This is a team that we couldn't take lightly, and I think that's what we did to start off."
A Tennessee team taking anyone lightly seems odd since Bjorklund is the lone upperclassman in the lineup, but Summitt has seen signs of it before this season. But on Sunday she found options on her bench in Williams, Brewer and Manning.
"They played huge," Summitt said. "Brewer and Kamiko, they were the two best players on the court today for us. Manning was solid. I think what we have to understand is that there are go-to players and then there are role players, and she is playing her role very well."
Manning had one basket but added four rebounds, an assist and three steals, none more important than the swipe that snuffed out South Carolina's chance to tie the game with 21 seconds left.
"I think we just had that mentality that we weren't going to lose this game," Brewer said. "No matter what the situation we were in, we weren't going to lose that game. We had that mentality and everyone that was on the court knew that we were going to win."
That's a strong mindset as Tennessee closed out the month of January with seven SEC wins to just one loss. But the way the Lady Vols have started games is an issue that will have to be addressed in February and especially before the one-and-done format of postseason in March.
"I was really disappointed in how we started the game," Summitt said. "We've had some slow starts. We've also had some really fast starts. This team has got to make up their mind if they want to be a 40-minute team or not. That's the one thing that probably bothers me and our coaching staff the most.
"With that said, I'm really pleased with how they played to close out this game."
Summitt said she "definitely" found some players she could trust off the bench, and now she will address a couple of issues with the starters, starting with Glory Johnson's shot selection, and the physical play that Cain has had to endure.
Johnson was 1-8 from the floor and settled for jump shots, including one shortly before halftime when Tennessee was holding the ball for the last shot and another late in the second half when the Lady Vols were trying to rally. Johnson's strengths are to score at the rim and rebound – she did have nine boards – but she drifted out of the paint against South Carolina on offense.
"I am definitely going to address the lack of discipline in her game," Summitt said. "It could have been real costly."
Cain was 5-8 from the field – though 0-4 from the free throw line in what has been a season-long struggle – and was shoved out of position repeatedly.
"It was very, very physical," Summitt said. "She was five for eight, obviously didn't hit her free throws and didn't get to the boards, but she did some good things as well. That was a very physical game. She didn't get as good of a position in the paint as we needed her to do.
"When people see us coming they're going to try to keep our bigs from getting good position in the paint, and scoring opportunities, they're going to try and limit those. They're a target."
Johnson made it easier for the defense by lingering outside the paint, so Summitt turned to the 6'3 Brewer for inside scoring and the sophomore – who used to have to be begged to stay inside – responded by shooting 6-8, often by taking on the 6'5 Bone.
"Alyssia Brewer, she really stepped up and made some great baskets when we needed her the most," Summitt said.
After getting itself into a 13-0 hole, Tennessee needed offensive sparks, and they were provided by Williams, with a team-high 17 points, and Brewer, who had 13. Cain also reached double figures with 10.
But to have a chance to make a comeback on the road, the Lady Vols also had to get some stops.
"I just told them that there were two things that we could control and that is our defense and our board play," Summitt said. "That's all about commitment, heart and defense. And we had to work harder to get open shots.
"I told Angie you either shoot it or go dribble-handoff because she's not at her best when she gets someone right up on her. I thought we did a better job with the ball movement at the end. We did a good job of getting the ball where we wanted it and in the hands of the people we wanted to have it."
South Carolina was led by Sutton with 19 points and Nainima with 16. Bone also reached double figures with 11. Sutton entered the game leading the SEC in three-point field goal percentage, and she was 3-3 for the game from long range. Nainima hit four from behind the arc in 12 attempts. As a team, South Carolina was 7-16 – Samone Kennedy had the other attempt – for 43.8 percent marksmanship. Overall, the Gamecocks shot 37.7 percent (20-53).
"Overall, it was a good game," Sutton said. "It feels bad right now, but we did a lot of things well today. We came together as a team."
Tennessee opened the game in its man defense but went to its extended zone, especially late in the second half, when the Lady Vols needed stops.
"They never left us alone," Nainima said. "Someone was always on the shooter. They anticipated the passes and put a lot of heat on us. In the second half, we couldn't run our sets, because there was a lot more pressure on us."
Tennessee shot 44.8 percent overall (26-58) and 33.3 percent (3-9) from behind the arc with Williams, Bjorklund and Stricklen hitting one each from long range. When Tennessee had to score late in the game, the ball found its way into the hands of the post players.
"We were absolutely determined to get the ball inside," Summitt said. "We felt like it was our best option at that time. We were just battling for paint points."
The Lady Vols prevailed on the boards, 37-31, but got just four second-chance points. Tennessee did convert 14 South Carolina turnovers into 15 points, while the Gamecocks scored nine points off Tennessee's 13 miscues.
Both teams had 12 assists, Tennessee had seven steals, and South Carolina swiped the ball six times. Tennessee had eight blocks to two for South Carolina. Cain, who had four swats, is now in ninth place on the career blocks list with 106. She has recently passed Vonda Ward (97) and Abby Conklin (102). Chamique Holdsclaw is currently in eighth place with 111.
"We obviously knew this was going to be a real test for our team on the road," Summitt said. "Coach Staley's done a great job with this program. I felt like we were going to have our hands full with Kelsey Bone in the paint. We got 30 points off of our bench. They got six points off of their bench. Our bench was really special and came to play.
"We're really pleased with the fact that we had a lot of people play well. Kamiko Williams, I think she is truly a very special guard. She's just now coming into her own and learning our set plays and learning how to play through fatigue, but she can play both sides of the ball with great intensity. We're really pleased with her."
Williams was Mickey Dearstone's player of the game, and she told him afterwards that Summitt mentioning how long it had been since South Carolina beat Tennessee – the Gamecocks one win was in 1980 – provided inspiration for her.
Williams has had the typical first-year player adjustments on both sides of the ball, and it has been compounded by her relative lack of experience playing in the United States. Williams' father is a master sergeant in the U.S. Army, and she spent her formative years in Germany before the family relocated to Clarksville, Tenn. Williams has said defense was a non-issue in Germany, as players were allowed to grab and hold without whistles. The pace of the game also was methodical.
"It's like a track game here," Williams told Dearstone on his post-game radio show. "In Germany it's like turtles playing against each other."
Williams also was not used to team basketball. In overseas and high school, she had the ball in her hands and was told to keep it there.
"When she was playing in Clarksville, she played a lot by herself," Summitt said. "We're just now getting her to play with other people, but her skill sets are really good. She can get to the paint, she has a great pull-up she can defend, rebounds, she's an all around talent.
"I figured in time, she would be an all around difference maker. I just challenged her to learn our set plays and invest more in this team. She has done that."
At Tennessee she has had to pick up defensive and offensive systems – she committed her first plays to memory last week – and adjust to the daily demands of Division I basketball, including a coach that expects nearly every drill to be run at game speed in practice. Fatigue has been another obstacle for Williams to overcome.
"I'm getting there," Williams said. "I'm learning to fight through it. Coach tells me it's a mindset. (The difference) was me bringing my game and working with other people as well."
Williams committed herself to learning five set plays, and she was able to write out the plays on paper and show Summitt where each player belonged on the floor. It was a small step for Williams in the scheme of hoops, but a big step in Summitt's eyes because it showed that the freshman would invest in the team. It also meant the coach trusted Williams enough to give her more playing time.
"I think today will be a defining moment," Summitt said. "I know she's still young, but I think she really is focused on running the offenses and playing good defense. There has been some growth with her maturity over the last couple of weeks."
Summitt saw her entire team gut out a road win against a determined Gamecocks team.
"I think that's what we can be pleased about is that we did not cave in with fatigue," Summitt said. "We fought through some adversity. They pulled together. They had good huddles, good communication.
"We've been able to do this. We don't want to live on the edge. We want to eventually be able to separate ourselves, but we've managed to do that today and I'm really proud for our team and our coaching staff."
For South Carolina, it was a game the young Gamecocks – like Tennessee there is not a senior on the roster – hope to learn from this season.
"We can definitely play with any team in the country," Nainima said. "There were a couple of plays, one where I passed the ball that I shouldn't have, and it ended up being a momentum change. We are learning from those experiences. Next time we have a close game with anyone, we can look back at this game and make the right decisions."
South Carolina was 2-12 in league play last season so its four wins going into Sunday's game already doubled their total from a year ago. For 37 minutes Staley's team had the upper hand on Tennessee.
"I think the last three minutes, we didn't get the shots that we needed," Staley said. "I thought we worked it a lot and tried to get it into people's hands. In the last minutes of the game, we needed to get it into the players' hands who are shooting and we didn't. The good thing is that the crowd was great. The players really got into the game plan and executed well. There were 37 strong minutes but against a strong team like Tennessee, you need to play for 40 minutes.
"This (Tennessee) is statistically the best team in our conference, and if we can clean up the last three minutes of the game, then we are going to win a lot of basketball games. We can learn from our mistakes and take that on the road to Auburn and Georgia."
Auburn upset Georgia on Sunday, and Vanderbilt had to come back from being 10 points down against Arkansas. Florida slipped past Ole Miss in Oxford. Halfway though SEC play, Tennessee has first place to itself at 7-1, but Kentucky – a team picked to finish 11th in the league in preseason – is right behind the Lady Vols at 6-2. The Wildcats have now won five consecutive games in SEC play with Sunday's win at Mississippi State, a school record.
"I think we've got better players in this league," Summitt said. "We've got veteran coaches. You've got to come ready to play, and you're going to have to grind them out. I am pleased that our team has found a way to do that."
Summitt didn't like how her team started the game, but she was pleased with how her players finished. The team will take off Monday and then return to practice Tuesday to get ready to host Arkansas on Thursday (7 p.m. Eastern, FSN).
"Absolutely very, very proud," Summitt said as the team bus rolled to the airport in Columbia. "I think it speaks volumes when we've been down and we've be able to get back in it, keeping the composure and having the focus of execution and not panic. It's a good experience for us as we move forward."