Ty Harris had a seven-inch height deficit, but the South Carolina guard waited for the right moment and pounced. The senior reached with her left hand and, when Tennessee 6-5 center Tamari Key brought the ball to her hip, swiped it.
Harris lost her signature headband while pushing a fast break but did not need it seconds later when she scooped in for a layup on the other end.
Harris then swished a right-elbow 3 pointer that gave South Carolina a 14-point lead midway through the second quarter.
It was moment indicative of the afternoon.
Despite a clear size disadvantage, No. 1 South Carolina (21-1, 9-0 SEC) used a suffocating defensive and six 3s to beat No. 22 Tennessee (17-5, 7-2 SEC) 69-48 on Sunday at Colonial Life Arena.
“We just tried to combat with what gives length problems, and that’s speed,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “We had that. We wanted to make sure we were disruptive and not allow their height to be an advantage for them.”
“South Carolina, they just have so many options offensively and defensively,” Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper said. “I think they’re going to give a lot of teams problems.”
Zia Cooke led the Gamecocks with 20 points, while birthday girl Destanni Henderson had 12. Center Aliyah Boston — despite sitting out the fourth quarter with an apparent ankle/foot injury — added 10.
“Aliyah’s good. Aliyah’s good,” Staley said. “If it was the national championship game she probably would have come back and played.”
Continuing its stellar defensive play this season, South Carolina forced 21 turnovers.
“It was huge for us to speed the game up and allow our guards to get up and down the floor,” Staley said. “I thought we did a really good job at just disrupting and forcing them to play a little bit quicker than they wanted to play.”
South Carolina led by 15 at halftime, but a 10-0 run that spanned parts of the second and third quarters cut the home team’s lead to nine, at 38-29, moments into the second half.
The Gamecocks made just one of its first eight field goals to begin the second half but held on to a 41-31 lead. Four Boston free throws sandwiched around a Henderson forced turnover made it 45-31 with 3:19 to go in the third quarter.
Then Henderson took over offensively.
The sophomore sank a transition layup then a 3 from the left side to push the lead to 50-36. The guard then made a free throw to extend SC’s lead to 53-36 with 46 seconds to play in the third quarter before finishing with a three-point play to give the home team a 20-point 56-36 lead entering the fourth quarter.
“Destanni, she’s been playing great. She’s been very, very aggressive when she has the ball in her hand,” Staley said. “And she was that today. I thought she scored some, she dished to some post players. She’s just playing some of her better basketball right now.”
The sequence was hampered when Boston went to the locker room with the ankle/foot injury, but the freshman returned to the SC bench at the beginning of the fourth quarter with no apparent extra padding.
Cooke pointed to the Gamecocks’ communication as the reason for its defensive success.
“In practice we go hard,” she said. “I feel like whatever you do in practice is going to show in the game, and for us, we go hard in practice. That shows on the court.”
South Carolina missed 10 of its first 14 shots but led 8-4 — four points each from Harris and Cooke —in the opening minutes thanks to four Tennessee turnovers. Brea Beal then scored back to back buckets for the Gamecocks — the first on an up and under around the 6-3 Jaiden McCoy — to extend it to 12-7.
A Cooke 3 on a feed from Harris gave the home team a 15-7 lead, forcing the Vols to call timeout. The dynamic freshman then acrobatically scooped around the 6-1 Rae Burrell before floating in a layup to give the home team a 17-9 lead.
After one, Tennessee had six turnovers. South Carolina had none.
And the Gamecocks kept pouring it on.
Boston scored her first basket on a jump shot from just feet inside the 3-point line to give the home team a 29-15 lead before Cooke went one-on-two and scored in transition to make the lead 16, at 31-15.
Seconds later she made it 19 with a 3 from the right side.
Colonial Life Arena was in a collective delirium.
And it was for most of the afternoon thanks to the the team’s seventh win over a ranked opponent this season.
“That’s a really good basketball team that we played today,” Harper said. “ … They play with great poise, yet they’re very aggressive on both ends of the court. We knew we’d have a tough one today, and obviously it was.”
Added Staley, “Our players didn’t flinch.”