Perhaps this was the best thing that could have happened to the Lady Vols.
The SEC Championship game was, in a word, ugly. Neither team played their best ball on the night, and either team could have taken the title simply by capitalizing on the other team's mistakes. Tennessee committed 19 turnovers and Kentucky had 13. Kelley Cain was in foul trouble very early in the game and only played for 16 minutes. Angie Bjorklund played 37 minutes, but went 0-4 from beyond the arc and ended with only 8 points on the night. For a while, it appeared as if the interior combination of Alyssia Brewer and Glory Johnson would be sufficient to make up for the loss of Cain as the Lady Vols took the early lead, but then Glory Johnson got into foul trouble, inhibiting her aggressive style of play and making a bad situation worse.
The Lady Wildcats fared better in the foul situation in the first half, but only marginally. Amber Smith picked up two in the first, then an early foul in the third to place her in trouble as well. Victoria Dunlap reached her third foul too early, stemming a resurgent second-half Kentucky team's offense and giving the Lady Vols the margin they needed. But ultimately, this was about winning a game when a team was not firing on all cylinders, and the Lady Vols were better equipped for such a night.
Perhaps the most surprising news was that the Lady Vols would not have won tonight without the efforts of Kamiko Williams.Williams has often been the target of Pat Summitt's anger throughout the season; she may be one of the most naturally talented players on the roster, but her carefree attitude and tendency to take things a little too easy have never set well with the legendary coach. Kamiko has found the uncomfortable seat on the bench on numerous occasions, and has rarely risen to more than spot duty on the roster. But those who know Pat well attest that this kind of treatment is reserved for those players whom Summitt believes can be great - and Kamiko gave us a glimpse of her potential tonight. With only 15 minutes of game-time action (which is still far more than normal), Williams notched up 8 points, 3 assists, 4 rebounds, a block, 2 steals, and zero turnovers - a stat line that would have given her a double-double had she been a regular starter. Most importantly, however, Kamiko stopped Kentucky surges and breathed new life into the Lady Vols. At the under-16 timeout of the second half, the Lady Vols had committed five consecutive turnovers on offense and could not find a way to get the ball inside; facing a 42-38 deficit, it was Kamiko who finally broke the Kentucky defense and had the vital assist to Brewer to get the Lady Vols back in the game. When the rest of the team seemed to be on their heels, Kamiko's talents came through and stabilized the squad on both ends of the court.
But in a night where two starters and the first substitute effectively failed to show, the Lady Vols have to know that they were fortunate to walk away with a win. They may have both the SEC regular season and tournament titles back in their rightful home, but they cannot walk away from that game with any sense of overconfidence. Despite the utter dominance shown in the wins over Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, Tennessee has work to do before the NCAA tournament begins in a couple of weeks. Yet they know that two weeks is enough to make a difference, especially given the play of Kamiko Williams. With the new-found depth on the roster, all players can take a little more confidence into their next game, knowing that the safety net has grown just a little bit larger.
REBOUNDING WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS
For all of the negatives that could be mentioned about the Lady Vols tonight, there is one glaring positive on the stat sheet that just cannot be dismissed - a 47 to 28 advantage in rebounds, including a 13 to 7 edge on the offensive boards. Alicia Manning and Glory Johnson each had 11 rebounds, while Stricklen grabbed 9 boards. Without the efforts on the glass, Tennessee would not have put this game away. This is where Tennessee's size and athleticism advantages truly paid off tonight.
NUMBER ONE SEED IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
Perhaps the brightest news of the night is that Tennessee is obviously going to be a number one seed. Had they lost, a weak argument could have been made for Xavier - a conference tournament winner with three losses, but this win leaves Tennessee with only two losses over one of the country's toughest schedules and a tournament title in hand. There is simply no way that the selection committee can place Tennessee anywhere but a number one seed. And that number one seed should be in Memphis, where UT will enjoy a healthy crowd of fans.
Additionally, their opening weekend should be in Knoxville at the friendly confines of Thompson-Boling. (Tickets are available now!) The Lady Vols should have three weeks (including the opening weekend of tournament play) to improve this already impressive squad. The crowds at the next Lady Vols game will be ridiculously biased in their favor, and their NCAA opponents will have the honor of playing on the court named after Tennessee's head coach. The setup could not have been better scripted for Tennessee, which was likely part of the reason for ...
HALF BEAR, THE OTHER HALF PAT
...Pat Summitt's crowd-thrilling rendition of Rocky Top after the game was over. The players were getting set to take down the net when Summitt grabbed a microphone. While most people expected her to thank the crowd for coming and deliver a few of her customarily gracious words, she surprised everybody by delivering the school's most famous song in a moment of levity. What better display of approval could she have given the team that she has pressed on for so many months?