March 3, 2012
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The Tennessee Lady Volunteers have wanted to win in the postseason to honor their coach. Getting revenge on a few teams is just a bonus.
Tennessee (No. 10 ESPN/USA Today, No. 13 AP) beat South Carolina (No. 25 AP) 74-58 on Saturday to advance to its 21st Southeastern Conference championship game.
"We were definitely motivated," Lady Vols senior center Vicki Baugh said. "We were fortunate to play the teams that we wanted to play. We wanted revenge. I think that was our motivation stepping into this tournament. We just wanted to prove that we were the better team."
The second-seeded Lady Volunteers (23-8) will face fourth-seeded LSU, which upset Kentucky (No. 9 ESPN/USA Today, No. 10 AP) in the other SEC semifinal. The title game will pit Tennessee coach Pat Summitt against her former player, Lady Tigers coach Nikki Caldwell.
South Carolina (23-9) had gotten a rare win in Knoxville earlier in the regular season, but Tennessee's determined seniors didn't let it happen again. The seniors also were key in the quarterfinals win against Vanderbilt, another team that logged a win against Tennessee this season.
"We weren't ready to guard or defend (the Gamecocks') athleticism in Knoxville," Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick said. "We've gone back and we really put in the time with our defensive effort. I think you're seeing it pay off."
The Lady Vols didn't defend particularly well in the regular-season loss to the Gamecocks and fell apart late in the game after holding a seven-point lead with 5 minutes to go. This time, Tennessee put on extra heat during the second half to pull away.
South Carolina had trimmed Tennessee's lead to 32-29 on a pair of free throws by Markeshia Grant 2 minutes into the second half. Stricklen answered with a 3-pointer that sparked an 8-1 run to make it 40-30 with 15:44 to play.
The Lady Vols shot 50.9 percent (27 of 53) for the game and limited the Gamecocks to 34.9 percent shooting (22 of 63). They held a 38-30 rebounding advantage and hit 15 of 20 from the free-throw line.
"I think finally we figured out that defense and rebounding is the philosophy here," Baugh said. "That's Tennessee basketball. It opens up a lot in the transition game, especially where we're most comfortable."
Grant, who had scored 27 points in the regular-season game, had 13 this time for South Carolina, and Ieasia Walker added another 13 points.
"I think a month ago, I mean, we just had a type of mojo about us going into Knoxville," Grant said. "I think we were just hitting shots, winning the hustle plays, outplaying them. Today I think we did the same, but I think we came up short. We did work hard. I think we did play hard. It was just not our night."
Sixth-seeded South Carolina was playing in its first SEC semifinal after beating Alabama in the opening round and upsetting Georgia (No. 15 ESPN/USA Today, No. 16 AP) in the quarterfinals. The Gamecocks are expected to get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
"(The Lady Vols) are so used to being in this situation year in and year out. I think we got out-experienced today along with I think we got out-talented," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said.
Tennessee will be playing for its third straight SEC championship and 16th overall. The Lady Vols have said they wanted to win championships this season to honor Summitt, who announced in August that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.
Summitt has said she would continue coaching as long as she could, though she has turned over more responsibilities to her assistants this season.
"I hope they get coach Summitt another SEC championship," Staley said.