COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Holly Warlick found plenty of hope in No. 6 Tennessee's loss at No. 2 South Carolina.
The Lady Vols cut an 11-point lead to 67-66 in the final 20 seconds before falling to the Gamecocks 71-66 on Monday night. It was Tennessee's second game — and biggest test — since losing 6-foot-3 forward Isabelle Harrison to a season-ending knee ligament tear earlier this month.
Warlick said she saw the fight that's marked Lady Vols basketball for decades and knows that will serve her team well in the season's most important month.
"I don't feel bad about the loss," Warlick said. "I'm not throwing things and I'm not miserable. I just hate for these kids with how hard they played and practiced. But we're still going to continue to get better.
"We're in the game," she said.
Bashaara Graves led Tennessee (23-4, 13-1 Southeastern Conference) with 20 points and Cierra Burdick had 16 points and 10 rebounds. The Lady Vols had a chance to tighten things up after Tiffany Mitchell's two foul shots with 17 seconds to go put the Gamecocks up 69-66.
But Burdick threw a pass down low to Andraya Carter, whose foot touched the end line for a turnover. Asia Dozier secured South Carolina's victory with two foul shots.
Aleighsa Welch led the Gamecocks (26-1, 14-0) with a season-high 19 points and 14 rebounds.
South Carolina can clinch a share of their second straight league title with a win over No. 11 Mississippi State on Thursday night. After that, there's even more to achieve, Welch said.
"It's a good win for us," Welch said. "But it's not kind of the stopping point of the season."
Tennessee had long been a stopping point for South Carolina. The Gamecocks hadn't beaten the Lady Vols at home since 1980 and stand 4-47 all-time against them.
Another loss almost happened.
South Carolina led 67-57 with five minutes left and a raucous crowd yelling to end a run of home losses to the Lady Vols. But Tennessee scored nine straight points and closed within 67-66 on Graves' basket with 20.2 seconds left.
After Tiffany Mitchell extended South Carolina's lead with two foul shots, Burdick passed down low to Andraya Carter on Tennessee's next possession. But Carter's foot was on the end line for a turnover. Asia Dozier secured South Carolina's victory with the final two foul shots.
Mitchell had 17 points for South Carolina.
Tennessee was looking to keep up a mind-blowing run of dominance over South Carolina, having won 43 of the past 44 meetings. The Lady Vols hadn't lost in Columbia in nearly two generations since a 56-52 defeat on Jan. 23, 1980.
"Yeah, we're missing our best player and I think one of the best players in the country," Warlick said. "But we have to move on. This is a solid team."
South Carolina usually gets a lift from its bench. This time, though, the subs struggled to make an impact. Wilson played just 12 minutes and had eight points. Sophomore Coates finished with seven points in 22 minutes. The two came in averaging 25 points a game combined.
South Carolina's Dawn Staley is the only coach in program history with more than one victory over Tennessee. Her team broke a 40-game, 32-year losing streak to the Lady Vols in 2012 in Knoxville.
Tennessee: Harrison was a major factor in the Lady Vols' last two victories over South Carolina. She has scored 38 points, grabbed 29 rebounds and added seven blocks.
South Carolina: Welch's 14 rebounds against Tennessee lifted her to fifth all-time in South Carolina boards, surpassing Denise Nanney, who had 877 from 1975-77. Welch stands at 890 for her career.
Tennessee travels to Georgia on Thursday night.
South Carolina faces No. 11 Mississippi State on Thursday night.
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