Tennessee, 30-2, came to Nashville looking for some respect after the Lady Tigers wiped out a 19-point deficit and embarrassed the Lady Vols on their home floor. That win gave LSU the regular season title. Tennessee wanted the tournament trophy in return.
Alberta Auguste had a solid grip on that trophy during the post-game celebration after the 61-55 win over LSU to claim the program's 13th SEC tournament championship. She was gripping it as tightly as she did a defensive rebound with 11 seconds to go and Tennessee up by five points.
"Don't lose the ball," Auguste said of her thought process at that moment as she hugged the ball. "Grab it before somebody will come get it. I felt Sylvia over me so I just palmed it even more."
Vicki Baugh also had a key defensive rebound off a missed three-point attempt by LSU's Quianna Chaney that would have tied the game with 17 seconds left. Instead, Baugh was fouled, and the freshman went to the line for a one-and-one. A miss would give LSU another chance to tie. A make would seal the win.
Baugh flashed back to a practice early in the season in which she missed several free throws at the end of the session. If a player misses, the entire team runs sprints, and Baugh was upset with herself afterwards for making the team run. She rarely missed in that situation since, because she didn't want to let the team down.
"I took it the same way that I took it in practice," Baugh said. "I remember at practice we had to run several times because I was missing free throws. The pressure was on and it was like a situation in practice, and practice makes perfect."
Tennessee took a timeout after the free throws to set the defense. Baugh was mobbed by her teammates as she walked to the sideline.
"They were really happy," Baugh said. "Coming from a freshman that was a big step up for me and it built confidence, so they were really happy for me."
Nicky Anosike had fouled out so Pat Summitt needed a post player who could defend and board. She has played Baugh on hunches this season before and she went with the freshman again.
"She did a great job defensively, too," Summitt said. "You know athletically she's the best option for us at that time. My decision to go with her was because of her athleticism and I thought defensively she might give us a little bit of an advantage and then she steps up and makes those two free throws and came up big for us. I'm really proud. I think the important thing is she had the confidence to do what she did."
LSU, 27-5, had seized the momentum late in the game when Sylvia Fowles hit a layup and Chaney nailed a jumper to give the Lady Tigers a 54-51 lead with 3:37 to play. Tennessee's 51st point had come with Tennessee down two at the 6:02 mark, but two turnovers and two missed jumpers since that point had stymied the offense.
Parker had carried the Lady Vols to that point – she had 13 points at halftime – and was also drawing defensive duty on Fowles because Anosike was on the bench with foul trouble. Parker continued her dominance in the second half with 15 points, including a succession of baskets when Tennessee had to score.
But with Tennessee down three and Parker blanketed in the paint, Shannon Bobbitt hunted for another shot. She had hit the three-pointer to get Tennessee to 51, and now the Lady Vols were down by three.
Bobbitt dribbled forward and back out and settled in behind Anosike, who set a screen that gave Bobbitt a sliver of daylight. She nailed the three from the top of the key to tie the score, 54-54, with 2:50 to play, and the mostly orange-clad crowd of 12,392 let out a roar.
"That was a big shot," Alexis Hornbuckle said. "I could just see the fire in Shannon's eyes. She said, ‘Give me the ball. Get me open.' When you hear that coming from her you know something's good about to happen. That was a big-time shot and switched the momentum for us and we followed suit after that."
Bobbitt didn't remember that it tied the game, but she knew she wanted to take the shot.
"The only thing that was going through my head was to try and get a good open shot," Bobbitt said. "I was trying to get my teammates to set me up for a good open shot, and they did their job, and I got open, and I hit the trey ball."
She used Anosike's screen to step back and get some separation from the defender.
"It allowed me to get open," Bobbitt said. "I tried to get a good shot and a good look at the rim and knock it down."
That shot was followed by a dagger by Parker who hit a jumper from the wing with one tick left on the shot clock. The ball was loose behind the arc with six seconds on the shot clock, but Hornbuckle corralled it and fired a pass to Parker, who calmly waited for the defender to go by and then swished the shot to give Tennessee a 56-54 lead with 1:57 left.
"I remember the shot clock was winding down and they passed to Lex further out towards the three-point line, so I called her name and threw my hand up," Parker said. "She made a nice pass. I knew they knew the shot clock was winding down, so I pump-faked and got a nice look."
LSU Coach Van Chancellor said that shot essentially shot down his team.
"That's the difference in the game, shot clock is down, the ball is outside with six, they're in disarray, they just throw it to her, and she makes a play," Chancellor said. "I thought that was the difference in the ballgame."
Parker made a lot of plays Sunday – she played the entire 40 minutes – and even had to call a timeout when she knew she had to have a short break at the 9:01 mark and LSU leading, 45-44.
Parker had turned the ball over by firing an outlet pass into the hands of Erica White, but Parker blocked White's layup attempt – Parker had just blocked Quianna Chaney's layup and gotten the rebound before White intercepted that pass – and then Allison Hightower cleaned up White's miss from the Parker block to give LSU the lead.
That was followed by another steal by White on Tennessee's end of the floor, but Fowles missed the jumper, and Baugh got the board. An exhausted Parker called timeout.
"That's fine with me," Summitt said. "I was trying to get through to the next timeout, and she called it, which I had no problem with. I had three at the time. I told her I may need to hang onto another one."
Parker came out of that timeout and hit a jumper to give Tennessee the lead, 46-45, with 8:35 left. Fowles answered for LSU and Parker hit a layup to regain the lead in a back-and-forth game that had 16 lead changes.
"We like to get it close and keep you on the edge of your seat. It's more exciting," Hornbuckle said with an impish smile. "It just played out that way. We were hoping to get a lead and keep increasing it slowly and surely, but LSU is a team that likes to make runs, and we did a great job of answering those runs. Just fighting back, we just wanted it."
Tennessee led at halftime, 25-22, and could have led by more but the Lady Vols' turnovers, while few at six, were unforced and were the result of bad passes and shot clock violations. LSU didn't have a steal at the break.
"We talked about turnovers," Summitt said of her halftime speech. "We've got to take care of the ball. Defensively I loved where we are. I thought we were doing great things. I thought we could continue to mix up our defenses and maybe keep them a little bit out of rhythm. And then we talked about what we had to do offensively. We had to score in primary. We were setting up too much."
Hornbuckle said the tone of Summitt's message at the break was positive.
"It was we were playing great defense; we need to finish on offense," Hornbuckle said. "We knew it was about the turnovers, but we didn't want to shoot anyone's confidence down."
Tennessee had switched between its man-to-man defense and matchup zone, and LSU struggled to score in the paint and on the perimeter. Fowles had six points at the break, and LSU had hit just two 3-pointers and was shooting 32.1 percent from the field.
Tennessee, outside of Parker, also was mostly misfiring in the first half, but Auguste was 3-5 from the field and had six points at the break. Summitt started Auguste over Angie Bjorklund, because Auguste had played so well in the tourney on both ends of the floor.
"Angie hadn't been playing with a lot of confidence," Summitt said. "I met with Angie (Sunday) and talked to her about it and said Alberta's been a real force for us at both ends and Angie goes, ‘I agree. She's playing a lot better than I am.' I said maybe this will inspire you to come off the bench and help us and I thought it did. I thought she did a nice job."
Bjorklund still struggled from the field, but she played some solid defense and had three assists. Auguste learned she would start at the Sunday shoot-around, and she reminded herself to stay within herself this time.
Auguste started in place of Hornbuckle on Jan. 24 against Arkansas when Hornbuckle was out for medical reasons and shot 1-14 from the field, though she did have eight rebounds and four assists in that game.
"I didn't react at all," Auguste said of the word from Summitt that she would start. "Last time I knew I was starting I let it kind of affect me, didn't play my game and I couldn't find shots. This time I just went out there and played and I enjoyed myself. I knew how important it was for me to come off the bench but starting is the same as coming off the bench. I just have to be ready and more intense."
Auguste finished with eight points, three rebounds and two assists. She helped Hornbuckle guard LSU's three-point shooters on the perimeter and was a big reason why the Lady Tigers were just 4-11 from behind the arc. Chaney had 13 points on the strength of three 3-pointers.
"She did a great job," Hornbuckle said of Auguste. "She handled it very well. She knew that she was given this because she earned it. What she did (Sunday) was kept playing the game that got her in the position she's in. I commend her for doing a great job."
For Auguste, a native of Louisiana, a win over LSU for the tourney crown was special.
"It means a whole lot," Auguste said. "We always talk about getting our respect back. We had a tough loss against them at home. We wanted to gain out respect back basically, but we didn't want to lose our chances of getting a number one seed. It was important to us so we took matters into our own hands."
Summitt also talked about seeding in the NCAA Tournament after the game. The brackets won't be announced until March 17, so there's a week to wait and wonder, but Tennessee wanted to win the SEC tourney to solidify its slot.
"I don't know where we'll go. I don't care where we go. I don't care who we play," Summitt said. "Last year they loaded up our bracket and I looked up at the board and I said, ‘All I can tell you ladies is we don't have to beat them all. We've got to beat them one game at a time.'
"I think it's (Sunday's win) important in terms of our seeding. It's not going to help us win any one of the six games that we're hopefully going to play."
Summitt also had something to tell her seniors before Sunday's game tipped off.
"As I told these seniors for your legacy you need another SEC championship and you have a chance tonight and that's your last opportunity so seize the moment," Summitt said.
Bobbitt, one of two seniors who entered the program in the fall of 2006 with Auguste, wanted a tourney title.
"It means a lot," Bobbitt said. "I didn't win an SEC (tourney) title before so it meant a lot to me."
Bobbitt also was named to the All-SEC Tournament Team, an honor Auguste didn't get but certainly had a case for, too.
"That's my homegirl right there," Bobbitt said. "She did a great job offensively and defensively. She made some stops, got some rebounds, knocked down free throws, across the board."
Auguste was the last player to hold the ball after the horn sounded, and she heaved it in the air toward the overhead scoreboard.
"I was just happy," Auguste said. "That's what we all wanted from the coaching staff and the players who are not playing to the team. We wanted the SEC Tournament championship."
It was Hornbuckle's third tourney title and the perfect ending to SEC play – Tennessee finished 16-1 in league games, the same as LSU – for the senior.
"It meant a lot," Hornbuckle said. "I feel like we gained our respect back. It was a close game, but that's expected with a great team like LSU. Great teams find a way to win and that's exactly what we did tonight. As far as being a senior that's a good feeling to go out, as far as the SEC Tournament, on a good note."
The title was secured by Parker, a redshirt junior who will leave after this season with her senior class. She added six rebounds, three blocks, three steals and an assist to her offensive production, which made for the least suspenseful MVP announcement since Parker won it at the 2006 SEC tourney.
Her game, already at a different level than the rest of women's college basketball, was raised another notch this weekend when she took over against LSU, just as Anosike requested.
"She did," Summitt said. "That's who she is and that's how she plays. She wants the ball. She's willing to put it all on the line through her play. I think she went and got some boards that were just key for us, too."
Tennessee came into the tourney with rumblings that it could be a No. 2 seed. Parker also wasn't voted by the coaches as the SEC's player of the year. That honor went to Fowles. The loss to LSU also angered the Lady Vols, but the talk of a number two seed had Summitt seething.
"That was as much incentive as the earlier loss to LSU," Summitt said. "It wasn't so much about beating LSU; it was about winning this tournament. Obviously losing at home that was a tough loss for us. It was more about how they beat us in the second half. I thought we quit; I thought they dominated. I think in this situation it helped us.
"With the revenge factor it probably helped our motivation. But at the same time that number one seed that's been foremost on our minds. I think that was the real incentive."
The word "quit" is salt in the wound for an athlete, and Parker and Hornbuckle, who went 39 minutes against Vandy and 36 against LSU, found something to carry them through Sunday's defensive slugfest.
"I'm the type of player, even if my leg is broken, I'm trying to find a way to keep walking, keep running and keep motivated," Hornbuckle said. "I hate to quit. I'm not that type of person. Our team showed that we don't play with quit anymore."
Summitt had no doubt what she would get out of the big three, as she calls the trio.
"They're tough," Summitt said. "They're tough-minded. They're competitive. If you talk two of the most competitive people on that court, those two and Anosike would be number three."
Anosike drew the duty of guarding Fowles and also had to get on the boards. Anosike led all rebounders with 11, seven of which were defensive. For Anosike this game was about the earlier loss.
"They beat us at our home, and we felt like this was our home so we felt like we had a chance to do it over and we did it the way we should have done it the first time," Anosike said.
The Tennessee fans took over the Sommet Center, a force that Chancellor noted in his post-game press conference.
"I think that helped them," Chancellor said. "Up there (in Knoxville) we were able to remove the crowd from the game by the way we played. We needed to make a play in the last three minutes to really kind of quiet their crowd, and we could not make it offensively or defensively.
"Part of that was because of how good they are."
The orange faithful was at full throat in those final minutes – one fan had a sign that said "Welcome to Thompson-Boling Arena West" – and the Tennessee players noticed.
"It was unbelievable," Bobbitt said. "The fans were great. It was a lot of help. I am very thankful for them and definitely appreciative of them."
"We really want to thank our fans because they're the best in America," Parker said. "It was a home game playing in front of all that orange. … We're going to celebrate tonight, but when we go back next week we know we have to play for the NCAA Championship."
Summitt is going to let her players both celebrate the win and get some rest.
"I think right now with us playing three consecutive games we'll give them three days off," Summitt said. "I think that's important. I want to come back, get a couple of days in and then give them a weekend day off. They love their weekend days off."
The players looked like walking Popsicles in the locker room as Jenny Moshak wrapped ice on every knee as soon as the players took a seat.
"My legs are going to love her," said Hornbuckle, referring to the coach's decision and adding she would use the off days to "concentrate on school and try to get ahead before spring break."
"Get our bodies back, do schoolwork and then refocus," Bobbitt said.
Parker sat in a corner of the locker room after the game and talked softly about what had happened. She had ice on her knees and was still wearing her championship ball cap and T-shirt that the players donned immediately afterwards. She talked about Anosike's encouragement and how well the bench played.
"Nicky was in my ear telling me to take over," Parker said. "She was telling me that she really needed me to just take over the game. On the defensive end I needed to deny high post. I waited until the last four possessions to do it, but we did it at the right time. I feel like we all played hard and just found it."
She lauded the play of Fuller, who also had to step in and help handle Fowles. The 6'6 center for LSU finished with 19 points and 10 boards, but not a single rebound came on the offensive end. Fuller and Baugh also had to take turns guarding Ashley Thomas – Parker switched off her to guard Fowles when Anosike left the game – and Thomas didn't score a point and only attempted one shot.
"I'm really proud of our bench and how they stepped up," Parker said. "Vicki came in and played huge for us. Alex came in and played huge for us. I was really excited about how they came in and contributed."
"I just knew I had to play big playing against Sylvia," Fuller said. "I'm kind of undersized in the post, especially against her."
Summitt said Tennessee's defense was the difference in the game. The Lady Vols also prevailed on the boards, 40-33. The teams have met three times in the past four years for the conference tourney title – Tennessee won in 2005, 2006 and 2008 – and each game came down to the final minute of play.
"Because they're two great teams and two teams very devoted to their defense," Summitt said. "Anytime you play a team that is that defensive-minded, and we're defensive-minded, sometimes it's ugly and your shooting percentages are low but the team that wins obviously feels really good about what they've accomplished just because of their opponent."
Tennessee and LSU shot an identical 40.7 percent from the field. The Lady Vols were 9-16 from the free throw line and the last four attempts were the result of LSU fouling to stop the clock. The Lady Tigers were 7-13 from the field and missed the front end of three one-and-one opportunities from the line – once by White and twice by Fowles.
"I thought our missed free throws really hurt our momentum more than anything throughout the game," Chancellor said. "We had two or three times that we could have really taken advantage of the situation. … The rest of it was Tennessee's defense. They were pretty good today. I would say there was a little difference between this game and the other game; probably their defense was better."
Parker had said the Tennessee team was different than the last time the programs met, but Fowles and White didn't see it.
"I think they came out and did the same thing they did in the previous game," Fowles said. "They crashed the boards, they played hard and I don't think there's nothing changed about their team."
Lost in the debacle against LSU on Feb. 14 was the fact that Tennessee jumped out to a 21-2 lead with offensive efficiency and withering defense. The Lady Vols succumbed in that game because they started turning over the ball and taking quick shots.
"We've seen each other all year, and this time of year it's just hard," White said. "I would say they wanted it a little bit more, but different team? I don't see any difference. … Tennessee is the SEC champion, so hat's off to them. I look at my teammates and I look at the stats sheet, and I don't see any difference on that stats sheet too much.
"The only thing I can think of they had to have wanted it more than us. Maybe they prayed more last night; I don't know."
Desire is hard to quantify, but Parker had it in abundance. After she hit the shot with the shot clock at one, she ran down court pumping her fist. When she finally left the game with seconds left she skipped down the bench. When time expired, Parker popped her jersey.
At the awards ceremony Parker had a heartfelt conversation with Summitt as players, staff and assistants took turns climbing the ladder to get a snip of net. Parker had cut a small piece for herself.
The loudest cheer from the crowd came when Summitt climbed the ladder last – Hornbuckle and Auguste steadied it for her – and removed the last strands of the net and waved to the fans. Parker helped her coach safely down the ladder.
Parker, Bobbitt and the players then used headbands and snippets of net to stand in front of the band members and lead them in a version of "Rocky Top" that the crowd nearly drowned out with its cheers.
They posed for photos at center court with the trophy and then ran to the locker room as the crowd cheered their every step. Parker, Anosike and Hornbuckle went to the post-game press conference and when Parker returned she found a corner of the locker room to catch her breath.
A drive to the basket had resulted in her 2,001st career point – the total is 2,007 and counting. Crossing 2,000 put her in exclusive company in just three years of play with Tamika Catchings (2,113 points) and Bridgette Gordon (2,462). Chamique Holdsclaw holds the all-time record with 3,025 points.
"I'm a huge fan of the history of the game, and I respect those that came before me," Parker said. "It's a huge honor but at the same time my teammates and my coaches put me in a position to do that and I am really thankful for that."
Before Parker returned to the locker room two of her teammates – a senior and a freshman – were asked about her impact on the game.
"She backs up all the hype," Bobbitt said. "She's a great player, our go-to player. She gets it done."
"What can't I say about Candace?" Baugh said. "It only makes me want to get better. I'm fortunate to be playing with one of the best players in the NCAA, maybe the best.
"Candace is a role model of mine. Don't tell her I said this, but she definitely is a role model of mine. Her presence on the court, she stays calm, she's always ready to help the team, she does whatever she can. She always in my ear helping me to get better. Same thing with Big Nick. They're both really helpful."
When a superstar is also the role model it explains why the Lady Vols won a title in Nashville and it also bodes well for Tennessee's quest to repeat its national title. Summitt has said all season she had the most talented team in the country but not necessarily the best. She saw this weekend what her team can do when it combines talent with 40 minutes of effort.
"They've worked so hard, and they wanted it so much," Summitt said. "That's the fun is to watch them cut down the nets. Losing tears me up, but winning never gets old."
ODDS AND ENDS:
MOST DEVOTED: The Lady Vol fans who flocked to the Sommet Center. Tennessee set attendance records in all three games of the SEC Tournament – the 9,938 on Friday against Florida was a session three record, the 12,897 on Saturday against Vanderbilt was a single-session record, and Sunday's 12,392 was the most for an SEC Championship game.
The total attendance for the four-day tourney was 51,036, with an average of 8,506 per session. Those also were SEC Tournament records.
"As I stood in that arena and saw that it was 90 percent orange and we had set a record it just made me very proud of the Orange Nation," said Joan Cronan, the women's athletic director. "We could not have accomplished what we've done in women's athletics at the University of Tennessee without our fans. Every session, even when we weren't playing, the arena was covered with orange.
"I just think it's a sign of pride. I've always said to be successful you have to have pride and passion and what an exciting time – a pride within the stands, a passion within the team, great coaches."
BEST SIGNS: She may be small but she plays big. Go Bobbitt. … Elect Summitt President Now. … Who Needs Hillary. We've got Pat. … Pat 4 President. Bruce 4 Vice. … Candace is the Real POY. … Missouri Girls Love Lady Vols. … Raccoons and Tigers Beware! …
LONGEST SIGN: Enjoy your award Sylvia because Candace will cut the net for the 2nd time.
BEST ASSIST: That from the crowd after country music singer Luke Bryan forgot the words midway through the national anthem. He asked for help and the crowd sang along. Bryan recovered, and the crowd gave him a hearty cheer.
BEST DRESSED: Both coaches. Van Chancellor wore pale plum pants and a pastel gold jacket. Pat Summitt wore an orange blouse and jacket with black pants.
BEST STYLE UNDER DURESS: Courtney Tysinger of the Lady Vols media relations staff. She has one foot in a walking boot because of injury and the other in a cowboy boot. She managed to match the boots and fit in with the Nashville theme.
BEST STANDBY: Official Mary Day, who made it onto the floor quickly as the backup official. Joe Cunningham injured his calf and had to leave at the 4:32 mark of the first half.
BEST ROLL: That of Candace Parker's second shot, which went in and out, around the rim and through the hole.
BEST IMITATION OF A HOCKEY PLAYER: Erica White, for the hip check thrown on Candace Parker as she went down court in transition. White checked Parker – much like a hockey player – and was called for the foul. The game was played on top of the Nashville Predators' ice.
BEST SPIN MOVE: That of Candace Parker on the way to the basket to tie the game at 39-39. She also was fouled and completed the three-point play.
BEST THREE-POINTERS: The four hit by Shannon Bobbitt. Two of them put Tennessee ahead and one tied the game late. The Lady Vols were 4-10 behind the arc, and Bobbitt hit each one.
She now has 134 for her career, moving her past Tiffany Woosley (132) and Sidney Spencer (133) and into fourth place in the UT record books in just two seasons.
BEST CHANT: That of the crowd after the game with a loud version of: "It's great to be a Tennessee Lady Vol."
BEST HUG: That shared between Alex Fuller and Candace Parker when Fuller came in for Parker with eight seconds to go.
"I think it's special because we're such a close class and such a close team so that's mainly why it's so special, especially for the seniors." Fuller said. "We're all sisters, and we all love each other. Just being our last SEC championship game together it was really special to all of us."
Parker and Fuller are both redshirt juniors – they spent their first year on campus rehabbing from major knee surgeries, an experience that linked them and drew them closer together – and this is the last year they will play together since Parker is leaving with the senior class and will enter the WNBA draft. Fuller will return next season.
"Oh, Alex, we're sisters," Parker said as she pretended to be touched as Fuller cracked up laughing. "I love her to death. We've been through everything together. I'm going to come back next year and be in the stands supporting her."
WORTHY OF MENTION: The hug Pat Summitt gave her son, Tyler, after he came out of the stands to celebrate with his mother and the team.
MOST KNOWLEDGEABLE: The Tennessee fans who saved one of their loudest cheers for Jenny Moshak when she went up the ladder for a snippet of net. Moshak is the head of sports medicine and keeps the team healed and ready to play. The crowd also cheered Heather Mason, who handles strength and conditioning.
BEST USE OF AN SEC SIGN: By Shannon Bobbitt who carried the SEC 75th anniversary sign around the floor and told the crowd, "I can't hear you," which made them cheer louder.
BEST DOLL: The "Tammie," which is awarded to the player who does something special. Vicki Baugh was the recipient after the LSU game.
The "Tammie" is a modified Barbie doll that has been spray-painted bronze like an Academy Award statue. She has a basketball in hand and a sash that says "leading," as in leading the team at a critical time and providing support. Baugh had to play during crunch time after Nicky Anosike fouled out with 1:37 left and Tennessee clinging to a one-point lead, 56-55.
MOST EXCITED TV VIEWERS: Probably Vicki Baugh's grandparents, Calvin and Barbara Baugh, who were watching the ESPN2 broadcast in Sacramento, Calif., and would have seen their granddaughter hit the clutch free throws.
"They probably bumped their head on the ceiling jumping up and down," Vicki Baugh said. "I can't wait to call them."