DULUTH, Ga. — There weren't enough tissues and there weren't enough hugs to console Kentucky after it fell short again in the championship game.
Red, puffy eyes and failed attempts at deep breaths between cries filled the UK locker room after the Southeastern Conference title game in which the Cats led by as many as 10 points before falling to No. 6 Tennessee 71-70 on Sunday.
No. 12 Kentucky has now lost in the conference championship game four of the past five seasons, three of those to the Lady Vols, who have developed quite a gift for breaking the Cats' hearts.
This one might have been the most painful, with UK leading most of the way, including by five points late, before Tennessee took over to win its 17th tournament title.
"That's a bunch of players that are very upset, very down," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "They gave it everything they had to win the tournament. We came up one point short."
UK went up 59-54 on a DeNesha Stallworth drive to the basket with 5:27 to play and then the Lady Vols' defense clamped down, holding the Cats to just two field goals the rest of the way while going on a 13-4 run, including nine points from freshman Jordan Reynolds.
The Vols' defense was impressive most of the second half after allowing the Cats to shoot 53.1 percent in the first half and build a 10-point lead. Tennessee held UK to seven field goals and 31.8 percent shooting after the half.
"When we play our best defense, we're unstoppable, honestly," said Tournament MVP Isabelle Harrison, who finished with 16 points and five rebounds.
Trailing 38-32, Tennessee gathered itself at the half and talked about getting stops and rebounds, Coach Holly Warlick said.
Eventually that plan worked.
"It just was a tough, tough game," Mitchell said. "We just never could get the offensive glass today. ... They got real, real, real, real physical down at the end of the game. We just weren't able to respond to that well enough."
Mitchell also lamented UK's struggles to stop the high, flat ball screen that allowed Reynolds and others to get easy buckets near the end.
"That's my fault for not having the players know what to do there," he said.
Senior Meighan Simmons, whose free throws with 1:45 to go put the Volunteers (27-5) up for good, led them with 17 points.
Reynolds chipped in 11 points to give the Vols their seventh straight win since falling to UK at Thompson-Boling Arena on Feb. 16.
Miraculously, UK (24-8) had a chance to tie it with less than a second to go after Jennifer O'Neill was fouled on a three-point attempt from the right corner.
The plan was for O'Neill to make the first two and then miss the third and give the Cats (24-8) a chance for the putback to send it to overtime, but the junior guard's final free throw didn't cooperate.
"I just didn't shoot it hard enough and it hit the back of the rim and bounced back (in)," said O'Neill, who had 12 points and five assists.
"Like I told Jen, we don't practice missing enough," Mitchell said.
Freshman guard Linnae Harper added 12 points and four rebounds for Kentucky, which saw its five-game win streak snapped.
DeNesha Stallworth led the way with a season-high-tying 21 points for UK.
"It hurts so much because we know how hard we work and how much we deserved this, but we just ended up one point short," she said.
But even through tears, Kentucky players spoke about using this loss to motivate them more.
"This tournament — win or lose — showed all of us how good we can be if we just play together," O'Neill said.
UK proved some people wrong in this tournament, junior guard Bria Goss said, beating two teams that swept the Cats in the regular season, including SEC champ South Carolina in the semifinals.
Kentucky isn't done yet, she added.
"We're a lot stronger than people thought we were," she said. "We ended up short, but we still had a lot of fun out there. We played hard, didn't lay down for anybody."
Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com.