Cooke, South Carolina claim SEC Tournament title
Greenville, S.C.-- No. 1 seed South Carolina (32-0, 16-0 SEC) was crowned 2023 SEC Women's Basketball Tournament champions after defeating No. 3 seed Tennessee (23-11, 13-3 SEC), 74-58, on Sunday at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
It was South Carolina's seventh tournament title in the last nine seasons.
The Gamecocks overpowered UT with dominant play from their star-powered duo of Zia Cooke and Aliyah Boston. Tennessee was unable to execute another comeback for a second night in a row after coming from 17 points down to defeat 2-seed LSU in a semifinal on Saturday.
Cooke led South Carolina with 24 points and three steals as Boston fell three rebounds short of a double-double with 18 points and seven boards.
Jordan Horston posted 19 points for the Lady Vols and Rickea Jackson logged 17 points, ending her streak of consecutive 20-point games.
Boston immediately went work scoring four straight points for the Gamecocks at the outset.
Boston made her first five field-goal attempts, scoring 10 of South Carolina's first 21 points.
But at the end of the quarter, Horston brought UT within two, 21-19, after draining a fadeaway jumper with defenders in her face.
Brea Beal scored or assisted 17 of the Gamecocks' first-quarter points.
South Carolina continued to pour it on at the start of the second quarter. Tennessee had to call a timeout when a Sara Puckett missed three turned into a Cooke three-pointer on the other end, extending the Gamecocks' lead to 31-21.
The Lady Vols seemed to regroup after the timeout. Horston scored six straight, leading the charge to cut the deficit down to single digits at 35-29.
Cooke was held to just two points in the first quarter but found a rhythm in the second and scored 12.
South Carolina went into the half with a 37-31 advantage. Coach Dawn Staley then told her team at the half that they needed to be "more physical," and reminded them to keep their foot on the gas to avoid a repeat of the year earlier when they let Kentucky hang around and eventually suffered an upset loss to the Wildcats in the SEC title game.
The Gamecocks appeared to receive Staley's halftime message.
Cooke continued her dominance that she first began displaying in the second quarter. At the 5:40 mark in the third, she turned defense into offense as she picked Horston's pocket and then converted her own layup, making it 48-38 and beginning a trend in which she scored 20 of South Carolina's last 29 points.
The Lady Vols tried to start a late push led by Hortson and a Karoline Striplin three, but Cooke followed up with a three of her own, shutting down the possibility of a Tennessee comeback.
Cooke's 24 points was more than her first two SEC Tournament games combined, 16, and it was also the most she had scored in a conference tournament game.
Both teams await their NCAA Tournament destinations.
The 2023 NCAA Division I Women's Basketball March Madness bracket will be revealed during the Selection Show at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday, March 12 on ESPN.