March 6, 2011
The Tennessee Lady Vols are playing so well these days, they have coach Pat Summitt singing.
Angie Bjorklund scored 23 points, including seven 3s, and No. 4 Tennessee hit a school- and tournament-record 16 3-pointers to beat No. 16 Kentucky 90-65 Sunday in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
It was the most points ever scored in this game and such a dominating performance that Summitt celebrated by grabbing a microphone and belting out a version of "Rocky Top" with her Lady Vols and the pep band. Then she went acapella by herself. "She's got a good voice," Bjorklund said of Summitt's singing.
Summitt, whose voice was raspy after yelling mostly at the officials, has reason to sing.
The Lady Vols (31-2), who were unbeaten in the SEC, won their 15th tournament title overall. This one was a bit special because it marked only the third time Tennessee went undefeated in winning the regular-season title before winning the conference tournament. Tennessee also did that in 1994 and 1998.
It's a big turnaround for nine of these Lady Vols who were on the team known for the lowest of Tennessee lows as the first team to lose in the NCAA tournament's opening round two years ago to Ball State. It's still a loss Summitt says she could "chew on" every day if she wanted.
"But I think it took something like that to wake this team up and their youth, and now you look at the experience we have in this junior class," Summitt said.
Now the Lady Vols can wait for what should be yet another No. 1 seeding in the NCAA tournament, and their expectations are high once again.
"We've been through the highs and the lows," Bjorklund said. "We're not going to give up, and we want another championship."
Stricklen Postgame Interview
Lady Vols Celebrate by Singing Rocky Top
Kentucky (24-8) goes home still looking for its first SEC tournament title since 1982. The Wildcats were the SEC team that came closest to stopping Tennessee, only to lose by six in Lexington on Feb. 7, and this was a rematch of last year's title game won by the Lady Vols 80-72.
Victoria Dunlap and Bernisha Pinkett each had 15 points for Kentucky. Back spasms limited A'dia Mathies to just 15 minutes.
The Lady Vols shook off the smaller, aggressive Wildcats by putting on a sizzling shooting performance.
"I just can't imagine that when they're shooting like they did tonight that they're not the best team in the country," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "They have a lot of weapons."
The Lady Vols topped the 13 3s Alabama hit against South Carolina in 1998. The Lady Vols had hit 15 3s in a game twice before this season, but they almost couldn't miss in this game with the bottom half of Bridgestone Arena a sea of orange in what felt like a home game. They finished 16 of 21 from beyond the arc.
Tennessee, which opened the second half hitting 13 of its first 17 shots, shot a season-high 56.4 percent from the floor (31 of 55), while holding Kentucky to a mere 27.3 percent (21 of 77).
"We were just feeling it, in a rhythm," Stricklen said. "You make that first one, you just feel like you're going to make the rest of them ... from the get-go, we were just pumped and fired up. When Meigan came out, she came out with really high energy. She knocked down the first two shots. That really got us going."
The Lady Vols hit their first seven 3s before a miss. Stricklen hit five, and Bjorklund matched her career high of seven to go with only one miss beyond the arc. Simmons hit the 14th 3 with 8:12 left.
This game couldn't have been much more physical in the first half with Johnson going to the sideline to get blood cleaned off her jersey, while Dunlap came back for the second half with her chin bandaged. Neither Summitt nor Mitchell was happy, either.
"When you are a little bit challenged there from the physical standpoint, as far as Tennessee's size and athleticism, you really have to, as we say in Mississippi, you have to bow up and play a little tougher, and I just didn't think we did," Mitchell said. "That's the thing that's most disappointing to me."
Simmons set the tone by opening the game with a 3-pointer. Mathies gave Kentucky a brief lead at 11-10, and Pinkett pushed that to 13-10 with a pair of free throws.
Taber Spani hit a 3 from the right corner to tie it up, then Stricklen hit her first 3-pointer to put Tennessee ahead to stay at 16-13 with 15:06 left. Stricklen hit another 3, then the Lady Vols went 4:56 without a point until Bjorklund came off the bench and hit a 3 from the left corner with 9:31 left to push Tennessee up 22-17.
"We weren't matching up in transition and were letting them get wide-open 3s, and they were getting excited with it, and just going after it," Dunlap said of Tennessee.