Lady Vols celebrate SEC title on ride home

Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood, in his third year on the staff, got to celebrate his first regular season SEC title. Senior Dominique Redding got to celebrate her second one but the first since she was a freshman. The team plane from Baton Rouge to Knoxville apparently got a boost getting off the ground.

"Initially we didn't need a lot of jet fuel to get that plane off the runway," Lockwood said Tuesday. "We had enough buoyancy in that airplane that we kind of helped that plane levitate off the runway."

Lockwood exulted in his first regular season title as a member of the staff – sealed with Monday's 56-51 win over LSU – but only because of the toughness of the conference and what it means for this current team, which has persevered through transfers – three from last year's team – and the loss of a freshman for medical reasons to get to 12-0 in the SEC and ranked number two in the country with two conference games to go this week.

"It means a lot," Lockwood said. "It means a great deal. You go through arguably the best conference in the country year in and year out. You can certainly make a case for it this year. First of all to clinch the championship with two games left is a tremendous tribute to our kids, and just the effort they've put forth and the resolve they've showed throughout. But then also to have a chance with two games remaining to go through it undefeated is really significant, and I think again it just speaks so well to our team and our players who have gotten the job done."

There was no better display of perseverance than senior forward Dominique Redding, who was inserted into the game in the second half to deliver some offense. Fellow senior, close friend and four-year roommate Sidney Spencer was struggling offensively.

Candace Parker had carried the team offensively in the first half – as Alexis Hornbuckle had done earlier this season in the Duke game – but needed some help in the bayou against an LSU team ranked seventh in the country and defending a 21-game home court SEC winning streak.

"Candace had that just phenomenal individual effort, but I think the real human interest of the game has to be Dominique Redding," Lockwood said. "I heard the ESPN announcer refer to Dom being in Pat's doghouse for a few games. I don't know that I would say that's entirely accurate or I would describe it as that. I just think Pat looks for consistency in practice in order for you to get unleashed in a game, and you have to show that.

"That's been one of the things she's been encouraging Dom to display. And to Dom's credit she's been moving forward on that continuum. She hasn't regressed or gone sideways. She wasn't taking up 30 or 40 yards at a chunk, but she was moving forward in terms of that progress."

LSU played man-to-man in the first half but dropped into a zone defense in the second half. Interestingly enough Tennessee did the same thing, and the series of events led to the win.

"They were in that zone so we knew we needed somebody to make shots," Lockwood said. "I think it was Nikki (Caldwell) who suggested in one of our staff huddles during a timeout, ‘How about Dom?' Pat was very receptive to it. She said you make sure she understands that she has to defend in addition to going in there and shooting. And to Dom's credit Dom embraced it."

Redding hit three of five shots – including two three-pointers – and finished with eight points.

"Dom, as a senior, she was poised enough, she didn't go in there flustered," Lockwood said. "She went in there and did things that she could do. I just think Dom deserves a wheelbarrow full of credit for maintaining poise and being calm under fire and still being receptive to Pat. Pat is trying to make a point in terms of we need consistent effort from you. We need rebounding and toughness and competitiveness. You're not just somebody designated to shoot the ball. Dom deserves credit for taking that and saying, ‘I'm going to try to do that.' And also going in the game and being cool enough to make shots."

Without Redding's offense in the second half the Lady Vols likely leave Baton Rouge with their first SEC defeat. The same is true in all likelihood without Nicky Anosike's defense in the first half.

Tennessee opened the game in man defense and put Anosike on Sylvia Fowles, LSU's 6'6 center. Anosike was 0-5 in the game on offense, but Lockwood said she more than made up for it on defense in this game.

"One of the things we'll touch on is playing against Sylvia is a big task," Lockwood said of his staff meeting with Anosike when the team reassembles Wednesday to leave for Arkansas. "No pun intended. That's a very tall task to operate inside, because we've asked Nicky more and more to establish an inside block presence and now you're talking about doing it against somebody that is taller and the leading rebounder in the conference and one of the leading shot blockers in the country. We knew that was a tough order.

"Nicky continued to battle, which I give her credit for, but I think her real value and contribution in a game like last night was on the defensive end of the floor. There's a real reason that Sylvia was three for 10 in the first half. I think Nicky had a lot to do with that. She came back in the second half and was four for seven, and a good part of that time we were in zone so we can't hang really that on Nicky. If Nicky would have been in a man-to-man matchup with her throughout the game I know she would have continued to battle and be as competitive as she was in the first half. Her real value to us was how she competed defensively and really battled."

LSU went to a zone because Tennessee was shooting so poorly. That ended up setting up Redding's senior moment. And because of Anosike's defense on Fowles in the first half Tennessee held a lead in the first 20 minutes and held on at the end.

"We knew going in that Sylvia Fowles was a big piece of their puzzle, and we had to find a way to solve that," Lockwood said. "Because if she would have just run amok inside I don't know that we win that game. If she had a first half where she's seven for 10 we wouldn't have won that game. I look at Nicky's defense as being a real value."

Parker's 20 points and 10 rebounds in the first half were the other half of the equation.

"She's showing right now why people are talking about her in the vein that they are as far as player of the year," Lockwood said. "She made a strong, strong case in terms of how she played last night for her to be a player of the year candidate and to be the college basketball player of the year. I don't know what more she could have done. You come in in the first half and have 20 points and 10 rebounds against a team like that and against arguably one of the best five (center) players in the country.

"They weren't directly matched up all the time, but her presence is still very real on the floor. So if you can have a player like Candace to come in in a game where that type of player is also on the floor, and she comes in with 20 and 10 at half and ends up with the numbers she did overall, to me it's a tribute to Candace and her abilities and her work ethic. If we have a vote she's player of the year."

Sidney Spencer also played a key role in the outcome. She was 1-12 but got nine rebounds with seven on offense. None was bigger than the one she grabbed and fired out to Shannon Bobbitt, who drained a three to unknot a 42-42 tie.

"She found a way to contribute," Lockwood said. "That's huge. One of things I know in the three years I've been here is that Pat has continually tried to emphasize to Sid and to help her to realize your entire game shouldn't be just revolved around your shooting. And while there may be a night like this – and fortunately for us Sid hasn't had many – but while there might be a night the stock margin takes a real plunge, she found another way while she was on that floor to contribute to the basketball game.

"Her nine rebounds were absolutely huge for us. That has been one of the things Pat has continued to emphasize: Don't let your whole identity as a player be solely wrapped up in your offense. It's one of the things you do well. It's one of the things you're best at. But don't let that be your sole source of identity."

No wonder the staff and team felt a sense of accomplishment after this game. Take those performances and add: Hornbuckle's left-handed drive in the second half as the shot clock expired and five steals; Bobbitt's and Alberta Auguste's 4-4 performance from the line in the closing seconds; Cait McMahan's steady job in relief at point guard; and Alex Fuller's 19 minutes of play – she got four rebounds – despite an injured eye that had left her unable to practice very much two days before because of severe swelling. The sense of a team effort was reflected in the celebration in the locker room after the game.

"Just very upbeat, very positive," Lockwood said. "It's kind of like you go on a big game hunt, you know you're hunting game that could also kill you. You're setting out to kill it, but it could kill you. I think there's just that feeling of exhilaration knowing that it was a hard-fought win against a very good team.

And to play as we did – if you had told me that we would've won that game with three starters going a combined 3-27, shooting 31 percent from the field, I would have told you that was a tall order – I think our kids kind of grasped the fact we didn't have everybody playing their best offensively but everybody just pitched in defensively and put forth effort, and we did a very good job on the boards. They felt very good about their effort."

The joy obviously extended to the cabin on the flight home. But by the time they got settled in they also settled down.

"I think our kids were also conserving energy at that point and knowing, ‘OK, that was a nice win, and we're happy with the effort.' But we also realize as the trip wore on, especially as we got close to Knoxville and started to land, I think there was definitely the realization that we've got an off day so let's rest," Lockwood said. "We travel and practice Wednesday and then we've got an Arkansas team, even though they maybe have struggled in the SEC, they've got an 18-win season going right now and so we're going there and obviously we've got a very, very good Vandy team coming in Sunday. I think right now our players realize it was a hard-fought win, we feel good about it, but we've also got more to do this week."

The Arkansas game will tip Thursday at 8 p.m. Eastern (Lady Vol Radio Network) in Fayetteville.

The coaches did take the time to enjoy the win on the way home Monday night but by the time the plane's wheels touched down at McGhee Tyson Airport early Tuesday morning they were back to scouting reports and getting ready to make the quick turn-around to hit the road again. The players still had to attend Tuesday classes and won't leave Wednesday until after class.

"We did talk, and we did feel good," Lockwood said. "We really focused so much on the team and the team's effort because we know there's such a long road ahead for where we want to go and where we'd like to go with this team, but we talked a little bit like proud parents. It's like high school graduation with honors and maybe you just won the scholar-athlete medal but you also know that college is ahead. You have dreams as a parent. You enjoy the moment, but you know that it's not the ultimate, it's not the pinnacle.

"We reflected on the game in terms of the effort that people put forth. We were very pleased obviously to be at this point where it wasn't going to take the last two games to determine the regular season conference championship. Real thrilled. By the end of the flight we were talking about Arkansas. It's that mission mode."

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