Lady Vols reach SEC tourney title game

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - The Lady Vols took out Kentucky for a third time this season and advanced to the SEC tourney championship for a rematch with South Carolina. Go inside with InsideTennessee for game analysis and player interviews in the locker room.

Tennessee (27-4) survived a brawl against Kentucky (23-9) with a 75-64 win Saturday, setting up a No. 1 seed vs. No. 2 seed matchup with South Carolina, which ousted LSU in the other semifinal game.

The Lady Vols and Gamecocks were co-champions in the SEC - South Carolina was seeded No. 1 with the win over Tennessee in Columbia - but only one team can leave Verizon Arena with the tourney title.

It was the matchup Tennessee wanted - not to mention downtown hotels and restaurants - as the Lady Vols seek to redeem their lone conference loss of the season. South Carolina will be equally motivated.

“Nobody likes to share a championship,” Tennessee guard Andraya Carter said.

The Lady Vols, however, first had to get past the Wildcats, a team Tennessee defeated in Lexington and Tennessee. Kentucky was the only team to knock off South Carolina in the conference.

Tennessee-Kentucky games tend to be epic battles - not to mention collisions - and Saturday’s contest in front of 5,524 fans was no different.

Cierra Burdick stood in the locker room afterwards with long sleeves covering the scratches,cuts and bloodstains from the battle. The senior said her best chance at an ice bath recovery was just to jump in the Arkansas River.

Coach Holly Warlick will join her players in the mandatory recovery ice baths - something she promised to do if they made it to Sunday’s title game. Warlick will need to keep her right arm out of the water since she’s sporting an orange cast to protect a broken wrist. She joked if Carter sloshed around the water, which makes it feel even colder, she would club the sophomore with her cast.

Warlick was in a good mood after Saturday’s game, as she watched her team fall behind early, take the lead for good, 23-20, on a Carter three with three minutes left in the first half and hold off Kentucky for a double-digit win.

“They stuck to our scouting report and what we needed to do,” Warlick said, “We didn’t start off real good, but we stayed focused. This group, I keep saying they play so well together, we don’t have to rely on one person. They’re truly a team. They’re fun to be around.”

Tennessee relied on Burdick against Kentucky. The senior tallied 20 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, a block and a steal.

“I didn’t shoot the ball well (against Georgia),” Burdick said. “I knew I needed to have a bounce-back game. I think in previous years and games, if I didn’t have a good shooting night, I would let that affect my next game. I think I’m just trying to mature on and off the basketball court.”

Burdick shot the Lady Vols into the championship game with double-digit help from Jordan Reynolds with 13 points and Carter with 12. The trio combined for seven of Tennessee’s nine three-pointers.

The Lady Vols shot 47.4 percent (9-19) from the arc and 42.9 percent (24-56) overall.

The 75 total points - Tennessee led 31-24 at halftime - didn’t seem likely after the start of the game. The Lady Vols trailed 7-1 in the game’s first seven minutes with only a free throw from Bashaara Graves on the scoreboard.

“I was worried about our fans really,” Warlick said. “They stood up for an awful long time. This group has had to learn your offense should not affect your defense. The beginning of the season, if Cierra or Jordan would have missed two or three shots, we got our head down, we’re in trouble.

“But I think they understand that now defense can come back and get them easy buckets. I thought we were getting good looks. They just weren’t going down early.”

Kentucky couldn’t take advantage of the drought because the Wildcats kept turning over the ball.

“I thought Tennessee did a great job of controlling the pace of the game in the first half with their press,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. “We just didn’t handle that very well. That’s on me. We didn’t have the team prepared well enough to really attack the press.”

Reynolds stuck a three ball at the 12:42 mark and fellow Oregonian Jaime Nared hit a stick-back bucket to pull the Lady Vols to 7-6. Another trey ball from Reynolds gave the Lady Vols a 9-7 lead.

The game was tied twice at 9-9 and 20-20, but the Lady Vols managed to get a seven-point separation by the break thanks to a pair of three balls from Burdick and Carter.

Tennessee warded off the Wildcats in the second half, getting the lead to double digits, 52-42, with 8:55 left on a layup from Nared, who cut baseline and received a pinpoint pass from Burdick.

The basketball gods also were kind to Tennessee - a situation assistant coach Dean Lockwood believes is an indicator of work ethic paying off when it matters.

Kentucky hovered in the second half, but Reynolds hit a 25-footer with three seconds on the shot clock for a 59-46 lead, and Alexa Middleton tracked down what appeared to be a certain turnover as the ball headed for Tennessee’s bench and tossed the ball over her head. Nia Moore snatched it and converted the layup for a 65-54 lead with 2:41 to play.

Tennessee made 14 straight free throws down the stretch - including the front end of one and ones by Graves, Burdick and Ariel Massengale - to make sure the Wildcats would not make a comeback.

“What a great basketball game,” Mitchell said. “A lot of effort expended out there on the floor from both teams. I thought Tennessee just played great. They have such talented players, well-coached, played so hard.”

Tennessee had 16 assists on 24 made baskets. Kentucky shot 34.2 percent (26-76) overall with seven assists and 15 turnovers. Tennessee had 20 turnovers, which the Wildcats converted into 25 points. That was Kentucky’s best offense as the Wildcats repeatedly misfired at the rim.

“My perspective from the sideline, I think Tennessee played really tough defense around the rim,” Mitchell said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

Reynolds provided one example of that toughness. After throwing the ball away, she got back and blocked the Kentucky layup attempt into the Wildcats’ bench.

The Lady Vols had seven blocks to one for Kentucky but just four steals to 12 for the Wildcats. Tennessee nipped Kentucky on the glass, 41-38, and every board was contested.

“I thought at times the physicality of the game was disruptive to both teams,” Mitchell said.

Tennessee weathered it and will spend Saturday evening in ice, rest and recovery mode and get ready for South Carolina. Tipoff is 3:30 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPN).

The Gamecocks will make their debut on the tournament’s final day. Coach Dawn Staley addressed the media before Tennessee and Kentucky tipped off so she didn’t know yet who the opponent would be Sunday.

“Kentucky and Tennessee are two of the most storied programs in our conference,” Staley said. “They’ve had tremendous success. I hope they go to quadruple overtime.”

The Lady Vols will appear in their 23rd SEC tourney title game Sunday. They get to face both a new opponent in the championship matchup and one who beat them in the regular season.

“I think anytime you lose to a team, you want another shot at them, at least if you’re a decent competitor,” Burdick said. “You want to prove yourselves against them. We wanted it. We asked for it. Now we’re getting what we asked for.

“It’s going to be a fun basketball game.”



Bashaara Graves

Ariel Massengale

Nia Moore

Alexa Middleton

Jaime Nared

Kortney Dunbar

Jordan Reynolds

Andraya Carter

Cierra Burdick

Dean Lockwood

Holly Warlick

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