GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley hugged her players, took selfies with fans, even posing with cheerleaders and the pep band.
“Winning championships,” Staley said. “It never gets old.”
Staley and the top-ranked Gamecocks won their seventh SEC tournament title in the past nine seasons, pulling away from Tennessee in the final two quarters for a 74-58 victory Sunday.
Zia Cooke scored 24 points and tournament MVP Aliyah Boston added 18 points as South Carolina (32-0) continued its perfect season and headed into the NCAAs as the clear-cut favorite for a second straight national title.
The victory was a measure of redemption for the Gamecocks, who were beaten in the finals a year ago by Kentucky — and the program hasn’t lost since.
“The mentality we have to win all over the court,” Cooke said. “This means a lot, but we’re not done yet.”
When it was over, South Carolina players came out to hug each other as the large group of fans — the arena is about 90 minutes away from the Gamecocks’ campus — cheered the latest success.
Boston was named the tournament MVP. She said it’s been a total team effort to get this, from the most experienced starter to the freshmen who don’t see the court as much. “Everyone is buying into the process,” Boston said.
Not that it came easily. Third-seeded Tennessee (23-11), sky high after taking down No. 4 LSU on Saturday night in the semifinals, trailed 39-36 after Rickea Jackson’s 3-pointer early in the second quarter.
The Gamecocks, the SEC regular-season champs, answered with a 16-4 burst powered by Boston and Cooke to open this one up and win their 38th straight dating back to last season’s NCAA Tournament run.
Tennessee was playing in its first SEC final since 2015 and figured to be physically and emotionally exhausted after rallying from 17 points down to stun the Tigers.
Instead, the Lady Vols went toe-to-toe with the SEC’s reigning powerhouse in South Carolina.
Boston made her first five shots of the opening quarter, yet Tennessee answered every one including a basket by a falling Horston to keep things tight at 21-19 after the first 10 minutes.
When South Carolina scored 12 straight points to lead 33-21, Horston had three more baskets and Sara Puckett a bucket off glass to get to half down just 37-31.
But the Gamecocks third-quarter push was too much for Tennessee. Horston led the Lady Vols with 19 points, only five of those coming after halftime.
“We were definitely a little low in the (gas) tank,” Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said.
Rickea Jackson scored 60 points her first two SEC tourney games, but just 16 on 7-of-19 shooting against South Carolina.
The Gamecocks played without starting point guard in Kierra Fletcher. The grad transfer from Georgia Tech had started 29 games this season, but hurt her left ankle after a hard fall in the semifinal win over Ole Miss on Saturday.
Fletcher wore a boot on the affected area. She’ll have nearly two weeks before the Gamecocks open NCAA play at home.
- With the win over Tennessee, South Carolina secured its seventh SEC Tournament victory in the past nine seasons.
- The Gamecocks’ offense started off hot, shooting 60.0 percent from the field, and 50.0 percent from the 3 in the opening quarter.
- Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke were named to the SEC All-Tournament Team, and Boston was named the Tournament MVP for the second time in her career (2021).
- Boston, Cooke, and Kamilla Cardoso combined for 55 points alone, compared to the Lady Vols’ 58 total game points.
- Cooke was an offensive monster with her seventh 20+ point game of the season, scoring 12 of her 24 points in just the second quarter alone after going on her own 7-0 run, highlighted by a three in the middle.
- MVP Boston ended the day with 18 points, having scored 10 of the Gamecocks’ first 17. She went a perfect 6-of-6 from the free throw line in addition to seven boards. Boston averaged a near double-double throughout the tournament, with 13.0 points and 9.3 rebounds, along with two blocks per game.
- Cardoso finished strong, scoring 13 points all in the second half to complete all three games of the tournament having scored in double-figures. She mimicked that of Boston, averaging 13 points and 9.3 boards throughout.
- Raven Johnson stepped up in a new career high 38 minutes, getting her third career start and hitting a 3 less than two minutes into the game, making five assists along the way.