Isabelle Harrison had 20 points and 15 rebounds Sunday as No. 10 Tennessee defeated No. 4 South Carolina 73-61 to snap the Gamecocks’ 10-game winning streak in the regular-season finale for both teams.
Tennessee (24-5, 13-3 SEC) never trailed as it clinched the No. 2 seed in the Southeastern Conference tournament that begins Wednesday at Duluth, Ga. South Carolina (26-3, 14-2) already had wrapped up its first SEC title Thursday with a 67-56 victory over Georgia.
“It’s huge for us,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “We talked a lot about seeding for the SEC tournament, talked a lot about seeding for the NCAA tournament. We thought it was really important for us to go out and make a statement. Obviously, I thought we did.”
Tennessee also ended an eight-game losing streak against top-five opponents. The Lady Vols hadn’t beaten a top-five team since an 82-72 overtime victory over No. 3 Stanford on Dec. 19, 2010.
“It really got us back to where we need to be and showed us how when we play hard, who we can defeat,” said Harrison, who shot 9 of 11.
The scenario was similar to the end of last year’s regular season.
After clinching the SEC regular-season title last year, Tennessee went on the road and lost to 2011-12 SEC champ and preseason conference favorite Kentucky in its regular-season finale. This year, Tennessee was the defending champion and preseason favorite that closed the regular season by beating the team that had just wrapped up the conference championship.
Meighan Simmons scored 16 points and Andraya Carter added 14 points for Tennessee, which has won 10 of its last 11 games. Aleighsa Welch had 16 points, Tiffany Mitchell scored 11 and Alaina Coates added 10 for South Carolina, which shot 38.5 percent (25 of 65) overall and went 1 of 8 from 3-point range.
“We’re a lot more efficient basketball team than we displayed,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “Part of it is I thought the pace of the game was a lot quicker than we’d like to play. They forced us to play fast and probably take quicker shots than we normally take. I think Tennessee had a lot to do with it because they want to get up and down in transition. We just tried to keep up pace with them, but that’s just really not our pace.”
This marked the last regular-season home game for Simmons, who passed Kara Lawson and move into fifth place on Tennessee’s career scoring list with 1,958 points. Simmons, the lone senior on Tennessee’s roster, could end up playing more games at Thompson-Boling Arena because Tennessee is a host site for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
A videotape showing Simmons’ career highlights was shown on the overhead scoreboard before the game. Simmons was introduced with her family before the game, and she received a framed jersey. As is her usual pregame custom, Simmons went into the front row of the stands to embrace former Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt before lineup introductions. After the game, Simmons blew a kiss to the crowd while walking to a team gathering at midcourt.
Summitt, who remains on staff as Tennessee’s head coach emeritus, coached Simmons during the guard’s first two seasons with the Lady Vols.
“A lot of people were saying, ‘This is your day. It’s Senior Night,’ but tonight wasn’t really about me,” Simmons said. “It was about this team. It was about us getting a ‘W,’ taking care of business and trying to think about the future.”
Harrison led Tennessee to a 38-30 halftime advantage by continuing her recent mastery of South Carolina. Harrison shot 7 of 8 and scored 14 points in the first half. In a 73-53 victory at South Carolina last season, Harrison shot 9 of 12 and had 18 points and 14 rebounds.
Tennessee blew a 21-point halftime lead Thursday before escaping with a 72-67 victory at LSU, but the Vols’ ability to take care of the ball assured they stayed in front this time. Tennessee committed a season-low seven turnovers.
“It was a huge deal because, as everyone knows, we’ve struggled a little bit with turnovers this season,” Carter said. “The fact we had seven turnovers against a top-five team and a great defensive team - South Carolina’s so athletic, they’re known for their defense - the fact we were able to have seven turnovers against them, it’s no cut-down to them. It’s just huge for us. We took care of the basketball, which is something we know we have to do in postseason.”