Gamecocks women's basketball is atop the SEC once again after defeating the Tennessee Volunteers 74-58 in Sunday’s conference tournament final.
South Carolina led from start to finish to earn the program's seventh SEC tournament title, all of which came within the last nine seasons.
“Winning championships — it never gets old,” head coach Dawn Staley said. “We used to come to this tournament, and we’re out in one day, and then the season was over.”
South Carolina shot 58% from the floor and drew eight fouls in the first half to lead by 6 heading into halftime.
The Gamecocks' shooting dipped in the second half, but the Volunteers’ fall was much sharper, plummeting from 48% in the first half to 26% in the second.
Free throws played a crucial role in the Gamecocks' ability to stay ahead. South Carolina went 20-24 in the game, while Tennessee got just 11 chances at the line, converting 10. All three of the Gamecocks’ leading scorers utilized the charity stripe for easy points.
Senior guard Zia Cooke led the team in scoring with 24 points, going 6-8 from the line and adding five rebounds in 33 minute of action.
“I think in the beginning, it was kind of hard for me to get shots,” Cooke said. “But as I continued to play, things started to open up for me.”
Senior forward Aliyah Boston scored 18 points and grabbed 7 rebounds. She also hit all of her free throw attempts, shooting 6-6.
Junior center Kamilla Cardoso had 13 points and recorded 8 rebounds, tied with senior guard Brea Beal for most on the team. Cardoso made the most free throws on the team, going 7-8 at the line.
Led by Cardoso and Boston, the Gamecocks won the battle inside once again.
The team scored 34 of its points in the paint, while Tennessee had 24 paint points, and South Carolina narrowly won the rebound battle 39-33.
“(Tennessee) actually gave multiple efforts on the rebounding side of the ball,” Staley said. “They had players that put us back on our heels.”
The most significant of the Gamecocks' damage came in the second and third quarters.
Tennessee tied the game on the first possession of the second quarter, but the Gamecocks charged back with a 12-0 run. Coming out of halftime, South Carolina continued to dominate and outscored the Volunteers 18-11 in the third quarter with 6 points coming from Cooke on 3-4 shooting.
“Coach let us know that they weren't a team that were going to back down,” Cooke said. “We just had to make sure we played harder and did the little things to get us to the win.”
When the final buzzer went off, the entire team met near the bench and congratulated each other, while confetti rained from the ceiling.
Boston was named tournament MVP, and she was joined by Cooke on the SEC All-Tournament Team.
The Gamecocks remain undefeated heading into the NCAA tournament, sitting at 32-0 with a continued focus on repeating as NCAA champions next month.
“The mentality that we have right now is to win,” Cooke said. “We're not done yet.”
South Carolina will learn where and when its journey for back-to-back national championships will begin during the tournament selection show on March 12 at 8 p.m. on ESPN.