Lady Vols claim Warlick's first SEC title

The Lady Vols seized the SEC championship - the program's 17th and first for head coach Holly Warlick - with a win over Texas A&M. Go inside with InsideTennessee for game analysis and complete video coverage.

The celebration began before Texas A&M's final attempt - the only easy look in a hard-fought game and it didn't count since the clock had just expired - as the Lady Vols defeated the Aggies, 82-72, to claim outright an SEC title and scuttle any hopes of a tie for first place.

Junior Meighan Simmons dropped to her knees in tears - she was picked up and embraced by senior Kamiko Williams and later freshman Andraya Carter - and the Lady Vols piled into a group hugging each other and especially their head coach, Holly Warlick.

Tennessee (23-5, 14-1) had been picked to finish fifth by the league's coaches, but the defeat of Texas A&M (21-8, 11-4) clinched the Lady Vols' SEC title and leaves the Aggies, Georgia and Kentucky - Tennessee closes the season there Sunday - to hash out second, third and fourth place.

Texas A&M Coach Gary Blair said he picked Tennessee to finish second - and reigning champs Kentucky first based on returning players - because after his tenure at Arkansas he knew to never count out the Lady Vols.

Blair's opening statement ran nearly four minutes - he joked he had been away from Knoxville for so long that he had a lot to say - and he saluted Warlick for the job she had done after taking what he said was the hardest job in the country - replacing Pat Summitt.

"Holly deserves all the credit," Blair said.

Warlick has succeeded despite watching player after player limp to the sideline this season, including precocious freshman Carter whose first year ended in December with shoulder surgery. She was followed by Cierra Burdick, Isabelle Harrison and Kamiko Williams.

But all three of those players recovered - Williams didn't miss a game, though her injury led to the Lady Vols lone conference loss this season at Missouri; Burdick and Harrison missed a month each - and played key roles in the win over Texas A&M.

However, Tennessee didn't emerge from this game unscathed.

Sophomore Ariel Massengale went down with 7:44 left with a right knee injury and returned to the bench on crutches. Massengale, who had six assists, was able to gingerly climb a ladder step to snip the net with her knee encased in ice and crutches awaiting her descent.

Harrison fell awkwardly after receiving a pass while off balance and injured her right knee. She left with 2:53 to play.

Harrison felt OK enough to dance a little in the post-game celebration, but her right knee also was encased in ice, though she walked under her own power. She had just returned last Sunday from meniscus surgery on her left knee.

Warlick said in the press conference that both players had been evaluated, but she didn't yet know the extent of the injuries.

It didn't mute the post-game celebration - Warlick and assistant coach Kyra Elzy wrapped Massengale in hugs - as the crowd of 12,213 cheered every player and coach who climbed the ladder to snip a piece of the net. Warlick was the first head coach since Pokey Chatman in 2005 at LSU to win the SEC in a debut season.

Tennessee won the title in true Tennessee fashion - defense and board play and added 48.5 percent shooting, aided by Kamiko Williams' ability to get to the paint, seemingly at will.

"Any other game earlier in her career, she would have come out, she would have been tugging at her shirt to come out," Warlick said. "But she didn't do that tonight, she didn't want out."

With Ariel Massengale sidelined, Williams had to close out the game at point guard, minus a short rest. She delivered with a career-high 18 points. She also had seven boards and three assists.

When Harrison also left the game, Warlick said some of her players reacted emotionally. The team has been hammered by injuries this season, but Warlick reminded them of their resiliency.

Burdick was one of those who got emotional, but when she took the court she turned and screamed at each teammate, "Two minutes! Two minutes!"

"We have battled so much and we've had so many injuries throughout the entire season, and to see Isabelle and Ariel go down like that, I got very emotional and wanted to motivate my teammates about two minutes and that's it - we'd be champions," Burdick said.

"Just the fact that those two minutes were the last two minutes of the game, and that's all we had to get through to win, it was that motivation to finally reach your destination. I just wanted to let them know that two minutes was all we had to buckle down for."

The clock showed 1:52 and Tennessee was clinging to a 78-72 lead. The Aggies didn't score again.

The next two series set the tone. Williams rebounded a miss by Texas A&M and Tennessee's possession was kept alive by two offensive boards - one by Burdick and another by Taber Spani while falling out of bounds that ended with Meighan Simmons fouled and hitting both free throws and Williams connecting on another sublime drive to the rim for the final 82-72 score.

"She was everywhere," Blair said. "I'd love to have that kid. She is a program kid. She is an energy kid who's come up tough.

"She's had tough love all her life. Now she's responding."

Williams and Spani managed to get through their the senior ceremonies without breaking down - though Spani wrapped Williams in a huge hug as soon as the pre-game salute ended - and then both had pivotal roles in the outcome.

"We definitely shut it out," Williams said. "We talked about it in shoot-around, and we just wanted to get this win and get this championship for the other players and of course for us as seniors. We shut it out."

Spani logged 30 minutes on a team depleted by injury despite her own back issues, and Williams' ability to attack and convert - she was 8-13 from the field - kept Texas A&M playing from a trail position for the entire second half.

The Aggies led most of the first half, but a hard screen by Kelsey Bone on Jasmine Jones in the open court seem to ignite the Lady Vols and they went on a 9-2 run to take a 37-32 halftime lead.

Tennessee got up by as much as 12 - thanks to the transcendent work on the offensive glass by Cierra Burdick - but the Aggies kept creeping closer, including cutting the margin to four points with 3:50 to play.

"I think the sign of a great team is the willingness to fight, no matter how many points you get down," Burdick said. "Texas A&M is a great team. They have great coaches. Kelsey played tough tonight. We just tried to keep it at them.

"We always talk about coming through the finish line and winning in the last four minutes and the first four minutes. We take the game as four-minute segments and we play in four minute segments, and I thought we did a great job with that."

Burdick's play was inspired during her 25 minutes. She came off the bench because Williams started for senior night - that worked out well for Tennessee - and scored 15 points with 14 boards, nine on the offensive end. She wasn't getting her own misses; she was cleaning up after teammates and keeping alive possessions.

"Dang! C! She's a beast," Graves said. "That says it all."

Graves' nickname is The Beast, and she delivered with 14 points and seven boards while battling fourth-year player Kelsey Bone, a junior who transferred from South Carolina to A&M. Bones was impressed by Graves.

"When you as a freshman can come in and get playing time, and then your team is depending on you in certain instances, you have to grow up," Bone said.

"You have to be able to produce. I'm really impressed with what she's been able to do."

Tennessee would not have won an SEC title without Graves. She has started all but one game - the season opener at Chattanooga - and has consistently logged 30-plus minutes a game while battling seasoned post players in the league.

"I'm biased, I think she should be freshman of the year, absolutely," Warlick said. "She's been big for our team. Her stats and the way she plays speak for themselves. But, again, I'm biased, I'm her coach."

Graves deserves the honor - a case could be made for All-SEC period - as she has delivered as a first-year player at a physical position while undersized and playing a month without Harrison.

Harrison added 10 points and two monster blocks while grabbing four boards. Simmons notched 17 points and used her speed to convert fast break baskets by simply beating everyone else to loose balls.

The Lady Vols continued their stellar free throw shooting at 13-15 (86.7 percent) and kept the turnovers manageable at 15 against a stiff perimeter defense from the Aggies.

The Lady Vols crushed A&M on the boards, 44-27, a stat that immediately jumped out to Blair.

"Quit worrying about it being physical; you out-rebounded us by 17," Blair said. "So, don't feel sorry that girls are hitting the floor. Our girls hit the floor too because if we don't screen you, we're never going to get open in the first place because your on-ball pressure defense is that good. This is big-time basketball."

It was a typical Blair press conference - rambling and entertaining. As he left he asked the media - and a few guest coaches and fans who assemble in the back of the room - if they liked him better than Geno Auriemma, a line that got much laughter.

Warlick was smiling in her post-game press conference, too. She credited her players entirely.

"I think it's a sense of validation for these young players," Warlick said. "We're mainly freshmen and sophomores and we've asked them to play big roles.

"They're trying to live up to a tradition, and it's tough. There's a lot of pressure on them, but I'll tell you this, they have battled and done what we've asked them to do..

"They didn't like being picked fifth (in the SEC), and they had a little chip on their shoulder. And they went to work and I think this is the one team that has been the most focused, and was the hardest-working team in practice that we've had in a long time.

"When you do those things, you get great results, and it's been a huge, huge team effort."


Senior Night for Taber Spani, Kamiko Williams

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Post-game celebration, net cutting

Holly Warlick

Kamiko Williams, Taber Spani, Cierra Burdick, Bashaara Graves

Texas A&M's Gary Blair, Adrienne Pratcher, Kelsey Bone

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