When Tye'sha Fluker and Nicky Anosike got in foul trouble, center Sybil Dosty held her own defensively against LSU's formidable frontline. When Ely needed a few minutes of rest – she played 36 minutes – Dominique Redding came off the bench and not only scored eight points on 3-3 shooting, including a three-pointer, but also grabbed a key offensive rebound in the second half to put Tennessee up by one, 44-43.
Brittany Jackson chipped in seven points. With Tennessee clinging to a two-point lead in the second half, 49-47, Jackson got a steal, and Ely converted a layup to put UT up by four. Nicky Anosike only took two shots – she made one – but converted 3-4 free throws and had five rebounds. She also blocked two shots.
Shanna Zolman had her nose bloodied but returned to twice hit 3-pointers that cut LSU's lead from four to one – once with 4:15 remaining and again with 1:09 left. With Tennessee still down one, Fluker stole the ball, and Ely converted on a fast-break layup led by Loree Moore.
Alexis Hornbuckle, who has struggled of late to hit a free throw, swished the front end of a one-and-one – she was fouled during a scramble for a loose ball under LSU's basket – to put the Lady Vols up by two, 67-65. When LSU's Scholanda Hoston missed on a three-point attempt with four seconds remaining, it was Fluker who grabbed the rebound.
"I just can't tell you how happy I am for our team, how proud I was, how hard they played, the attitude that they maintained even when we had some bad possessions," coach Pat Summitt said. "They didn't lose their composure. Thought we had great leadership, and everyone contributed that went into the game. A big win for them. I think they grew up a lot tonight."
LSU, 29-2, was led by Seimone Augustus with 23 points. Temeka Johnson had 13 points and 12 assists, and Sylvia Fowles had 10 points, seven rebounds and four blocks.
"It's a loss," LSU Pokey Chatman said. "We have another game coming up. We're going to break down the film. I'm glad we have some time. Anytime you lose to a program of Tennessee's stature there's a lot you can learn from it."
Tennessee, 26-4, thoroughly dominated the boards in the first half; otherwise, the Lady Tigers would have been ahead by a lot more than 37-31. The Lady Vols had 21 rebounds – 12 on offense – to LSU's nine.
The halftime lead could have been even less, but LSU benefited from a five-second call on Moore, who was closely guarded by Johnson in the backcourt. Johnson had her hands all over the front and back of Moore's jersey and waistband of her shorts and even once up against her face, but no foul was called. Johnson then hit a three as time expired in the first half.
"I think at the end of the first half we were fortunate to be in the game, let alone up," Chatman said. "They had a definite rebounding edge. I think the neutralizing factor in that was the execution of our offense in the first half. Our inability to do the same in the last seven-eight minutes of the game kept us from getting to the free throw line and that was the difference in the game."
That and not accounting for Zolman's whereabouts on two occasions.
"She's a terrific player," Johnson said. "We had some breakdowns on defense."
Zolman and Jackson, who both shot so well from behind the arc against Vanderbilt in the semifinal, struggled in this game, but the two Zolman nailed kept Tennessee in position to win, especially the second one.
"We brought her off of a screen, and she read it early," Summitt said. "Instead of going underneath the basket she went over the top of it. I thought it was defended hard. She did a great job of keeping her composure. Then we wanted to re-screen it. It seemed like that play took 20 seconds to develop, but when she let go of it I thought, ‘It's going in.'
"That's what great shooters want to do. They want to be in that position. I just think that Shanna has extended her range, but she also is reading screens better. She's got a great changeup; she's got a great step out. Obviously she's a player that we go to a lot. There's probably no bigger three than that three."
Coming in a close second was the three-pointer that Redding hit with 8:47 remaining that put Tennessee up 56-54.
"Dominique Redding told me today, "I'll be ready coach. Put me in.' I could just tell by the look in her eye that she was going to do something for us, and she did," Summitt said. "She came up to me and said, ‘I'm ready.' I looked at her, and she said, ‘No, I mean it. I'm really ready.'
"The one thing Dominique can do is put the ball in the hole. Today she did more for us. She defended. She came up with a big offensive rebound. I said, ‘Are you going to rebound?' We have a lot of confidence in her ability to score. If she can just give us quality minutes off the bench, this could be big for our team, especially with the loss of Sidney Spencer. Because Sidney is like Dom – can shoot the three, go inside, a very versatile player that could really help us in terms of our depth."
Summitt lauded the work of all of her players and used the word "proud" on several occasions.
"Sybil Dosty went in and did a nice job," Summitt said. "Every player that went in understood the level of play that they had to bring. Just thought our seniors obviously have worked hard. They certainly deserve this. The leadership we had from them, it was huge. I'm really proud of Loree Moore. Each player is special in her own way."
The media spotlight, deservedly so, has been on Johnson all season. The 5'3 point guard for LSU made the All-SEC team and has been cited by Summitt as the player who LSU most needs on the court. But on Sunday it was the play of UT's point guard that deserved the accolades.
"I have to look at seven assists and one turnover and say that's very efficient guard play," Summitt said. "Loree and I had a chance to visit today and just talk about her role, and I wanted her to know how much confidence that I have in her. I think she is a catalyst for our team. As she goes, we go. I really was pleased tonight."
It was Moore's on-court leadership and decisions that really caught Summitt's eye.
"We called a zone defense, and they told us, ‘No, we want to play man.' I said fine," Summitt said. "I called an offense and I turned around and looked, and they were running something else. I guess Loree's going to be a coach next. That's great to see. When players are on the floor, they see things. It's just important they communicate it to us. They did a great job with what they saw and what they thought would be the most effective, be it man, zone or which offensive set they thought we could be able to exploit the defense in.
"They all today decided that they wanted to come together and do this. I told you when it's their idea, there's a better chance it'll happen. It was their idea to win this game and win this tournament this weekend."
Moore said the pre-game meeting with Summitt helped to settle her down.
"Talking to coach, like she said, her believing in me and having the confidence in me that she does, it brought that out," Moore said. "It just kind of relieved a lot of stress maybe I was going through or the way I was putting so much pressure on myself to play. I kind of relaxed and went in with the utmost confidence and believing in myself that I can run this team. They followed me in every way. I wanted to make sure I was pushing tempo like she wanted me to do and doing the little things that I can control, and I played pretty well."
Fellow senior Ely also played pretty well, and the media voted her MVP after her performance. Ely scored on a variety of inside moves and mid-range jumpers. She also had five rebounds, an assist and a steal.
It was the last game against LSU, a 68-58 loss in Baton Rouge, that tested Ely's character. She played poorly – finished the game without a rebound – and got pulled from the starting lineup. On Saturday night, Summitt said Ely had to show up if Tennessee was to have a chance to beat LSU.
"Obviously we knew from the beginning that Shyra was ready to play," Summitt said. "I think what she learned from the first game – I don't want to speak for her; I just want to tell you from my observation as her coach – is she was extremely disappointed, and she let her offensive game affect the other aspects of her games. She handled coming off the bench.
"She probably grew more inside than within her basketball game and just understanding what she had to do. I don't think she'll ever hide on this basketball team again. I think even if her shot's not falling, she's going to do a lot of good things to help this team win. I'm really proud of her, really proud of her."
"I just came in to play and just do whatever I could for my team," Ely said. "I feel comfortable being inside again. I've been struggling shooting throughout the tournament, but I wanted to make sure I was focused and relaxed and taking what the defense gives me. The guards did a great job of getting the posts the ball inside and that in turn opened up the outside for them. I think we just really worked well together today."
Well enough to walk away with the 2005 SEC Women's Tournament trophy.
CELEBRATION TIME: The players poured onto the floor after the final horn sounded and quickly donned hats and T-shirts proclaiming the championship.
Tye'sha Fluker and Sybil Dosty danced, and Shanna Zolman led the UT pep band in a round of "Rocky Top" using a drumstick as her conductor's baton. Fluker and Zolman also paraded a large SEC sign around the perimeter of the floor. Alexis Hornbuckle took her celebration to the stands and high-fived the first row of fans. Nearly everyone danced, especially Dosty and Fluker, and everybody hugged. There were screams of joy and happy tears.
Players and staff scaled the ladder to claim a snippet of net. When it was assistant coach Dean Lockwood's turn, he was doing a radio interview with Mickey Dearstone so assistant coaches Holly Warlick and Nikki Caldwell subbed for him on the air.
Pat Summitt and her son, Tyler Summitt, clipped the last strand, and Summitt held the net high in the air.
"I'm glad just to get up on the ladder and do something other than wash windows," Summitt said. "It's been five years. It's the only time I've been on a ladder in five years to do anything like this. I'm proud of them, very proud."
The players gathered one last time on the court with upraised arms – and one crutch – as the public address system played "We Are the Champions."
CHASING HISTORY: The win over LSU gives Pat Summitt 878 in her career. The NCAA record is 879 held by retired North Carolina coach Dean Smith. With Tennessee set to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, Summitt can tie and break the record in Thompson-Boling Arena.