A win for South Carolina to savor

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- You hear all kinds of crazy things coming from the stands when you sit on media row. But sometimes, you also hear the absolute truth.

In Monday's intense, riveting, entertaining, "March-is-right-around-the-corner" game between South Carolina and Tennessee, the Gamecock fans were doing all they could to emotionally power their team to firmly gain the upper hand on the Lady Vols.

Then a fan said, "This is Tennessee. They don't go away."

Indeed, even against the No. 2 team in the country, even without their top scorer and rebounder, even with a rotation that realistically went no deeper than six, the Lady Vols pushed South Carolina right to the wire.

But that made the Gamecocks' 71-66 victory even a little more special. This was a high-level game with a lot on the line: the SEC's two best teams, both unbeaten in league play, battling it out.

In the end, the Gamecocks won because they dominated the boards and cashed in with 21 second-chance points. South Carolina forward Aleighsa Welch was fantastic, compiling 19 points and 14 rebounds. And fellow senior Elem Ibiam also came up big, with 12 points and eight rebounds.

Those two will play their final regular-season home game Thursday here, and a win then against Mississippi State would clinch at least a share of the SEC title and secure the No. 1 seed in the league tournament. South Carolina won the SEC regular-season championship last year.

The Gamecocks, 26-1 overall, are 14-0 in the conference. They will finish the regular season on March 1 at Kentucky. Tennessee, 13-1 in the league, closes out at Georgia and home against Vanderbilt.

Might we see a South Carolina-Tennessee rematch in the SEC tournament title game in Little Rock, Arkansas, on March 8? Could be, and the stakes would also be high then, too.

But at least for a few hours, the Gamecocks and coach Dawn Staley should relish what they did Monday night. Consider that it's just the fourth time in 51 meetings that South Carolina has defeated Tennessee. The most recent Gamecock victory in the series before this was Feb. 2, 2012, in Knoxville, Tennessee.

However, Monday's game was South Carolina's first win over the Lady Vols in Columbia since Warlick was a senior guard for Pat Summitt. Yeah, we're talking Jan. 23, 1980 -- as in, one month before the famed Miracle on Ice for the U.S. hockey team. A loooooong time ago.

You could say that Staley has kind of pulled off her own miracle here in South Carolina, building this program into not just a national contender, but one that has gripped the community and even the entire state. Despite the 9 p.m. start, Monday's game still drew 14,390 fans.

They made an impact, too. Staley said her primary emotions afterward were relief that her Gamecocks had survived such a challenge and gratitude that the crowd did so much to help them.

"Tennessee is a team that was going to come in here and fight, and they played tremendous," Staley said. "This was a game in which the experienced players really showed up. Bashaara Graves, Cierra Burdick [for Tennessee] -- they've been in this situation before, and they displayed the type of will that it takes to be successful in this league. If this game wasn't played in Colonial Life Arena, we would not be sitting here as the victors."

"To be able to have one win [against Tennessee] my freshman year and one my senior, it's a big deal. It's adding to things I can check off my bucket list since I've been here." South Carolina's Aleighsa Welch

High praise for the losing side, but Tennessee deserved it. Just eight days after losing senior center Izzy Harrison to a knee injury, the Lady Vols showed the kind of grit that their legendary program has been built on. The senior Burdick had 16 points and 10 rebounds, the junior Graves 20 and seven.

"Here's what I'm proud of: We played hard, with a lot of energy, and a great amount of effort," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "Yeah, we're missing our best player -- I think one of the best players in the country -- but we have to move on. This is a solid team, and I think they battle. I don't feel bad about the loss; I'm not throwing things, I'm not miserable. I hate it for these kids because of how hard they played, but we're still going to continue to get better."

The Gamecocks showed they will keep getting better, too. They gained some insight from their Feb. 9 loss at Connecticut.

"I think we learned more about ourselves," South Carolina guard Tiffany Mitchell said. "We knew UConn was a great team, so we kind of went back to the drawing board and worked on what we needed to improve."

Mitchell had 16 points, seven rebounds and four assists against Tennessee. The Gamecocks did have some trouble shutting the door on the Lady Vols in the closing minutes Monday. Mitchell made a nifty move to get herself free on a drive to the basket, then missed the layup. She and Alaina Coates also missed the front end of one-and-one situations in the final minute.

But then, with one more chance at the line and her team clinging to a 67-66 lead, Mitchell sank two free throws. Asia Dozier made two more to close out the victory.

Ultimately, the player of the night was Welch, who as a freshman had six points and nine rebounds in South Carolina's 64-60 victory at Tennessee three seasons ago.

"It means a lot to me, especially against such a storied program like Tennessee," Welch said. "To be able to have one win my freshman year and one my senior, it's a big deal. It's adding to things I can check off my bucket list since I've been here.

"It's a good win, but it's not the stopping point for our season. We still have business to handle if we want to outright win the regular-season title. But this was something we had to get accomplished."