COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Zia Cooke thinks communication is the key to South Carolina’s tough defense.
All that talking worked out quite well on Sunday.
Cooke scored 20 points, and the top-ranked Gamecocks clamped down on No. 22 Tennessee for a 69-48 victory.
South Carolina (21-1, 9-0 Southeastern Conference) earned its 15th straight win. Cooke posted her fourth game with at least 20 points, and fellow freshmen Aliyah Boston and Brea Beal also helped with the Gamecocks’ impressive defensive performance.
“I think communication is something that’s helping us out a lot,” Cooke said. “At practice we go hard and whenever we go hard at practice it helps us out in the game as well.”
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley likes how her freshman class, rated No. 1 in the country, is developing.
“They are just super competitive young ladies who don’t like to lose,” Staley said.
Tennessee (17-5, 7-2) had a season-low 23 points in the first half. The Lady Vols shot just 34.6% (18 of 52) for the game and finished with 21 turnovers.
Rennia Davis had 18 points and 10 rebounds for Tennessee, which lost its eighth straight to a No. 1 opponent since defeating LSU in 2005.
“They play with great poise,” Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said. “”Yet they’re very aggressive.”
South Carolina got a temporary scare in the third quarter when Boston hobbled off the court. The Gamecocks’ leading scorer and rebounder came back to the bench with her right knee heavily wrapped, and Staley patted the freshman on the head as the final period began.
Boston, who joked and chatted with teammates in the fourth, finished with 10 points, five rebounds, two blocks and two steals. Staley said Boston would be fine and she would have gone back in if the Gamecocks were playing a championship game.
The Lady Vols cut a 15-point halftime lead to 38-29 in the third quarter. But Boston had a basket and four foul shots to re-establish South Carolina’s lead.
Tennessee: The Lady Vols seem to be on the right track under former star guard and first-year coach Harper. But Tennessee is still searching for the depth it needs to match up with the country’s best teams, averaging only 48 points in losses to Stanford, South Carolina and UConn this season.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks look every bit the equal to the 2017 national champions. There are still tests ahead, including UConn at home on Feb. 10.
Staley made sure to bring up that reserve Destanni Henderson had 12 points on her birthday.
“We win all the games on birthdays,” Staley said. “We’re into that.”
Tennessee returns home to face No. 9 Mississippi State on Thursday night.
South Carolina goes to No. 25 Arkansas on Thursday night.
More AP women’s basketball: https://apnews.com/Womenscollegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25