After a series of upsets – South Carolina over Vanderbilt; Auburn over Kentucky; and Alabama over Florida – Tennessee, which had already secured the No. 1 seed earlier this week, will play the winner of the Ole Miss-South Carolina game on Friday at noon in Duluth, Ga.
Tennessee (27-2, 15-1) played at times like a team that knew it had the one seed secured in the conference tourney by virtue of wrapping up the regular season crown with Thursday's win over Kentucky.
"Winning the regular season, it was like, ‘Oh, we've arrived,' " Pat Summitt said. "You never arrive in this game, and I think that our team has to understand that. There just wasn't a sense of urgency in this game as opposed to our LSU game or our Kentucky game (earlier this week). There wasn't the same commitment up and down the floor; communication wasn't as strong.
"They looked like a team that just won something and decided it's not a real big deal now. We've won it, and we'll just wait and go to Duluth. Do I look like I'm happy? Do I sound like I'm happy? I'm disappointed in our team for not bringing it all the time. If you are a team on a mission, you can see it. You can feel it. It's obvious. But, no, this game we decided to pick and choose, and we had two players step up and play great."
That would be Manning, who had 15 points, 10 rebounds and four assists, and Stricklen, who had 23 points and 10 boards. The two combined for nine of Tennessee's 21 offensive boards, and both tallied points with putbacks of teammates' misses.
When Stricklen was asked about the board play of the guards, she got a pointed and funny look from Alyssia Brewer, who directed her to "tell them" how it happened.
"The posts tell us that they do the hard work – they box out their person, and we are just free to go get the rebound," Stricklen said with a smile. "It helps when we get the rebound, and that's what we did."
It also helps when Manning gets on the glass, as she has since entering the starting lineup against Ole Miss in the first matchup on Feb. 11.
"She's bringing a lot of hard work," Stricklen said. "Her intensity brings up everybody. She goes hard every play and it just makes everybody else go hard. She plays both offense and defense. She's crashing the boards; she's guarding the best player for the other team. She's helping us out a lot, and she's been a big part of this team."
In the rematch in Knoxville – the Lady Vols won the first game on a last-second three-pointer from Angie Bjorklund – Tennessee jumped out to a 10-2 lead three minutes into the game on the strength of three consecutive three-pointers from Stricklen, the first of which came when Kelley Cain got doubled and fired the ball to Stricklen, who was all alone.
And while they surrendered a 13-point first-half cushion and allowed Ole Miss to tie the game at 50-50 with 12:37 to play, the Lady Vols never lost the lead and ended up winning by double digits.
Ole Miss (16-13, 7-9) packed the paint to handle Brewer and Cain inside, and Stricklen was the beneficiary, as the Rebels couldn't get out to the arc in time to guard her, too.
The Rebels did their damage with Bianca Thomas, who scored 34 points, the most Tennessee has allowed by a single player all season since the 29 points put up by Rutgers' Brittany Ray on Dec. 13. Nobody else for Ole Miss scored more than six points. The other four starters combined for 14 points.
Thomas, on the other hand, had 16 points by halftime.
"Obviously we have seen Thomas before and we've defended her before, and why we didn't know that we had to close out long (on threes), we had to deny and limit touches, just real disappointed in how we started," Summitt said.
Summitt's mood wasn't lifted when she saw the stacked half of the bracket for Tennessee in the SEC tourney with the Lady Vols, Vanderbilt, LSU, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Arkansas on the same side.
"That sounds like an easy bracket," Summitt said to laughter. "Are you kidding me? I am glad I hadn't seen that before now. If we've got Ole Miss again, that'll be the third time. That's a big challenge. South Carolina is playing well also. Then you've got Vanderbilt or Arkansas and LSU."
Tennessee will be familiar with the teams in its half, as the Lady Vols have already played all of them twice, with the exception of Arkansas. Of the other half of the bracket – Kentucky, Mississippi State, Georgia, Florida, Auburn and Alabama – the Lady Vols have only played Florida twice. Coaches usually prefer to avoid meeting a team for a third time in one season, but the expanded SEC schedule ensured it was more likely this season.
That expanded schedule also meant Tennessee won a program-record 15 games in league play. Another record fell as Cain blocked three shots, bringing her season tally to 101. The previous single-season record off 99 was held by Candace Parker in 2006-07, and Cain put the figure in triple digits with postseason still to play.
Cain finished with seven points and eight boards but had a tough night from the field at 2-7 and from the line at 3-7. She also got two fouls in the first half and watched nine minutes of the first half from the sideline.
"Kelley and I watched a lot of tape, and we looked at her shot blocking," Summitt said. "The main thing she was doing was going here (leaning over with her arms) as opposed to here (hands straight up). I think she'll continue to get better, but early fouls, I told her, ‘You just can't take yourself out early.' I think that's where she's got to keep watching film, and we've just got to keep working on it in practice. Just build a wall."
Ole Miss is a difficult team for Tennessee to guard because the Rebels play a lot of formations with four guards and one forward. The offense doesn't set up in the post and that leaves Cain and Brewer having to often step out of the paint to guard someone.
Instead of setting up on the blocks, the forward for Ole Miss swings from side to side setting screens outside the paint, while the ball-handler weaves through the crowd of players and either gets to the rim or kicks out to shooters, who are also setting screens and moving without the ball.
One ball-handler literally circled Cain twice inside the paint – with the crowd screaming for a three-second call – and couldn't get a look at the basket over the 6'6 center. The kick-out to the guard on the baseline resulted in a missed basket, but Thomas, a savvy senior, connected on 11-27 shots – 4-10 from long range – and used the assortment of screens to either step back and fire or drive to the rim.
"She's smart; she's a heady player," Ole Miss Coach Renee Ladner said. "They took away the three-ball and when they did that, she came off the screens, and she read them very well. She would come off the screens and flare. That would give her an open look for the three or she would stutter step and get them up in the air. That's a credit to how good Bianca Thomas really is, because I think Tennessee is very good defensively."
Tennessee's best perimeter defender, Glory Johnson, played just 12 minutes – all logged in the first half.
"Didn't do anything to help us early," Summitt said of the decision to sit Johnson, who took a hard tumble in the first half, for the entire second half. "We were trying to find someone that was going to get down and play great defense and also do a good job of attacking inside, not wanting to step away but wanting to get paint points.
"And, again, Lyssi came in and played well. Now, if Lyssi comes in and she's not playing well then Glory is going to probably be the first one off the bench."
Instead, Summitt used Brewer, who had nine points, six boards and two blocks, and Taber Spani, who played 25 minutes, to handle post duty with Cain. Spani, who has been bothered by turf toe all season, tallied six points and six rebounds in effective minutes.
"I think she is feeling better," Summitt said. "I think she just relaxed a little bit more. I told her, ‘You can't play this game uptight. You've got to be loose and have a little fun out there.' I think she was over-thinking the game."
Johnson on the sideline meant Manning had to handle Thomas most of the game, and when she got loose, help often didn't come in time.
"I just didn't think we did a good job of communicating and didn't have that sense of urgency, which we obviously needed," Summitt said. "She took her off the bounce. The one thing that A-Town has got to get much better at is not opening up her foot and inviting penetration, trying to close out and contain."
Kamiko Williams logged 14 minutes – she was 3-3 from the free throw line and 1-5 from the field with her basket coming on a nice lefty drive and bank shot – and relieved Manning on Thomas.
Ole Miss' strategy was to pull Tennessee's big post players away from the basket and try to open some driving lanes.
"We thought if we pulled them away from the basket, we could turn the corner as Bianca did often tonight and get some shots," Ladner said. "But I know Coach Summit certainly keyed in on trying to take our three-point shooters out of the game, which I thought she did for the most part. Liz (Robertson) really struggled to get a shot off tonight as well as Shantell Black (who was 1-6 from long range)."
Ole Miss started out 1-5 from behind the arc but finished the first half 4-9 from long range. The Rebels got back in the game before halftime by hitting the three ball.
Tennessee had a double-digit lead, 21-11, after Stricklen hit a wing jumper off the fast break with 9:50 remaining in the first half and extended the lead to 12 points, 23-11, when Manning got a steal and drive 10 seconds later.
The lead was extended to 13 points, 31-18, after Johnson made a power move to the basket off an in-bounds pass from Williams with 6:04 left in the game and hit the free throw after being fouled. But then LaKendra Phillips hit a 15-footer, and Thomas connected on back-to-back threes – Summitt called timeout between them to no avail – and the lead was trimmed to five points, 31-26, with 4:22 left in the first half.
Angie Bjorklund found Manning flying down the left side on a fast break, and Manning converted the layup, despite a sidearm shot to the head, and hit the free throw for a 36-26 lead with 2:52 left.
Elizabeth Robertson hit her one three of the evening – she had five in the first game – and Phillips got a layup, but Manning hit two free throws after getting two offensive boards and getting fouled on the second one and then converted a loose ball into a basket for the 40-32 halftime lead.
The series was typical of how Manning got her points all night – scrapping for loose balls.
"The thing about Alicia Manning is she is one of the most competitive players on our team, maybe the most," Summitt said. "She just battles hard, because she wants to compete all the time. That's the reason that we wanted her to come to Tennessee. Watching her in AAU and as a high school player, tough, just aggressive.
"She battles. She battles all the time. There's no quit in her."
Manning has said her approach to the ball is that she has as much right to it as her opponent.
"I'm an extremely competitive person," Manning said. "I think that's probably where it all starts. I guess having two older brothers had something to do with it. They were always picking on me, so I had to hold my ground."
Tennessee was trying to hold its ground in the second half when Ole Miss chipped away at the lead thanks to stiffer defense and two more three-pointers from Thomas, who also got to the rim.
"Outstanding," Ladner said of the effort of Thomas. "Bianca had to create a little bit more tonight because she didn't have the open look. I think she proved to everyone again tonight that she is one of the top players in the conference. She's still the leading scorer in the conference.
"I've said it all year, I think she's been a little disrespected, and she continues to prove people wrong. She was just outstanding for our team. We put everything in her hands for the most part, and she usually comes through, so I'm extremely proud of her."
Thomas, a native of Henderson, Tenn., is inspired to play Tennessee.
"Growing up, I was a big Tennessee fan, and I get really excited whenever I come back to Thompson-Boling Arena because I didn't get recruited to go here, and it feels good to go out and try to beat Tennessee each and every year since I've been here at Ole Miss," Thomas said.
Thomas' second three of the second half pulled Ole Miss to within three points, 47-44, and she got the lead trimmed to one, 47-46, after hitting two free throws with 16:17 left in the game.
"Thomas is a great player," Manning said. "She can drive to the basket; she can pull up and shoot threes. You have to make her put it in on the ground and have your team help you whenever she puts it on the ground, get help-side defense. Keep a hand in her face no matter what."
Ole Miss tied the game, 50-50, on a putback by Robertson at the 11:54 mark, but Manning retook the lead, 52-50 for Tennessee after grabbing a tipped pass and converting the basket at the 11:41 mark.
The Rebels, already small inside, lost Nikki Byrd for the game on that play as she tried to recover in the paint to guard Manning, slipped and went down in considerable pain as her right leg buckled. Byrd left in a wheelchair and returned later under her own power but with a massive ice bag on her right knee. Ladner said early indications were that the knee was OK, and it was possibly a hyperextension.
Ole Miss has played undersized all season by using its speedy perimeter players to attack defenses.
"I think our speed versus their size is a factor, and I have good perimeter shooters," Ladner said. "One area that I don't have is a lot of depth so I'm asking a lot of kids to play a lot of minutes.
"Going against people that size is very taxing, as you can see when we're running down the floor or when you look underneath the goal on a box out and you can't see our kids' bodies. There's an orange jersey and there's four legs. So that's very taxing on our team."
Tennessee never lost its lead – though it stayed in single digits for six minutes after the tie game – as Bjorklund got loose for some wing jumpers, and Stricklen and Manning continued to score.
"Obviously, having played Ole Miss (already this season) they're just a tough team," Summitt said. "They're tough defensively, got a lot of grit, do a great job of moving the basketball. … This Ole Miss team, having played them the first time, it went to the wire. At least we separated ourselves out."
Tennessee got the lead to double digits, 65-54, on a pass from Bjorklund to Brewer with two seconds on the shot clock and 5:53 left to play. Stricklen got two offensive boards on the next possession to allow Tennessee to reset the offense and then Bjorklund found her backcourt mate for a wing jumper and a 67-54 lead with 4:08 remaining.
Ole Miss got four more points from Thomas after that, and Ladner got a technical foul after protesting a foul call when Phillips swung out an elbow on a rebound and caught Brewer. Bjorklund hit one of the two free throws for a 70-59 lead with 2:23 left.
At that point, Tennessee was content to run as much clock as possible – it got five more points from two Williams' free throws and a putback from Stricklen – and Ole Miss got the Thomas free throws and a putback from Holloway for the final 75-63 score.
Stricklen took the in-bound pass and just held it for 29.9 seconds while standing 93 feet away from Tennessee's basket as those remaining among the crowd of 14,289 stood to applaud.
Afterwards, Summitt wasn't particularly happy, and she was asked why she seemed so annoyed after a 27-2 regular season.
"Well, because the season is not over," Summitt said. "We've got the SEC Tournament and trying to hang on and get a number one seed (for the NCAA Tournament). There's a lot of basketball left to play, and they have to understand that.
"Habits are hard to break, good and bad. We want to have the good habits, and we want to commit to them all the time. We are what we repeatedly do, and that's why we want them to constantly repeat (good habits) and strive for perfection."
The three players at the post-game press conference sort of smiled when asked about the reaction of their coach.
"You've got to take what she tells you, but you've also got to shake it off," Brewer said. "Whatever you did it happened in the past, and you've got to focus on the present."
"We won, and I know this wasn't our best game, but right now we've just got to let it go and get ready for tournament time and just focus on that and go hard in every one of the games we play," Stricklen said.
Summitt was upset because it seemed as if her team overall wasn't completely engaged in the game.
"I did not think our post game brought what we need them to bring defensively and offensively," Summitt said. "I thought Lyssi Brewer got a little bit better in the second half. But not being ready to play there's no excuse for that."
Brewer and Cain, who had been dominant in the past two games, combined for 16 points on 6-17 shooting.
"There was a lot of double-teaming, and we didn't kick out soon enough," Brewer said. "We kind of lost our balance at times, but I think we made up for it in the second half more so than the first."
Ole Miss' defensive strategy was to bring help in the paint and harass Bjorklund. It worked as Bjorklund had seven points on 3-10 shooting and was 0-3 from long range.
But that didn't account for Manning and Stricklen.
"Alicia Manning had an outstanding game against us," Ladner said. "Shekinna Stricklen had an outstanding game. I'm always perplexed that we play pretty well with the bigs. The bigs did not just overpower us and they didn't have a lot of points. Doesn't mean anything. Tennessee has a lot of weapons. We had an emphasis on Bjorklund tonight. We did not want her to light us up.
"When you key in on key players and you're shallow in depth, sometimes it affects you. And that's when Alicia Manning can come in and get it and Shekinna Stricklen. They've got a lot of good weapons."
Stricklen was 10-13 from the field overall and 3-5 from behind the arc.
"I think she's been in the gym and getting up shot after shot after shot," Summitt said. "She's just committed to being a player that's going to have repetition offensively and not just occasionally, but often. I think the players that right now are in the gym or in Pratt that are getting up the most shots are making the most shots.
"There is a correlation there."
Stricklen also has been attacking the rim offensively of late. When asked if she intended to make that a habit, Brewer interjected, "She'd better."
"I guess Lyssi answered that for me," Stricklen said with a smile. "Tyler (Summitt), he helped me out a lot. When I work out with him he's like, ‘Make it simple. When you see the trail post just in front of you, use them like a screen and run off of them.' That is what I do a lot in transition.
"I've been getting in the gym a lot more than I ever have. I've been in there shooting by myself and just focusing on (mechanics). Coach Holly (Warlick) is always telling me, lift, follow through with my shot and mostly just get my feet set."
Tennessee shot 42.6 percent (29-68) as a team and 33.3 percent (3-9) from behind the arc. The free throw shooting slipped significantly – it had been nearly pristine for two games – to 58.3 percent (14-24).
Ole Miss shot 35.9 percent (23-64) overall and 30 percent (6-20) from behind the arc. The Rebels were 73 percent (11-15) from the line.
Both teams took care of the ball for the most part – Ole Miss had 12 turnovers to 11 for Tennessee. The Lady Vols had 13 assists to seven for the Rebels. Tennessee out-scored Ole Miss in second-chance points, 23-13, and prevailed on the boards, 49-40 after being knotted at 23 on the glass at halftime.
"I think all teams are vulnerable in some area," Ladner said. "We have speed. We have quickness. We have good shooters. We're a little weak in the rebounding department. I was surprised to see at halftime that it was even.
"But the difference was Tennessee got the offensive rebounds and scored; we got the rebounds and didn't put it back in."
Ole Miss has played Tennessee well in its past three matchups, and Ladner said the orange jerseys provoke a response in her players.
"Why do we play them well?" Ladner said. "Probably because our kids really get up. I asked that question actually to my team last week and Kayla Melson said, ‘Coach, everybody gets up for Tennessee; everybody wants to beat Tennessee.' I think they just get themselves ready to play. My team plays with a lot of heart all the time. It doesn't matter how far down or how far ahead we are, we continue to push.
"But when Tennessee comes to town, LSU, we have a tendency to get up for those type of games and we go above and beyond the call for the most part because of their desire."
That type of pushback from every team it faces is something that Tennessee, a young team without a senior on the roster and four sophomores in the starting lineup, is still adjusting to this season.
"Everybody was motivated," Thomas said. "It's been two years straight (that Tennessee won on last-second shots). At Tennessee last year Angie hit a shot at the end and in Oxford, Angie hit another shot. It was very heartbreaking, not only to me, but to the whole team."
It is possible that Ole Miss could face Tennessee again in five days in the postseason tourney.
"SEC play, we'll take one game at a time," Ladner said. "(South Carolina) is a very tough team. We did not play them very well in South Carolina. Actually, Bianca was very ill going into that game. They're very difficult to defend as well and if we can get them, then we will see the Big Orange one more time."
Tennessee finished the regular season atop the SEC standings. Now, it will head to Duluth to try to complete the double-double – regular season and tourney titles – which hasn't been done since 2000, when the Lady Vols last did it.
"Most of the teams we've played twice now," Manning said. "We know what they're bringing, and they know what we're bringing, so a lot of it is just going to be executing what we have defensively and offensively, take advantage of our post game … just play to our strengths, do the little things and the extra-effort plays, and I think we'll be fine."
Brewer's perspective on the season is that the Lady Vols can finish better.
"We're definitely proud of what we've accomplished but there have also been games where we came out with a win when sometimes we might shouldn't have had it," Brewer said.
"But I think that we've really definitely progressed from last year. We look at all the stuff we did wrong, and we correct it. It's crunch time now. It's do or die, one and done."