By Beth Rucker/The Associated Press
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Lady Volunteers know many people expect little from them in this year’s NCAA tournament. They’re still planning on making a run at the national championship that has eluded them.
Led by its senior class, 13th-ranked Tennessee blew confidently through the Southeastern Conference tournament and got a 70-58 win against LSU on Sunday in the championship game.
“We want to show people we haven’t stopped working,” tournament MVP Glory Johnson said. “You should see a whole new mentality when we get out there. We have a whole new mindset. You should see it in our faces every time we step on the floor.”
Johnson is one of five seniors who are trying to change their legacy after several early exits from the NCAA tournament and a disappointing 2011-12 season by the Lady Vols’ lofty standards. Tennessee (24-8), which won the last of its eight national championships in 2008, suffered a program-worst three losses at home this season and got blown out in several road games.
Johnson, Shekinna Stricklen and the rest of the seniors pulled together during the SEC tournament, leading the team in each game en route to Tennessee’s 16th conference tournament title. Johnson had 20 points and 11 rebounds, Stricklen added 16 points and senior Vicki Baugh added 10 points against LSU.
Tennessee fans cheered “We back Pat” after the win in honor of coach Pat Summitt, who announced before the season she’d been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. Summitt helped her team cut down the basketball net after the game and twirled it above her head to further cheering.
LSU (22-10), which upset regular-season champion Kentucky to reach its ninth championship game, missed a shot to win its third tournament title in coach Nikki Caldwell’s first season. Caldwell, a native of Oak Ridge, Tenn., won six titles as a Tennessee player and assistant coach, but no former Lady Vols player has ever beaten Summitt.
“I wouldn’t be the coach that I am right now without that competitive spirit by playing at Tennessee,” Caldwell said. “I’m going to make sure our team is prepared to beat not just Tennessee but anybody that steps up in front of us. (The Lady Tigers) have taken on that attitude, and that’s why they’ve battled and competed. Like I told them, they stood toe-to-toe with a giant today.”
Caldwell, who is pregnant with a due date of March 24, counts Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick among her best friends. Warlick calls and texts Caldwell frequently and couldn’t resist sending her friend a message the night before their teams met.
“I texted her, and I told her I hope her water broke last night so she wouldn’t be on the court,” Warlick said. “She texted me that it did and she had a little point guard ready to play.”
The Lady Tigers outshot Tennessee 43.8 percent to 42.3 percent, but the Lady Vols held a 39-23 rebounding advantage and went 21 for 24 at the free-throw line.
The score was tied at 41 with 15:32 to play, when Tennessee used a 13-2 run to take the lead, with Stricklen scoring nine points during the stretch.
Adrienne Webb, who led LSU with 16 points, responded with a 3-pointer that launched a 7-2 run to cut the Lady Vols’ lead to 56-51 with 5:13 to play. A 5-0 run by the Lady Tigers got the margin down to four points with 2:04 to play, but it was as close as they would get.
Stricklen, who missed Tennessee’s 65-56 win over LSU in the regular season because of a sprained knee, sank a jumper and then found herself open at the perimeter on the next possession. She squared up, and hit nothing but net on the 3-pointer that iced the Lady Tigers with 58 seconds left.
Theresa Plaisance added 13 points for the Lady Tigers.
The Lady Tigers lost forward LaSondra Barrett with 14:18 to play in the game. The senior had fallen after missing a shot, and as the players turned to head back down court, Johnson’s knee hit Barrett’s temple.
Barrett was briefly knocked out. Trainers and paramedics strapped her to a backboard and put a brace around her neck before taking her to Vanderbilt University Medical Center to be checked out. Barrett waved to fans as she was wheeled out on a stretcher.
“We could have easily folded after LaSondra went down,” Webb said. “But we took it as a challenge to not go out there and quit, but give it our all, put our hearts into the game. Even though we fell short, we still played a hundred percent and gave our all out there on the floor.”