Lady Vols complete SEC sweep

NASHVILLE - Shekinna Stricklen, the SEC Player of the Year, put an exclamation point on that award Sunday, as the junior paired with senior Angie Bjorklund to bombard Kentucky with treys - Tennessee set program and SEC records - and cap a perfect conference season with a 90-65 win to claim a second consecutive tourney title.

Tennessee, 31-2, connected on 16-21 three-pointers - Shekinna Stricklen was 5-6, and Angie Bjorklund was 7-8 - and broke up a close game at halftime with a 90-65 rout of Kentucky, 24-8, before 11,150 fans at Bridgestone Arena, the overwhelming majority cheering for the Lady Vols.

Coach Pat Summitt used a courtside microphone after the game to, once again, sing "Rocky Top," for the fans, and she also thanked them and said the support would never be taken for granted.

"She's got a good voice," Bjorklund said at the post-game press conference with the wisdom and graciousness of a senior.

"I don't know how after all the yelling I've done," Summitt said.

"After that game I don't know if I could sing," Bjorklund said.

Summitt did her best Music Row impersonation - media room reviews were that she should keep the coaching gig - but Kentucky was singing the blues after the offensive assault of the Lady Vols in the second half with 51 points on 76.2 percent shooting.

"They're a very talented basketball team," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "I just thought they played really hard. When they shoot the ball well, to me they have a chance to be one of the best teams in the country.

"Of course we don't see everybody, so I don't want to speak out of turn. But I just can't imagine when they're shooting like they did (Sunday) that they're not the best team in the country."

The Wildcats had success in the SEC this season with an aggressive and trapping defense - Kentucky used it to great effect in the semifinal win over Vanderbilt - and have to play a physical brand of basketball, especially against teams as tall and athletic as Tennessee.

The Lady Vols still struggled with turnovers to start Sunday's game - as they did in Lexington in early February - but it wasn't so much Kentucky's pressure as poor decisions when passing the ball. Tennessee, despite the miscues and missed layups in the paint, still led 39-30 at halftime.

Tennessee flipped the script on Kentucky by pressuring the Wildcats and not flinching when the pace got frenetic and the play got physical. The officials allowed a lot of contact to go uncalled in the first half - Taber Spani drove from the wing in the first half and her neck snapped to the side without a whistle - but managed to rack up fouls on both teams with 24 whistles for Tennessee and 20 for Kentucky for the game.

Tennessee's Glory Johnson had to briefly leave the game to have blood sprayed off her jersey, and Kentucky's Victoria Dunlap left the court and returned with a bandaged chin after banging it on the court.

"I just didn't think we played as tough as we would need to play," Mitchell said. "When you are a little bit challenged from a physical standpoint as far as Tennessee's size and athleticism, you really have to - as we say in Mississippi - you have to bow up and play a little bit tougher. That was the thing that was most disappointing to me.

"Once we see it's going to be a tough, physical game, generally we respond a little bit better. … When we don't against a good Tennessee team, you get a result like today. So the physical play, we had a chance to get as physical as them, and we didn't do it. So that's a credit to Tennessee."

The Lady Vols' assigned locker room at the arena is the same one used by visiting NHL teams, and the players might have felt as if they had just completed a hockey game.

"We saw that the game was going to be really physical and we made adjustments," Stricklen said. "We came back and were really physical."

The players were packed in ice after an assortment of new bumps and bruises, but their faces were full of smiles.

"It's good to make history in a good way," said Alicia Manning, who had a solid showing in Nashville and tallied 11 points, 11 rebounds and four assists on Sunday. "Pat always says you can make it in a good way or a bad way, and I think we definitely made it in a good way."

"I love her game," Summitt said in her post-game press conference. "You know what you're going to get every time she comes in."

Manning is part of a second team off the bench that could start a given game in Kamiko Williams, Bjorklund, Manning, Vicki Baugh and Kelley Cain.

"That's insane," Manning said. "It's honestly insane. I say all the time that I feel bad for the people that have to guard us. It's just incredible. The coaches do such a great job recruiting, and it's really showing right now."

Summitt used 10 players in the first half, and 12 for the game. Williams entered in the first half at the 16:30 mark for Simmons, after she turned over the ball - her second of the game - and then fouled Bernisha Pinkett with Kentucky taking a 13-10 lead,

Williams played 12 minutes in the first half with just one turnover.

"Bring whatever is missing," Williams said. "We needed somebody out there to control tempo and handle the ball so I just went out there and did that."

That type of depth has aided Tennessee all season - and Simmons, who had two more turnovers in the first half, didn't have any in the second - and allowed Summitt to keep fresh legs on the court.

"Our depth is really good," Simmons said. "Anybody that comes off the bench is an amazing player and I think that the more we use our depth the more the starters can take a break and come back in the second half and play even harder."

Vicki Baugh, who played well Saturday, had an ice bag on her left knee on the bench and didn't log time Sunday, the only player for Tennessee not to get in the game. The back-to-back format of the SEC tourney is not conducive to Baugh, who has had two ACL surgeries.

The entire team was ready for some rest - plus several players mentioned having tests coming up this week - and Johnson was asked if it was needed.

"Probably a couple of weeks," Johnson said to laughter, "but we got two days."

"We'll take it," Kelley Cain said.

"We'll take whatever we can get," Johnson said.

Simmons said after the game Sunday that she felt some fatigue - quite common for freshmen - and the team would welcome a wee bit of time off the court.

"We could (use the rest) because there are a lot of people who are still tight in their legs, Simmons said. "I know I got tired (Sunday) every now and then. We'll be good and refreshed by the time we get into the NCAA."

Williams beamed after the game when asked if Summitt was happy with the team. The head coach told the players she was proud of them for that they completed in Nashville.

"We do feel a sense of accomplishment and I think by having back-to-back (SEC) championships we just got a little bit more motivated to go and win a national championship and get it for this team this year," Williams said. "Why not go to the top?"

The first postseason step for Tennessee was to claim its tourney title and the Lady Vols had to contend with a Kentucky team that took them to the wire in Lexington last month.

Simmons opened the game by hitting her first two shots - a trey and then a floater - for a 5-2 Tennessee lead less than a minute into the game.

"I think we came in so focused, so ready to play and fired up," Bjorklund said. "Meighan hitting those first two shots really got our momentum going."

Johnson got on the glass after a Simmons' miss, hit both free throws, and Taber Spani connected on a three for a 10-6 lead at the 17:19 mark of the first half.

The Lady Vols started the game shooting 57 percent, but the Wildcats answered at 50 percent and took an 11-10 lead on a jumper by A'dia Mathies and then 13-10 after Pinkett hit both free throws after the Simmons' miscue and foul.

Spani tied it with a three-pointer, and Stricklen gave the Lady Vols a 16-14 lead with a trey at the 14:50 mark, and Tennessee never trailed again in the game.

The three-pointer was set up by Williams diving to the floor to recover a loose ball on Kentucky's end, stealing the ball and making a pass to Stricklen out of the scrum.

"Kentucky is a tough team, and they go for every loose ball so we just had to match their intensity," Williams said.

Stricklen followed with another three and a 19-14 lead at the 14:33 mark with Williams getting the assist, but the Lady Vols squandered other opportunities to score with a waved-off Simmons' free throw after a lane violation and an assortment of missed layups.

Williams' defender overplayed her to the left - the left-handed Williams likes to drive in that direction - and she executed a spin move and drive to the right that left her defender flatfooted. Williams dished to Johnson, but she missed the lineup. The play was memorable because Williams went right.

"In practice I will do it and sometimes I don't," Williams said. "I can go right, but I still try to go left. If you're going to (overplay) me I'm going to go right until you play me straight up and then I'll get to pick a side."

Bjorklund entered the game at the 11:13 mark and connected from the corner on a Simmons' pass for a 22-17 lead with 9:38 remaining before halftime. Simmons was fouled and hit both for a 24-19 lead, and after Kentucky left Bjorklund in transition to account for Manning inside, Bjorklund buried another three for a 27-20 lead at the 8:27 mark.

Manning made one of two free throws, and Alyssia Brewer hit a half-hook for a 30-24 lead at the 6:06 mark. But Kentucky pulled to within one point, 30-29, with 4:22 remaining before the break on a jumper by Jennifer O'Neill and a three-pointer by Pinkett.

Bjorklund gave the Lady Vols a little breathing room by taking one dribble to re-position herself on the arc and connected on her third trey of the first half for a 33-29 lead at the 2:35 mark. Manning followed that by calling for the ball on the wing, getting it and sticking the baseline jumper for a 35-29 lead at the 1:45 mark.

Manning scored again after a nifty Brewer pass - she has excellent court vision from the post - and then was fouled after grabbing a defensive board and hit both free throws to score the Lady Vols' final six points of the half and take a 39-30 lead into the locker room.

Tennessee essentially survived the first half as Kentucky hit 11 field goals to 12 for Tennessee and had nine turnovers to 14 miscues for the Lady Vols. Kentucky also held its own on the glass with Tennessee taking just a 23-19 lead on the boards. The Wildcats had nine boards on the offensive end.

The difference was the performance behind the arc. Kentucky was 2-8 in the first 20 minutes. Tennessee was 8-9 - 1-2 from Simmons, 2-2 from Spani, 2-2 from Stricklen and 3-3 from Bjorklund.

"The fans helped with the momentum also," Bjorklund said. "When you can hit a few shots, and the fans go crazy that helps."

The Lady Vols knew they left too many points off the scoreboard with missed layups. The Lady Vols shot 42.9 percent (12-28) on the strength of the long range lofts. They were 4-19 (26.6 percent) on shorter shots.

"We talked a lot about that (at halftime) and I thought our turnovers and also their offensive rebounding really hurt us," Bjorklund said. "Our shooting made up for that and once we got our composure and we started taking care of the ball and breaking their pressure, that's what opened up wide-open shots and transition layups."

The second half was vintage Tennessee this season in that the Lady Vols erupted - Kentucky tried two timeouts - and didn't let up. Stricklen connected on a three-pointer and Brewer hit a layup in transition for a 44-30 lead and a Kentucky timeout barely a minute into the second half.

It briefly slowed Tennessee, but the lead never fell below double digits after the 18:52 mark. Johnson drove and hit one of two free throws for a 45-32 lead with 17:45 left, and Brewer drove and scored the layup for a 47-34 lead at the 17:01 mark.

Bjorklund had returned at the 17:44 mark and buried a three in the corner - and got fouled after the shot - for a 50-36 lead at the 16:25 mark. Stricklen got a steal on the other end in the paint, passed to Cain while falling out of bounds, got to her feet, hustled down court, got the ball back and buried the trey for a 53-36 lead at the 15:51 mark, leading to another Kentucky timeout.

"It was definitely fun playing with her today," Bjorklund said. "We were going back and forth on the shots."

Tennessee kept pouring in points with Simmons scoring in transition and Bjorklund setting up a play for Cain by dribbling behind the arc and waiting until Cain could cross the lane and roll to the basket. Bjorklund hit her with the pass, and Cain made the layup and was fouled for a 57-42 lead at the 14:09 mark.

Cain repaid the effort with a steal that set up another Bjorklund three for a 69-48 lead at the 9:52 mark. That was preceded by a Stricklen trey after an offensive board by Manning, a Manning drive and layup after a Simmons' steal, a Manning bounce pass to Stricklen in transition and Simmons fouled and sinking both free throws.

Simmons was left alone in the corner - the defense was trying to account for Bjorklund and Stricklen - took a second to set her feet and hit the three for a 72-53 lead.

"It was so amazing," Simmons said. "We just went out there and played our game. We kept pushing the ball and getting open looks. If you're open, you're going to shoot."

The Lady Vols kept scoring inside and out and even off a full court in-bounds pass after Manning did her quarterback impression and hit Simmons with a long pass for a layup and an 80-55 lead with 5:54 left.

Bjorklund hit another three for an 83-57 lead and after two Manning offensive boards ended with a tip-in layup, the Lady Vols led 85-60 with 3:41 left.

The crowd was beyond giddy by the media timeout at the 3:09 mark and a shot on the overhead screen of several fans holding up signs with block letters that spelled out "PAT 4 PRESIDENT" got one of the loudest cheers of the game.

Bjorklund wasn't done behind the arc to give Tennessee an 88-60 lead and then Manning threw a blind pass to a cutting Stricklen - she said she saw Stricklen out of the corner of her eye and knew she would go to the rim - for a 90-62 lead to finish the Lady Vols' scoring.

When Stricklen, Bjorklund and Simmons headed to the bench at the 1:34 mark, the crowd let loose again. All three had family sitting behind the bench with Bjorklund having an extended number from her home state of Washington who came for her final SEC tourney.

"My family a lot had been saying they were going to try and get out and they all came for this tournament," Bjorklund said. "I am just glad that we won it. Just having that kind of support makes a huge difference."

Bjorklund was selected for the All-Tournament Team, and she said the recognition was neat in her senior season.

"Absolutely," Bjorklund said, "(but) I think the game was more exciting than the award. I love playing. I love while we're playing - celebrating is fun, too, but not as much as playing and hitting shots like that."

Johnson made the All-Tournament Team - as did Kentucky's Victoria Dunlap and Vanderbilt's Tiffany Clarke - as did Stricklen, who also was the Most Valuable Player.

"I think hands' down she's been so consistent and so valuable for us all year long," Manning said. "She played so many minutes this weekend and still she played through everything. She is so versatile and can get everybody involved and she rebounds, takes care of the ball and so unselfish. That's an MVP for me."

"I am so proud of Strick," Bjorklund said. "She comes in every single game, and we get the same thing from her."

Stricklen's performance in the three games in Nashville validated her selection as the conference's player of the year, an award Dunlap won in 2010.

Stricklen averaged 28.3 minutes per game and tallied 48 total points (16.0 ppg to lead the team), shot 50 percent (6-12) from behind the arc and 80.0 percent (4-5) from the line and averaged 5.0 rebounds per game.

"I think the MVP you have to lead your team to victory, no matter what, and I think Shekinna did that," Johnson said. "Shekinna played hard all three games and so did Victoria Dunlap, but we led our team to victory."

"I think you have to look at how many positions Strick played these season," said Cain, who led the tourney field with eight total blocks despite playing just 13 minutes a game. "She played all five and not everybody can do that and Strick has been successful at all positions so I think she definitely deserves the MVP for both regular season and the tournament."

The post players also saluted the shooting work of the guards.

"It makes our life a lot easier when they shoot like that," Cain said.

"I don't like that rebounding stat, but I am perfectly happy with 16 for 21 for three," Brewer said.

Kentucky won that battle, 46-41, so that is likely to be a point of emphasis later this week in practice. The Lady Vols didn't rebound as well in the tourney as they did in the regular season, but they also shot 52.8 percent (93-176) and 54.9 percent (28-51) from long range while in Nashville, which takes away rebounding opportunities.

Tennessee's shooting performance Sunday set program and tournament records. The 16 made three-pointers broke Tennessee's record of 15 set twice this season against Chattanooga and Lamar. Bjorklund, who tied a career high with seven treys, hit the 15th to tie it and 16th to break it. It was the fourth time in her career that Bjorklund has hit seven threes.

The previous tourney record was 13 treys hit by Alabama against Arkansas in 1998. Simmons' three at the 8:12 mark of the second half was the 14th of the game, giving Tennessee the record before Bjorklund added two more to it.

Summitt was asked after the game if she had ever had so many players with the green light to fire away from behind the arc.

"No," Summitt said.

When asked if anyone didn't have it, Summitt said to laughter, "Well, it depends on what day it is. Depends on how they've been shooting."

Kentucky was led by Dunlap and Pinkett, who both scored 15 points. Mathies added nine, and Brittany Henderson, chipped in with seven points and matched Dunlap with nine boards. The Wildcats shot 27.3 percent (21-77) overall, 16.7 percent (3-18) from long range and 71.4 percent (20-28) from the line.

Kentucky had six assists, 16 turnovers and 11 steals. The Wildcats got 28 points off turnovers and 28 from second-chance opportunities.

"I'm very disappointed that we didn't play better, we didn't compete better," Mitchell said. "Having said that, we've had some tough times this year. We've had some very deflating losses this year. And each time this group has been able to bounce back."

Tennessee was led by Bjorklund with 23 points, with Stricklen adding 19, and Simmons tallying 16. Manning led the team with 11 rebounds and added 11 points on 4-8 shooting. Tennessee shot a season-best 56.4 percent (31-55) overall, 76.2 percent (16-21) from long range and 66.7 percent (12-18) from the line.

The Lady Vols had 22 turnovers - just eight after halftime - 13 assists, 10 blocks and seven steals. Tennessee scored 23 points off turnovers. The Lady Vols averaged 88.0 points per game in Nashville and the 90 surrendered by the stingy defense of Kentucky was a season-high against the Wildcats.

When the clock hit zero at Bridgestone Arena, the celebration erupted on the court with hugs, photos, dancing, singing and net-cutting.

Sunday was the 15th tourney title for Tennessee and gives the Lady Vols a 15-5 record in championship games, including wins in the last five appearances. The Lady Vols have won 16 regular season championships, but this was just the seventh time that they won both the regular season and tourney. It was the first time since 2005-06 that Tennessee won back-to-back tourney titles.

Tennessee took the title by beating Florida for the third time this season and Georgia and Kentucky twice. It validated the regular season for the team.

"It does because you play some teams twice and some teams once, and teams get better throughout the season and to come out on top in the tournament in the very end it feels great," Manning said. "It shows how dominant we are."


Alicia Manning

Shekinna Stricklen

Taber Spani

Glory Johnson, Kelley Cain, Alyssia Brewer, Vicki Baugh

Holly Warlick

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