BON SECOURS ARENA, GREENVILLE: In 2015, Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks were the new kids on the block, the up-and-coming contender clawing their way toward the summit when they defeated perennial powerhouse Tennessee by 16 points for South Carolina’s first SEC Tournament Championship. At the 2023 SEC Tournament final in Greenville, Sunday, the roles had been reversed but South Carolina again defeated Tennessee by 16 points, bookending a nine-year run through the conference with a 74-58 victory for the program’s seventh SEC Championship.
Now it’s Lady Vols head coach Kellie Harper trying to chip away at the Gamecocks dominance while Staley is looking to make more history with a generational group of players. Tennessee has won 17 SEC Tournament titles, but none since 2014. That same season, South Carolina had won its first regular season conference title under Staley, edging the Lady Vols by a game in the standings. In 2015, the teams shared the regular season crown before USC made their mark by dominating Tennessee in the tournament final. UT is 84-27 all-time in the SEC Tournament, but they’ve dropped four straight to the Gamecocks in tournament play and there’s no indication the nation’s no. 1 team is slowing down.
Zia Cooke was the spark in Sunday’s victory, scoring 24 points to go with three steals. With Tennessee clogging the lane to slow USC’s vaunted postup game, Cooke took advantage by zipping into the lane to set up teammates and knocking down open looks from the perimeter. On three occasions, Cooke swiped the ball away from a UT guard near midcourt and accelerated into the open floor for an uncontested layup.
After dominating on the blocks through the first two games of the tournament, USC found it couldn’t push Tennessee around. The Lady Vols held their own where Arkansas and Ole Miss couldn’t, only losing the rebounding battle 39-33 and points in the paint 34-24. But Staley was again able to rely on her team’s depth and defensive versatility to wear down an opponent. USC held Tennessee to 26% shooting in the second half as the Gamecocks kept the pressure on.
Despite Tennessee’s best efforts, Aliyah Boston got going early, scoring 10 of her 18 points in the first quarter on her way to Tournament MVP honors. Boston was joined by Cooke on the All-Tournament team.
Staley said she’ll never take days like this one for granted, “Winning championships, it never gets old. We have to remind ourselves where we came from. We used to come to this tournament and be out in one day and the season would be over.”
South Carolina (32-0) now awaits its first-round opponent in the NCAA Tournament where the Gamecocks will be the overall no. 1 seed and looking to repeat as national champions.