The players gathered with Coach Pat Summitt and SEC Commissioner Mike Slive for the formal presentation. As Alicia Manning's teammates headed back to their end of the court for warmups, the sophomore, who had helped hold the trophy for the photos at center court, carried it to the bench and handed it off to Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick.
"I was carrying this thing and then they all leave," Manning said.
"Thanks to Heather Mason she could handle it," Kelley Cain said.
"I go to pick up the ball and it was super light," Manning said.
The size of the trophy surprised the team, which was collecting its first piece of hardware.
"Oh my God, that was big," sophomore Shekinna Stricklen said. "A-Town was struggling trying to hold it. I thought Angie was going to help her but Angie just said, ‘OK, you got it.' "
It was the only missed assist of the day as the Lady Vols channeled that energy into the game against Ole Miss and went on a 21-3 run to build a 38-17 lead with 4:50 remaining in the first half. By the break the score was 50-25, and Tennessee had filled the box score.
The Lady Vols shot 57.1 percent from the field and out-rebounded the Rebels, 18-8 in the first 20 minutes. Tennessee tallied 15 assists on 20 baskets, an indicator of good ball movement and extra passes.
"That tells you right there we're a team," Stricklen said. "We're playing as a team. If we keep doing that I don't feel like another team can stop us."
When Angie Bjorklund missed a three-point attempt, Stricklen got the rebound and fired the ball right back to Bjorklund, who returned it to Stricklen in the corner for the three and a 27-15 lead.
"I think we're comfortable with each other and by this time we trust each other," sophomore Glory Johnson said. "We have to trust each other to succeed against a lot of teams, so we're comfortable with doing that."
Tennessee, 28-2, got the start it wanted - though Ole Miss actually got on the board first - with an early tipoff and against a team it had beaten twice already this season.
"I thought we did the best job defensively," Summitt said. "In the other two games wasn't as poised. I thought we were much more committed to closing out long and defending the three ball. … It's hard to beat a team three times. I think we came ready to do that."
Tennessee will have to do it again as the Lady Vols will face Vanderbilt, 22-9, in the first semifinal game on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern (ESPNU, Lady Vol Radio Network).
Seconds into Friday's game, Bianca Thomas drained her first three for Ole Miss - though the defender was right there - but it would be the only one she hit in just two more attempts before halftime. Cain got Tennessee on the board with a layup on a feed from Bjorklund, and on Ole Miss' next possession Thomas turned over the ball when the help defender met her on the baseline.
Manning hit a jumper on Tennessee's end for the 4-3 lead, and the Lady Vols never trailed after that.
"I think it's because we had a lot to prove to ourselves from playing Ole Miss the first two times," Cain said. "The first time they thought they deserved to win (when Bjorklund hit a last-second three) and then the second time we didn't play very good basketball, but we still came out with the win.
"We knew that we're fighting for survival, and they're going to bring it their all. We took advantage of the fact that they played (Thursday), and we didn't and decided to run and tire them out."
Tennessee converted nine Rebel turnovers in the first half into 17 points and dominated on the glass for a 17-2 margin in second chance points before halftime.
"We started out great," Summitt said. "Going into it my thought was we're focused. You never know until they throw it up. First half we did a lot of good things."
Alyssia Brewer got to work inside for Tennessee - she was 7-7 in the first half - and the Lady Vols corrected its defensive deficiencies from the first game with Bjorklund smothering Thomas.
"She will wear you down," Bjorklund said. "She comes off three or four screens every time. We really focused in on her. That was our main goal."
Bjorklund still managed to score 10 points by halftime on 3-8 shooting and pass out five assists. Backcourt mate Stricklen had 10 points and three boards by the break. But it was Manning, who had eight points and five rebounds by halftime, that, once again, took it to Ole Miss.
"Alicia Manning has kicked our butts both times we played them," Ole Miss Coach Renee Ladner said. "We were well aware of her. She had a double-double. She's outmanned us, out-hustled us and beat us on the boards. Alicia Manning was somebody we took to heart. Once again, she came in and got a double-double. She is getting better every time I see her play, in particular against us.
"You know they have the bigs, the perimeter players. But she is a hustler. She makes plays for Tennessee. Kayla (Melson) keeps calling her the ‘X' factor. She has been our nemesis. She has beaten us every time we've played."
Manning scored with baseline jumpers and off offensive boards. Tennessee's eight offensive boards at halftime - Manning had three - equaled Ole Miss' eight total on both ends.
"Tennessee was outstanding," Ladner said. "They dominated everything that we tried to do in the first half, in particular the boards. Tennessee is Tennessee because they prepare so well, and they play at a different level once tournament time starts around."
When Bjorklund hit a three in transition to push the lead to 22-15 at the 11:13 mark, Ole Miss called timeout. In the first possession out of the timeout, Tennessee had a defensive stand and forced a travel with one second on the shot clock because the Rebels couldn't get open behind the arc or find a driving lane to the basket.
Johnson, a defensive stopper, came off the bench to relieve Cain and Brewer - Summitt wanted to keep fresh post players in the game - and also had two points, two rebounds and two assists before the break.
"Sharing minutes is a big deal right now because hopefully we'll get up to three games," Cain said. "We're playing back to back, and we need our legs as much as possible."
Johnson rescued an errant Bjorklund pass by beating two Rebels to the ball and diving on the floor. She got the ball to Kamiko Williams, who found Brewer inside for the layup and a 34-17 lead with 5:47 remaining in the first half.
"I am trying to help as much as possible," Johnson said. "When I am not scoring I am trying to do something else to help my team, whether it's rebounding, go for loose balls, high-low passes, whatever I can do to help my team. Some days it is scoring. I've just got to impact the game somehow."
Every player on the floor in the first half had an impact with Manning scoring off an offensive board, followed on the next possession by Stricklen doing the same thing for a 46-21 lead with 1:49 left.
Tennessee closed out the first half with Taber Spani drawing a charge on Thomas and then Brewer converting a nifty lefty half-hook on the next possession for the 48-23 lead. Brewer got an offensive board with a second on the clock and hit the layup at the buzzer for the 50-25 halftime lead.
The Lady Vols headed to their locker room to a standing ovation from the crowd, which was filled with orange.
"When everyone contributes like that and we share the ball, that's what happens," Bjorklund said.
Tennessee didn't start the second half with such fury - and the shooting percentage dipped considerably - but the lead never dropped below 22 points even as Summitt went extensively to her bench. Cain logged just seven minutes in the second half - she got tangled with Nikki Byrd, and both players were assessed fouls and Byrd also received a technical foul after her arm swung free and clipped Cain in the back of the head - and Bjorklund played just eight more.
Brewer entered for Cain and played 12 minutes in the second half, while Stricklen logged just 10. Bjorklund checked in with eight minutes in the second half.
Tennessee made 10 field goals in the second half and added four more assists to tally 19 for the game and shot 37.0 percent (10-27) to finish at 48.4 percent (30-62) for the game.
"Wanted to spread the minutes around and I thought we managed to do that pretty well," Summitt said. "We got sloppy (at the end), but the combinations weren't really good. Take this win and move forward."
"We're going to need every single one of us to win this tournament," Brewer said.
The Lady Vols did manage to extend the lead to 32 points, 72-40, after Brewer hit a layup, despite how deep Summitt went into her bench. The Rebels kept playing hard, too, and the game became very physical, with bodies hitting the court on both ends. Kayla Melson left the game with a sprained left ankle during a scramble for a loose ball, but she was able to return, though she was moving gingerly.
"I think both teams were very aggressive, and played really, really tough on the screens and all their actions," Summitt said. "So, it was a very physical game. I thought more so in the second half than the first."
Tennessee emerged relatively intact - Manning was icing her thumb in the locker room after jamming it, but said she would be OK - and Jenny Moshak was the busiest staff member post-game as she hustled to get ice bags on various body parts among all the players.
In the back-to-back format of conference tourneys with no rest days between games the coaches wanted to go deep in the bench on the first day of play.
"That's what needs to happen," Spani said. "If we can spread out the minutes and keep people fresh then that's the best thing for us. It was a great team effort."
"That's important, especially the way everyone has been playing," said Sydney Smallbone, who logged eight minutes in the second half and hit a long jumper for two points. "Everyone has been playing so well, so we need to keep everyone fresh. Our post game right now has been huge. If we can keep them fresh, keep everyone ready to go, it's going to be key going into (the weekend)."
Tennessee closed out the second half by playing Ole Miss even - both teams scored 26 points - and maintaining the 25-point halftime margin with a final score of 76-51.
Tennessee owned the glass with a 48-22 margin, led by 14 from Manning.
"I take a lot of pride in my rebounding and doing the extra effort stuff," Manning said.
"She's their rogue player," Thomas said. "She picks up the trash, plays good defense. She does all the small things for Tennessee."
Manning also drew defensive duty on Thomas at times and helped hold the SEC's leading scorer to 15 points on 5-16 shooting, including 1-6 from behind the arc.
"We were really focusing on limiting her touches, keeping a hand in her face at all times, getting in her shooting rhythm, so she couldn't get her shots off," Manning said. "I think we did a pretty good job of doing that."
Ole Miss had peppered Tennessee with long range bombs in the first two games, but was just 2-19 (10.5 percent) on Friday. Elizabeth Robertson, another sharpshooter for the Rebels, was hounded by Johnson and was 0-7 from behind the arc. Overall, the Rebels shot 33.9 percent for the game.
Kayla Melson scored 14 points, and Shantell Black added 11 for Ole Miss.
Tennessee's offense came from Bjorklund with 16 points - she now has 89 three-pointers on the season - Manning with 14, Stricklen with 10 and Brewer with 21 points to lead all scorers.
Brewer was 9-11 from the field and also grabbed six rebounds.
"I did a session with Dean (Lockwood) getting up more shots," Brewer said. "That really helps me out. Also it's a whole confidence thing. It wasn't that I didn't have confidence but shooters have off nights, and I think I had that (the last game)."
Brewer appeared to not have the angle to the rim in the first half after she spun to the baseline with the ball, but she sized up the backboard and made sweet use of the glass to slip in the ball for a 40-19 lead.
"I just see it and aim for the glass," Brewer said.
The players were understandably happy in the locker room after the game, especially since the day started with the presentation of the regular season trophy.
"That got us going, ready for the game, just to see something tangible of what it means to win championships," Smallbone said.
Summitt smiled outside the locker room when asked if she was proud to watch the players at center court, especially after the trials of an 11-loss season a year ago.
"For them, yes," Summitt said. "It was pretty neat."
It was a great accomplishment," Manning said. "Everyone knows how last year was and for us to at least get one trophy, that's awesome. I'm excited to keep on playing and see how far we can get."
The players also seemed to realize that it won't mean a thing come Saturday when Vanderbilt will await for a third matchup with Tennessee having won two games against the Commodores this season.
"It doesn't matter who we play," said Cain, who didn't know if it would be Vandy or LSU at the time of the interview. "We're still going to have to bring our ‘A' game. In order to do that we have to get off our feet and ice as much as possible."
That's a practical, but smart, off-the-court approach to a postseason tournament.
Stricklen said the players also know what has to happen on the court if they intend to remain in Duluth.
"We know what we've got to do and as a team we're all focused," Stricklen said. "We all had the energy and having fun. It's great when you have a great crowd there, too. Just go out there and play your best.
"You work so hard for this from preseason to March. It's all paying off right now."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 sophomore guard/forward, No. 40 (12.6 points per game, 6.1 rebounds per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 junior guard, No. 5 (14.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg); Alicia Manning, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 15 (5.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg); Alyssia Brewer, 6'3 sophomore forward, No. 33 (10.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt sophomore center, No. 52 (10.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg).
Summitt has used 13 different starting combinations this season, but has seemed to settle on this one, for now.
"I think Lyssi has been very efficient," Summitt said. "I think the size with Lyssi and Kelley is what I like. Alicia, her athleticism, she makes a lot of good things happen because she plays so hard. She's doesn't take any possessions off."
Vanderbilt Coach Melanie Balcomb is expected to start: Jence Rhoads, 5'8 senior guard, No. 22 (13.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg); Merideth Marsh, 5'6 senior guard, No. 23 (15.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg); Lauren Lueders, 5'8 senior guard, No. 5 (7.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg); Tiffany Clarke, 6'0 freshman forward, No. 34 (7.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg; and Hannah Tuomi, 6'0 junior forward, No. 15 (9.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg).
Balcomb also has used different combos this season, including starting Gabby Smith, a 5'10 freshman guard, in Duluth for the first time in her career. Jessica Mooney, a 5'8 senior guard, has started 14 games this season, and Elan Brown, a 6'0 freshman guard, has started 10 games, including the last matchup with Tennessee.
Vandy has done well in postseason play because the Commodores run a lot of set offenses - Balcomb said it was 64 while she was at Xavier and about half that at Vandy - and it's hard for a team to prepare on short notice.
"I always take pride in being a very tough scout, which makes it very hard for people to play with us with 24-hour notice in tournament time," Balcomb said. "This year we have so many players playing multiple positions. I mean, there's some plays Jence plays the post. … I've never had a team as versatile as this team. So, we have less plays."
LSU Coach Van Chancellor, whose team lost to Vandy on Friday, wasn't comforted by that fact since Friday's matchup was anticipated.
"We practiced for Vandy all freaking week, so that ain't an excuse," Chancellor said. "They come out and get in their conference tournament, and they just play their heart out. … She just does a great job. That's why I pulled so hard for Arkansas (Thursday) night. They just play. They get in this baby and they bring it. They don't overlook nobody. They play. They've had as much success as anybody in this league tournament compared to where they've been seeded.
"They've never come in here seeded first much. They've been seeded three, four and five. They're going to play Tennessee. Don't kid yourself. They're gonna play. I don't know if they can stop the biggest giants in the world playing basketball today, but they gonna play, man."
SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the primary scout for the Tennessee-Vanderbilt game and was busy Friday night putting together film clips for the Saturday morning scout session and the written report for the players to have before they tucked themselves in Friday evening.
Dean Lockwood and Stephanie Glance handled the courtside scout at the arena while Warlick worked back at the hotel, so Lockwood pinch hit for Warlick for this report.
When Vanderbilt has the ball: "They're the only team in the country that I've seen this year that can run two complete sets in a possession, sometimes three," Lockwood said. "They'll show you two, three different looks in a possession, almost looks like two or three plays at one time. They're very deliberate. They're very intelligent. They have nice parts, and they play their parts well.
"You put that together and you've got an intelligent team who's fundamentally sound, well coached and they know their roles. That's tough."
Defensively, Vandy opened in man against LSU and then switched to zone.
"They played a lot of zone," Lockwood said. "I think we're going to see some zone, as well. I think they'll play us man, but I think we're going to see plenty of zone. It wouldn't shock me if they opened in zone. I think they'll use multiple defenses. She switches her defenses. She does a good job of that."
When Tennessee has the ball: The Lady Vols want to duplicate Friday's start.
"How do we do that?" Lockwood said, as much asking as hoping. "If we could pop a can and pump it out, I'd love it."
Lockwood said the Tennessee players benefited from having just faced Ole Miss on Sunday, so the scouting report and immediate chance to correct shortcomings were fresh in their minds.
"I think our kids were very, very tuned into it," Lockwood said. "They did a great job in terms of their preparation and studying when we did our practice at (a local high school Thursday). Angie (Bjorklund) really set the tone for us by really denying (Bianca) Thomas. Those things added up to the good start. It was a combination of several things.
"They showed what they're capable of when they're zeroed in, when they're really focused. To duplicate that I think the same thing - they've got to have a healthy respect for this team, which I think they definitely do after having two alley fights with them.
"We have to have a very clear and definite game plan. They have to believe not only that they can beat them but know exactly how that's going to happen. They also have to just go out and execute and play hard. Like Pat always says, ‘Play every possession.' We've got to play every possession in this game. If they can do that, I think we can start well."
Bjorklund was already sounding that theme hours earlier right after Tennessee won its game against Ole Miss.
"I think it's just focusing on one play and one possession at a time and not looking to the next game or we've got a whole other half," Bjorklund said. "Just focus in on what we need to get done on this possession. Next time down get it done that possession."
Tennessee will want to open the game by getting the ball to the posts.
"They're going to double (Tennessee's post players) like a lot of teams are doing to us," Lockwood said. "We want to make them do that and play out of double teams. It creates an advantage. If Kelley and Lyssi don't have it, somebody else will. That's what we want."
Defensively, "We're going to talk about that a lot (Friday night)," Lockwood said. "I see this as a game where both (zone and man) can work. I think Vandy is very good when they hone in and you don't change. When they start drawing a bead on you and getting in a rhythm they are very, very good.
"One of our jobs is going to be to try and keep them off rhythm a little bit."
The coaching staff had a long night Friday to get the scout ready to present to the players on Saturday.
"None of us need to be appreciated (for the long hours)," Lockwood said. "We want them to play hard and we want to win."
"Holly is putting together the film clips (and the report). The players will get the report at bed check but (Saturday) is when we'll really meet with them and show them clips."
The report will include updated stats and player evaluations.
"They'll be able to see who did what (Friday evening), any little changes statistically since we played them, and they'll review players," Lockwood said. "That's the biggest thing they look at is player tendencies. We'll go over some of the team concepts (Saturday)."
HOME CROWD: With so much orange inside The Arena at Gwinnett Center, the player introductions are already loud but they were especially so for Kelley Cain, who is from Atlanta, and Alicia Manning, who is from nearby Woodstock, since the PA announcer also mentions hometowns.
"My family was right there," Manning said. "I think they had a lot to do with that. They are loud. It was fun to be back here."
Both Manning and Cain played in the arena in high school.
"This brings back so many memories because I played three state championships here so I had a total of six games in this arena," Cain said. "I love it coming back to play in the same place."
ENERGIZER KINNA: Pat Summitt has told Shekinna Stricklen that her energy level sets the tone for the entire team, and the sophomore forward/guard has taken it to heart.
"I was really fired up," Stricklen said. "I think everyone was fired up. I think we were fired up when we came out and started stretching. Heather (Mason) got us fired up. We've been fired up all day."
Stricklen was hopping up and down during warmups and was very talkative with her teammates.
"You've got to have a point guard that's ready to play and bringing the energy and talking," Summitt said. "I just think she's much more comfortable. It took time but now she's more comfortable at that position. We're in a good place because of it."
Stricklen said she plans a repeat performance.
"We're going to rest, get ready to go again, same energy from the get-go," Stricklen said.
HIGH-HIGH-LOW: There are high-low passes, and then there was the connection made between Taber Spani at the high spot in the paint and Glory Johnson at the low spot.
The pass was tossed well over everyone's head - a ball only Johnson could snare because of her leaping ability.
"We kind of talked about it beforehand," Johnson said. "It was open and I would rather for it to go high than low because I can jump higher than people. When they're not paying attention, just go for the high pass."
The crowd groaned, expecting a turnover, and then gasped as Johnson grabbed the ball high in the air and then went right back up to score.
"It's out of our triangle offense," Spani said. "You play to the people (on the floor) and obviously she can go up and get it. I said, ‘Glory, I am going to be looking for you.' "
FRESH POSTSEASON: Tennessee has two active juniors on the roster and then a slew of sophomores, all of whom have postseason experience. Two Lady Vols, Taber Spani and Kamiko Williams, got their first exposure to the most important phase of the season.
For Williams the 6:15 a.m. wakeup call was the toughest part. Tennessee's assigned shoot-around time - the first chance to be in the arena and get used to the rims, sight lines for the shooters and the court - was 8 a.m., and the bus departed the team hotel at 7:15 a.m.
"I had a harder time getting myself up," Williams said. "I'm up in the morning but not up to be active. That was hard to get going."
The presentation of the trophy shortly before the noon tip was a nice surprise.
"I didn't know we got a trophy," Williams said. "We made history in a good way. Now, we're turning it around, making a comeback."
Williams is still learning how to play collegiate defense within man and zone schemes - it was not something she did when she played overseas in Germany or in high school in Clarksville, Tenn. - but she has shown a knack for defending two players by herself on a fast break.
Three times this season she has first gone to the ball-handler to try to stop her, and then when the pass is made to the other player, recovered in time to make the block.
"I learned that from my dad and (high school coach)," Williams said. "Just jump and go up there and get it. Watching Glory, she does it. She's 6'3, and I'm 5'10 but I can jump, too, so let me just try, and it worked. I don't think they expect it because I am shorter and I'm a guard. I guess that's an advantage for me."
Williams was happy today's tip was an afternoon one, and she had a film session scheduled with Pat Summitt to help her prepare.
"Feet are wet, ready to go," Williams said.
Spani noticed a difference in her teammates once the calendar flipped to March.
"It's different," Spani said. "I love the attitude and the demeanor of our team. We're really focused; we're really ready. It's always fun to have this atmosphere, and we know that everything is on the line. I love it, and it was a fun first game. I think it was a good first game."
"BASKET" BAUGH: Junior forward Vicki Baugh, who is sitting out this season to recover from knee surgery, is traveling with the team in postseason. She didn't go on road trips during the regular season so as not to miss class - Tennessee had a lot of road games on weekdays - and to focus on rehab sessions back home.
Her presence has an immediate effect on the team because she maintains an upbeat attitude and is constantly encouraging them from the bench. Baugh also has a delightful sense of humor, and she keeps the team loose.
"I think it's my presence," Baugh said, nodding her head and agreeing that her charming personality was also a factor, as several teammates sat nearby and smiled at her interview responses. "My teammates know I've got their backs, and I keep them smiling. Watch. Strick!"
Stricklen turned to Baugh, who started singing, ‘Wat up, Strick,‘ and Stricklen started dancing.
"I do it all," Baugh said. "I sing and dance. I dunk. Everything."
The dunk remark brought rolled eyes and laughter.
"Anything I need to get them ready for the game," Baugh said. "And, by the way, I want to add that first half we played like a championship team. It felt like it was back in freshman year. So that was good basketball first half."
Briana Bass sat next to Baugh and beamed while she talked.
"She brings a lot more energy to our team," Bass said. "We love having Vicki around, because she's the jokester of the team. If somebody is down somehow, some way she knows how to make them laugh or smile or something. It totally helps. Everybody needs that upbeat person on the team, and Vicki Baugh is that person."
The 6'4 Baugh has a habit of just picking up the 5'2 Bass and carrying her off somewhere.
"It doesn't bother me," Bass said. "I just know that she really loves me."
"Might I add to keep doing this interview so I can hear the sweet things that Bree is saying because I don't hear them," Baugh said.