NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The South Carolina women’s basketball program had exactly two winning league records in 17 seasons of Southeastern Conference play before Dawn Staley took over as the coach.
It took seven years for the Hall of Famer to elevate the No. 3 Gamecocks (29-2) from bottom-dwellers to champions of the SEC, which they accomplished with a 62-46 win over No. 6 Tennessee in the league’s tournament championship game on Sunday.
And while South Carolina’s celebration was filled with pride for adding its first tournament championship to an already impressive resume of back-to-back regular-season championships, there was also a feeling of relief.
The win, after all, came against the program every SEC team has chased for decades — the mighty Lady Vols — and it was the Gamecocks’ second victory over Tennessee (27-5) in two weeks.
“It’s always big for you to kind of know you’ve established your program when you’ve been able to beat a team of Tennessee’s caliber,” South Carolina’s Aleighsa Welch said. “Especially twice in a season and (in) a game like this where so much is on the line.”
The Gamecocks had losing seasons in Staley’s first two seasons as coach, a difficult stretch for the former All-American who had led Temple to five straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
South Carolina reached the WNIT in 2011, but it was the 2011-12 team that reached the NCAA’s Sweet 16 that ignited the school’s current run of success. Welch, named this season’s tournament Most Valuable Player, was a freshman on that squad, which also snapped a 40-game losing streak against Tennessee with a win in Knoxville.
The Gamecocks have won at least 25 games in each season since then, and they are poised to earn a second-straight No. 1 seed at this year’s NCAA Tournament behind two-time SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell, who is only a junior.
More than anything, they know they are no longer than up-and-coming power in the SEC.
Rather, the Gamecocks believe they have every bit the staying power of the Lady Vols, and they have no intention of giving up their crown anytime soon.
“I think when you go up against such a traditional powerhouse like Tennessee, you need opportunities to play them,” Staley said. “You got to continue to play them. The more you play them, the more you’ll be able to chip away at some of the things they’re really good at. … We’ve been kind of able to even the playing field, where it doesn’t come down to us having to play perfect basketball.”
While South Carolina celebrated, the Lady Vols were left in the unfamiliar position of leaving the SEC Tournament without a championship.
The eight-time national champions have won the title 17 times in 36 seasons, but they were unable to overcome the loss of injured All-SEC center Isabelle Harrison while losing for the fourth time this season against a ranked opponent.
Afterward, third-year coach Holly Warlick appeared all but resigned to Tennessee being named a No. 2 seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament — despite the Lady Vols place at No. 2 in the latest NCAA RPI standings.
But the former All-American point guard at Tennessee and assistant to former coach Pat Summitt wasn’t about to accept the possibility there had been some kind of changing of the guard among the SEC’s elite.
“Yeah, 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’ve learned. We’re going to learn from it. We’ll be a better team because of it.”
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