Well, that went exactly as expected.
Excuse the snarky title if it bothers you; we're a fun-loving bunch over here and we're also realists. Read the pregame thread to realize that we knew Kentucky would win this one. Just like in the 1998-1999 season, or the Jackie Stiles / Missouri State tournament run, a team can only take so many setbacks and emotional drain before it breaks. Today, Tennessee found its limit, and while the game of women's college basketball is the worse for it, we still celebrate the best team in the SEC for maintaining their grip atop the conference as well as a fantastic Kentucky squad for playing their hearts out and earning the win today.
With the injury attrition from the season, the brutal win over A&M, and the extreme emotions of winning the SEC title in Holly Warlick's first season combined with all the injuries. This was a Tennessee team that has reached its limit, and the Kentucky game couldn't have come at a worse time. If both teams were fully healthy and playing with full energy, this could be the game of the year. With one team healthy, fresh, at home, and desperate for a win over the rival and the other team battered and depleted of emotional energy, this is the result.
And please don't read this as a 'sour grapes' post. Kentucky played as good of a game as they have all year long. You could see how much the Tennessee game meant to them, and I wish they could have had the game that they had circled on their calendar all year long. It wasn't their fault that Tennessee wasn't ready to play, and they should have had the game they wanted. But at some point, it's fair to admit that 20-year olds only have so much in the tank, and the Lady Vols hit 'empty' after Thursday.
Tennessee played hard today, but they didn't play together. They easily had a season high in turnovers, eclipsing even the season- opening whoops against Chattanooga. Passes went to nobody in particular. Fouls were committed for no reason. It was the game played by a shell of a team. It mirrored the loss that Texas A&M took at home to LSU today: out of sorts, inaccurate shooting, sloppy fundamentals, and unable to cohere as a team, though fighting all the way.
Finally, finally, the Lady Vols get a reprieve. The SEC tournament starts on March 6 with the 12/13 play in game, and Tennessee will take the court at noon on March 8th as the #1 seed. They will have a chance to heal Ariel (who played a gutsy game despite her injury on Thursday; if Carter hadn't been out for the season, Ariel would not have played today), Isabelle, and Kamiko (who hurt her knee in the first half today). They will have the emotions of the season out of their system. They will have a game to recalibrate and get back on track. And then they will likely rematch against Texas A&M in the semifinals on March 9th.
Congrats to Kentucky; they played to win and deserved every bit of it. With luck, these two teams will meet again in the finals and we will finally see them on equal footing: healthy, equally fresh, and on a neutral court. That's the game that everybody has wanted - not one that had only 6 healthy Tennessee players (5 by halftime).
That said, it's time to step back and remember the long view. Tennessee was picked 5th in the preseason by SEC coaches (like you haven't heard that a billion times). They lost the season opener and had a season-ending surgery on Carter along with injuries to Burdick, Harrison (x2), Massengale, and WIlliams. They have two seniors, one junior, and a bevy of untested freshmen. And they had their first year after the retirement of Pat Summitt, without whom women's basketball would not be the same (just ask Matthew Mitchell). Despite all that, they finished first of the SEC, fully clear of preseason favorite Kentucky. They beat Texas A&M in one of the best games played this year by any two teams in the country. When healthy, they were a juggernaut at the beginning of the SEC season, steamrolling the other top teams in the conference and looking like the Lady Vols of old.
It's been a remarkable season. Tonight was forgivable and understandable; they had already achieved everything they set out to accomplish despite the hurdles the injury-laden season presented, the youth, and the transition from a legend. If anybody had worried about Tennessee, worry no longer. The Lady Vols are in good hands and the future - starting with the SEC tournament, is extremely bright.