NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Dawn Staley knew when she took over as the South Carolina coach that Tennessee was the team to beat in the Southeastern Conference.
It took seven seasons for the former All-American, but Staley and the No. 3 Gamecocks have finally toppled the mighty Lady Vols.
Led by 17 points from Tiffany Mitchell, South Carolina (29-2) earned its first women’s SEC tournament championship with a 62-46 win over No. 5 Tennessee on Sunday. It did so behind Mitchell, the two-time SEC Player of the Year, and 14 points and eight rebounds from Aleighsa Welch.
The Gamecocks, back-to-back regular-season champions, also benefited from the guidance of Staley — the Hall of Famer who took over an afterthought of a program and has possibly overseen a changing of the guard among the SEC’s elite.
“It feels pretty good to be where we are today, because we still feel every bit of seven years ago, six years ago, when we just trying to jumpstart the program,” Staley said. “These are the times which we looked forward to, envisioned, sitting here today being SEC Tournament champions.”
South Carolina’s win is its second in two weeks against Tennessee (27-5). The Gamecocks were making their first championship game appearance, and they defeated the SEC’s longtime power — which was attempting to win the tournament for the 18th time in 36 seasons.
Jordan Reynolds had 17 points to lead the Lady Vols, who finished with their lowest point total in tournament history. Tennessee’s previous low was 54 points in a loss to LSU in the tournament semifinals in 2007.
The Lady Vols, the defending tournament champions, were 18 for 54 (33 percent) from the field — including 8 for 30 (27 percent) in the second half and 6 of 12 overall on free throws.
“We missed easy shots, we missed layups, we missed free throws,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “Our margin for error against South Carolina is very small, and you’ve got to make shots that are around the basket, and we didn’t.”
Tennessee dropped to 17-6 in tournament championship games, and is now 47-5 overall against South Carolina. That included a 40-game winning streak that began in 1980 and was ended by the Gamecocks in 2012 under Staley.
South Carolina improved to 3-3 in the last six meetings against the eight-time national champions, and it did so much more convincing fashion than a 71-66 win in Columbia two weeks ago.
After trailing by five points in the first half, South Carolina regained the lead with a 10-0 run later that bridged halftime. Led by Mitchell and Welch, the Gamecocks — the regular-season SEC champions — didn’t trail again while making their case as the SEC’s new elite program.
“It gave us a lot of confidence going into halftime, to be able to go on that run,” Welch said. “The energy was up in the locker room, there was a lot more talking, and I think it fed into the second half.”
Mitchell extended South Carolina’s lead to 60-42 late in the game with a breakaway layup — leaving little doubt about who is this season’s best team in the conference.
The teams traded the lead 10 times in the first half, with Tennessee taking its largest advantage at 26-21 after a fast-break basket by Cierra Burdick. Reynolds had 10 of the first 21 points for the Lady Vols.
South Carolina, which faltered in the tournament semifinals last year while also the top seed, responded with their 10-0 spurt — capped by Welch’s put-back of her own miss early in the second half to put the Gamecocks up 31-26.
“I commend them for the run that they made,” Burdick said. “Once they made it, we couldn’t really get it back and that’s what hurt us.”