The Lady Vol coaches plan to leave the all-senior starting lineup in place for Sunday's championship game. Tipoff is 6 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPN2) at Bridgestone Arena.
Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick will change one usual routine by not chatting with her close friend, LSU Coach Nikki Caldwell.
"We talk before each game," Warlick said. "It's going to be different because I'm not calling her. … As I love Nikki Caldwell, she's not going to be a great friend of mine (Sunday). Maybe after the game."
First, the Lady Vols had to get past a pesky South Carolina team on Saturday that likes to take threes and apply pressure to the ball handler.
Tennessee did so with a 74-58 win that stayed close until the final nine minutes when the Lady Vols got a double-digit lead - a development of an aggressive man defense - and never surrendered it.
That came about by two blocks - one from Shekinna Stricklen with the shot clock about to expire and an emphatic one from Vicki Baugh. Both led to run-outs by the Lady Vols and back-to-back baskets from Ariel Massengale and Glory Johnson.
"Well, it was huge," Warlick said. "Anytime you can get transition points and you score off your defense, it's huge for us. It's a momentum builder. It's a transition basket. That's what we want.
"So, absolutely, when Strick and Vicki had blocks, it's a great momentum for us."
The Gamecocks had beaten Tennessee in Knoxville last month so South Carolina knew it could have success against the Lady Vols.
South Carolina had a two-point lead, 11-9, at the 11:23 mark after a three-pointer from Tina Roy. Johnson got a feed from Baugh and tied the game at the rim at the 11:07 mark, and Massengale, who entered at the 13:18 mark, got a defensive board and motored to the other end for a layup and a 13-11 lead at the 10:26 mark.
Tennessee would not lose the lead again, but the Gamecocks stayed close and trailed by just six points, 28-22 at halftime.
Stricklen arrived right on cue for the second half, and Johnson went to work inside.
"She turns on at the right time," Johnson said of Stricklen. "I have faith in her."
The lead extended to nine points, 39-30, on a nice step-through move from Alicia Manning at the 16:23 mark of the second half.
"I do think she probably settles in better when she starts," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said. "I think the seniors realize that time is running out a little bit. A-Town's focus to me is a little bit keener than it was, say, midseason."
South Carolina stayed within single digits of Tennessee until the back-to-back blocks and then Stricklen and Johnson went to work. They scored inside and out and a game that was within reach for the Gamecocks suddenly was effectively over.
A Johnson turn-around shot in the paint extended the lead to 20 points, 65-45, with 5:17 left to play.
Taber Spani got in the scoring column on a sweet feed from Manning and when Spani misfired on a three, Johnson got the board and stick-back for a 70-50 lead with 2:27 left.
Isabelle Harrison ended the scoring for a Tennessee with a bank shot and the final 74-56 score. After a missed South Carolina shot, Massengale got the ball and dribbled out the clock.
Massengale was still dribbling near the scorer's table for the final two seconds while Pat Summitt and South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley shook hands. The crowd of 11,029 - nearly 90 percent Tennessee fans - roared its approval of the outcome.
"Great team effort, great team win," Warlick said. "Let me say this. Our fans are just absolutely incredible. I never thought I would say this, that the arena would sound like Thompson-Boling.
"But that was a loud crowd, and we're so appreciative of them coming out and supporting us. It's a tribute to this team, to Coach Summitt. I'm just proud to be from Tennessee and know how many people we have that love our basketball team."
Staley noted the talent and senior experience of Tennessee and said after the game, "I hope they get Coach Summitt another SEC championship."
Staley also is a Johnson fan it would seem.
The Gamecocks are led by four seniors, but with the game out of reach in the latter part of the second half, Staley inserted underclassmen to give them some experience.
"We did try to put a team of five out there that would play in this situation next year just to give them a little experience at it, to play against a team like Tennessee, playing against Glory Johnson," Staley said.
"Glory gets two feet in the paint every single time."
South Carolina was led by Ieasia Walker and Markeshia Grant, who scored 13 points each. La'Keisha Sutton and Tina Roy added 10 points each.
The Gamecocks shot 34.9 percent (22-63) overall, 31.8 percent (7-22) from long range and 58.3 percent (7-12) from the line.
South Carolina had six assists, seven turnovers, four steals and one block. The Gamecocks got 20 points from their bench, as did Tennessee.
Tennessee was led by Johnson with 23 points and 10 boards. Stricklen added 16 points, while Baugh had eight points, 10 rebounds and three blocks.
The Lady Vols shot 50.9 percent (27-53) overall, 41.7 percent (5-12) from long range and 75.0 percent (15-20) from the line.
Tennessee had eight assists, 10 turnovers, five blocks and four steals. The Lady Vols prevailed on the boards, 38-30.
"The atmosphere here is unbelievable with all of the orange," DeMoss said. "It's almost like a home court. This team gets really motivated for the SEC Tournament."
INSIDE TENNESSEE'S TAKE
Pat Summitt switched approaches Saturday with Shekinna Stricklen and had a friendly chat on the baseline before the second half started.
It worked again. Stricklen erupted for 16 points, all in the second half.
On Friday, Summitt took a very emphatic approach on the bench - she broke out the classic stare - and Stricklen responded to that, too.
Maybe Summitt should just confront Stricklen at pre-game meal on Sunday and get a head start.
That suggestion brought smiles from the Lady Vols, including Stricklen, but it would bring a bigger smile to Summitt if her senior All-American would get going in the first half.
Fortunately for the Lady Vols, Vicki Baugh has emerged in postseason and has had two outstanding first halves in Nashville.
Baugh logged 18 minutes before halftime Saturday with six points, eight boards, two assists, two blocks and just one turnover. And the turnover was for traveling when it appeared she was actually fouled.
Baugh was the leading scorer in the first half with Alicia Manning, Glory Johnson, Meighan Simmons and Cierra Burdick tallying five points each.
Then, Stricklen unloaded in the second half and scored 16 points on 5-10 shooting.
During Friday's game, Summitt delivered a stern message to Stricklen on the bench, and the senior finished the game like she was shot out of a cannon.
Before Saturday's second half started, Summitt spoke calmly to Stricklen on the baseline - the senior said her coach was smiling and stayed positive - and that worked, too.
That Summitt can reach Stricklen is apparent. She has done so for the senior's four years at Tennessee. But a faster start for Stricklen would benefit the Lady Vols to say the least.
The good news for Tennessee is that they can weather the delay for Hurricane Kinna to arrive. With Baugh and Johnson holding down the inside, Manning hitting enough shots to make the defense account for her, and the bench players providing some instant offense, Tennessee is getting team-wide contributions.
The all-senior lineup continues to be the most effective. The group struggled somewhat early against South Carolina - the Gamecocks are aggressive on defense - but the five seniors were solid to start the second half.
It also helped that Stricklen hit a layup 10 seconds into the second half and then drained a three-pointer two minutes later on a pass from Manning. That was followed by a steal from Briana Bass and then a Johnson finish at the rim. In between Stricklen's buckets was a Baugh spin move to the basket.
In less than three minutes, all five seniors had contributed to the offensive output in some way.
The five seniors have an uncommon bond because of all they have endured on and off the court. When they are on the court together, they chatter and correct each other.
It's a live game example for the underclassmen, and it's something these seniors didn't get when they arrived because of graduation and injuries that forced so many of them onto the court before they were ready for the responsibility.
It's likely an adjustment for the underclassmen who were used to starting or logging a lot of minutes, but their day is coming, and they need to stay ready for when their number is called.
Freshman Ariel Massengale is still logging considerable minutes and that is likely to continue. Freshman Cierra Burdick has seen her minutes trimmed, but based on the way she celebrated with her teammates in the locker room, she has embraced her role and this team. Freshman Isabelle Harrison knows she is playing behind senior posts and will be a primary post piece next season.
Junior Kamiko Williams is coming back from knee surgery and making the most of her minutes, even keeping her point guard skills handy.
"I come in and fill in where I need to fill in," Williams said. "Whether it's the wing, the point, defense, whatever it is, I just need to bring it when I come off the bench. Just be that missing link."
Junior Taber Spani is physically limited by her knee but logged an effective nine minutes, all in the second half.
"Everybody can bring something different every game," Spani said.
Sophomore Meighan Simmons logged all of her nine minutes in the first half. She didn't play in the second, because the combination of players on the floor was working.
"It was just a rotation," Assistant Dean Lockwood said. "That group was going well and sometimes players have to understand that that's part of the gig that when another group is going well, you may not get back in the game or get the minutes that you normally get.
"And she is great. She is very mature that way, and I think she'll be fine."
Simmons, like all of the reserves, have to stay ready and prepare as if they could play at any time.
If the bench needs an example of why, look at the seniors. Only Johnson and Stricklen have been regular starters. But when Bass, Manning and Baugh were summoned to seize control of the team, they were prepared to do it.
FIRST SEMIFINAL: No. 1 seed Kentucky vs. No. 4 seed LSU
Winner: LSU, 72-61
Up next: LSU (22-9) vs. No. 2 seed Tennessee (23-8)
Significance: The title game matchup means the No. 1 seed won't play on the final day for the first time since 2007 when No. 3 seed Vandy and No. 4 seed LSU met in Duluth, Ga., with the Commodores taking the trophy.
Kentucky's loss means the Wildcats can now get some rest - their pace and style take a lot out of a team - and await the NCAA tourney bid.
LSU and Tennessee, which are both locks for the NCAA Tournament, will renew their postseason series and then also get some much-needed rest before the Big Dance.
The SEC is always a physical conference and this year has been no exception. The senior-laden teams in the league were hardened and battle tough, and two veteran squads will square off Sunday.
Key stats: Turnovers, free throws and boards.
LSU thrived despite 24 turnovers because the Tigers used their size to repeatedly get to the paint against the smaller Wildcats and shot 48.7 percent.
LSU was 34-43 from the line while Kentucky was 6-13. The Wildcats stayed in striking distance with the long ball, connecting on seven of 21 (7-21) while LSU went 0-3 from the arc.
LSU also dominated the glass at 38-23 with 12 offensive boards, including five from Courtney Jones.
Jones was 8-11 from the line while LaSondra Barrett was 9-10. Jones tallied 18 points with Barrett adding 15. Adrienne Webb scored 11 points with Jeanne Kenney adding 10 points.
Kentucky was led by A'dia Mathies with 18 points, while Keyla Snowden had 17 on the strength of five three-pointers. Azia Bishop had eight off the bench on 4-6 shooting.
Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell: "You lose by nine, get outscored 28 at the free throw line, we clearly fouled too much. I was disappointed with that, that we could not play a cleaner game.
" … I think they really wanted our post players to try to beat them. They put a lot of pressure on A'dia, Keyla and Bria (Goss). We didn't get much production out of our post game, could not make shots around the basket."
LSU Coach Nikki Caldwell: "I felt like we tried to really establish our inside game because we're big. We're going to take advantage of our size. When we do that, it puts a lot of pressure on them to guard us, which allowed us to get to the free throw line.
"But that's been our game plan the whole time. Whenever we are establishing that inside attack, we typically do a very good job of shooting a high percentage. We may turn it over 20-plus times, but we're near 48, 49 percent each game."
ODDS AND ENDS
BEST FAN YELL: That of a Kentucky fan who, after A'dia Mathies missed her first free throw, screamed: Get us on the scoreboard!"
It was 4-0 at the time after LSU and Kentucky combined to miss their first eight shots. Mathies hit the second to get the Wildcats on the board, 4-1.
FAVORITE MEDIA ACTIVITY: Watching a very excitable Nikki Caldwell on the sideline for LSU and wondering if her baby will decide to enter the world some two weeks before the due date.
Best media quip: "How long would that delay halftime?"
Tennessee and Vanderbilt were delayed an extra 29 minutes Friday because of a tornado warning for downtown Nashville.
SECOND FAVORITE MEDIA ACTIVITY: Watching Nikki Caldwell tell the officials what she thinks of some of the calls.
There is just something mesmerizing about a woman with child giving the officials - while standing back because of the baby bump - an earful of her ire.
When an LSU player was called for a charge, an aghast Caldwell yelled, "Flop! Flop! Flop!"
FAVORITE FAN ACTIVITY: Watching Pat Summitt tell the officials what she thinks of some of the calls.
When Summitt stands up, lowers her eyes at the officials and then throws her arms up in the air, the orange-clad fans erupt.
LEAST BUSY CREW: Once again, the Internet Help Desk at Bridgestone Arena. One day after they worked for hours to restore the wireless because of the violent storms Friday, the connection was perfect again Saturday.
A cynic might say the second least busy crew was any official watching Glory Johnson get pounded in the paint, based on the lack of whistles, especially in the first half against South Carolina.
HEALTHY SNACKS: The Lady Vols post-game snacks are very nutritious and feature apples and little cups of peanut butter for dipping.
Of course, this can make video and TV interviews a little tricky as the players scramble to wipe mouths clean, get peanut butter off their teeth and drink something to clear their throats.
"Stop eating!" is the order yelled out when the media is allowed in the locker room after the game, but it doesn't always work. The food is right there in front of them, and the players are hungry.
Kamiko Williams opted for just the apple.
"I don't mix the two," Williams said. "Peanut butter is too dry."
SHOT TIME: Taber Spani has struggled from the field since being so limited by her knee, but she and Alicia Manning had a game highlight when Spani curled to the paint and Manning, who was near the top of the floor, saw the play developing.
Spani converted at the rim for a 69-48 lead with 3:41 left in the game against South Carolina.
"It was a great pass by A-Town," Spani said.
Manning laughed when asked how peeved she would have been had Spani missed the layup.
"I have faith in her," Manning said.
Manning heard directions to pull out the ball, but she saw Spani and had to turn loose.
"She was working too hard so I had to let it go," Manning said.
MANNING MOMENT: Alicia Manning was wrapped in ice after the game - she spends a lot of time fighting for rebounds and getting on the floor - but she was smiling in the locker room.
It was a solid stat line for the senior - seven points, six rebounds and two assists in 27 minutes.
"I have just been having fun," Manning said. "We have a team psychologist that talked to us before we came here and really just focused on getting us to play intense and not tense.
"I really just took that to heart. Play intense, having fun and that's when I am at my best."
The team also was motivated by having lost their last two games to Vandy and South Carolina.
"We had a chip on our shoulder, and we knew that we beat ourselves those games," Manning said. "We had something to prove. We focused on that.
"I didn't want to go out losing to Vanderbilt or South Carolina."
LOVABLE LOSERS: Cierra Burdick and Vicki Baugh tried to get different media members to note that the other was a loser in what appears to be a running joke.
When answering a serious question about player roles, Baugh responded and then added, "especially this loser Cierra."
Baugh reacted with mock indignation when told that Burdick had said the same thing about her.
"Oh, no she didn't!" Baugh said. "She's the biggest loser. We have to love her because she's on the team and she's a great basketball team, but besides that, she's a loser.
"I tried to befriend her because I feel bad for her."
Burdick was within earshot and whistled a peanut at Baugh's head with help from a teammate.
"Sorry, they're immature," Baugh said.
ICE BATHS: Strength and conditioning coach Heather Mason left a wee bit ahead of the team Saturday to start getting the ice tubs ready for the players back at the hotel.
Shekinna Stricklen, who used to dread the cold dips, now looks forward to them because of the relief it provides to her legs.
Glory Johnson doesn't like them, but she knows the benefits so she takes the plunge.
Vicki Baugh apparently despises them, and Johnson said her post mate might slip a little hot water in the tub to make it bearable.
"Oh, that is not true," Baugh said. "I get in the ice bath. It takes me a long time to get in there because it hurts, but after the first minute you're fine.
"I get in the ice bath. Glory is the one you need to worry about."
Three games in three days means rest - and a deep freeze - is vital.
"Eat a lot, ice baths and go to bed early," Alicia Manning said.
BAUGH AT HER BEST: The reason for Vicki Baugh's success is pretty simple.
"It's confidence," Taber Spani said. "When Vicki is confident she is a different player. That is what we need."
Fellow junior Kamiko Williams agreed.
"I would say it's her confidence," Williams said. "She is not thinking about it. She is just going out and playing the game she knows how to play.
"She knows that we need her. She is just going out there and doing her thing."
Briana Bass, who is one of Baugh's closest friends, said Baugh knows what is at stake.
"I think she knows it's all or nothing, and she just wants to leave her legacy on a good note," Bass said. "And having confidence and believing in herself, she is doing everything that we need her to do."
Glory Johnson may be the president of the Vicki Baugh Fan Club and has welcomed the post help.
"She's a great finisher inside first of all," Johnson said. "Defensively, great. Blocks awesome, willing to step over in help side no matter where she is at. And rebounds like crazy.
"I am just glad to be on her team."
Baugh believes it's confidence, too.
"It is definitely confidence," Baugh said, indicating it was team-wide. "Shekinna and Glory have been playing out of their minds and everyone has been stepping up playing their role.
"I am just glad that it is happening in postseason, because this is where the team needs me the most. I am glad that we grew up at the right time."
Dean Lockwood beams when he talks about Baugh.
"I think she is a very strong person internally," Lockwood said. "She is very strong willed. Vicki is very determined. I think it says volumes about the kind of person that she is that she is where she is right now."
SILENT WHISTLES: Glory Johnson had just one foul called on Saturday, and she was thrilled.
"That one was a foul," Johnson said. "That was correct. I did foul her in help side."
Of course, the flip side, is that Johnson rarely hears whistles for all the fouls she is absorbing.
She had one South Carolina player repeatedly dig into the back of her legs and try to steer her out of the paint. On one play, the defender had nearly ridden Johnson out to the arc, where the official had finally seen enough and called it.
"I would be posting up, and she would be underneath me," Johnson said.
Johnson took another physical pounding but maintained her composure.
"I try talking to the refs; if it doesn't happen I try talking to Dean," Johnson said of her post coach, Dean Lockwood. "Dean keeps me composed. He keeps me calm. If I relax, my coaches will take care of it.
"It happens from the beginning of the game to the end."
FAMILIAR FOES: LSU Coach Nikki Caldwell helped to recruit this senior class for Tennessee - she left in 2008 for UCLA before they arrived on campus - so she knows them well.
Caldwell also played for Tennessee and is as steeped in Lady Vol lore as anyone else in Nashville this weekend. But on Sunday she will be trying to lead her Tigers over Tennessee.
"Nikki knows us like the back of her hand," Alicia Manning said. "It's really going to be a game of execution and hard work and passion. It's going to be who wants it more."
"It's going to a fight," Vicki Baugh said. "And we have to be mature and composed."
Caldwell's team plays like one coached by Pat Summitt, and the Lady Vols have noticed.
"We're playing ourselves," Baugh said. "I am looking forward to a really physical game, and it's going to be a game for big kids."
Speaking of kids, Caldwell is close to bringing a baby into the world.
"Caldwell is awesome and I am very proud," Baugh said. "I am kind of jealous because I thought we were her babies, but now she's going to have another one.
"I just wish her all the best, but we're going to have to kick her butt."
Game highlights from utsportstv