When you go to bed tonight, if you close your eyes, hold your breath, and lay real still, you'll be able to hear Angie Bjorklund and Shekinna Stricklen conducting the 12th Movement of the Arc. Combined, Bjorklund and Stricklen made 12 of 14 shots from three - and the rest of the team went 4 for 7. All told, 16 for 21 from three was a dominant, historic performance for the Lady Vols. Bjorklund - after ceding the individual game record for three-pointers made in a game earlier this season to Meighan Simmons - stepped up to tie her with a 7-for-8 show. It's certainly the last time anyone can remember a team being that hot for that long. And in order to get there, the Ladies had to take the best shot Kentucky had to offer.
Kentucky played tough for the first 17:15 of the game; at that point they were down 30-29, but were active as all get-out, harassing the Lady Vols into a plethora of first half turnovers - 14 overall - and generally looking frazzled. It looked like anyone's game. They were even beating the Lady Vols to offensive boards. Stricklen was on the bench with two early fouls (more on that in a bit), and save a few Bjorklund threes, nobody was really sure what to expect.
Tennessee then outscored them 48-24 over the next 16 minutes. Even at the half with a 39-30 lead, it looked like a battle. At 8-9 from three (and 4-19 from two), this just looked like a weird game, where things would even out eventually. Kentucky put themselves in the bonus by the 16:27 mark of the second half (yes, the refs again; we'll get to them soon enough); A'dia Mathies got hit with four fouls early in the second half and took herself out of the game. Stricklen went Beast Mode, Bjorklund got into the action, and save about 150 seconds when Kentucky made Tennessee look mortal, the rout was on. Kentucky is a likely 4 or 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and they got destroyed for 21 and a half minutes. And yet, there are coaching points that came out of this game; Kentucky did a great job causing pressure and turnovers in the first half, and they finished with 23(!) offensive boards.
We were smelling the rout early in the second half. It turned into an 18-point margin at the under-12, and once we got to under 5 or so, gals were jumping off the bench before Stricklen or Bjorklund even shot. This, simply put, was an evisceration. This was taking Kentucky's best shot, absorbing it, and calmly slicing through all opposition. It wasn't a coronation, but if Kentucky was the best threat to take the SEC tournament throne then Tennessee took on all comers. They beat Florida by 17, Georgia by 24, and Kentucky by 25. To call that impressive or dominating doesn't sum it up; this was grabbing the title, then calmly destroying every potential contender. That's the mark of a champion.
With that being said: the refs this game were weird. No other way to put it - spotty calls on both ends, lots of jump balls. It didn't matter in the end, but since they were committed to being a footnote in the annals of the SEC tournament, they'd be happy to learn they have some mention.
It shouldn't be a surprise that Stricklen was named the tournament MVP, nor that Glory Johnson and Bjorklund joined her on the all-tournament team. Pat Summitt has 1,068 wins in her career, and has set her sights on having 1,074 by the end of the season. Player notes, as always, as below the fold.
Really, I don't even know where to start. This was a performance from beyond the arc for all parties involved; I kept on waiting for the three-point percentage to even out, but somewhere in the second half this seemed completely plausible. Bjorklund has missed two three-point attempts since coming back from injuries.
Glory Johnson had a bad game. It feels weird to say that a game where Glory had 9 boards and 7 FTA was bad, but Victoria Dunlap bossed her around in bits and spurts. 5 turnovers didn't help matters, either. Still, she'll come back from this - and after the Beast Mode performance she laid on
Instead, the rebounding and general grittiness duties fell to Alicia Manning, and if they're going to call to anyone, it should be her. Manning had the game's only double-double, with 11 boards and 11 points. She was the only dominant presence on the offensive glass, and got to loose balls that nobody else could get to. She does a great job filling in around the gaps, but when she does this she can be a force. (And she's 8th on the depth chart. This team? Loaded.)
Kelley Cain looked the best she has in weeks, picking up the mantle from yesterday's show against Georgia as a dominant interior force with 5 blocks (for the record, Tennessee had 11 as a team; Kentucky had 0).
As for the other gunner: Meighan Simmons came down with 16 points, did a great job drawing contact, and did a much better job controlling the ball after a rough first half. Her overall shooting percentage wasn't great (50%), but generally speaking, 10 shots to get 16 points is something I'll live with every day of the week. Like Cain, this was building on the Georgia game. Taber Spani hit a couple of threes, too.
With that being said: this game and this season is all about Stricklen. For a team that has the impression of going so deep, it was a minor shock to see them hang as well as they did in the first half without Stricklen. When she picked up her second foul with 12:56 to go in the first half, it was easy to figure she wouldn't have much impact on the game. She scored 11 of Tennessee's first 25 points in the second half, and was every bit the force they needed her to be. Right now, she has every reason to put her name along Brittany Griner and Maya Moore as the best player in the country. And if everyone else would prefer to think of this team as deep rather than lacking a true star, then so be it. Everyone in the SEC knows better now.
This isn't about everyone in the SEC, though. We know this, and the Lady Vols know this. If this team wants to walk with greatness, it begins now. If Shekinna Stricklen or Glory Johnson want to put their names in the Tennessee annals next to the likes of Chamique Holdsclaw or Candace Parker, it begins now. If this Lady Vols team wants to put their name in the history books in the only way that Tennessee Lady Vol basketball really counts, it begins now.
And right now? Bring on Stanford. Bring on Baylor. Bring on UConn. Tonight, tomorrow, or anytime in the future. Because this team can beat all of them.