Champion (Split): Tennessee Lady Vols 60, Arkansas Ladybacks 54

This was way too close to happening again. (Simmons taking 45 shots, that is.) - USA TODAY Sports

Yes, they're called the Ladybacks. Who knew? (UPDATE: So the Lady Vols have at worst split the SEC regular season title. See below.)

This wasn't pretty. At this point, I'm not sure I care, nor am I sure anyone else who follows the Lady Vols cares. It was a win, a 60-54 come-from-behind affair that spent 20 minutes skidding sideways and backwards. Maybe the Missouri game helped here, or the Florida escape, or something else like that. It's a win, and it's a road win, and heading into a final slate of Texas A&M and Kentucky, it doesn't matter how it happens. Tennessee controls its own destiny going into the final week; win the SEC and you only have to face one of TAMU or Kentucky at worst on the way in (I think?) and you get Georgia as a bonus instead.

But first, today. Tennessee's first half was awful. It's not worth the effort to mince words about that; at one point they led Arkansas by the tune of 14-7. The halftime score? 28-19 Arkansas. The culprits were the usual: awful shooting (27% from the floor, 22% beyond the arc, led by Ariel Massengale's 1-5 - amazingly, Meighan Simmons' 3-9 effort brought the averages up), bad ball control (13 turnovers to Arkansas' 4), and someone random for the opponent going off (Quistelle Williams, with 10 points - admittedly on 4-11 shooting). Cali Berna didn't have a heavy scoring first half, but she did put in 5 boards and had 5 assists.

The bigger culprit? Well, that was the same problem Tennessee had last year; Arkansas' ball-switching on the perimeter was causing matchup problems - it's a simple enough offense in theory to execute; just switch and screen until you get a matchup you like, then go. Tennessee was opting to put Simmons on Berna, and this prevented the C'ierra Ricketts problem from last year, at least. However, it didn't prevent the rest of Berna's game, which mostly consisted of getting the bigs involved (and was effective).

This time, Holly Warlick learned. Arkansas liked to use the switch offense to get a clear passing lane to go inside, but in the second half, Tennessee adjusted by extensive trapping. The result? A 22-7 Tennessee run and a 5-point lead. (It probably didn't hurt that a) Tennessee was drawing fouls like we're used to and b) shooting 73% from the floor.) The game was close throughout; Tennessee couldn't get above a 7-point margin all game. However, once Tennessee took the lead in the second half, Arkansas never led again. It wasn't the most stress-free game we've ever seen (that honor belongs to Auburn), but the team did a great job responding.

Breadsticks go to Taber Spani, who had a good-enough offensive night (14 points, 4-8 2pt, 2-5 3pt, 4-4 FT, 5 boards, 2 assists), but more importantly, she had some critical points, including a last-minute layup to put Tennessee up by 5 and the final icing FTs.

Next up: the Texas A&M / Kentucky gauntlet, starting Thursday.

Bullet points:

  • I love watching the Tom Collen-Warlick schematic chess match. Collen's good schematically; I'm a little surprised he's mostly been at Arkansas. They're not pretty, but they're good enough to play close. Maybe it's just something that they do against Tennessee, or maybe Warlick isn't the best schematically and Collen is the only coach to really figure this out, I'm not sure. I think it's more that Arkansas runs and adjusts more than most teams I see (who seem to be concerned with doing their thing on offense and may or may not reply to their opponents), but I'm going to hope Tennessee doesn't have to run through this team in the SEC tourney.
  • Isabelle Harrison played! Granted, it was only for a handful of minutes but at this point, we're not going to quibble. Anything we get from her against Texas A&M is a bonus; same with Kentucky.
  • Berna finished with a good line; 8 points, 9 assists, 7 boards.
  • Let's not talk about the total shooting numbers for either team and just agree that it wasn't what either team wanted. Predictably, let's not talk about UT's A/TO ratio, which was also terrible - thanks, first half. The second half was far better, it's worth noting.
This was an escape. Let's hope Texas A&M isn't one.

KEY BIG UPDATE ALERT: with Kentucky and Texas A&M losing today, Tennessee has now sealed at worst a split SEC conference regular season championship. Win one of their last two and it's theirs alone. (And no, don't ask me how the seeds break out if they go 0-2 and Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas A&M, and Georgia all finish 13-3. I have no idea.)
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