February 22, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina faces another showdown, one perhaps to show who's got control of the Southeastern Conference.

The second-ranked Gamecocks (25-1, 13-0 SEC) face No. 6 Tennessee (23-3, 13-0) on Monday night with the league championship clearly on the line. The winner doesn't clinch a crown, just takes a huge step in pursuit of the title in the final week of regular-season play.

For South Carolina, a victory could mark a significant, seismic shift about where the power of the SEC may lie the next few years.

Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley has only beaten Tennessee once - South Carolina ended the Lady Vols' 40-game series win streak in 2012 - yet believes her team could make a serious statement about remaining on top with a victory.

''I do think it's a statement game,'' Staley said. ''If you want to play with the big girls, you've got to beat the big girls. And Tennessee has been the champions of our league for a very long time.''

The Lady Vols have won 16 SEC championships since the league first sponsored women's basketball, including three of the previous five years. South Carolina won its first crown last season despite losing its lone meeting with Tennessee last year.

So two weeks after floundering and losing the No. 1 spot with an 87-62 loss at then-second ranked Connecticut, South Carolina will again try and prove it's a power to be reckoned with in the SEC and beyond.

The Gamecocks are in the midst of a landmark season, trying to join the ranks of the five SEC programs who've won champions with perfect records in league play. Tennessee's accomplished that nine times, the last one coming in 2011 - and the only one to go 16-0 since the league expanded its SEC schedule to 16 games the past six years.

It won't be Tennessee at full power with the absence of leading scorer and rebounder Isabelle Harrison, who tore an ACL last week and is gone for the season.

''I think people have written us off,'' Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. ''That's all I've heard is Izzy's out and we're pretty much done, but this is a solid team. They've worked really hard to get to the level they're at. I think we're all excited to get there and play the game.''

The Lady Vols don't surrender ground easily. Warlick said her players aren't thinking about titles, seedings or where they make rank in the national picture.

''They're just thinking about playing South Carolina and they're the underdog and they want to take care of business,'' Warlick said. ''I don't have to use a lot of motivation tactics this game.''

Neither do the Gamecocks, all who came to South Carolina because of Staley's vision of Tennessee-style dominance.

''Growing up, you always wanted to be a part of a program as such,'' Welch said. ''To be able to feel like we're able to build a program here, of that caliber, it's very important.''

Yet for all the success South Carolina's had the past few years - four straight years of 25-or-more wins, three consecutive NCAA tournament trips, last year's first-ever SEC title - Tennessee has remained a Rocky Top difficult to scale.

With the Gamecocks flying high from clinching the SEC title last February, they stumbled badly in a 73-61 loss at Tennessee. Staley, the Gamecocks coach since 2008-09, is 1-8 all-time against the Lady Vols.

In fact, South Carolina's lost 19 straight at home to Tennessee, a streak of futility that stretches to 1980.

Staley hopes the Gamecocks, who lead the country this season in average attendance at 12,177 per game, have the kind of raucous, nerve-ratting atmosphere on Monday night that Tennessee and Connecticut have used to great effect the past few decades.

''What we've been able to accomplish and the fans that come out and support us, we are doing what Tennessee does to so many, which is create a home-court advantage and make it virtually impossible for people to win on their home court,'' Staley said.

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AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee contributed to this report from Knoxville, Tennessee

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