"I thought we came in here in a hostile environment, played as hard as we could and did everything we could," LSU Coach Van Chancellor said. "I thought with the Tiger killer out, Cain, we might have a shot. She has just slain the tiger every time she played us.
"But then Tennessee turned around – I guess I have been watching them play since 1978 and I don't believe I have ever seen them shoot the ball like they did in the first half. They just shot lights out in the first half. If they can shoot like that all the way, they are going to be a contender for the big championship."
The Lady Vols also became the first team to finish the SEC slate undefeated since the league expanded to 16 games for the past two seasons. LSU was the last SEC team to finish unblemished in 2008 with a 14-0 record.
"Let me tell you I think going undefeated in this league is a tremendous accomplishment," Chancellor said. "Because there are so many good teams. It's just game after game you don't know who's going to win it and when you go through there undefeated that's great."
That stellar shooting start – the Lady Vols led 34-10 with 7:12 remaining in the first half when Taber Spani hit a turn-around jumper and then 44-20 when Alicia Manning connected on a trey on a pass from Spani at the 3:27 mark – seem to give Tennessee a false sense of security about a game that began as a rout.
"They thought, ‘Wow, this is easy,' " Coach Pat Summitt said. "No, it's never easy. But I liked the way we started. But we had a lot of lapses in between."
LSU came out of the final media timeout at the 2:47 mark of the first half and hit back-to-back-to-back three-pointers by Adrienne Webb, LaSondra Barrett and then Webb again to trim a 24-point lead to 15.
Tennessee called timeout with 1:33 left before the break but didn't score again and after Barrett hit two free throws, the Lady Vols halftime lead was just 13 points, 44-31.
"I think we started off really strong," Glory Johnson said. "We were trying to play a 40-minute game and after they started hitting a couple of shots and they made a run, I guess we lost a little bit of our confidence.
"Going into the locker room at halftime Pat and Dean (Lockwood) talked us up, and we gained our confidence back, and we came out with a lot more energy, and we finished the game with that energy."
Shekinna Stricklen remarked, "We started the game out great. We were talking on defense, we were moving the ball as a team, and they kind of went on that run, and we just quit talking. We quit communicating.
"That's something we really learned (this game) that's going to have to help us in the tournament – we've got to communicate the whole 40-minute game. We've got to play as a team and when a team makes a run, we've got to stop them, and we've got to come back with a run. We learned something big."
Summitt used the same starters to open the second half, including senior Sydney Smallbone, who held her own on both ends of the floor and finished with six points on 2-2 shooting after hitting a trey in each half in 13 total minutes of play.
"Syd just came in with complete confidence," Angie Bjorklund said. "I am so proud of her. She absolutely deserves every single shot she hit, and she deserved that time out on the court. She's been one of the hardest workers I've been around since I've been here."
Bjorklund also was perfect from behind the arc at 4-4 and finished with 17 points, a shot of confidence for the senior after missing a month with a right foot injury and playing in just her third game since Jan. 23.
"I think it started the past couple of days in practice, my first few full practices," Bjorklund said. "And then it just carried over into the game. I think it just took a little bit to get back into the flow and rhythm."
The presence of Bjorklund also has a calming effect on Stricklen, who has often played well with her longtime backcourt buddy.
"When she's out on the court I know how she plays," Stricklen said. "She plays very well. I think we play very well together. I know what she is going to do, if she's going to trail behind or if she's going to cut. I just know Angie very well, and it's so great to have her back.
"Shooting the ball like that it's not that we just set screens to get her open, she's creating her own shot. She can move without (the ball), and it helps out because a lot of teams key on her. They want to face guard her and deny her, and that just opens it up for everybody else, too."
Summitt did have to remind Stricklen to engage more in the first half, but this time it didn't require many words, just a shout.
"First half, I think I had only shot one shot and I think it was maybe eight, nine minutes on the clock, and I heard her screaming my name," Stricklen said. "I heard her, but I didn't really look over there because I knew what she was yelling for.
"I think I did an up-and-under post move, and then I came down and hit a three and then we got a timeout and she was like, ‘You knew exactly what I was going to say.' She told me that I just need to keep hunting for my shot. Second half, move around, look for shots and create because she said I can play all over."
Stricklen's repertoire was on display in that sequence as she faked and then executed the up-and-under move in the paint for a layup and 25-10 lead with 8:57 left before halftime. On the next play, she got the defensive rebound off a missed LSU shot, dribbled down court, stopped behind the arc with her defender heading to the paint to guard her and drained the three for a 28-10 lead at the 8:21 mark.
Bjorklund then connected on a three-pointer, plus the foul, after Stricklen got another defensive board and passed ahead. Bjorklund hit the free throw for the four-point play after the media timeout at the 7:56 mark of the first half.
"I think I got Strick's attention," Summitt said. "She was just out there. I didn't even notice her and all of a sudden I looked at her and she goes, ‘I got it, Coach.' I told her, ‘You're an All-American player, but you were hiding. I couldn't even find you.'
"One thing about her? She responds."
The last game of the regular season means a pre-game ceremony for the seniors, and the other Lady Vols stood at one corner of the court and cheered when videos of Smallbone and Bjorklund were played on the big screens, and they were presented with framed jerseys with their families at center court.
"It was a lot going on at once," Bjorklund said. "I was a little emotional before the game but during it I was just happy my family was there. It was great to see how many fans came out to watch us play today."
The fans numbered 17,473, and Summitt borrowed the sideline microphone after the game to speak to them.
"You are the greatest," Summitt said. "We thank you for all the support you give us each and every game. The greatest fans in women's basketball are right here."
It was one fan in particular that mattered to Kamiko Williams – her father, U.S. Army Master Sergeant Vincent Williams, who has been serving in Afghanistan.
"I think Kamiko Williams had the most emotion," Johnson said. "Her dad was in the stands."
He called his daughter's name while the players were warming up before the second half, and a startled Williams rushed over to hug him. They have stayed in touch by telephone, but she had not seen him since last July.
Kamiko Williams, who is from Clarksville, Tenn., did not know if her father would be able to make it home for a brief break this winter – his tour in Afghanistan began last summer and is scheduled to be completed this coming July.
"He dad surprised her, so that was great," Bjorklund.
Every fan was happy at the end of the game when Stricklen drained a three at the buzzer, following an LSU timeout with 3.9 seconds left in the game that got Tennessee to 80 points. That means the game ticket can be redeemed on Monday for free chicken tenders at Hardees, and when the score was close to 80 late in games this season the fans have been at full throat for a free meal.
A startled Johnson got the ball on the in-bounds play and searched for a long-range shooter to take her pass.
"It was a shot for Syd," Johnson said. "We were trying to get her a three. She couldn't get it in; they were denying her. And so I got it in and I was like, ‘Syd, come back!' And she ran away from me, so Strick came to my rescue, and she took the shot. I could have taken the shot, but I wanted to share."
Tennessee was 9-16 from behind the arc (56.3 percent) thanks to the combined 6-6 performance from Smallbone and Bjorklund. Seeing Bjorklund shoot the ball so well – she was 6-10 overall and hit four treys, often with a defender on her – was comforting for Summitt.
"There's no doubt she's a difference maker," Summitt said. "She didn't seem to be favoring her foot and seemed to have great focus, a lot of energy."
That energy infused the players, which have said Bjorklund's vocal presence has been missed on the court.
"I think she knew that it was her time to shine, her and Syd," Johnson said. "As a senior, it was her day. She had to shoot with confidence, and she did. She shot like we all know she can shoot. And she played her game.
"She helps so much, and she brought our energy up too. She was confident, and I think we could use that for the rest of the season."
Tennessee had plenty of energy to open the game as the Lady Vols made seven of their eight first shots while the Lady Tigers misfired on their first six.
The game began with a rousing rendition of the national anthem by Lady Vols basketball manager Ashley Smith – the players mobbed the sophomore afterwards with hugs – and then the Lady Vols bringing down the house with a shooting exhibition.
"I was the shooting coach today," Summitt joked, though the defensive lapses were not amusing to the coach. "Did you notice?"
Meighan Simmons hit a jumper in transition to start the scoring and it was followed by a Johnson spin and turn-around, a Smallbone three – which caused the Lady Vols bench to erupt – and another jumper from Simmons in transition, which gave Tennessee a 9-1 lead and forced LSU to call timeout at the 16:28 mark of the first half.
LSU got its first field goal at the 16:05 mark when Adrienne Webb connected on a 17-footer to trim the lead to 9-3.
But the Lady Vols kept pouring in points with a Stricklen turn-around with two seconds on the shot clock, Simmons in transition, Bjorklund from the wing and another Johnson turn-around for a 17-3 lead at the 12:34 mark of the first half.
Summitt went 10 deep in the first half, and the points kept piling up on the scoreboard. Williams entered at point guard for Simmons – Lauren Avant was out because of the program's concussion protocol – drove to the basket and dished to Johnson, who was fouled and made one of two free throws. Williams drove to the basket and scored in transition on the next play for a 20-9 lead at the 10:46 mark.
Bjorklund connected behind the arc and then Stricklen settled down Summitt with her up-and-under layup and trey, which was followed by Bjorklund's four-point play for a 32-10 lead at the 7:56 mark.
When LSU committed a shot clock violation on its next possession Chancellor wanted another timeout with 7:25 left before halftime.
Spani got on the scoreboard with a turn-around and then a doubled Stricklen in the paint got her the ball again for a 15-footer and a 36-13 lead at the 5:32 mark. Alicia Manning battled inside for the ball got fouled and made one of two free throws and then Bjorklund drained a trey after the ball moved from Manning to Spani to the senior for a 41-20 lead.
Manning followed that with a three-pointer after playing catch with Spani on the perimeter and a 44-20 lead at the 3:27 mark.
But that would end Tennessee's scoring in the first half, and LSU went on its triple trey run and the two free throws from Barrett to cut the Lady Vols' 24-point lead to 44-31 at halftime.
"We really invested more into our offense than we did our defense," Summitt said. "And our defense and our board play that's where you win championships, so we've got to get our mindset exactly where it needs to be on those two aspects of the game."
The burst of points energized LSU before the break.
"I'm really proud of our team," Chancellor said. "We had about five times we could have folded. We didn't."
Webb noted, "That brought us up a lot. It gave us a lot of energy to finish the half strong and that's what we did. Coming out in the second half we still had that energy but not all the shots were falling. We were getting good looks but they just weren't going down."
LSU had that issue throughout the game as the Lady Tigers got some solid looks to start the game, too, but misfired.
"We were getting quality shots," Chancellor said. "We were tickled to death with our shots. It's hard to get shots against them as big, as long as they are. They are very, very long. It doesn't matter who they start; all of them are long. We were getting good looks, but couldn't make any of them and then they were red hot. I was just proud for our team we held in and stayed there."
Summitt wasn't particularly enthralled with her team's defense. The Lady Vols played man in the first half and opened the second half in a zone and maintained a 15- to 20-point lead throughout most of the second half. The deficit to start the game took a toll on LSU.
"You kind of get discouraged when you are down but you have to keep fighting and that is what we did toward the end of the half to kind of bring us back a little bit," Webb said.
LSU did manage to cut the lead to 10 points with just under three minutes remaining in the game.
"I thought our defense at times was not very good," Summitt said. "Our communication on our switches we just weren't as sharp as we typically have been. You have to give them credit for coming through and playing well when they needed to play well, but we've got to be a 40-minute, 40-plus, and that's got to be our mentality all along."
Tennessee kept its offense rolling to open the second half. Johnson got an offensive board, got fouled and made both free throws, and Bjorklund stepped in from the arc and hit an 18-footer for a 48-31 lead with 18:49 left.
"I thought we did a great job of defending them, they just made ungodly shots with somebody on them," Chancellor said. "It wasn't like they were running around and wide open."
Smallbone connected on a second three-pointer in transition – the crowd roared when the ball went through the net, and it brought her mother, Maria Smallbone, out of her seat with arms raised – for a 51-34 lead with 18:13 left.
Simmons got to the paint and hit a one-handed floater and Bjorklund tossed a lob to Johnson for a layup and a 55-38 lead with 15:24 left. The Lady Vols kept the offense in high gear with Bjorklund hitting another three, Stricklen getting a steal and a layup, Williams driving and Johnson again connecting on a nifty turn-around that gave them a 65-45 lead and forced another LSU timeout with 7:48 left.
Simmons drove to the hoop but back-to-back dribble turnovers from Manning and then Simmons and then another turnover when Manning and Johnson bumped each other going for a rebound, gave LSU an opening, and Courtney Jones hit a three with 2:59 left to cut the lead to 67-57.
Stricklen then used a Johnson screen to hit a 19-footer and after a Stricklen miss, Johnson got the rebound and putback for a 71-59 lead with 2:00 to play. Manning later harassed the ball handler deep in the backcourt, got the steal and converted the layup for a 73-59 lead with 1:00 to play.
Johnson and Stricklen were both sent to the free throw line after fouls for one and one shots and made all four for a 77-60 lead with 23.4 seconds left. Manning and Barrett got tangled underneath the basket while boxing out – Manning twice got offensive boards off missed free throws in the first game at LSU – and double technical fouls were called, which canceled out so neither team had free throw attempts.
The contact had gotten chippy earlier, too, when Johnson ended up on the floor and the shoe of LaTear Eason chopped down on her chest. The official watched them untangle while Chancellor screamed for a foul.
"I had the ball, and I passed it and all of a sudden I have someone coming over my head and I think it's just two players going hard," Johnson said. "When we play hard, plays like that are going to happen, and you've got to move on to the next one."
The game ended following LSU's timeout and Stricklen's long three for the chicken basket and the final 80-60 score.
"We anticipated that it was going to be a real battle," Summitt said. "Their defense is really tough, but overall, I thought we started out pretty well. We had some good possessions and then I thought in the second half we were not as strong closing out the game.
"Getting to 80 points, I didn't think that was going to happen. We did knock down shots when we had open looks. I thought our post game battled pretty strong."
The post game was primarily Johnson, who had 15 points and 16 rebounds. Johnson completed the SEC season averaging a double-double in points (13.7) and rebounds (10.3), becoming the first Lady Vol since Candace Parker in 2006-07 to accomplish the feat in conference play.
Cain was out to rest her sore hip and back, Vicki Baugh played very limited minutes, and Alyssia Brewer drew Summitt's ire for lack of focus – she had been starting but came off the bench this game because of Senior Day lineup adjustments – after firing the ball over Spani's head, getting a charge call after setting up in the paint and misfiring on two hooks instead of going strong to the hoop as she had been doing in past games.
Still, Summitt likes the team's size entering postseason, although small ball was sufficient against LSU.
"Our post game when Kelley Cain is healthy and ready to go and Vicki Baugh, I think (Alyssia) Brewer has made a difference, did not play as well today, but we've got the size," Summitt said. "I don't know of anyone in the country that has three players with that size that can do a lot of good things in the paint."
As far as Cain's status, Summitt said, "We're just erring on the side of caution. There's no reason why she needs to play until she's fully back. The people that tell me, Jenny Moshak in particular, when she can play – y'all think I'm the coach, no it's Jenny."
Despite the true bigs combining for six minutes, the Lady Vols used the other eight players to rack up 80 points against LSU, a season first against the Lady Tigers in SEC play.
"Tennessee has always had great depth," Chancellor said. "I would have to go back in time to say is this the best depth they've ever had. It's pretty close. It's really good. Let's say it like that. I don't know if it's the best ever because they've always recruited a lot of players."
Summitt also will want an aggressive Stricklen in postseason like she got late in the first half and throughout the second half.
"I'm not shy to look for my shot," Stricklen said. "I'm not the type that really wants to force shots. If it's not there, I'm really not going to shoot it. I like open shots. If it comes down to it, and I have to shoot it, I'm a shooter. I've been getting good shot selection.
"I am not the type to really look for shots. I really want to create for my teammates. I can do it all. Once I create that makes the defensive player choose who they want to guard."
Chancellor indicated that Stricklen needed the ball.
"If you're going to win championships your best player better find a way to get a shot," Chancellor said. "It's been my experience. When I had Sylvia Fowles (at LSU) I got her the ball. When I had Cynthia Cooper (at the Houston Comets) I got her the ball. And they've got to want the ball.
"And nobody on God's green earth wanted the ball more than Cynthia Cooper did and thought she was going to make every shot, and made most of them."
Jones led LSU with 21 points, including 4-7 from behind the arc, and completed the double-double with 12 rebounds. Webb was in double figures with 17 points and Barrett added 15 points, six boards, four assists and two blocks. Katherine Graham and Eason also grabbed six boards each.
LSU shot 31.3 percent (20-64) overall, 28.0 percent (7-25) from behind the arc and 68.4 percent (13-19) from the line. The Lady Tigers had 11 assists, 15 turnovers, five steals and three blocks.
Stricklen and Bjorklund led Tennessee with 17 points each, and Stricklen got the double-double with 11 rebounds, and Bjorklund tied for team honors with Williams with three assists. Johnson also tallied a double-double with 15 points and 16 boards. Simmons hit double figures with 10 points, and Manning added seven points and five rebounds.
Tennessee shot 44.8 percent (30-67) overall, 56.3 percent from long range (9-16) and 84.6 percent (11-13) from the line. The Lady Vols had 10 assists, 11 turnovers, seven steals and two blocks. The battle on the glass ended in a 43-43 tie.
Both teams now turn their attention to the SEC tourney with Tennessee arriving as the top seed and LSU playing on the first day for the first time in a decade. The Lady Tigers will likely need a strong showing in Nashville to make the field of 64 in the NCAA tourney.
"When I pick out the teams that I think ought to be in the tournament I try to pick 63 other teams that I don't want to play, so to speak," Chancellor said. "I think LSU would be a hard out. Have we done enough? It's going to be awfully close. We have some quality wins. We have some bad losses. We have just struggled to score at times."
It took until the final day of the regular season to sort out the top seeds, which were Tennessee, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Georgia. Both Vandy and Georgia finished 10-6 with the Commodores winning the head-to-head matchup to seize the three seed.
The second tiebreaker was winning percentage against each seeded team, starting with No. 1 Tennessee. South Carolina won that tiebreaker with a 1-1 record against No. 2 Kentucky, whereas Auburn and LSU didn't beat the Wildcats, so the Gamecocks got the No. 5 seed.
Auburn and LSU were 1-1 against each other so the winning percentage versus seeded teams went back into effect. Auburn defeated No. 9 seed Arkansas while LSU didn't this season – the two teams' similar records against the top eight seeds didn't settle the matter – so Auburn got the No. 6 seed and LSU got No. 7.
Tennessee will face on Friday at noon local time the winner of No. 8 seed Florida vs. No. 9 seed Arkansas, which play Thursday at noon local time in the tourney's opening game at Bridgestone Arena in downtown Nashville.
The Lady Vols will receive their regular season trophy before tipoff and will do so with a perfect 16-0 record.
"We didn't set out for that, but you've got to give this team a lot of credit," Summitt said. "We went on the road and won some games, we had some tough games, but all in all I think their focus and maturity has really helped us to be successful this season.
"I think this team they've got good chemistry, too. It's not like they're upset if they don't play or if they come out. I think they really want to win as a team, and it shows."
Stricklen, a junior, smiled when asked about the perfect mark. She was a freshman when Tennessee went 9-5 in the SEC and played on the tourney's opening day in 2009.
"They told us we're the ninth team to do that (go undefeated in league play) in Pat's 37 years," Stricklen said. "That shows a right there. It's great because this class, this team has been through a lot. It's good to finally put something in the record books as a good thing.
"Going through conference undefeated that is just showing us that we are more mature, and we're playing together as a team. We're more committed now. We're committed to defense and rebounding, and that's what Coach stays on us about. Just going undefeated and getting ready for tournament time that feels great."
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt
Lady Vols Glory Johnson, Shekinna Stricklen and Angie Bjorklund
LSU Coach Van Chancellor and Adrienne Webb