The Tennessee Lady Volunteers won the SEC Women's Basketball Tournament, and they deserve every ounce of sleep they get over the next week.
For the last three days, Tennessee has had to play furious, come-from-behind basketball, thanks in large part to nerves getting the better of their shooting in the early going of the games. In all three SEC contests, the Lady Vols had to overome double-digit first half deficits to crawl back and overtake their opponents en route to victory. Against LSU, that deficit was as large as 14 before Tennessee found their shot. Thanks partly to a 19-0 run in the second half, the Lady Vols ended up opening a lead to a 77-65 victory.
On Saturday, the Lady Vols faced a similar deficit, trailing the Texas A&M Aggies by 10 in the early going before finally cooling of A&M's hot start and finding their own shot. In the end, Tennessee outpaced A&M on the way to a 86-77 victory.
Finally, Tennessee fell behind Kentucky 18-8 in the first half as Kentucky hit several tough shots in a row during a UT shooting slump. In the third Thunderdome game in as many days (and four in the last week + 1), the Lady Vols eventually eked out a one point win over the Lady Wildcats to take the SEC Championship 71-70.
Let's just get this out of the way.
Yes, the officiating today was horrible. The referees were clearly instructed to let things go and let the players play. During the first half, only 7 combined fouls were called between two teams that tend to play very physically. This was also known as a big mistake.
By midway through the second half, Both teams were so emotionally charged and accustomed to getting hacked (yes, it went both ways to a certain degree; let's not get bogged down in details right now) that both coaches were on the border of drawing technicals. Fortunately, the players ended up taking technicals, with two double-T calls within a few seconds of each other.
There were missed calls and a horrid inconsistency in the officiating tonight. But let's focus on what Tennessee did well; they won a championship and deserve a bit of time in the limelight. Lisa Mattingly can find her time in the limelight elsewhere.
Tennessee's defense over the last three days has been the best we've seen all year. All three opponents, during their first half scoring frenzies, were making ridiculous shots well above their season averages of difficulty vs. hit percentage. But during all 120 minutes the Lady Vols defense was spectacular, making entry passes difficult and not losing track of the three point shooters for pretty much the entire span of the three games. Most of the defensive effort was in man, though the switches to zone were rather seamless. Without the ball, the Lady Vols were fire, intensity, and focus. In the final 20 minutes, Kentucky only made 7 field goals, a testament to the defensive fire of Tennessee when it mattered the most.
A quick recap of rebounding. Tennessee outrebounded LSU 47-33, with a total of 22 offensive boards to LSU's 17 defensive rebounds. Against A&M, the Lady Vols had a rebounding edge of 48-26, getting 17 offensive boards to A&M's 20 defensive rebounds. Finally, Tennessee outglassed Kentucky 39-34, snagging 14 O-boards to UK's 28 D-boards. The 1:2 ratio against Kentucky would be considered a great day against almost any opponent; those previous nights were borderline insane. And it wasn't just Harrison on the glass either; Graves and Burdick also threatened double-doubles in all three games (if not getting there outright). If rebounding does win championships, that's exactly what happened this weekend, as the board work saved Tennessee when their shooting was failing.
Jordan Reynolds, Player of the Game
When Tennessee needed to close the gap late in the game, Reynolds scored 7 straight points and set up Harrison for another easy score to give the Lady Vols more than 10% of their total score within a couple minutes. Without that effort, Tennessee loses this game. It's hard to describe how a player with 18 minutes and 11 points was so critical, but Jordan Reynolds was absolutely clutch in the most tense, emotional, and official-happy moments of the game when so many players were ready to lose composure. She has gone from freshman to seasoned veteran, and this game was a seal of approval of her time at Tennessee this year.
Meighan Simmons earned her 2,000th career point on a free throw late in the second half that helped seal the game for Tennessee. Despite having a terrible three-game stretch of shooting during the tournament, her free throws were clutch for Tennessee on more than one day. The senior can be proud of her career at Tennessee as she prepares for her last NCAA tournament.
Cierra Burdick. The junior 3 was composed, aggressive, and looked nothing like the gangly pile of arms and legs we saw as a freshman. Her shot is returning, and her defensive and rebounding efforts are bested by nobody. She is the emotional leader of this team when she is on her game, and they used everything she could give this weekend.
Andraya Carter has anchored the point since Massengale has been out with her concussion issues. The redshirt freshman has quickly blossomed into a full-time terror on the floor, leading the offense and providing critical defensive intensity on the perimeter for several weeks. The Andraya/Ariel "controversy" can wait: Carter deserves a bit of spotlight for some fantastic performances all week long.
Holly Warlick. Following a legend isn't easy, but Warlick has very likely earned a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament when Tennessee looked to be a 3 or 4 seed halfway through conference play. This team has galvanized into a terror on the floor (first half shooting notwithstanding) and has taken the best punch from three of the best teams in the league.
Isabelle Harrison. MVP of the tournament, hands down, which is why her name stands alone up above. Izzy didn't get a double-double today because Kentucky was hyper-focused on boxing her out on rebounds, but Harrison was the most efficient player on offense in all three games for Tennessee.
Bonus: Tennessee beat the likely four best teams in the SEC (notwithstanding LSU's slump prior to the tournament): South Carolina, LSU, A&M, and then Kentucky, within the span of 8 days. For a team that had trouble stringing together 30 minutes of good basketball throughout the season, they completed 160 minutes where the only real complaint was first half shooting in the tournament (where nerves caused them to strongarm their shots). It's a shame the NCAA tournament can't start in 4 days; they need the rest, but they're on one heck of a streak right now.
Congratulations, Ladies. That was the most intense tournament I've seen, and you earned every bit of that championship.