Tennessee Lady Vols shows effort, South Carolina shows recruiting

The schedule said “Tennessee vs. South Carolina,” but don’t kid yourself. This women’s basketball game at Colonial Life Arena was about No. 1 South Carolina.

You only needed a few minutes of Sunday’s hour-long “College GameDay” TV production to realize that. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley Champ’s dog got as much air time as Tennessee coach Kellie Harper on the pre-game show.

The show was primarily a tribute to Staley, who turned the Gamecocks into a basketball powerhouse that replaced the Lady Vols as the SEC’s premier program. No other SEC school can now match the Gamecocks in wins or attendance.

GAME SUMMARY: No. 1 South Carolina too much for Tennessee Lady Vols without Jordan Horston

And no one could have expected the No. 8 Lady Vols to face South Carolina this afternoon, especially since they were playing without an injured Jordan Horston, their leading scorer and rebounder. Although UT trailed just four points after the first quarter, the Gamecocks gradually pulled away for a 67-53 victory.

Tennessee’s early success might have reminded viewers that the Gamecocks’ lone loss came from unranked, overmatched Missouri. But South Carolina’s senior day in front of a sold-out crowd isn’t a great place for a surprise.

UT’s overall effort was lost in the final score. He wouldn’t have lost to Alabama or Auburn if he had played as hard as he did against South Carolina.

In evaluating UT’s performance, it should also be noted that the Gamecocks rarely looked like the No. 1 team in the nation. They had problems with early fouls, repeatedly missed easy shots – sometimes as many as three in the same possession – and too often faltered in defense against an inferior opponent.

You may have concluded that, like Tennessee, South Carolina is sometimes guilty of playing level with its opponent. That doesn’t take away from UT’s effort, though.

There has been a lot of speculation that Tennessee is pulling out of a host role for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. It’s understandable.

Never mind their 21-6 record or top-10 finish. The Lady Vols have lost five of their last eight games and could be without Horston for the NCAA Tournament. It will weigh heavily against them when the selection committee picks their top 16 teams.

But the committee should also consider that the Lady Vols started the season 18-1 despite going 12 of those games without star player Rae Burrell, who scored 14 points against South Carolina.

They proved they could win without Burrell. Now they have to prove they can win without Horston.

If they can win their final two regular season games — against Mississippi State and LSU — they could still be worthy of a No. 4 seed and the first- and second-round home games that come with it.

Playoff seeding is a near-term goal for Tennessee. In the long run, you might be wondering how the Lady Vols can hope to challenge South Carolina in the SEC.

South Carolina already had national championship talent before signing the No. 1 recruiting class in 2021. Tennessee’s top players were drafted by former coach Holly Warlick, not Harper.

These players have upgraded Harper’s watch. It’s a good sign.

But closing the gap on South Carolina will take much better recruiting.

John Adams is senior columnist. He can be reached at 865-342-6284 or john.adams@knoxnews.com. Follow him at: twitter.com/johnadamskns.

Comments are closed.