Tennessee (24-8) had to hold off LSU (22-10) and it did so in true Lady Vol tradition with defense and board play.
Two blocks by Kamiko Williams with less than five minutes to play led to Tennessee points on the next possessions - a drive by Ariel Massengale and a three from Shekinna Stricklen - and the Lady Vols prevailed 70-58 over the Lady Tigers.
It was a typical Tennessee-LSU game in that both teams wanted to own the paint, get to the free throw line and control the boards. LSU is coached by Nikki Caldwell, a former Lady Vol player and assistant, and the two teams play a similar style.
Tennessee, led by its seniors, set the tone in all three games in Nashville.
LSU did, and the result was another pitched battle between the SEC programs.
"Even though the outcome didn't come out our way, much credit to the Tennessee team," Caldwell said.
The Lady Vols got the outcome they wanted by playing one of the best versions of Tennessee basketball that they had all season.
"It's just an awesome feeling," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "About two, three weeks ago we went back to work. We went to work and worked pretty hard.
"These young ladies bought into what we needed to do."
LSU opened the game in a matchup zone as the Lady Tigers did throughout the tourney with teams struggling to get inside and find open shots.
Tennessee moved the ball around on its first possession and got it to Vicki Baugh near the free throw line, but she was swarmed and passed to Johnson with the orders to shoot because the shot clock was about to expire.
Johnson did and drained a three-pointer, much to the delight of the crowd - 90 percent of whom were cheering for Tennessee - in the downtown arena.
The lead didn't last long as Jones hit a layup for LSU followed by a tip-in from Adrienne Webb. Alicia Manning tied the game for Tennessee with a trey at the 15:45 mark of the first half, her third three-pointer of the tourney on five attempts.
LSU got the lead back on a layup by Theresa Plaisance and then Tennessee went up three, 15-12, after a three ball from Briana Bass and two layups from Baugh, including a spin move to the basket with 12:03 left in the first half.
LSU would lead twice more, 16-15 and then 23-22, before Tennessee got the lead, 25-23, on a three from Taber Spani at the 5:09 mark, but the Tigers hovered throughout the half.
Tennessee stretched the lead to seven points, 32-25, after Johnson made four consecutive free throws, but LSU cut the lead to 33-30 after two free throws by LaSondra Barrett.
Stricklen found Isabelle Harrison inside for a layup and a 35-30 lead with 53 seconds left before halftime and that completed the scoring in the first 20 minutes.
Tennessee led at halftime in all three games in Nashville and is now 22-1 this season when ahead at the break.
But LSU pushed the Lad Vols throughout the second half, though Tennessee never surrendered the lead.
"I think when our back is against the wall, these ladies had a toughness that we haven't had in a long time," Warlick said. "It showed in the three games that we played."
LSU cut the lead to 35-32 on a Webb layup, but then Johnson answered after getting blocked, getting the ball back and hitting the layup for a 37-32 lead with 19:02 left to play.
The Lady Tigers tied the game, 41-41, at the 15:32 mark on a three from Theresa Plaisance, but Stricklen got the lead back with two free throws.
On Tennessee's next possession, a Massengale pass intended for Johnson got tipped away but an alert Baugh grabbed it and finished at the rim for a 45-41 lead with 14:45 left.
On LSU's next possession, Barrett missed a jumper and went down in traffic in the paint. As Manning, who got the rebound, and Johnson turned up court, Barrett went to get up and caught a knee from Johnson to her head.
Barrett was removed on a stretcher after a delay for treatment - she waved to the relieved crowd as she was wheeled off - and was taken to a local hospital.
"I tried to avoid it," Johnson said. "I didn't think she was going to lift up her head as soon as she did. She caught the side of my leg. A-Town went that way, and I went this way.
"She's a great player and she's an awesome person off the court. We still keep in touch, and I will make sure that I check on her later."
After diagnostic tests that included a CT scan, it was determined that Barrett had a concussion, and she was released to travel home with the team.
"We could have easily folded after LaSondra went down," Webb said. "But we took it as a challenge, to not go out there and quit, but give it our all, put our hearts into the game."
LSU then trimmed the lead to one point, 45-44, on a three from Webb, but Stricklen was fouled by Jeanne Kenney on a three attempt with the shot clock about to expire and drained all three for a 48-44 lead with 12:52 left.
Stricklen then stuck a baseline shot with one second on the shot clock for a 50-44 lead and followed that with another baseline shot for a 52-44 lead with 10:49 left.
"I think she turns on when she needs to turn on," Johnson said. "She knows that she has to help our team win, and that is what she does. She hits big shots whether it's deep threes or crashing the boards with me."
When Massengale picked up her fourth foul with 9:28 left, Kamiko Williams entered at point guard. Meighan Simmons then found Cierra Burdick inside with a pinpoint pass for a 54-44 lead with 8:44 left.
LSU still had fight left and cut the lead to 56-51 on a Webb layup with 5:13 to play, but Tennessee kept finding answers from free throws from Massengale - she reentered at the 4:59 mark - to inside play from Johnson to two clutch shots from Stricklen.
"These are the best games to play," Massengale said. "Top competition is going back and forth, back and forth. The blowouts, they're fun to get the win, but when it comes down to it we want to play good basketball.
"All credit to LSU. They came out and they played hard."
When LSU brought pressure, Massengale motored through it, and Tennessee stuck the shots. LSU was forced to foul and Massengale made five of six free throws down the stretch for the final 70-58 score.
When the clock struck zero, the celebration began for the Lady Vols, their redemption in the first postseason tourney of 2012 secured.
Both teams used 11 players for the game with LSU getting scoring from six of them and Tennessee getting points from 10.
LSU was led by Webb with 16 points and Plaisance with 13. Barrett added nine points while Jones and Bianca Lutley had eight each. Kenney completed the scoring for LSU with four points.
LSU shot 43.8 percent (21-48) overall, 26.7 percent (4-15) from long range and 75.0 percent (12-16) from the line.
The Lady Tigers had 10 assists, 11 turnovers, one steal and one block and nipped Tennessee in points in the paint, 26-23, and points off turnovers, 16-13.
"Like I told them, they stood toe to toe with a giant today," Caldwell said Sunday evening at the post-game press conference. " … Even though this stings right now, I told them, ‘You need to take this with you. Every day you go to practice, you need to remember today and use it to get better in the next couple weeks.
"Again, when there's a setback, there's a comeback."
Tennessee was led by Johnson with 20 points and 11 boards. Stricklen tallied 16 points, three boards and two assists. Baugh had 10 points and seven boards, while Manning grabbed six rebounds. Massengale tallied nine points all from the line - she was 9-10 - and had six assists.
Tennessee shot 42.3 percent (22-52) overall, 33.3 percent (5-15) from long range and 87.5 percent (21-24) from the line.
The Lady Vols had nine assists, 14 turnovers, four blocks and three steals. They dominated the glass, 39-23 and nipped LSU in second-chance points, 10-5.
After the handshake line with the Lady Tigers - the Lady Vols hugged Destini Hughes, who shredded her knee in the game in Knoxville - Tennessee gathered at center court for the trophy presentation with SEC Commission Mike Slive, who saluted Pat Summitt as the greatest coach in the game.
Stricklen was selected for the All-Tournament team, along with LSU's Webb and Barrett and Kentucky's A'dia Mathies and Keyla Snowden. Johnson, who had 58 points and 30 rebounds over three games, was the MVP of the tourney.
Stricklen and Johnson carried an SEC sign on a victory lap around the court with their teammates following behind, and several players headed into the stands for hugs with family members before shouting and celebrating as they ran into the locker room.
"We played Tennessee basketball," Warlick said.
INSIDE TENNESSEE'S TAKE
Shekinna Stricklen and Glory Johnson looked at each other and got tears in their eyes as they watched Pat Summitt climb the ladder and cut down the net at Bridgestone Arena.
This was Tennessee's third consecutive SEC Tournament title, but this one was the most special, especially for the seniors.
"I think we really solidified what we should have been doing in the regular season in the SEC," Alicia Manning said. "Ups and downs, it happens. It happens for a reason. It made us hungry. We used that and used it in a positive way."
It had been a trying regular season with eight losses, including three at home, but that paled compared to the announcement that roiled the team last August that their iconic head coach had been diagnosed with dementia.
These seniors also are seeking their first Final Four and have at times been cited more for what they haven't done than what they accomplished.
So, imagine those players being told minutes before tipoff Sunday by Pat Summitt that they were her favorite team. According to Stricklen, the players exploded out of the locker room.
What they encountered was a tough LSU team coached by the mirror image of Summitt in Nikki Caldwell, but as the Lady Vols had done for three games in Nashville, they got the halftime lead and they never trailed in the second half.
Stricklen, who scored two points in the first half - her first points before halftime in the tourney - nailed a trey with 58 seconds remaining to give the Lady Vols a nine-point lead, 65-56.
"If I could hit that first shot and get in a rhythm in the first half, it would be great, but second half I feel like I like it when there's more pressure," Stricklen said. "When the game gets close, that's when I get more in a rhythm."
It was Stricklen's only made three ball of the game - tying her improbably with Johnson, who drained one to start the game with the shot clock about to expire - and it was a huge one for Tennessee.
Before that shot, Tennessee had called timeout with 1:47 remaining. Stricklen had fouled a three-point shooter, and Theresa Plaisance made two of three to cut the lead to four points, 60-56, and Holly Warlick signaled for a timeout.
Stricklen drained a baseline jumper five seconds later to put Tennessee ahead by six points, 62-56.
"The timeout we called, we ran the play to Shekinna, and she made the basket," Warlick said. "You can draw it up all you want, but, as I say, great players make great plays."
The lead doubled over the final 102 seconds on Stricklen's three ball and Ariel Massengale's work at the free throw line for the final 70-58 score.
Tennessee learned quite a bit about itself in Nashville and found a starting lineup with the five seniors.
The Lady Vols also solidified roles off the bench with players settling into, and accepting, what they can bring to the court.
Tennessee also found a stout defensive lineup on the perimeter late in a tight game with Vicki Baugh and Johnson inside, and Massengale, Stricklen and Kamiko Williams on the perimeter.
Williams is now entering games for her defense - a notion that would have been unheard of when she was an underclassman - and she delivered with two swats to snuff out any chance of an LSU comeback.
"Her defense was absolutely pivotal for us, figuratively speaking, holding the fort," Dean Lockwood said. "They were making a real run at us. The two blocks were the things that stood out, but her position defense (was big).
"Her ability to force Jeanne Kenney into her weak hand, making her go left rather than allowing her to go right, was huge for this team. When Ariel went back into the game (Williams') defense on the wing was outstanding.
"Her defense was tremendous for us down the stretch and it was a big part of us winning this game."
Summitt's mantra is defense and board play and while some may tire of hearing it, the system works. The Lady Vols got stops when they had to have them and dominated on the boards, 39-23.
Johnson led the way with 11 boards, Baugh grabbed seven, and Alicia Manning tallied six rebounds, with five coming in the first half to lead the team.
It has taken nearly four years, but the Lady Vols, with the seniors leading the way, are now playing in Summitt's image.
"You should see a whole new mentality when we get out there," Johnson said. "We have a whole new mindset. You should see it on our faces every time we step on the floor."
Summitt is in her 38th year of coaching. That this would be her favorite team may at first seem surprising, but consider how far this team, especially the seniors, have come.
"We've had ups and downs," Lockwood said. "We've played well and not well. Through it all, this group stayed the course. I think it did take them awhile to embrace defense and rebounding as the pillars of really great basketball and what this program is built on.
"Not that they didn't believe it, but it's one thing to believe it and it's another thing to really live it out on a daily basis.
"I think they've done that and they've shown that in this tournament. We're very proud of what they've done here in Nashville."
Stricklen and Johnson have started since they were freshmen because of graduation and injuries. Both have played out of position without complaint - Stricklen at point guard when needed and Johnson at center for most of her career despite having the body of a forward.
And on Sunday evening they watched Summitt climb the ladder to snip the net, an emotional moment for both of them.
"We just all looked at each other and started screaming, ‘Wow, she's about to cut it!' " Stricklen said. "Nobody deserves it better than our coach. We're just gonna keep working hard every day for her."
ODDS AND ENDS
BEST GROUP HUG: That before tipoff as Pat Summitt, Holly Warlick, Mickie DeMoss, Nikki Caldwell and Tasha Butts all greeted each other in front of the scorer's table.
BEST SIGN: That of a Tennessee fan: "You may learn from the best but you can't beat the best."
BEST QUIP: That of Holly Warlick when asked to explain Shekinna Stricklen's slow starts in Nashville.
"Mickie coaches the first half; I coach the second," Warlick said, referring to Mickie DeMoss.
Warlick let Stricklen field the question, and the senior said she is thinking too much.
"I think I always start the game tense," Stricklen said. "I over-think because I want to come out strong. It takes me a while to relax.
"Once I relax, I get it going in the second half."
Does she ever. Stricklen scored 50 points in Nashville with 48 coming after halftime.
SECOND BEST QUIP: Holly Warlick. She said Saturday she wasn't going to call or text Nikki Caldwell before the title game. She did anyway Saturday night.
"I texted her and I told her I hope her water broke so she wouldn't be on the court," Warlick said. "She texted me that it did, and she had a little point guard ready to play."
" … We coach against a lot of people. But obviously Nikki is one of my best friends. So excited for us. Sorry for her."
THIRD BEST QUIP: Again, Holly Warlick.
Pat Summitt took a snip from the net and was headed down the ladder when her players told her to cut it all down.
So, Summitt took the scissors all over the twine.
"It continues to be an honor to coach with Coach Summitt," Warlick said. "The only thing I'll tell you is she's got to learn to cut down nets a little better. She chewed the net up so bad, I don't think we can put it around the trophy.
"But Pat is Pat. She wanted to go up there."
Warlick broke her hand this season disembarking from a plane and Mickie DeMoss broke her arm after falling when her long untied shoelaces were stepped on by Summitt.
"Pat is the only healthy one that can climb up the ladder," Warlick said. "We told her to have at it."
HUGE HEART: Seconds before the final horn sounded Theresa Plaisance missed a three attempt, and Glory Johnson got the ball in a battle for it. She held on in the scrum and was credited with her 11th board of the game as time expired.
"I keep saying every game, I don't think she can take it to another level, and she keeps taking it to another level," Holly Warlick said. "That's just her nature. She's competitive. I absolutely love that about Glory.
"It's in her spirit; it's in her DNA. It is what makes her game special."
And consider this praise from Dean Lockwood, who coached Nicky Anosike and Candace Parker, while talking to Mickey Dearstone on the post-game radio show when asked if he had ever been around a player that went as hard as Johnson.
"No. In one word, no," Lockwood said. "Glory is as hard of a playing player that I've been around in 30 years. This is my 30th year of coaching basketball. I've been around some really great competitors. Dan Majerle comes to mind at Central Michigan and some others.
"Male or female, Glory Johnson, plays as hard and as fiercely competitive as any player that I've had the honor of coaching. We're so proud of her for that."
BATH TIME: Glory Johnson is going to trade the ice baths for some relaxing bubble baths at home this week and rest her battered body before the next round of postseason.
The Lady Vols will get back to practice this week, but they will also get several off days, including Monday, and Johnson intends to recharge.
"Outside of going to class, I will be resting my feet, elevating my feet and taking baths," Johnson said. "That's my thing, bubble baths, relax."
SWEET PASS: Meighan Simmons had one of the prettiest passes of the tournament when she threaded one inside to Cierra Burdick at the rim from the top of the court to give Tennessee 54-44 lead with 8:44 left to play.
Simmons, who is guarded as a shooter, took the LSU defense by surprise with the pass.
"I had seen her hand going up," Simmons said. "With her being open I kind of looked at her real quick, I looked away and then I threw it. She was wide-open, and she finished the shot, and I am glad that she did."
BREE FOR THREE: Briana Bass connected on a three-pointer from the top of the floor to get the lead back for Tennessee, 11-10, at the 14:04 mark of the first half.
"They have confidence in me to let it go," Bass said. "I was trying to make a play."
Bass started all three games in Nashville - first and second halves - and played her role as asked to help get the team off to good starts.
"It means a lot," said Bass, who is being able to contribute in her senior season. "It means that my hard work paid off and I am helping my team get that much further."
It also means that Bass' father, Tim Bass, was correct. He is the one who told his daughter to stay the course and always be ready to play.
"He is definitely a very wise man," Bass said.
GLORY FOR THREE: That is not a phrase that is usually uttered. Glory Johnson missed two trey attempts as a freshman, hit her one attempt as a sophomore - one she had to fling sideways as the shot clock expired - and didn't try one as a junior.
But she drained her first attempt this season 38 seconds into Sunday's game with the shot clock at one on a busted play.
"Oh, my gosh! Glory?!!" said Meighan Simmons, who got her first look ever at a Johnson trey ball. "It let people know that Glory is a triple threat. She can drive to the basket.
"That is the first time she has hit a three in the beginning of the game, but it got her going. She did an amazing job. I love Glory to death. She is like another sister to me.
"She has been a very good influence on me this year, and I hope she goes on to bigger and better things, and I am praying that she does."
Johnson, who noted where her feet were, gathered herself for a split second right before she released the ball.
"I held my follow-through," Johnson said, using the same shooting technique that Dean Lockwood has drilled into her for four seasons with her midrange game.
"I realized that I was at the three-point line and ‘OK, let me hold my follow-through as long as I can, so it's not short.' "
Cierra Burdick smiled when asked if Johnson is a three-ball threat now.
"Glory is an All-American," Burdick said. "She is capable of anything she puts her mind to, so clearly don't leave her open."
"Man, that shocked everybody!" Ariel Massengale said. "I think we knew when she hit that shot, that it was going to be a good day for us."
Alicia Manning connected on three treys in Nashville, but she declared Johnson the better shooter.
"Look at the stats, obviously Glory, 100 percent," Manning said. "That was great. She had to take it. I knew right then and there it's going to be one of those games. It was fun."
Shekinna Stricklen let out a long no when asked if Johnson was now better from long range than she was.
"I was one for five, but I hit the big one," Stricklen said with a smile. "I give Vicki a lot of credit. Those two shots I hit (key ones late in second half), she set great screens."
Johnson let out a long no when asked if she was a three-ball shooter now.
"Only when I have to," Johnson said. "Only when the shot clock is going down and they say, ‘Shoot it.' Vicki told me to shoot it. I looked and I like, ‘Ohhhhhh …. ' I let it go. I'll let A-Town shoot the threes."
LINE WORK: Glory Johnson was happier with her stat line from the stripe Sunday - 7-9.
"I've been working on those a lot," Johnson said. "It's really mental. If I miss one, don't remember that. Focus on the next shot."
Shekinna Stricklen, who missed four free throws in the loss to Arkansas and brought it up without prompting, was 5-5 from the line against LSU.
"That Arkansas game sticks in my head and how bad that hurt," Stricklen said.
GLORY BE: If Glory Johnson is the president of the Vicki Baugh fan club, Cierra Burdick holds that position for Johnson.
"In the game she is just a workhorse," Burdick said. "I am just glad she is on my team and I'll say it until I hit the grave, because if I was playing against her I would tell my team just to put in their mouth guards because the hits are coming.
"Glory is a workhorse. She is going to work for all 40 minutes and if we go into overtime, she is going to work for those, too. She is going for every rebound, she is hustling, she's diving and there is no player like Glory out there in the league at all."
Burdick said if she ever was assigned to guard Johnson in a game, she would consider football-type gear.
"I would seriously put every single pad possible on my body and just hope to God I could get a charge," Burdick said.
An LSU player did take a charge from Johnson in the first half and had to sit for a few seconds to gather herself before getting up. Fortunately for that player, there was a brief stop in play for substitutions.
Burdick took a charge from Johnson in practice once this season.
"Never again will I do that," Burdick said.
FROSH FIRST: It was the third consecutive SEC tourney title for the team, but the first for three freshmen, Ariel Massengale, Isabelle Harrison and Cierra Burdick.
"One of four hopefully," Burdick said. "This is awesome. I wouldn't want to win it with any other team. We have just overcome so much.
"I just love the feeling of cutting down nets. That was my first time ever so that was great. Being able to do it with this team means a lot to me."
Burdick headed to the stands before leaving for the locker room and hugged her grandparents, who had traveled to Nashville from Charlotte, N.C., to see their granddaughter.
"They mean the world to me," Burdick said. "My mom couldn't be here, but I know she was watching on TV. They mean the world to me. I was raised by my mom and those two were always there to help us when my mom and I were struggling.
"Just for them to be in the stands and travel and see me play, it means a lot. My dad and my step-mom and my two little sisters, they were there as well. I am just glad I had people to come and support me and watch me play and cut down nets for the first time."
MOSHAK MAGIC: Several players mentioned Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine, for keeping them physically capable for this part of the season.
"I actually feel pretty good," said Ariel Massengale, who has been playing basketball since last June because of USA commitments. "Jenny Moshak, she gets us in the ice baths."
While Massengale was talking, Moshak appeared with ice bags and weaved her way around TV cameras and media members to get ice packs on all the players.
"She's the best," Massengale said. "She gets our legs back."
That doesn't mean Massengale won't enjoy some days off this week. The coaches intend to give the players two days off in a row later this week, along with Monday.
"Every time you get a few days off it's a great opportunity, and we'll be ready to get back to work," Massengale said.
"Resting is part of the game as well," said Alicia Manning, who battles every possession and came up with four offensive boards against LSU. "Get our bodies back, get back to work, and get ready for the next game."
SUMMITT'S ENDORSEMENT: Pat Summitt told the team it was her favorite because the game started, and there is proof.
"We do have that on video," Ariel Massengale said. "It's amazing. She's been disappointed with us, and for us to come hard and play hard and for her to say that to us it means a lot to us.
"We've just got to keep playing to make her feel that way."
The players wanted the tourney title for themselves but in a season of the "We Back Pat" initiative, they also wanted it for Summitt.
"It meant a lot," Massengale said. "Everything that she has been through this season, everything that we have been through this season, I feel like tonight paid off for all of us, all the hard work."
Massengale, though, is not at all satisfied.
"This is just a little appetizer," Massengale said.
That was the consensus among Massengale, Isabelle Harrison and Briana Bass.
Bass is one of five seniors who have seized the moment, so to speak, and embraced postseason.
"I feel like this team has come together," Shekinna Stricklen said. "I feel like us five seniors are leading this team, and I feel like the underclassmen are really respecting that and following the seniors' lead."
All of the Volunteer State belongs to Summitt, but Middle Tennessee is really her territory, as Summitt is from this area. Her mother, Hazel Head, was in attendance Sunday, as was son Tyler Summitt, who played his Senior Day game for the Vols on Saturday.
"When I saw her cut that net down, I was so happy," Stricklen said.
VIDEO COVERAGE Post-game celebration
Kamiko Williams, Taber Spani
Vicki Baugh, joined by Cierra Burdick
Game highlights from utsportstv