DULUTH, Ga., – Despite trailing by double digits for a third straight game in the SEC tournament, the Lady Vols again clawed back in dramatic fashion, narrowly beating Kentucky, 71-70, at the Gwinnett Cetner for the programs 17th conference title on Sunday.
For second-year head coach Holly Warlick, this marked the first time she has raised the championship trophy since she was a senior point guard for Tennessee in the 1980-81 season.
"Winning an SEC Championship is an expectation," Warlick said after the game. "I tell these kids that it is expected. This is special because it's my first one, but I've been involved in so many they all felt special.
"But this team with the sacrifices they've made I just love they get to experience it. They are a part of our history now."
However, it was not an easy road to victory for the Lady Vols, who once again went up against a quality SEC opponent with hopes of upsetting the winningest team in NCAA Division-I women's basketball.
The two previous nights in the tournament it was LSU's Theresa Plaisance and Texas A&M's Courtney Walker who gave Tennessee fits. Kentucky guard Linnae Harper played that role in the championship game in the first half.
Six minutes into the contest, the sharp shooter hit her fourth-consecutive field goal to start the game that gave the Wildcats an 18-8 lead.
Warlick soon thereafter switched her defense from zone to man-to-man, which allowed them to climb back into the game. With 3:57 left in the opening period, Andraya Carter sneaked past defenders and hit a driving layup that cut the deficit to 29-28.
Kentucky shot 53.1 percent in the first half and was led by DeNesha Stallworth, who scored 12 of her game high 21 points on 6-of-8 shooting.
"Our halftime talks have been very interesting," Warlick said. "We weren't very good in the first half defensively at getting stops. We started with a zone and weren't very good so we switched it up.
"We gathered ourselves at halftime."
Conference tournament MVP Isabelle Harrison gave the Lady Vols their first lead of the game since two minutes into the start of the game.
After getting fouled hard and falling to the floor, the first-team All-SEC center answered back by knocking down two free throws to put Tennessee on top 52-51 with 8:35 left to play.
"The most important thing we did today was stick together," Harrison said. "There wasn't a moment on the court when we were all quiet.
"I think the aggressiveness that we have played with has really helped us."
Despite falling down by as much as five points with time winding down in the game, UT battled to the finish.
With senior guard Meighan Simmons at the line for two up 69-67 with 11 seconds left, one of her teammates knew the Lady Vols they had the game won.
In the last two minutes of the game, the lone senior, who now has three SEC championships to show for in her career, scored six points and came up with a pivotal steal to help win the game with seven seconds left.
"There was 11 seconds left in the game and we all huddled together," junior forward Cierra Burdick said. "There was no room for any space. It was all 11 of us all four coaches. I just remember thinking in my head this is what it is all about. Since I've been here I've never been on a closer team.
"We all stood together as one and I knew that's when we were going to win the game."
Kentucky's Jennifer O'Neil went to the line for three with 0.3 seconds left in the game with her team down by four, but the junior hit all three free throws and the Lady Vols ran the time out with the ball in Andraya Carter's hands.
The came the celebration.
Lady Vol players and coaches went into jubilation with a crowd that felt like a home to most Tennessee players.
"This is probably my top moment as of right now, but the NCAAs are going to be even higher," said Simmons, who scored a game-high 17 points for the Lady Vols in the victory. "To finish out all these games and fight through adversity was a good test for us going into the NCAA tournament."
The NCAA tournament will begin on March 22 with the Lady Vols playing their first two games on their home court at Thompson-Boling Arena. The selection show that will determine UT's seeding, however, will take place on March 17 at 7 p.m.
"I don't think we could have any greater fans than we have," Simmons said. "I have enjoyed playing for them for four years through this incredible journey."