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.
Tennessee: The Lady Vols showed they won’t be overlooked in the postseason after rallying from 17 points down to defeat No. 4 LSU in the SEC semifinals. A top-four seed would be a huge step for a team that had started the season 7-6 after a loss at Stanford the week before Christmas.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks were on a mission this season, a big part of it involved this event which their surprisingly lost to Kentucky after leading most of the way. The No. 1 recruiting class led by Boston, Cooke, Brea Beal and Laeticia Amihere, have won three of the four finals they were in.
SHARING THE HONORS
Staley said Boston gave her all-tournament team trophy to teammate Laeticia Amihere, another senior who totalled 37 points and 13 rebounds in the tournament’s three games. Staley said it was a testament to her players focused on success of everyone on the team.
Tennessee forward Jordan Horston said her team will learn from its defeat and bounce back to excel in the NCAA tournament. She believes if the Lady Vols face South Carolina again, it could be a different result. “We’ve got what it takes to beat them,” Horston said. “We’ve got what it takes to beat anybody.”
Tennessee will wait to see it will host its first two NCAA Tournament games or have to travel.
South Carolina gets two more games at home to start the NCAAs.