KNOXVILLE — Tennessee was a team on a mission and Kentucky had the misfortune of being the team standing in the Lady Vols’ way.
No. 4 Tennessee had plenty of motivation Thursday night before its 81-65 win over No. 16 UK.
It was playing for a regular-season Southeastern Conference championship, something the Volunteers hadn’t won since 2007.
They were playing to win their 10th straight game and solidify their top seed in the tournament next week.
“They wanted this,” Coach Pat Summitt said. “This meant a lot to this team. They wanted to win something.”
The Vols were playing to avenge a bad loss in Lexington last year that cost them their locker room for the remainder of the season.
“We wanted to make sure we were ready for this team,” sophomore Glory Johnson said. “We remembered what they did last time and we didn’t want to let it happen again.”
That was clear early on when the Vols scored 11 unanswered to grab a 20-6 advantage over UK, which had never trailed a team by more than 15 points all season. The lead ballooned to as many as 21 points in the first half and 27 points late in the game.
“We worked for the shots we wanted, not the shots they wanted us to have,” Summitt said.
Johnson was one of five Lady Vols in double figures with 13 points and eight rebounds in front of 12,100 in Thompson-Boling Arena, where UK is now 0-for-14. Center Kelley Cain led the way with 14 points, six rebounds and seven blocked shots in just 19 minutes.
In all, Tennessee swatted 15 shots, a school record. It was able to hold UK to a season-low 29.9 shooting percentage and hand the SEC’s second-best team its worst loss of the season.
“It was a very powerful performance tonight and we had a very difficult time getting into anything we wanted to do,” Mitchell said. “They showed that when they want to assert themselves, they can be a powerful basketball team.”
He was eager to see how UK’s aggressive defense and up-tempo style would fare against Tennessee’s size. UK got some positives, like forcing 22 Tennessee turnovers. But many of those were after the Vols grabbed their 27-point lead, their largest of the game, with 6:40 left. Tennessee’s 81 points were the most scored against Kentucky this season.
“Their style clearly won out tonight,” Mitchell said. “They were physical and big and tough and powerful, and we were never able to finish at the goal.”
Victoria Dunlap led Kentucky (23-5, 11-4 SEC) with 22 points and 10 rebounds, her eighth double-double of the season. Keyla Snowden, a new insertion in the starting lineup, added 14 points.
The Cats, who travel to Auburn on Sunday to close out the regular season, already have secured the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament.
That means they would not face the Lady Vols (26-2, 14-1) again until the championship game, should they both advance that far.
“If we have to play them again, we’ll see if we can play better,” Mitchell said.
The UK coach talked about the Volunteers showing “another gear that they had,” but he also talked about his players playing hard despite the deflating margin.
“When they’d come to the huddle, they were scratching and clawing and bleeding and you could tell by that they were working hard,” he said.
Foul trouble plagued an already shorthanded UK team from nearly the opening tip.
Kentucky’s second-leading scorer, freshman, A’dia Mathies picked up her second foul less than a minute into the game. Point guard Amber Smith collected her second five minutes in.
“We weren’t able to be as aggressive,” Mitchell said. “Our margin for error is very slim. Things had to go well for us to beat them tonight.”
Shekinna Stricklen and Angie Bjorkland added 12 points apiece for Tennessee. Stricklen also had seven rebounds for the Vols, who outrebounded Kentucky 45-37.