The 2023 SEC Tournament was, in fact, a South Carolina coronation.
The early action introduced a pair of Cinderellas, with No. 13 seed Texas A&M and No. 14 seed Kentucky both improbably advancing to the quarterfinals. In the semifinals, No. 4 seed Tennessee finally toppled a favored opponent by coming back from a 17-point deficit to defeat No. 2 seed LSU and earn a spot in the championship game.
But, the clock repeatedly struck midnight each time the No. 1 seed and unbeaten Gamecocks took the court. On Sunday afternoon, South Carolina reclaimed the SEC Tournament championship with a 74-58 victory over Tennessee.
The Lady Vols, however, admirably delayed the inevitable.
In the first half, the tough shotmaking of Rickea Jackson and Jordan Horston kept the Lady Vols within striking distance. The first quarter began with Jackson sinking a number of smooth jumpers, but, on the other end, Tennessee could do little to slow SEC Player of the Year Aliyah Boston, who made her first five shots on her way to 10 points in the opening frame.
Early in the second quarter, it appeared the Gamecocks were poised to begin to run away from the Vols, turning defense to offense behind an infusion of extra energy from Laeticia Amihere. Zia Cooke took over the scoring burden, tallying 12 points in the period. Yet, after South Carolina stretched the lead to double digits, Tennessee steadied themselves as Horston began to net a series of impressive buckets that helped the Lady Vols finish the half on an 8-2 run.
At the half, South Carolina led by six points, 37-31.
In the second half, Tennessee suffered a number of scoring draughts, unable to sustain the shotmaking that had spurred their success. South Carolina, in contrast, showed their comfort in the championship crucible, unthreatened by any scoring flurries from Tennessee. The Gamecocks again converted defensive stops into easy offense, cleaned the offensive glass for putback buckets and drilled timely deep balls, with these factors combining to seal South Carolina’s seventh SEC Tournament title, 74-58.
After going scoreless in the first half, SEC Sixth Woman of the Year Kamilla Cardoso played with a force that troubled Tennessee after halftime, scoring seven of her 13 points from the foul line along with snagging eight rebounds. Cooke continued to assume the offensive load, adding 10 second-half points for a game-high 24 points. Boston finished with 18 points and seven boards.
Raven Johnson, starting in place of the injured Kiera Fletcher, served as a steady floor general, while Brea Beal, as often is the case, did the gap-filling little things on both ends of the floor. Bree Hall also drained a near-dagger 3-pointer.
Outside of Jackson and Horston, who finished with 17 and 19 points, respectively, the Lady Vols did not receive enough offensive contributions to keep up with the Gamecocks. Nevertheless, Tennessee should enter the NCAA Tournament with increased confidence.
As will South Carolina. Riding a 38-game winning streak, Dawn Staley, the Freshies and the rest of the enviably deep and incredibly talented Gamecocks should be the overwhelming favorites to boogie through the Big Dance and capture a second-consecutive national championship.