Lady Vols basketball faces the ultimate challenge of the season against No. 1 South Carolina.
Tennessee (20-9, 12-2 SEC) takes on the undefeated Gamecocks (27-0, 14-0) on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Thompson-Boling Arena. The Lady Vols are on a three-game win streak, coming off a gritty win over Auburn on Sunday. South Carolina is coming off an overtime win on the road at Ole Miss.
Here’s what you need to know about the matchup:
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South Carolina dominates in the paint, on the boards
The Gamecocks outrebound their opponents by an average of 21.4 rebounds. They’re averaging 49.6 rebounds against SEC opponents, and they lead the conference in both offensive (17.4) and defensive (32.1) rebounds per game.
South Carolina is a disciplined rebounding team and has more size than any team in the country can match up with. Aliyah Boston and Kamilla Cardoso thrive on offensive boards, both grabbing more than 90 this season.
South Carolina concentrates its scoring in the paint and inside the arc. Only 14.4% of its made field goals – and 22.1% of field goal attempts – this season are 3-pointers.
Where South Carolina has struggled
South Carolina had some close road games in SEC play.
The closest results were against the toughest defensive teams in the conference: Georgia, Mississippi State and Ole Miss. The Rebels came the closest to knocking off the Gamecocks.
All three teams were able to force more turnovers than USC’s season average of 12.8. Both Georgia and Ole Miss were able to limit second-chance points and Mississippi State actually outscored South Carolina in the paint, 32-28.
The bad part about this is, Tennessee doesn’t have the kind of defense those three teams do. But the good part is, South Carolina has not played particularly well on the road and the Lady Vols handled all three of those opponents well at home.
Why Tennessee could have success
South Carolina has a historically good defense. But with how Tennessee is playing offensively right now, it’s a matchup nightmare.
Rickea Jackson is virtually impossible to guard. The 6-foot-3 forward has averaged 24.3 points while shooting 68.2% in the last three games. Jordan Horston has stepped up her playmaking and scoring to help lead Tennessee to 85.3 points per game in its last three wins.
A key piece in Tennessee’s offensive success Thursday will be spacing and stretching the floor. Tess Darby has been knocking down almost every open 3-pointer, hitting 58.3% and averaging 14 points over the last three games.
The Lady Vols will have to limit turnovers and keep South Carolina off the offensive glass to outrun them offensively, though.
South Carolina 76, Tennessee 70: The Lady Vols have improved enough to make this game competitive, but I don’t know if they’re at the point where they will overcome a defense like South Carolina. Thursday’s game will come down to discipline and execution of game plans, because the Lady Vols are battle-tested enough to compete with anyone.