This year's Tennessee team still has one regular season game to go Sunday against Ole Miss, but the win over Kentucky (23-5, 11-4) clinched the crown outright, one year after the Lady Vols lost five SEC games, the most in program history.
It was the first regular season title for every player on the team, and Tennessee, which will receive the trophy before its first SEC Tournament game, heads to Duluth, Ga., next week with the No. 1 seed in the conference tourney.
"We're excited we finally won something," junior guard Angie Bjorklund said. "We were all pretty excited after this game. That was our focus. If we take this team out, then we win the SEC. That's our first goal (this season), and we accomplished it. The next is taking care of Ole Miss and then going into the SEC (Tournament). We're looking forward to it."
It didn't come easy this season as Tennessee had to win on the road – the Lady Vols went 7-1 a year after posting a 2-5 mark away from home – and twice it took last-second shots to win, both hit by Bjorklund, against Florida and Ole Miss. Tennessee also had to mount comebacks against Vanderbilt and South Carolina.
"The attitude of this group – there is a lot of high energy, there is lot of positive thinking," Summitt said. "I just like where we are from that standpoint and just the positive attitude that they've maintained regardless of tight games, playing poorly at times and have to dig to get a win. They still have been very focused on what they wanted to do.
"They wanted to win this for sure. I think this game meant a lot to this team. They wanted to win something, something very important and for the first time to be able to win outright. We talked about it, but we didn't dwell on it. They knew they hadn't really won anything. They've heard enough and seen enough and now they understand what it takes. I thought they had tremendous focus in our pre-game and also in our halftime."
Tennessee took a 45-31 halftime lead into the locker room after jumping on Kentucky early and building a double-digit lead within eight minutes. Early fouls hindered both teams as seven fouls were called between Tennessee and Kentucky in less than four minutes, putting Lady Vol Kelley Cain and Wildcat A'dia Mathies on the bench with two each and leaving the crowd of 12,100 aggravated.
But Tennessee countered off the bench with Alyssia Brewer, and she commanded the same attention inside that Cain did. That allowed Shekinna Stricklen, who was aggressive offensively from the start of the game, and Bjorklund to get open looks on the perimeter.
The two guards shot 8-13 and combined for 20 points in the first half.
"I felt like that was very important," Stricklen said. "It just showed that extra shooting is paying off. When a post is doubled we're wide open, and we have to hit shots.
"I feel like we're very confident. We're getting a lot of extra shots outside of practice and it just makes you feel more confident. We know they're going to double the posts. Our posts have been killing teams, so you know they're going to double them. They're going to leave people wide open, and we just have to knock some shots down."
Cain picked up her second foul at the 16:46 mark of the first half when Victoria Dunlap split Cain and Glory Johnson and fell to the floor. Replays indicated no contact from Cain, but she had to take a seat on the bench.
On the next play, Kentucky's Amber Smith was called for a foul after running into an Alicia Manning screen, the eighth foul of the game at the 16:43 mark. That whistle caused Summitt to turn around and throw up her hands at the scorer's table, and it wasn't even against her player.
Brewer entered the game for Cain and scored just four first-half points, but the guards were picking up the offensive slack.
"It think it says we have balance, and it's important that you have it," Summitt said. "Obviously some nights guard play is going to be open more than post game. When they key on the post game that's when we've got to knock down shots from the perimeter. I think having balance is important but at the same time you have to take what good looks you have and the best looks you have."
Stricklen scored her first basket on a drive to the rim, and followed it up with another drive and bank shot to give Tennessee a 6-2 lead at the 18:33 mark. Inside, she found Cain, who scored and was fouled, giving her three points before she ended up on the bench after logging just three minutes of play.
Stricklen got a putback and then drew a charge on Smith on the other end. That brought a series of fist pumps from Stricklen, who is sometimes subdued but showed plenty of emotion in this game.
"I think I got more excited about the charge and when I throw a good assist to the post than when I score," Stricklen said. "I feel like when I get excited, everyone else gets excited, and so I fist pump, and it really helps bring a lot of energy to the team."
The good assist came on the next play when Stricklen found Brewer inside for the layup and a 13-6 lead at the 14:18 mark. Brewer tallied her own assist when she fired a fastball skip pass to Briana Bass, who was all alone behind the arc and nailed the three-pointer for a 20-6 lead.
That led to a Kentucky timeout at the 11:41 mark, and Bass was greeted with a hug from Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick, who has been on the court with Bass two hours before tipoff for extra shooting.
Kentucky used its ball pressure to draw within seven points, 23-16, with 9:09 remaining, but the Lady Vols used the power inside of Johnson and the outside shooting of Bjorklund, who hit back-to-back three-pointers on assists from Stricklen and Taber Spani, who swung the ball over from the opposite wing, to claim a 37-16 lead with 5:36 left to play in the first half.
"I think our perimeter players have really invested and are getting in a lot of reps in the gym and also doing a better job of coming off screens," Summitt said. "Angie, I watched film with her, and I think it's important that we continue to get better in those areas. Our post game draws a lot of attention. They're doing a good job of reading that and kicking (the ball) out, reposting or getting the open shots for the perimeter players."
Kentucky managed to cut into the lead by getting to the free throw line – the Wildcats were 11-13 from the stripe in the first half – and at the break the Lady Vols' margin remained in double digits, but had been trimmed to 14 with a 45-31 score.
Cain was released from her orange stool at the end of the bench, where she perched for 17 minutes of the first half, for the start of the second half, and the ball immediately went inside.
Cain scored the first basket of the second half on a pass from Bjorklund, was fouled and hit the free throw for the 48-31 lead. Cain scored again on an assist from Stricklen to push the score to 50-31.
Dunlap, an SEC Player of the Year candidate, went to work inside for Kentucky, but Tennessee was able to maintain its lead with the paint presence of Cain, Brewer and Johnson.
"The paint points are very, very important, and that's the way we want to start with every game is going inside and establishing our inside game and then that opens up our outside game for our perimeter players," Summitt said.
The whistle kept blowing – 22 fouls were called on each team – and both teams turned loose of the ball with 22 turnovers for Tennessee and 14 for Kentucky. But Tennessee was never really threatened – Kentucky never led in the game – and jumped ahead by 25 points, 73-48, with 4:27 left on an assist from Brewer to Cain, who swished the eight-foot shot.
"Overall, I thought we came with a lot of energy and did a lot of good things," Summitt said. "From a defensive perspective, I thought we started out pretty strong. We knew that they were going to commit to the three-ball. We gave up 15 of those; fortunately they only made four.
"I think all in all our defense was pretty solid. Board play, we had the edge there. I think our team is doing a much better job at both ends of the floor in terms of rebounding. I am not crazy about our turnovers, especially toward the end. We went to the bench and the one thing that we reminded them is they've got to step up and play if they want to have the opportunity to be on the court and help us close out a win."
The bench play was sporadic as the ball squirted loose several times, and Rebecca Gray and Keyla Snowden were left open behind the arc, but Bass and Spani hit a couple of free throws each and Kamiko Williams knocked down a 10-foot jumper and Tennessee finished the game with a 16-point margin, 81-65, and the SEC crown to itself.
"Their style clearly won out tonight," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "They were physical and big and tough and powerful. We were never really able to finish at the goal. I thought the tempo, I thought we did some good things, our first bucket was a layup right back at them off of a made basket, and so I thought our players were trying hard.
"We just could not make enough shots around the goal. Fifteen blocked shots is a staggering number of blocked shots. They did a great job tonight of blocking shots."
It also broke the school record of 14 that was just set on Monday against LSU.
Cain led the way with seven blocks and now has 98 on the season, just one shy of the single-season record of 99 set by Candace Parker in the 2006-07 season.
Brewer added four blocks, including a particularly deft one in which in one fluid motion she swatted Dunlap's shot near the baseline and managed to knock it off her hip and out of bounds to give possession to Tennessee. Stricklen had two blocks and Bjorklund and Williams had one each.
The presence of Brewer and Cain inside is a source of comfort for the guards, who know if a player gets past them on the perimeter, a line of defense is lurking, almost in anticipation.
"Just knowing that they'll have our backs, if we get beat baseline, that they're going to be right there," Bjorklund said. "Sometimes they might even say, ‘ Let them go.' They'll be right there. Just having that confidence in each other and really knowing each other on the court really helps.
"I think if teams watch film (of the posts), they have to take that into account. Hey, this team, they're tall, they get a lot of blocks inside, and that helps us keep people out of the middle and out of the paint. That's one of our main focuses is not letting the other team get paint points and making them shoot over us, shoot from the outside. Just having that Kelley Cain, Lyssi Brewer factor is huge for us."
Johnson led the post players with eight rebounds, followed by seven for Brewer and six for Cain. Overall, the Lady Vols prevailed on the glass, 45-37, with Manning leading the way for the team with a career-high 11 boards.
"What makes Manning a good rebounder?" Summitt said. "She's got a nose for the ball and she pursues it, and she rebounds out of her area. She doesn't have to wait until the ball is coming to her. She goes after it. She is very driven and very competitive, and I think that she's only going to get better. She understands her strengths and continues to try to be the best she can at defending and rebounding and getting paint points.
"She's just like a workhorse is what I would say if I was on the farm. She just goes out there and just works and works and works. If her shot's not falling, she's going to do all the other things to help our team. She's not going to have a pity party for one. She's going to really be focused, get other people involved, play defense and rebound."
Manning was 2-7 from the field for four points and didn't let that affect the rest of her game as the 11 rebounds, two assists and one steal show.
"Eleven rebounds, that's great," Johnson said. "She loves to rebound and she's so athletic. She's a guard but at the same time she plays some in the post, and it shows in her game. She can do so much for this team. It's amazing."
Four Tennessee starters were in double figures led by 14 from Cain, who logged just 19 minutes and was 6-9 from the field and 2-2 from the line. Johnson had 13 points and was 7-8 from the line.
Bjorklund, who played just 10 minutes in the second half after going the distance in the first half, tallied 12 points, as did Stricklen, who also added seven boards and five assists. Brewer came off the bench to add 10 points, and Spani chipped in with nine on the strength of a 6-6 performance from the line, including two free throws after a technical foul was called on Mitchell in the second half.
Tennessee shot 50 percent in the first half and 45.6 percent (26-57) for the game with 15 assists. Tennessee was 4-9 (44.4 percent) from behind the arc.
As a team Tennessee was 25-27 (92.6 percent) from the line one game after a perfect 10-10 performance. In the past two games the Lady Vols are shooting 94.6 percent from the stripe. On Sunday, Summitt ordered the players to not talk during practice while they shot free throws, with the intent being to force focus.
"Maybe the only difference now is every time we're shooting frees throws, there's no talking," Summitt said. "Does that make sense? Everyone has to be focused on making free throws. You have to credit them.
"But now we understand that when they're talking, they're not real good at free throw shooting. And when they're focused on free throw shooting, they're pretty good. Imagine that."
Kentucky was led by a double-double from Dunlap, who had 22 points and 10 boards.
"Victoria and all of our players tonight, when they would come to the huddle, they were scratching and clawing and they were bleeding," Mitchell said. "You could tell that they were working hard. Victoria played with a lot of tenacity, and she has tremendous amount of character and she doesn't give up.
"If it was anybody's fault it was mine for saying let's get in the lane and really be aggressive and try to go to the basket and score at the rim. I thought she did that, and she was tough. Even when we got shots blocked, I thought all of our players remained aggressive. I am really, really fortunate to have coached Victoria Dunlap."
Snowden tallied 14 points and hit three 3-pointers for Kentucky. Smith added nine, and Mathies had eight. Rebecca Gray had seven off the bench.
Kentucky shot 29.9 percent (20-67) overall with seven assists and was 4-15 (26.7 percent) from behind the arc. The Wildcats' bench scored eight points to 26 from Tennessee's. Kentucky was 21-27 (77.8 percent) from the line.
"I think you have to start with just giving great credit to Tennessee," Mitchell said. "It was a very powerful performance they had tonight, and we just had a very difficult time getting into anything we wanted to do, and that's a credit to them. I thought they really showed when they want to assert themselves they can be a powerful basketball team.
"We're disappointed with the outcome, I have some players back in the locker room that are disappointed, and we'll just try to learn whatever we can from the game and try to get ready for another tough one on Sunday."
Kentucky, which has clinched second place in the SEC after being picked 11th by the media and coaches in the preseason, finishes at Auburn.
"I think we accomplished that we could play basketball and play hard against the rest of the teams in the SEC," Dunlap said. "With them picking us 11th it just shows that we have a lot of things that we can do as a team, and we won't just lay down and accept that we got picked 11th."
Mitchell was asked if he was glad to be in the other half of the bracket from Tennessee at the SEC tourney.
"We're just glad that we have had a good season up until this point," Mitchell said. "We've done a good job all season not focused on nobody but ourselves. Tennessee has a fantastic team. I think I would be, not the way I would put it that we're glad we're away from them, I think we'll try to learn from it, and if we have to play them again, we'll try real hard to see if we can play better."
Summitt had been concerned about Kentucky's pressure going into the game, but Stricklen had just two turnovers. The Lady Vols piled up the miscues as a team with 22, but it never seemed problematic because, for the most part, they maintained their lead, and the points off turnovers was a wash. Kentucky converted those into 20 points, and Tennessee turned Kentucky's 14 turnovers into 19 points.
"Overall, I felt like we handled things," Summitt said. "We knew that they were going to come out and really get after us defensively and try to push tempo. We mishandled some, but at the same time I thought we settled down and worked for the shots that we wanted and not the shots that they wanted us to have. I thought we had a toughness on the defensive end as well."
Tennessee had to play most of the first half without its enforcer in the paint, but Brewer and Johnson held their own. Kentucky also was limited with Mathies in foul trouble, but she returned in the second half and played with two. The freshman fouled out with 6:37 left in the game.
"We weren't able to be quite as aggressive," Mitchell said. "Our margin for error is very slim. Things had to go well for us to beat them here tonight. I thought any combination of factors affected us, but that was one of them.
"I was proud of A'dia. I thought she came back in with two fouls in a tough situation. I thought she kept battling. Her first performance here I thought was a gritty one."
Mitchell also saw grit from Tennessee and a much different one than he had watched at times on film.
"I think they are very talented and are a good basketball team," Mitchell said. "You saw if they are in tune defensively and playing aggressively, then they can be really tough. "I've watched a lot of film on them, and I think they tonight showed you another gear that they had. This wasn't the team that played at Alabama (last week), for instance. If you watch that game, you start to think there are some things that maybe you can exploit, or some areas where you could get some things done.
"I thought tonight, they really asserted themselves in a real positive way. I thought they played with energy and effort and put (forth) a lot of physicality. I thought they were really tough and powerful tonight. I would think that anyone who has watched them much would say that they played real well and that would be a good sign that they are improving.
"I am just disappointed that we didn't play better. Tennessee played really good. Give them a lot of credit. They were terrific."
Tennessee was especially motivated for this game. The Kentucky loss a year ago forced the locker room to be off limits for eight months. That was brought up among the players after the LSU game on Monday.
"Right after our last game we were talking about making sure that we're ready for this team, ready for Kentucky," Johnson said. "We remembered what they did last time, and how we reacted to it."
A win also meant the Lady Vols were the 2010 SEC Champions.
"I think we've come a long way and I think we know our concepts a lot better," Johnson said. "We know what we have to do, and we know we should be dominating some of the teams that we struggled with last year. Just understanding and having confidence with our game helped us from last year."
The reaction on the floor was that of any regular season win. The players huddled at center court and then sprinted to the locker room.
"We celebrated in the locker room," Stricklen said. "We went crazy in the locker room. We just didn't do it on the court."
Tennessee has one more game this Sunday to close out the regular season. It will be Senior Day with no seniors in uniform for the Lady Vols, though Tennessee always recognizes senior managers and cheerleaders and the seniors on the opposing team. It's a game that could lead to a letdown – though not by Ole Miss, which lost on a last-second three from Bjorklund.
"I feel like we just come strong on Sunday, don't let up," Stricklen said. "We are a totally different team, and we just come to work. I feel like if we keep playing like we've been playing and keep encouraging each other and just keep having fun – and that's what we do; we're having a lot of fun – it's really paying off and showing."