The result was a hard-fought title game that required the Lady Vols to overcome foul trouble with its post players – thus reducing Tennessee's size advantage – and to come back from first- and second-half deficits.
The outcome was a 70-62 win for Tennessee, two Lady Vols on the All-Tournament Team and an MVP award for Alyssia Brewer that she said she would put in the locker room to represent the team effort it took to win the championship.
"I wouldn't even have it without my teammates," Brewer said. "Team MVP, they should have that. I'm just going to stick it in the locker room and say it's the whole team."
Tennessee pulled off the double-double and won the SEC regular season and tourney championships, a feat no Lady Vol team had done since 2000, and that year the regular season was shared with Georgia. The 1998 and 1999 teams, led by all-time Tennessee leading scorer Chamique Holdsclaw, were the last ones to hold both titles unshared. Until 2010.
Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood also struck a chord that resonated with a team that had made history in all the worst ways last year and had heard about each dubious distinction from the staff, fans and media.
"Dean made a good comparison earlier when we were doing scouting (before the game)," Brewer said. "He said, ‘You can go from us comparing you to every other team to a team that we compare other teams to.'
"I think we want to make up for what we did last year. I think we kind of made a statement with this, but then we then to have to take it and do it in the (NCAA) tournament."
Lockwood's words also reached a freshman, Kamiko Williams, who wasn't on the team last year but has heard from other players about what they endured.
"Especially coming back from last year and then they said it's a 10-year stretch," Williams said. "They told me. They said, ‘Miko, when you get yelled at it's not as bad as when we did last year.' We were in pre-game watching film. Dean was saying if we were to win today, like we did, now other teams in the future are going to get compared to us.
"That's great for us. Instead of being compared to somebody, we're the ones that other teams are going to get compared to. So, that's a biggie. It's a wonderful feeling, and I think it's going to give our team a lot more confidence, especially because the game was close, and we see that we have more in us than what we really realize. We don't have to rely on certain things, just inside or just outside. We've got it across the board."
Kentucky, 25-7, brought a lot of fight to Tennessee, a team that had beaten the Wildcats 81-65 on Feb. 25 in Knoxville to clinch the regular season title for the Lady Vols.
In that first matchup, freshman sensation A'dia Mathies got in early foul trouble for Kentucky, which didn't play its signature style, while Tennessee spent the game in attack mode and set a school record for blocks with 15. In the rematch in Duluth, 6'6 Kelley Cain had to take a seat on the Tennessee bench after being on the floor for three minutes because of two fouls.
Cain attracted multiple defenders from the start of the game and fired a pass out of a double team to a wide-open Brewer under the basket for a 2-0 lead. Stricklen and Angie Bjorklund both hit jumpers, and Tennessee led 6-2 just three minutes into the game. But then Cain fouled Victoria Dunlap on a layup, her second of the game, to pull the Wildcats to 6-4 and send Cain to the sideline at the 16:57 mark.
Glory Johnson subbed for Cain and immediately scored on a drive to the rim to give Tennessee an 8-4 lead. Manning connected with Johnson on a long in-bounds pass that Johnson ran underneath and converted into a layup for the 10-4 lead that was an emphatic press breaker for Tennessee.
"It's that Peyton Manning in me," Manning said. "I also played softball so that helped, too. It's one of our press breakers. Having Glory as my wide receiver is nice. I've just got to chunk it. Glory can go get it. Really, it's her that made the play happen."
But then Johnson had to depart four minutes later at the 12:46 mark of the first half because of her second foul.
When Johnson left the court to take a seat with Cain, Tennessee had a 17-9 lead that increased to 10 points, 19-9 when Manning hit a layup after Williams split a double team and found her teammate underneath the basket.
But Mathies went to work for Kentucky – she also was named to the all-tourney team – and hit a three-pointer and got to the rim, trimming Tennessee's lead to 21-18 with 9:04 left before halftime. Taber Spani answered for Tennessee with a tough turn-around bank shot from the middle of the bank for a 23-18 score, but free throws from Lydia Watkins, another layup by Mathies and an and-one layup by Dunlap – Kentucky's second member of the all-tourney team – gave the Wildcats their first lead of the game, 25-23.
It was a sweet play as Amber Smith headed to the rim and then flipped the ball backwards to Dunlap, who banked in the shot and was fouled. The overwhelming majority of the 5,854 fans in attendance were in orange, but the play and score energized the Kentucky faithful in the arena.
Williams responded with eight straight points for Tennessee – she hit her first three shots on a drive, floater and nifty layup with a move that froze her defender.
"That was one of the few times in the game when we were very poor defensively," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "That's what happens in these kind of games. There's two good teams going at it, and our margin for error is very slim. We did not need to let something like that happen. I thought she was fantastic. Did not do a good job with her. She was able to get in there, get into the lane, make some shots.
"But she's a good player. I thought she had some nice shot fakes and got us out of position. I think she's a good player. That was a big, big run in the game."
After the Williams spurt, Manning got an offensive board, was fouled and hit two free throws and Stricken got another offensive board and scored, and the Lady Vols took a 35-29 lead into the locker room at halftime.
"I didn't think we did a good job of slowing them down in transition, and they were getting paint points," Pat Summitt said. "We were short on our close-outs (on shooters). I think when we regrouped and got the right combination in there, it changed things.
"Glory had a terrific game. I thought she could have been MVP. She played that well. She and Stricklen."
Kentucky scored the first four points of the second stanza to cut the lead to 35-33, but Cain went to work inside for Tennessee and got a layup plus the foul for the 38-33 lead. Keyla Snowden answered with a three for Kentucky and then Smith tied the game at 38-38 with 17:53 to play.
Tennessee's offense stymied as the ball movement decreased, and the attempts at one-on-one breakdowns increased, and Kentucky took a four-point lead, 42-38 on a layup by Dunlap and free throws by Watkins.
Brewer got to the rim on an assist from Williams, and Stricklen went coast to coast off a steal for the layup and foul to claim a 43-42 lead for Tennessee at the 15:14 mark.
Dunlap answered for Kentucky with a layup to get the lead back for the Wildcats, but then Stricklen hit a corner three off a long pass from Bjorklund to push Tennessee back on top, 46-44, at the 13:10 mark.
"Strick was huge," Summitt said. "She didn't give in to fatigue. She attacked the rim. She got other people involved. I just thought she was really, really strong."
The Wildcats kept attacking the rim, and Watkins hit two more free throws after a Brewer foul for the game's sixth tie at 46-46 with 12:20 left to play.
Brittany Henderson put Kentucky back on top, 48-46 with a layup and then Cain knotted the game at 48 with a layup off a Brewer in-bounds pass. Cain got to the rim again with an assist from Bjorklund, and the Lady Vols led 50-48, with 10:25 left.
Mathies tied the game for the eighth time at 50-50 with a layup with 10:03 left and then Brewer hit a layup for the 52-50 lead at the 9:46 mark, and the Lady Vols never trailed again.
It was not, however, a coast to the finish line. Williams got a steal after stripping Dunlap of the ball and found Stricklen for a three-pointer in transition for the 57-50 lead. Tennessee extended the lead to eight points, 59-51, after two free throws from Cain with 5:29 left to play and after Johnson made two free throws, the Lady Vols led by 10 points, 66-56, with 1:31 left.
But Kentucky kept coming. Snowden hit a three-pointer, and Mathies stripped Stricklen and hit a layup to pull the Wildcats to 66-61 with 1:09 left on the clock. Bjorklund hit two free throws to extend the lead back to seven, 68-61, with 55 ticks left.
"I give them a lot of credit, because they didn't give up the whole game," Bjorklund said. "They fought all the way 'til the end. That's the sign of a great team. I thought that's what our team did also."
Kentucky got another steal – two Tennessee players were knocked to the court on the play – and Watkins was fouled on the shot. She made one of the two free throws, and Stricklen hit two from the line after a Kentucky foul for the 70-62 lead.
That ended up being the final score as Williams blocked Kentucky's last shot attempt with 11seconds left and Stricklen got the ball and ran out the clock while scooting to center court.
When the clock hit zeros, the celebration started with Tennessee players leaping into each other's arms and those of their coaches.
"What a game," Summitt said to open her post-game press conference. "Obviously, it was hard-fought by both teams. … They have a toughness and are very relentless on the defensive end and on the boards. So we knew we were going to have a real battle.
"Pleased with how our team never gave up. I thought we kept our composure for the most part. We had some players obviously step up and make big plays."
Cain scored all 11 of her points in the second half and was 3-3 from the free throw line.
"We are constantly trying to get the ball inside to Kelley," Summitt said. "Typically, she'll bring two defenders with her. She understands paint points. … If she can establish and get the ball at the rim, she is really, really very efficient. They bumped us some, kept her out from time to time, but she just kept working."
Stricklen led Tennessee with 20 points, nine rebounds, three assists and three steals. Brewer, Bjorklund and Williams added eight points each. Johnson had seven points and 11 rebounds.
"You have to pull rebounds and play defense," Johnson said. "If you can do that, then you're OK as long as you're helping your team in some way, especially in the championship."
Manning had six points and also grabbed 11 rebounds.
"She's got a nose for the ball," said Summitt, who saw a quote during the tourney from Ole Miss Coach Renee Ladner that said if every Tennessee player played like Manning, they would be as outstanding as UConn. Summitt passed along the article to the entire team.
"Out of everybody on our team she may be the best at just pursuing the basketball. She's got a toughness. As I say, she'd fight a bear with a switch."
Tennessee shot 41.9 percent (26-62) from the field and 84.2 percent (16-19) from the line. The Lady Vols owned the boards with a 51-32 margin, bringing the three-day total to 141-81 over their opponents.
The Lady Vols had 20 turnovers, but Kentucky converted the miscues into just eight points. Kentucky's 13 turnovers resulted in 13 points for Tennessee. The Lady Vols got 44 of their 70 points in the paint.
Kentucky got 30 of its 62 points in the paint and shot 36.4 percent (24-66) for the game and 62.5 percent (10-16) from the line. Dunlap led the Wildcats with 21 points, Mathies added 11 and Snowden chipped in with 10 points. Kentucky had seven blocks to four for Tennessee, and 10 steals to nine for the Lady Vols.
Neither team shot well from long range – 4-15 (26.7 percent) for Kentucky and 2-7 (28.6 percent) for Tennessee. Bjorklund was 0-4 from behind the arc and 4-4 from the line.
"Angie has a target on her front and back, but she just kept working," Summitt said. "She kept working defensively. I think just her being on the floor is a calming effect for our team."
"I think when my shot's not falling I have to focus on contributing otherwise, especially being a leader on the court, getting the team in the right sets and especially getting the ball inside," Bjorklund said. "I'm getting Kelley Cain the ball, I'm getting Lyssi the ball and Glory. At the same time, getting stops. We have to get back and get stops."
Bjorklund was on the ladder snipping down her piece of the net when she suddenly heard her coach singing "Rocky Top" to the crowd. Summitt had walked to the scorer's table, grabbed the microphone and suddenly the words "Wish that I was on ole Rocky Top, down in the Tennessee hills … " rang across the arena much to the delight of the crowd, the majority of which remained in the arena for the post-game ceremony.
That also set off a stampede of photographers who left the ladder shots so they could get a photo of Summitt reprising her songstress role. Summitt concluded her short performance with a salute to the fans.
"I've heard ‘Rocky Top' from her once or twice, and it's great every time," Bjorklund said. "I didn't expect her to go – I thought she was just going to say, ‘Thank you fans for coming out.' Like she said we have the best fans in the country, hands down. They were awesome (Sunday).
"When she started singing, I just looked at our team and I started laughing. It's great."
When Summitt was asked at the post-game press conference if she had any other songs in her repertoire, she sang a version of "Happy Birthday" to the questioner and then asked if it was his birthday to much laughter.
"Those are the only two songs I know," Summitt said. "And ‘Amazing Grace.' "
The 2010 tourney championship was the 14th in program history and boosted Tennessee's record in those titles games to 14-5. The Lady Vols are now 63-17 all-time in the SEC Tournament. Sunday marked the sixth time Tennessee had won both regular season and tourney titles, and the first time since 2000.
Coach Daedra Charles-Furlow, who was resplendent in a wine red jacket and pants, may have started a new tradition with the "Electric Slide," a line dance that she led at center court with several players joining the fun.
"The Electric Slide, I wasn't really expecting that," Bjorklund said. "My team loves to have a good time, and that's what so great about it. We have fun together."
"I love line dancing," Johnson said. "I love dancing period. Coach D started it. I finished it."
The players picked up SEC signs, and Cain grabbed the triangular trophy and they circled the arena as the fans cheered. The players stopped to high-five the band and then took turns ascending the ladder to get a piece of souvenir net. Johnson took her snippet into the crowd and handed it to her family.
Teammate Amber Gray was also in the stands. She had stayed behind in Knoxville so as not to miss any classes Thursday and Friday, and Summitt had told her not to drive alone to Atlanta over the weekend. Gray, who is coming back from a stroke brought on by an aneurysm and needs to focus her energy on academics this semester, was able to get a ride for Sunday's game.
The staff members and cheerleaders also took turns on the ladder – they eventually got the net down – while Summitt and three players, Brewer, Bjorklund and Stricklen, left the court to attend the post-game press conference.
They entered the room as Mitchell was coming out, and he took the time to shake each player's hand and congratulate them for the way they played.
The rest of the team headed to the locker room and continued the celebration there.
Williams leaned against the wall and smiled, a stark contrast to the look on her face Saturday after Summitt had berated the bench players for their lack of focus in the win over Vanderbilt when they squandered nearly half of a 20-point lead in less than two minutes.
"That boy right there," Williams said when asked what was the difference in her game over 24 hours.
She was pointing to Tyler Summitt, the son of Pat Summitt and a practice player for the team.
He just talked to me," Williams said. "He was like, ‘Be honest with me. Let me know what's going on with you and I'll do what I can do to help you.' I told him I thought my biggest problem was trying to find my place within the system. I know I can play and my strengths are creating either for myself or for my teammates, but I had a hard time trying to figure out in this set what can I do to not do too much, because there are times where she's like, ‘Miko, you're playing by yourself,' and I don't want her to feel like I'm playing by myself, but that's what I do.'
"Tyler was like, ‘When you get in the open court, that's your game. If Coach tells you to run a certain play that means she trusts you enough to get the play started. Now, just run the play. If something happens and the play breaks down, that's when your game comes in.' Just talking to him he helped open my eyes and gave me the confidence to go out there and do what I've got to do."
Williams scored eight points with four rebounds, three assists, two steals, a block and no turnovers.
"Kamiko came in and gave us some good minutes," Summitt said. "My son has been coaching her, so I am going to give him credit. He spent about an hour and an half with her (Saturday night). Film, talking to her about being mentally strong and tough. He told me, ‘I promise you, you're going to see a different player tonight.' And we did.
"I told him, ‘You need to tell her about starting your own engine.' So I'm sure he'll cover that for (NCAA) postseason."
Summitt was waiting to go into the interview room when she said that with a smile but she repeated it again before she took questions.
"I give Tyler the credit," Summitt said. "Coach Tyler Summitt. So I'm not even gonna coach Kamiko anymore. I'm gonna let my son do all the talking."
Summitt was kidding, of course, as every staff member has taken turns with Williams this season to try to get the precocious freshman up to speed.
The players smiled in the locker room when asked about Williams – they were proud of her performance but also because they've been in her shoes.
"I was extremely happy," Manning said. "Miko is such a skilled athlete. She has all calibers of her game, defensively and offensively and to see her come in in a big game like this and show up and play as hard as she did and come up as big as she did in key points in the game, that was big for us."
"I wasn't on the team at the time but you can even look back to Angie's freshman year," Brewer said. "She was starting the entire year until it came to tournament time. I don't think you're ever going to have a freshman not go through that. Every freshman goes through that. This is the hardest time of the year – February and March. I think she knows what to do now."
Williams played sparingly in the first two tourney games, and her minutes were largely ineffective.
"She got a chance to watch and see what she had to do in those first two games to be able to get playing time," Brewer said. "She is one of the most athletic guards we have. It's going to be crazy whenever she's like that all the time."
Which, of course, explains last season. Three freshmen were forced into the starting lineup because of graduation and injuries to returning players. They literally learned on the court, and the process was difficult for them and the coaches, who strived to do the impossible – accelerate time.
Those same players had their fingerprints all over the tourney accolades a year later as three sophomores picked up the individual hardware.
"I was honestly surprised, but my coaching staff has helped me so much," Manning said. "My teammates have been there for me. Jenny (Moshak) has been there for me through everything, all the bumps and bruises. The honor is to me, but it's really all them to. It's a team effort."
"I think I'm still in shock at getting the award that I did," said MVP Brewer. "I think there are other people on my team that deserve it other than me. I should leave that in the locker room and say it's everybody's."
Brewer, who has absorbed her share of Summitt's wrath and got in the coach's crosshairs again Sunday, was mobbed by her teammates when her name was announced.
"I am so proud of her, especially what she's been through from last year to this year and how she has persevered," Bjorklund said. "I give her all the credit. She's done a great job and she deserves every accolade."
Actually, Brewer's name was drowned out because the PA announcer said her number first and that sparked the team's reaction and a roar from the crowd.
"I was (surprised)," said Brewer, who nodded when asked if the three-day, consecutive games format was difficult. " It kinds of takes you back to high school when you played for a state championship. The thing about that is the tempo is completely different. You have to do a lot more stuff than you did then.
"My calf is like this right now," she added with a clenched fist. "That was something I struggled with (Sunday). It was like that the entire time. I tried to play through it, though."
Brewer logged 21 minutes and was 4-8 from the field for eight points. She also had four boards, two blocks, an assist and a steal. She finished the game with two fouls, while Cain and Johnson reached four fouls apiece. With just three post players, foul trouble means they have to always be ready.
"We don't have a choice because there's only three of us," Cain said. "I think that's why we're able to do it because we're all so close, and we know each other's game. Having three people has had its ups and downs obviously because when you get in foul trouble you've got to go to the other one, but we three are so close and that helps us when we're playing together.
"We know how to pick one another up when they're down and how to get their confidence going, ‘It's OK, move on past what's happened.' Because you have little control over what does happen, but it's how you react to it."
Brewer added, "Everybody contributed. I think that was a big boost for us. We don't have a star player on our team. It's everybody. I think a lot of teams would rather have that than just having a star player."
"We just had to calm down and stick together," Stricklen added. "Compared to last year the feeling is great. Everything is great."
"I just think what a difference a year has made in their mental toughness," Summitt said. "I think they really wanted to win here, and they had something to prove. They were very focused."
Summitt will now give the players two days off, and they won't retake the court until Wednesday. They also are on spring break, so they don't have to go to class this week.
"They need it. They deserve it. Very proud of them," Summitt said.
The team returned to Knoxville after the game so they rolled into town in the wee hours of Monday.
"Sleep," Brewer said when asked what she would do until Wednesday. "And stretch and ice."
"I've got a paper I've got to write. That's depressing," Williams said. "I'll sleep on Monday and start doing other stuff on Tuesday. Monday is going to be a straight chill day."
"We never get two days off," Johnson said. "I have to enjoy the two days off. I might go shopping. Kamiko is going to take me to get my feet done. Me and Kelley. A pedicure."
Williams made a deal with Johnson that if she made her first two free throws she would treat her to a pedicure.
I made my first two free throws. She's got to pay," Johnson said.
"Sleep. That's all I want to do is sleep," Cain said. "Somebody might want to come check and see if I can wake up."
"I am probably going to sleep until Wednesday," Manning said. "My adrenaline is starting to run off, and I can just feel everything. It's going to be a good break."
Manning was leaning against the locker room wall and looked exhausted as she spoke. When asked if a close game was good for the team in postseason she likely spoke for all the fans with her answer.
"I think it's good," Manning mused. "You're constantly batting adversity whether it be the refs or the other team or stuff inside the team. But I'd rather win by 20. That's just my preference."
The players may have been tired and anticipating slumber but they also could not stop smiling Sunday night in Duluth.
"It means a lot, because we're actually doing something good this year," Cain said. "It's another stepping stone on our way to our ultimate goal."
"This is a great feeling," Johnson said. "At the same time a lot of people underestimate us and a lot of teams come in underestimating us. They think that they should have won every game that they play against us. But that's not the case. It's a different year. We're a stronger team."
"We're setting the bar now," Bjorklund said. "I am so proud of this team, especially because we still have so much potential, and we can get so much better, which is what we're going to do in the next week before the tournament starts."