Lady Vols seize SEC tourney title

DULUTH, Ga. - The Lady Vols came back yet again and seized Holly Warlick's first SEC tourney title as a head coach behind the scintillating post play of Isabelle Harrison and the precocious swagger of Jordan Reynolds. Go inside for analysis and video coverage.

The hug between Holly Warlick and Kyra Elzy symbolized a lot as the players danced and celebrated with Tennessee fans after Tennessee (27-5) defeated Kentucky (24-8) in a brutally physical game. The scoreboard was still aglow with the 71-70 final when Warlick wrapped up her current assistant and former player in a huge hug.

Elzy was an assistant at Kentucky before joining Warlick's staff last season, Warlick's first as a head coach. Warlick needed Elzy to come home, as it were, and Elzy took the only job that could lure her away from her home state of Kentucky - the Lady Vols and her alma mater. The move wasn't well received by Kentucky - Elzy arrived at her Wildcat office to find her belongings packed - and an intense rivalry got even more heated.

Warlick started 0-2 against Kentucky - losing in Lexington last season and in Knoxville this season. The Wildcats' win in Knoxville led to a photo on Twitter of coach Matthew Mitchell dancing on a chair in the visitor's locker room after the regular season victory.

That photo was pasted on the board in Tennessee's locker room in Duluth, and Cierra Burdick, who saw it for the first time Sunday, was incensed, saying the team was "disrespected."

Of course, it still wasn't easy for the Lady Vols. Nothing was in Duluth, as Tennessee three times spotted teams double-digit leads and three times came back to win.

Burdick made the All-Tournament team, while Isabelle Harrison was the MVP in one of the easiest votes ever for the media. Harrison had 16 points in the title game, while Burdick grabbed 10 boards. Meighan Simmons notched 17 for the Lady Vols, while Andraya Carter added nine. Jordan Reynolds reached double figures with 11 points and emerged from Duluth as one of the savviest players on the team.

"I'm proud of these young ladies," Warlick said. "We fought back all year and throughout this tournament. We talk a lot about grinding. I think that's what we did today."

The Lady Vols opened with a 4-0 lead, allowed six straight Kentucky points, tied the game at 6-6 on a jumper from Simmons and then trailed Kentucky for most of the way.

Tennessee misfired on layups in the first half, made errant passes and stumbled at the free throw line. Kentucky, meanwhile, shot 53.1 percent in the first half and led 38-32 at halftime. Seven total fouls were called in the first 20 minutes - four on Kentucky and three on Tennessee - as maul ball was in full force without whistles.

That changed in the second half. The physical play continued, but the whistles blew 28 times to record fouls with 12 on Tennessee and 16 on Kentucky.

"It's a physical game," said Cierra Burdick, who made the All-Tournament team. "It's physical basketball. It's SEC basketball. One of the most physical conferences in the country.

"Chippiness happens. It happens. This is basketball. Words were said, but words are words. No actions took place."

One such altercation occurred when a shoulder shimmy by Samarie Walker knocked Isabelle Harrison to the court, and Tennessee players swarmed the paint, as did Kentucky. That led to offsetting technical fouls on Burdick and Walker.

The foul wasn't ruled flagrant - there was no contact above the shoulders, though there also was no play on the ball - and Harrison sank both free throws with 8:35 to play to give the Lady Vols their first lead, 52-51, since two minutes into the game.

The chippiness didn't end, though, as DeNesha Stallworth and Jasmine Jones were assessed offsetting technical fouls on the subsequent in-bounds play.

Tennessee redshirt freshman Andraya Carter made 4 of 5 shots from the field versus Kentucky in the SEC women's basketball tournament championship.
(Photo for InsideTennessee.com by William Ewart)
Tennessee's lead didn't last long either, as Stallworth drained a three-pointer to put the Wildcats back up, 54-52 with 8:10 remaining.

Another Stallworth jumper gave Kentucky a five-point lead, 59-54, with 5:27 remaining, and then Jordan Reynolds, an unheralded signee, who, along with Andraya Carter, could become two of the best guards to wear orange, went to work.

Reynolds connected on two free throws to cut the lead to 56-59 and then took a defensive rebound coast to coast for a layup and and-one play that tied the game at 59 with 4:07 left. She drove and stuck a soft bank shot to tie the game at 61 and then delivered a perfect no-look bounce pass in transition to Harrison to knot the game at 63, the sixth tie of the contest.

The Lady Vols never trailed after that, but the ending still kept the 6,544 fans at The Arena at Gwinnett Center - 90 percent were in orange and white - in suspense. Simmons connected on four free throws, and Reynolds hit another jumper, but Burdick fouled Jennifer O'Neill with .7 seconds left as she attempted a three-pointer.

"I was on the verge of losing it," Burdick said. "I was mad at myself for fouling. It was a dumb play on my part. I looked at my teammates. They told me we were going to win this game."

O'Neill sank the first two and appeared to want to miss the third one and set up a stick-back, but the third attempt swished through for the final 71-70 score.

"Like I told Jen, we don't practice missing enough," Mitchell said.

Tennessee in-bounded the ball, the clock hit zero, and bedlam ensued. The Lady Vols danced, hugged and celebrated with their fans. Confetti fell onto the court, and the players picked it up in handfuls and through it back in the air.

It was one of the longest post-game celebrations in an SEC tourney in Tennessee history, and the Lady Vols - and their fans - loved every second of it.

The players circled the arena and hugged and high-fived fans and the band. They stayed even longer in the family section, especially Simmons who enjoyed an emotional embrace with her parents.

One-by-one the players and staff members climbed the ladder for a snippet of net. Warlick was the final one up the ladder and a roar erupted for the head coach as she claimed her first tourney title.

"It's very, very special," Warlick said. "It really is. You've got to have players making plays. It's about talent, I promise you that. You've got to have players step up. … Thankful that I have this opportunity. It's a great feeling."

Mitchell also was proud of his players.

"They had a great tournament and worked really hard," Mitchell said. "Just couldn't be prouder of how they came together. Just lost a real tough game today.

"I wouldn't trade locker rooms. I can tell you that."

A jubilant Lady Vol team wouldn't either.

GAME HIGHLIGHTS VIA UTSPORTSTV

INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEOS

Andraya Carter

Cierra Burdick

Bashaara Graves

Jasmine Jones

Jolette Law

Dean Lockwood

Jordan Reynolds

Mercedes Russell

Meighan Simmons


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