Lady Vols seize position to clinch SEC

The Lady Vols stayed on track to claim an SEC title with Sunday's come-from-behind road win over Arkansas and got a boost to take it outright after two upsets. Go inside with InsideTennessee for game analysis and video links.

"I think they want to see me gray-headed."

Those were Holly Warlick's first words on her post-game radio show with Mickey Dearstone at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Ark.

Lady Vol Nation likely nodded in agreement.

Tennessee (22-5, 13-1) surged in the second half against Arkansas (17-10, 5-9) to win 60-54 after a forgettable first half highlighted with 13 turnovers and a 28-19 deficit.

The conference leader in scoring looked lethargic - Warlick said "uninspired" - and uninterested in hanging onto the basketball. The Lady Vols also shot an abysmal 26.9 percent before the break.

The Razorbacks took advantage at home before a crowd of 2,758 - boosted by Taber Spani's family as the trek from Lee's Summit, Mo., is much shorter to Fayetteville than Knoxville - and opened the second half with a bucket to seize a 30-19 lead on their first possession.

Warlick had used halftime to make adjustments - specifically guarding ball screens - and express her displeasure with her team.

"We went in and addressed some issues," Warlick said. "I wasn't very happy."

It didn't take the Lady Vols long to turn the game in their favor.

Ariel Massengale drove to score and then kicked to Meighan Simmons for a three to trim the lead to 30-24. A Bashaara Graves steal and layup and a Spani offensive board that she fired out to Simmons for a three trimmed the lead to 32-29.

"We got some layups, hit a couple of threes, and we're right back in it," Warlick said.

Jasmine Jones pulled the Lady Vols to within one, 32-31, with a sweet up-and-under move and then Spani drained two free throws to keep the margin at one point, 34-33.

With the shot clock at one, Spani delivered the ball to Cierra Burdick under the rim, who hit the layup and was fouled. She made the free throw to knot the game at 36 and then a Graves steal and Massengale layup gave the Lady Vols a 38-36 lead less than seven minutes into the second half.

Tennessee never lost the lead, but the game wasn't secured until late in the second half when Spani hit a short jumper for a 56-51 lead with 43 seconds left.

Spani had been called for a travel at the 3:49 mark and a subsequent Sarah Watkins jumper had pulled the Razorbacks to within one. It appeared Spani had been fouled but instead it was a turnover. On the jumper that sealed the win, Spani appeared to have traveled, but it wasn't called, perhaps an evening out by the basketball gods.

"It was a needed bucket," Spani said. "It is part of my job description."

Massengale and Spani went 4-4 from the line in the final 25 seconds to snuff out each chance of a Razorback comeback.

"Total team effort today," Warlick said.

The turning point in the second half was Tennessee's defense.

The Lady Vols had been going under ball screens - they are all the rage now in college, just like the NBA, and require teams to adjust - and changed the strategy to instead switch and then trap.

That took Arkansas out of its comfort zone, and it didn't take long for the Lady Vols to wipe out the 11-point deficit.

"We had a few breakdowns that led to their lead and that was the difference," Arkansas' Calli Berna said. "They trapped the ball screens a lot more in the second half and we didn't respond as well as we needed to."

"We just weren't aggressive."

That was Warlick's take on the first half defense.

"I thought they got after it."

That was the head coach's assessment of the second half defense.

For Arkansas it was another disappointing loss in which the Razorbacks did everything but win the game. Arkansas beat LSU this season, fell in overtime to Kentucky and crushed Missouri, a team that is responsible for Tennessee's lone SEC loss.

"We played awfully hard, especially in the first half," Arkansas coach Tom Collen said. "We turned the ball over late in the game and probably turning it over 10 times against Tennessee is pretty good but they came at bad times.

"We just can't get over the hump this season."

Tennessee, a team picked to finish fifth in the SEC by the coaches and fourth by the media, now heads home with the chance to clinch an SEC title.

LSU upset Kentucky, while Vanderbilt did the same to Texas A&M, so those two teams now have three conference losses to Tennessee's one.

The Lady Vols clinched at least a tie for first place and can win the SEC outright this Thursday against Texas A&M. That will also be senior night for Spani and Kamiko Williams.

"It is going to be an emotional night for me and Kamiko," Spani said.

Spani, who has been hobbled by back issues, has played well in the second half of the season - she reentered the starting lineup in January after Burdick broke her hand - and had 14 points and five boards against Arkansas, giving her double figures in 12 of 14 league games.

Simmons led all scorers with 18 points, including a nifty flip layup when she was nearly behind the basket that left even the junior shaking her head when the ball cleared the net late in the second half.

Graves also reached double figures at 11 points and grabbed nine boards. Massengale had eight points and got a salute from Spani and Warlick for how she managed the game.

Tennessee dominated the glass, 46-33, and finished with 16 turnovers with just three in the second half. Jones had four boards, including two key ones late in the second half when the Lady Vols were clinging to a lead.

"Jasmine Jones came up with some big rebounds," Warlick said.

Isabelle Harrison, who had knee surgery after the Notre Dame game in late January, played three minutes and grabbed two boards. Warlick said she wanted to play her longer, but the game situation wasn't conducive to such. Harrison was winded but at least was able to make her return before Thursday's game and begin to get acclimated again to game pace.

The Lady Vols didn't know when the game ended that they could now clinch the SEC as the Kentucky and Texas A&M games were ongoing and close. Tennessee wanted to stay in the hunt for a conference title. The Lady Vols now have a chance to seize the SEC championship.

"This team is so resilient," Warlick said. "They battle when they put their minds to it. They can get it done."


Game highlights from utsportstv

Holly Warlick

Meighan Simmons, Taber Spani

Arkansas coach Tom Collen

Razorbacks Calli Berna, Quistelle Williams

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