NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Dawn Staley didn’t know if A’ja Wilson would play until just before tipoff, needing South Carolina’s medical staff to sign off on the three-time Southeastern Conference player of the year’s health.
Staley still limited Wilson’s minutes and brought her off the bench.
Turns out Wilson doesn’t need much time at all to show how valuable she is.
Wilson had 24 points and 12 rebounds in just 19 minutes, and eighth-ranked South Carolina beat No. 12 Tennessee 73-62 on Friday night in the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinals.
“Hopefully, I can get back in that starting lineup,” Wilson said, looking at Staley.
The Gamecocks (24-6) are back in the semifinals as they chase a fourth straight tournament title, which has never been done in the SEC. They will play No. 19 Georgia in the semifinals Saturday.
Staley wasn’t even sure if Wilson would play in the SEC tournament after she missed the regular season finale at Tennessee with vertigo.Wilson came off the bench with 6:29 left in the first quarter. She scored six points and grabbed three rebounds to quickly prove she’s healthy, though she did need a breather in the second half.
“I just had to get a breather, gather myself,” Wilson said.
Alexis Jennings had 19 points and 12 rebounds for South Carolina. Mikiah Herbert Harrigan also had 15.
With Wilson, South Carolina is a win away from having a chance to play for an unprecedented fourth straight tournament title. The Gamecocks currently are tied with Tennessee, which did it twice, with three consecutive championships.
“Any time you get a chance to play an A’ja Wilson you got a shot at winning the basketball game, even if it’s just under 20 minutes,” Staley said.
Tennessee (24-7) lost for the 100th time in SEC play in program history with the Lady Vols’ worst shooting performance of the season. Anastasia Hayes led Tennessee with 17 points, and Jaime Nared added 15 points and 13 rebounds and Mercedes Russell had 12 points.
“We missed a lot of bunnies, a lot of easy layups, wide open layups, jumpers that we normally make,” Nared said. “We know they’re a good team, they’re a long team, but we missed a lot of buckets that we normally make.”
Not only did the Gamecocks have Wilson back, but Jennings gave them a much better game than she did last weekend against Tennessee. In the regular-season finale, Jennings had just three points and seven rebounds. She nearly had a double-double by halftime.
Tennessee had its only lead at 3-2 before a pair of free throws by Cliney put the Gamecocks ahead to stay. South Carolina led 16-9 after the first quarter and 33-23 at halftime. The Lady Vols scored eight straight to pull within 46-43 of the Gamecocks.
Herbert Harrigan’s jumper started a 13-0 run by South Carolina, and Doniyah Cliney’s 3 capped the spurt with 8:15 left and a 59-43 lead. The Gamecocks led by as much as 18 with Tennessee not hitting a shot in the fourth until Nared’s jumper with 6:38 left.
Tennessee: The Lady Vols hit just 8 of 40 (20 percent) in the first half and finished with a season-low 26.7 percent (23 of 86). That was much worse than the 35.3 percent shooting they had in a loss to Alabama on Feb. 15.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks snapped a three-game skid to Tennessee. … They outrebounded Tennessee 50-43 and had a 46-36 scoring edge in the paint. That helped them overcome a season-high 27 turnovers the Lady Vols turned into 26 points.
Tennessee: Waiting for NCAA Tournament bracket announcement.
South Carolina: Advances to Saturday’s semifinals to face No. 19 and third-seeded Georgia, which beat Missouri 55-41 in a Friday night quarterfinal.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker