GREENVILLE, S.C. – Aliyah Boston thinks No. 7 South Carolina played a complete game – finally.
Zia Cooke scored 17 points, Aliyah Boston had 15 points and 11 rebounds and the Gamecocks rolled past No. 14 Tennessee 67-52 on Saturday night and into the SEC Tournament title game for the sixth time in seven years.
South Carolina opened a large lead in the first quarter and never let up, something they’ve struggled with down the stretch of the regular season when they had leads against at No. 1 UConn, No. 14 Tennessee and No. 2 Texas A&M, yet lost all three.
Facing the Lady Vols (16-7) again with a large lead, South Carolina didn’t let this one slip away.
“I think from the start we were locked in,” said Boston, the 6-foot-5 sophomore. “We were playing great defense and offense was moving, so I would say that this is the first game where we played a complete 40 (minutes).”
They’ll likely need another such effort when the Gamecocks (21-4) take on No. 16 Georgia, which upended top-seeded and No. 2 Texas A&M in the the other semifinal.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, whose prodded her group all year about consistency on offense, is seeing results.
“I was impressed with our team,” she said. “I think our team is growing and they’re learning. It took us probably to lose some basketball games, our offense stagnant in some games, to understand what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Unlike the first meeting between these teams – Tennessee rallied from 16 down to hand South Carolina its first SEC loss in two seasons – the Gamecocks kept the pressure up throughout.
Tennessee was trying for its first finals appearance since 2015. That year it lost the title to upstart South Carolina, the beginning of Gamecock dominance over the SEC that doesn’t appear to be ending yet.
Boston and Cooke made that clear with their play throughout this one.
Boston showed off her outside game with a pair of 3-pointers to go along with three assists, two blocks and a steal.
Cooke also had a pair of 3s and continually buzzed through the Tennessee defense for baskets.
South Carolina took control with its early run. The Lady Vols were in front 11-10 on Rennia Davis’ 3-pointer midway through the period when the Gamecocks took off on their game-breaking surge.
Boston began the run with a 3-pointer, just her ninth of the season, and Cooke closed it with a 3-pointer and three free throws to put the Gamecocks up by 16.
The Lady Vols appeared to be dragging a bit after a hard-fought, 77-72 win over Mississippi on Friday night, coming from six points down in the fourth quarter.
Davis, who had 33 points and 14 rebounds against Ole Miss, finished with nine points on 3-of-12 shooting.
Jordan Walker and Jordan Horston had 11 points each to lead the Lady Vols. Tennessee was held to its fewest points of the season.
Boston’s double-double was her second straight in the tournament and 27th of her career.
THE BIG PICTURE
Tennessee: The Lady Vols used to own this event, winning 17 times between 1980 and 2014. Now, their run of missing the finals has grown to six straight years. Tennessee will have some work ahead to prepare for what they hope is a deep NCAA Tournament run.
South Carolina: While the Gamecocks have a 13-game win streak over Georgia, the Bulldogs are showing patience, versatility and their own ability to regroup quickly as they did to defeat Texas A&M.
PREPPING FOR TITLE GAME
South Carolina’s Staley said the job of prepping her players for a quick turnaround Sunday (the title game is some 17 hours after it ended) is up to the team’s medical and conditioning staff. “It’s out of my hands at this point,” she said.
Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said her team struggled against South Carolina’s physical play early and it cost them dearly. She said her team wasn’t getting stops and the Gamecocks cleaned up missed shots with put-back baskets. “South Carolina did a great job getting physical, and we’ve got to be able to handle that a little bit better.”