College Sports

As South Carolina travels to Tennessee, ‘We’re all playing for something’

Dawn Staley on how South Carolina has moved on from Kentucky, challenge of Tennessee

South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley discusses the Gamecocks' upset loss to Kentucky at home and how desperate she thinks Tennessee will be for its game with USC in Knoxville on Sunday.
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South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley discusses the Gamecocks' upset loss to Kentucky at home and how desperate she thinks Tennessee will be for its game with USC in Knoxville on Sunday.

Who: No. 13 South Carolina (19-7, 11-2 SEC) vs. Tennessee (17-9, 6-7 SEC)

When: 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24

Where: Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville, Tennessee

Watch: ESPN2

Projections: Tennessee is favored by 1 point by basketball bracketologist Warren Nolan, South Carolina is favored by 2.5 points by Massey Ratings.

South Carolina projected starting lineup: Junior guard Tyasha Harris, freshman guard Destanni Henderson, redshirt senior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore, redshirt senior forward Alexis Jennings, freshman forward Victaria Saxton

Tennessee projected starting lineup: Sophomore guard Evina Westbrook, freshman guard Zaay Green, sophomore guard/forward Rennia Davis, senior guard/forward Meme Jackson, redshirt senior forward Cheridene Green

STORYLINES

Flushing Kentucky: South Carolina is coming off just its third SEC home loss since 2012 on Thursday, when the No. 13 Gamecocks were upset by No. 16 Kentucky. Now they have to travel to the team that has the two other wins — Tennessee.

USC’s 21 turnovers, 34.6 percent shooting and 57 points against Kentucky were its worst marks in conference play in nearly a full calendar year — on Feb. 25, 2018 against Tennessee in Knoxville, USC shot 34.7 percent, turned the ball over 21 times and scored just 46 points.

So holding on to Thursday’s defeat could be fatal for the Gamecocks moving forward. That won’t be a problem, Staley said.

“We got a 24-hour rule. Obviously it had a little bit quicker turnaround than that because we practiced (Friday). You got to get back on it. You look across the country, everybody’s losing. You just don’t want it to happen to you, but we got bit by it,” Staley said.

Hanging onto the ball: At the same time, Staley made sure to spend time prepping her offense in practice Friday to do a better job breaking press defenses like the one Kentucky threw at them.

Tennessee is not particularly known for its full-court press defense, and the Lady Vols rank only 175th nationally in turnovers forced per game. But given South Carolina’s struggle in that area against Kentucky and the pressure Tennessee is under to produce a big win, the Gamecocks are preparing for an intense game.

“We focused on press defenses, we focused just on maximum effort (in practice). You’re on the floor, just give maximum effort, because that’s what we’re going to see against Tennessee,” Staley said.

Everyone’s desperate: As previously mentioned, Tennessee is under enormous pressure in the final few games of the season as it looks to keep on the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble — the Lady Vols have been in every tourney since it began in 1982. Missing one would be an unqualified catastrophe for coach Holly Warlick.

ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme has said he thinks UT doesn’t need to beat South Carolina to earn an NCAA bid, so long as it takes care of business against the other teams on it schedule. But upsetting the Gamecocks would make things a lot more comfortable for Warlick’s squad.

On the flip side, South Carolina’s loss to Kentucky lowers the Gamecocks’ margin for error as they seek to host the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. And on Friday, Staley reiterated a point she made after the game with the Wildcats — her team is still searching for a truly elite win.

“We’re all desperate. We’re all playing for something. They’re playing for an invite to the NCAA tournament. We’re playing for an SEC championship and to host ... making a statement game for us, because we gotta get a few of them in order to host,” Staley said.

Greg Hadley is the beat writer for South Carolina women’s basketball and baseball for GoGamecocks and The State. He also covers football and recruiting.
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