Junior forward Sidney Spencer, an All-Tournament Team member, was eating pizza while talking about winning a second-consecutive tourney title for best friend and senior guard Shanna Zolman, who scored 14 points – none bigger than the three-pointer well beyond the arc to pull her team to within one, 62-61, with 37 seconds left. Zolman was surrounded by TV cameras and talked in a hoarse voice with a flushed face – she had a sore throat and fever this week that was bad enough to keep her out of practice one day – as she tried to explain how the team responded to adversity.
Sophomore forward Nicky Anosike, who only scored two points but had 11 rebounds – none bigger than the board off LSU's Seimone Augustus' missed jumper with nine seconds to go that she grabbed and while, falling down, pitched out to Spencer – emphasized how the team played together. And senior center Tye'sha Fluker, who played 75 minutes in two games, told a semicircle of reporters about the battle in the paint with LSU's supreme shot blocker, Sylvia Fowles.
"For our basketball team this had to be our best defensive effort of the year," said Pat Summitt, a defensive-minded coach who has sometimes been at wits end with this team. "I can only tell you that I'm extremely proud for this team because I've been – obviously I'm always talking about how we've got to play defense. I think defense and boards really helped us win this game.
"Without question, the two keys to why these young ladies cut down nets. I'm excited for them."
The assistant coaches surveyed the scene in the locker room and smiled. Assistant coach Dean Lockwood was talking to Billie Moore, the legendary former coach at UCLA who is Summitt's mentor and friend and closely follows Tennessee basketball.
"That's why we play the games," Lockwood said.
The buzz in Arkansas was that this was LSU's year. The Lady Tigers were simply too talented, and the Lady Vols were limping into Little Rock after losing their starting point guard, Alexis Hornbuckle, three weeks ago and losing at home on senior day to Florida.
"I know a lot of people had doubt that we would win this game," Anosike said. "Just being able to defeat the odds has given us so much confidence."
Lockwood said the coaches filter out the pundits and predictions – they're too immersed in game film and preparation.
"Coaches are not big into talk and what people think," Lockwood said. "You create certain scenarios, and anything can happen. Talent is a great neutralizer. Talent being close to equal, you can make things happen. And tonight our team showed a tremendous amount of grit and heart.
"Billie and I were talking about the hype and the media. And you know what? If they had thought that back in David and Goliath days, Israel would still be speaking Philistine. That's why you go out and compete. Our kids, they really, really competed."
No. 8/9 Tennessee (28-4) was led by Spencer, who tied a career high with 21 points, and Parker, who scored 20, including a three-pointer from the top of the key to give Tennessee its first lead, 8-7, in the first half.
No. 3 LSU (27-3) was led by Augustus with 24 and Fowles with 16. Scholanda Hoston had 11 and hit 3-6 three-pointers.
Tennessee won the rebounding tally, 40-31, in a tournament that had seen LSU demolish teams on the boards. Both teams had 22 defensive boards, but Tennessee had twice as many on the offensive glass – 18 to nine for the Lady Tigers. The Lady Vols also limited their turnovers to 12.
"I think we realized the value of both of those areas," Lockwood said. "This LSU team has dominated people at times on the interior and rebounding. We feel we have a pretty good rebounding team so we didn't want to let that happen. We wanted to step up and say, ‘That's not going to happen to our team tonight.'
"As far as turnovers it's just paramount against a great basketball team like LSU. If we want to give ourselves a chance we have to value each possession, take care of the ball."
It was a seesaw battle from opening tip to the last tenths of a second as the top two seeds took turns trading blows before 8,255 fans. Tennessee twice took leads of five points behind the sharp-shooting of Spencer, who was 4-4 from behind the arc in the first half and had 16 points at the break. But the Lady Tigers were getting inside scoring and rebounds from Fowles, who had 12 points and six boards in the first 20 minutes. At halftime, Tennessee had a slim three-point lead, 36-33.
Spencer said she took advantage of being open because the Lady Tigers were double-teaming Parker.
"Candace was trapped with the ball, came out and hit me," Spencer said. "Other than that I just think my teammates were finding me in transition. LSU wasn't matching up on me. They weren't as concerned about me as our post players. Our post players have been anchoring us inside and putting up the numbers they needed to. They weren't matching up with me."
That was a mistake, according to LSU coach Pokey Chatman.
"It's scouting report defense," Chatman said. "That's her comfort zone. She's obviously a threat from the three, try to make a play off the dribble. Don't ever lose her in transition. Four for four in the first-half if I'm remembering correctly. They were wide-open looks."
Spencer could have been 5-5, but Parker didn't see her as she curled around the baseline to the wing. There wasn't a Lady Tiger within 10 feet of her, and Spencer screamed for the ball. By the time Parker turned, an LSU defender had scampered over.
As the second half got underway, LSU quickly tied the game with a three-pointer from Hoston, and a nail-biter was on. The teams traded baskets and small leads until LSU built a seven-point lead, 55-48, at the 8:24 mark. In this game it likely felt much bigger. Summitt called timeout, and Augustus stood near center court and let out a full-throated scream.
But Fluker hit a layup on an assist from Anosike to cut the lead to five, and Augustus missed a jumper. That was followed by a media timeout at the 6:50 mark, and as the team retook the floor, Zolman glanced up at the scoreboard and gathered the players in a circle and talked about going on a run.
"Coach was really trying to emphasize throughout the course of the game, going into the game, how much LSU was a running team, how much they make runs and go in spurts in different parts of the game," Zolman said. "They had just gone on one, so we were trying to come back and counter with one ourselves. I was just trying to gather the team and emphasize defense at that point, just being able to make defensive stops so we can be able to turn that into offensive points at the other end."
Augustus missed another jumper, and Anosike came down with the rebound. Zolman hit a three-pointer to cut the lead to 55-53. Augustus missed her third jumper in a row, and Spencer came down with the board. Fluker hit another layup on an Anosike feed, and the score was tied, 55-55. That caused Chatman to call timeout.
But on the next sequence Augustus and Fowles missed jumpers, and Zolman hit a three to give Tennessee the lead, 58-55 with 4:11 left. LSU tied it on free throws – one by Erica White and two by Augustus. Parker missed a jumper, but White turned the ball over on a post feed, and Tennessee got it back.
Spencer was getting the ball near the top of the key when Augustus reached in and cleanly swiped it and then raced down court to give LSU the lead, 60-58 with 1:51 left. Zolman then missed a jumper, as did Anosike, who got the rebound off Zolman's miss.
Augustus hit a jumper on an assist from White, and LSU took a four-point lead with 53 seconds left.
Zolman swished a three-pointer on an assist from Parker to pull Tennessee within one, and Summitt called timeout with 35 seconds left in a game that was unfolding eerily similar to the tourney title game last year in Greenville, S.C., in which Tennessee came back in the final seconds to take the win, 67-65. Summitt told Zolman to foul White, who had missed the front end of a one-and-one a few minutes earlier, and she did so in the backcourt with just two seconds ticking off the clock.
It was a calculated gamble that worked. White once again missed the front end of the one-and-one.
"Erica White has done a good job of hitting free throws," Chatman said. "It's one of those plays where you take that chance. … So that's the chess match for the basketball game that you have to play."
Parker got the rebound off the White miss. She dribbled down court, hesitated across the center court line as she looked to Summitt and headed right before turning left toward the basket on an isolation play against Hoston. Parker's one-handed eight-footer floated through the net to give Tennessee the lead, 63-62, with 17 seconds left.
"It was a one-on-one matchup," Hoston said. "They cleared out. I forced her to her left where I felt it was a little less of a comfort zone for her. She shot a fade-away one-handed jumper, and it went in."
"In the closing seconds coach told me to dribble out a little bit of time and then run our isolation play and go one on one," Parker said. "It was just one on one with me and her. I knew I had the height advantage over her. I just took it and shot over her. Fortunately it went in."
Following a timeout LSU set up a play for Augustus, who missed a jumper from the right side with nine seconds left. Anosike grabbed the rebound and passed to Spencer, who was fouled by White from behind. Spencer walked away adjusting her jaw.
But LSU only had four team fouls at that point – three short of those needed to send Tennessee to the line for a one-and-one. Hoston nearly got the steal on one in-bounds play and then Tennessee had to call timeout on the next one to avoid a five-second call.
Zolman replaced Anosike behind the sideline and found Spencer, who took off down court and then passed to Fluker as time expired.
"She told me she was going to in-bound the ball to me," Spencer said. "I was like, ‘OK, I'm focused on catching it and not turning the ball over. We're going to get this.' "
Chatman credited the mental toughness of Tennessee after the game.
"I give credit where credit is due," Chatman said. "Tonight they were mentally tough. Therefore, they came away with the victory and the SEC Tournament championship."
Summitt had two interesting coaching moments in the closing seconds – the decision to foul White and to not call a timeout as Parker was bringing the ball down on the last possession.
"We chose to foul," Summitt said. "We knew we'd get the ball back (with) more time to score. I guess I trusted our team offensively. … But it's just a matter of how the game plays out and which team executes and gets the breaks."
Summitt clearly trusted Parker. She opted to let the forward get the game winner on her own.
"In most of my coaching years I've called timeout," Summitt said. "But I've found it very difficult at times to get the ball back in-bounds, particularly against a great defensive team. … You just have to trust your team. I've think I've changed my philosophy in probably the last three years about feeling like I've got to call timeout and manage. If you prepared your team and you've got good leadership on the floor, let 'em play.
"Because a lot of things can happen trying to in-bound the ball on the sidelines, which we saw at the end of the game. So, you know, I trust this team to make those decisions."
What a difference a week makes. Last Sunday in Knoxville the Lady Vols lost in the seniors' last go-round at Thompson-Boling Arena in a game that Summitt said was "painful to watch on tape" because of the lack of defensive commitment. A week later the players were running across the floor celebrating an SEC Tournament championship, and their coach was using words like proud, pleased and trust to talk about them.
"I think that's the thing I was very proud of is watching them play defense with passion, making things work, sorting out when we were maybe switching, when we shouldn't switch, just identifying the big three players (Augustus, Fowles and Hoston) we had to guard for LSU. I'm really pleased."
"The Florida game was an eye-opener," Fluker said. "I think as a team as a whole we know defense and boards is going to win games. We've known it; we actually all bought into it as a team."
The defense came from all spots on the floor. After Fowles put up 12 points in the first half, she only got four more in the second. Hoston torched Tennessee for 18 points in LSU's 72-69 win in Knoxville on Feb. 9. She finished with 11. Augustus had 32 in Knoxville and although she got 24 on Sunday, they came on 9-22 shooting.
Fluker locked down on defense on Fowles in the second half, and Spencer chased Augustus around the court with help from Parker. Zolman got out on Hoston and stayed sometimes with White, who also was hounded by Parker at times. Anosike seemingly guarded everyone – she helped inside and went outside to contest shots. Anosike blocked Augustus' path to the basket on the last shot and forced her to take the jumper. She then came down with the biggest defensive board of the title game.
"We knew coming into the game that whoever controlled the boards was going to win the game," Anosike said. "I just tried to get in there and get as many as I could. It was definitely tough when you have such a great rebounder like Sylvia Fowles in there to get those boards. I was just trying to do what I can and just work as hard as I could."
Fluker had her shot altered all night by Fowles – who had seven blocks, including a few that resembled volleyball spikes – but Fluker hung in there and had the two key layups in the latter part of the second half.
"Sylvia is a great shot blocker, Fluker said. "She did a good job of blocking my shot tonight. It was still a battle. I still had to guard her. I think I came back in the second half more focused. I didn't let her get as many rebounds. I think I did a better job of handling her inside. They brought it to us. They altered shots today, but we just fought back, and our guards did a good job. Just knocked down shots. We did everything."
Fowles and Augustus joined Spencer on the all-tourney team, as did Georgia guard Sherill Baker. Parker became just the second SEC Freshman of the Year to be named the tournament MVP. The other player was Mississippi State's LaToya Thomas in 2000.
Parker has been the focus of intense media coverage before she even scored a point for Tennessee. Does the three-day performance bring any sense of relief or relieve some pressure?
"You know what, honestly, there's no pressure," Parker said. "Everybody has helped me to deal with it from Pat to everybody on the team. I don't feel any pressure because I know that people like Sidney and Shanna and Tye are going to step up every night."
Parker's play got a shout-out from Anosike.
"She's so consistent in everything that she does," Anosike said. "She consistently scores for us, and she's our consistent go-to. That's not always easy sometimes. I think that alone says enough."
Spencer sat down in the locker room and tried to grab a few bites of food between media interviews. When her points were noted on the stat sheet, Spencer pointed to another column.
"Eight rebounds, more importantly the rebounds," Spencer said.
After Hornbuckle went down Spencer became a guard by necessity, and one of her roles was to help replace Hornbuckle's board play.
"I think after Lex went out we really came together. This was it. We had to come together," Spencer said. "We had to do whatever it takes to win. After the Florida loss this week all we did was defense. We didn't work on our offense, because our offense is pretty good. We just focused on defense, and we knew the only way we were going to win was if we were solid defensively.
"Today I think was a total heart game. I think physically everyone was pretty exhausted from the three games, both LSU and us. For our team I think it just makes us realize and believe that we can win. Look at our size. We're big; we can do it. Without Alexis that's a lot that we're missing. We still came out with a win, and I think that was really important for us."
The biggest post-game smiles on the court were the ones exchanged between Spencer and Zolman as the best friends embraced and then celebrated.
"For her I was just so excited," Spencer said. "She's a senior. It's an up and down season, especially in the SEC. I just wanted to do whatever I could for her and for Tye because they deserve it so much. They've worked too hard, they're too great of leaders to let one slip away like this."
When the horn sounded, the celebration erupted on the floor. The seniors grabbed an oversized SEC logo and took off on a victory lap around the floor of the arena, where thousands of Tennessee fans were cheering their every step. Fluker and Zolman then headed to the UT pep band and led the group in a round of "Rocky Top." Zolman, as she did last year, borrowed a drumstick as a director's baton.
The tournament awards were then passed out, and the cheering began for Parker before her name was even announced. The other awards had been presented – and LSU returned to the floor to receive theirs – so everyone knew there was only one player left to get the MVP trophy.
The seniors held the tournament trophy aloft as their teammates gathered around them. Then, led by Hornbuckle, the players headed into the stands to celebrate with the fans, except for Spencer who was doing a radio interview with ESPN. The players returned to high-five the band, and Zolman did the "worm" dance on the arena floor as her teammates howled with laughter. The entire team then did the same dance in a semicircle that is shown before player introductions in Knoxville.
The ladders were in place and the players took turns – they went by class from freshmen to seniors – getting a snippet of net as the song "We Are the Champions" was blaring. Staff members went next, including Heather Mason, the strength and conditioning coach; all three assistants, Lockwood, Nikki Caldwell and Holly Warlick; Danielle Donehew, the director of basketball operations; graduate assistants Angel Elderkin and Pam Owens; and head of sports medicine Jenny Moshak, who Summitt personally summoned to the ladder.
The last pair up was Summitt and her son, Tyler, who cut the final snips. Summitt held the net aloft as the fans cheered and while the band played "Rocky Top." The team then ran off the floor while the team managers and cheerleaders took care of the other net.
"Now we're champions of the SEC Tournament," Zolman said. "It's been a very emotional ride this past week, but yet we're definitely peaking at the right time I think, and we're where we want to be."
Tennessee claimed the program's 12th tourney title, and took its overall tournament record to 54-15.
The team will take some time off and then get back to practice this week in preparation for the NCAA Tournament. The brackets will be revealed March 13.
"I think this team deserves a number one," Summitt said. "Now, whether we're going to get it or not, that's up to the committee. … I felt like if we could win the tournament, then we should get a number one seed, and in particular just looking at our RPI, I mean I think we've done all we could do, certainly this weekend in particular to position us for a number one seed."
TOURNAMENT ODDS AND ENDS:
MASCOT ATTIRE: Smokey looked splendid in dress pants and shirt and orange suspenders and later added a jacket to the mix. The Tiger mascot wore a "Beat Tennessee" T-shirt. An LSU fan waved her "Beat Tennessee" T-shirt when the band played "Rocky Top." She had handwritten the word "again" on the shirt.
BEST LSU SIGNS: tigErs Send Pat packiNg 2nite … "Orange U glad U wear Purple"
BEST UT SIGNS: "Two Down. One to go. Here kitty kitty." … "Orange is cool + Pat rules"
FAN AND BAND PARTICIPATION: The LSU band held up a poster board with tally marks every time UT's band played Rocky Top, while the cheerleaders flashed the number with their fingers. A UT fan held up her sign to the band: "That's Right. Rocky Top Again."
BEST SHOE TRIBUTE: Candace Parker. She has "Lex 14 Romans 5:3" written on the inside of her left shoe.
BEST SHOE TOSS: Nicky Anosike and Jenny Moshak. Anosike lost her shoe early in the first half while Tennessee was on defense. She tossed it to the bench and played on. LSU missed the shot, and Tennessee headed down court. Moshak tossed the shoe back, and Anosike hurriedly put it on and got back down the floor.
ODDEST SIGN: The one held up by an LSU fan in the second half. "HEY REFS! Call it fair." At the time, Parker had been mauled inside on a no-call, and LSU had two team fouls to four for Tennessee.
BEST SHOUT: Pat Summitt to an official. "That was all ball!" She was objecting to a foul call on Shanna Zolman when she appeared to cleanly slap the ball out of Sylvia Fowles' hands. Tennessee thought LSU would be in-bounding the ball but Fowles went to the line.
NEXT SHOUT: From the LSU fans. "Sit Down Pat!"
LOUDEST COACHING INSTRUCTION: Pokey Chatman to Erica White. "Reverse the basketball!" Chatman could be heard clear across the court, and the advice came right after White threw the ball out of bounds on an entry pass.
"Our script was to reverse the basketball at least two times so we could make the defense move, therefore creating some gaps for us to penetrate and also help move the help defense so Sylvia wasn't as crowded when we tried to lob the basketball in there," Chatman said post-game.
"I think that was one of those times where we didn't really stay true to the script. That's the mental against the physical."
BEST LINE OF THE ENTIRE NIGHT: A Tennessee fan to Parker when it was her turn to get a snippet of net. "You don't need a ladder!"
SIDVILLE MOMENT: Sidney Spencer's reaction to being named to the all-tourney team. She looked genuinely surprised and humbled. She was the only one in the arena not expecting it, and she got a booming ovation.
TEAM PLAYER: Shanna Zolman. She was asked post-game about the fact she trails former Lady Vol Kara Lawson by seven for career three-pointers with 249 and if that was something she thought about. Zolman was looking at the box score and the game notes that the players were provided as they sat at the press table when the question was asked.
"Not at all," Zolman said. "I don't even think about it. Actually I just read it right now. It's not something that crossed my mind. The only thing I ever think about going out is how I can lead my team to a victory. Individual accolades have nothing to do with any thought process in my mind."
A lot of athletes say this, but Zolman means it. She has to be told of every milestone she hits. Last season when she tied the school's consecutive free throw record, she missed the next one and couldn't figure out why the crowd groaned so loudly over one missed free throw so early in the game.
Her 14 points Sunday put her at 10th place on the UT career scoring list with 1,634 points. She owns the single-season record for made three pointers and pushed it to 86.
SEC PLAYER: Pat Summitt. After the game she said both Tennessee and LSU deserve No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tourney.
BEST UNCREDITED ASSIST: Tye'sha Fluker. She climbed the other side of the ladder with Alexis Hornbuckle, whose right wrist and hand is in a cast, to help her with the scissors to get a snippet of net.