Tennessee (26-5) earned its slot against Kentucky (24-7) with wins in Duluth over NCAA-tourney bound LSU and Texas A&M (24-8). The Wildcats got to Sunday with a takedown of Florida, which also has an NCAA resume, and South Carolina, the regular season champion.
Just like Friday, the Lady Vols spotted their opponent a double-digit lead - it was 23-13 midway through the first half - and recovered with defense and board play. By halftime, the Lady Vols led 39-38 and a three by A&M's Jordan Jones at the buzzer set up the shootout to come in the second half.
"It was a battle," Coach Holly Warlick said. "It was a grind. … We just played hard. Both teams battled."
Warlick delivered a succinct and accurate assessment. Coach Gary Blair was more effusive in his remarks. And he also was correct.
"The country just saw a championship basketball game," Blair said.
The Lady Vols bowed out of Duluth at this same spot a year ago in a semifinal loss to Texas A&M, which went on to win the tourney.
"Last year we won it all here," Blair said. "We played well in Georgia. We've got nothing to hang our hats about. We played a damn good ballgame."
It was certainly an entertaining one for the fans - about 80 percent of whom were in orange - who watched 10 lead changes and 11 ties.
Tennessee didn't secure the game until the final three minutes when the Lady Vols were clinging to a 77-75 lead.
"When we needed stops, we got stops," Warlick said. "We got three in a row."
Tennessee also had two key players available in Duluth this year in Isabelle Harrison and Andraya Carter, who were on the floor in uniform instead of watching injured from the sideline - knee for Harrison, shoulder for Carter - and both are difference makers. Carter applies stiff ball pressure, and Harrison hits clutch shots.
Harrison tallied 20 points and 13 rebounds in 33 minutes of play. Carter added eight points, two assists and defensive stops in 34 minutes.
Both maintained their poise in a tight ballgame in which Harrison had to score, and Carter had to make sure the ball went inside instead of being released by jump shooters.
"Whatever happens, we stay composed," Harrison said. "Our huddles are tight. Y'all are going to get in this stance, defensive things we have to do."
Pat Summitt was always a proponent of tight huddles, not so much the physical proximity, but players learning to trust each other and stay together.
Bashaara Graves, a quintessential Summitt player when she arrived at Tennessee a year ago, stayed in beast mode for a second game in Duluth and tallied 14 points and nine boards.
Cierra Burdick grabbed 10 boards - four on the offensive end that were game-changers - and added nine points. Meighan Simmons shook off a dreadful shooting performance to get to the line and finished with 15 points and five boards.
Texas A&M has tremendous size - and the posts also had tremendous foul trouble - and the Lady Vols dominated the boards, 48-26.
"We got big-time rebounds. These young ladies were all over the boards," Warlick said, referring to Burdick and Harrison.
Burdick on two occasions got the offensive rebound from a missed three and hit a stick-back, the second one putting the Lady Vols up 67-64 and leading to a timeout by Blair in what was ultimately a futile attempt to adjust and keep the Lady Vols off the glass.
"I heard that they work on rebounding every day," said Blair, who is always a delight in the post-game press conferences. "Well, maybe that's what the rest of us in the country should do. But I've seen Tennessee rebound like that ever since 1980. That's just a trademark.
"If I'm not mistaken, you Tennessee folks can look in the record book, I might have the record when I was at Arkansas. I think you had 39 offensive rebounds on me in one ballgame. I'm not proud of it."
That is a trademark of Tennessee and one that Warlick has continued to emphasize. She mentioned earlier in the season that she knew the offense was off to a slow start because so much of practice was devoted to defense and box-outs. However, Warlick also knows that is how titles are won, and the Lady Vols are seeking their first Final Four since 2008.
Still, Saturday's game was a shootout. The Aggies can light up the scoreboard, especially the Courtneys, and Jordan Jones, who took a tumble late and was said to be dehydrated, was 4-5 from long range.
Texas A&M shot 47.8 percent (33-69) overall and 50 percent 6-12) from the arc.
Tennessee also shot 47.8 percent (33-69) overall but was 25 percent (3-12) from the arc.
The difference in the game was the Lady Vols abandoning the jump shot and getting to the paint - and also the line. Tennessee was 17-22 (77.3 percent) from the line, while A&M was 5-7 (71.4 percent).
Tennessee started the game shooting 26 percent and watched one jumper after another misfire - though Carter started by hitting both of hers for a 4-0 lead.
The Lady Vols switched nearly solely to the inside game in the second half, and the result was 50 points in the paint to 34 for A&M for the game. If a shot missed, Burdick and company, including freshman Mercedes Russell, were there to clean it up. The Lady Vols had 26 second-chance points to four for the Aggies.
"They stuck to the game plan," Warlick said. "They really did. Our defense could have been a little better. We gave the two Courtneys 22 and 26.
The Aggies got the bulk of their scoring from two players - known in the league as the Courtneys - as Courtney Walker led all scorers with 26 points, followed by Courtney Williams with 22.
But the Lady Vols owned the interior, thanks to Harrison, Graves, Burdick and Russell.
"It definitely helped us when their posts got in foul trouble," Harrison said. "We could go inside more. We can kick it back out to our guards. That definitely helped us.
Simmons, who shot 3-17 overall and 1-7 from the arc, got on track in the box score by putting the ball on the floor and getting to the line. Simmons struggled to start the season but closed with a strong February because she finally relaxed. She has been too anxious again in postseason.
Simmons did had the assist of the game with a pinpoint pass to Harrison, who gathered the ball and hit the layup in stride to tie the game at 31 each in the first half.
"She's a senior," Warlick said. "I think she wants to do it so much for this team. But I think you see the depth that we have as far as offensively being able to score."
That leads the storyline to freshman guard Jordan Reynolds, who nailed a three and went 4-5 for nine points. She hit a nifty turn-around right before her three-pointer that gave the Lady Vols a 60-59 lead. Reynolds plays with a confidence and a swag to her game. She and Russell accounted for all of Tennessee's 20 points off the bench.
"They're freshmen," Warlick said. "They're having fun. I don't know if they know to be worried or concerned. Those two have played together for a very, very long time. I thought it showed."
Reynolds needs to catch up on defense - though she is way ahead of most freshmen and has Carter teaching her - but she, as Dean Lockwood noted, stays calm in chaos, a valuable attribute for a guard. Russell, who has the skill package, is catching up in terms of strength - she, again, played more physical on the boards - and forms a formidable duo inside with Harrison.
A salute also should be made to the Tennessee fan base - and Duluth city leaders likely cheered as loud as Lady Vols fan did because it means full hotels and restaurants through Sunday - who have turned The Arena at Gwinnett Center into its shade of orange.
"The crowd environment out here is great," Harrison said. "It really feels like we're at home. The fans help us so much to stay in the game."
GAME HIGHLIGHTS VIA UTSPORTSTV
SEC VIDEO OF TENNESSEE PRESS CONFERENCE
INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEOS INTERVIEWS
Mercedes Russell, Jordan Reynolds
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