DULUTH, Ga. — It wasn't the cake walk that Tennessee might have expected, but the Lady Vols still got their sweet reward at the end, a 70-62 win over Kentucky and a Southeastern Conference Tournament championship.
"I'm pleased with how our team never gave up," Coach Pat Summitt said after the Volunteers won their 14th conference title on Sunday.
In front of 5,854 mostly orange and white fans at the Gwinnett Center, No. 19 UK forgot a bad performance in Knoxville at the end of last month and hung with the fourth-ranked Volunteers until late in the game.
The loss stung for Kentucky, which was making just its second appearance in the championship game and its first since 1982, but Coach Matthew Mitchell was pleased with his team's showing.
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The Cats shook off an early 10-point deficit and grabbed a four-point lead early in the second half to challenge the Volunteers, who beat them by 16 points in Knoxville on Feb. 25.
"We knew the only way we were going to win this game was to stick together and that's what we did," said guard Shekinna Stricklen, who scored 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds for the Volunteers.
Stricklen was the catalyst for that, helping dig Tennessee out of the early second-half hole by scoring 14 after halftime.
Kentucky used a 13-3 run to open the second half and erase a deficit and grab a 42-38 lead.
"We knew we had to step it up on defense," UK freshman A'dia Mathies said. "That was the only way we would be able to come back in the game. So we just tried to make everything more aggressive, more tough and just be ready mentally and physically."
It went back and forth from there until the teams were knotted 50-50. That's when the Volunteers surged ahead, scoring seven straight as part of an 11-4 run, including a big three-pointer and another bucket from Stricklen.
"Shekinna Stricklen was obviously the best player on the court in my opinion," Summitt said. "She was a big difference maker."
Kentucky (25-7) pulled within five points in the final five minutes of the game, the final time on a Mathies steal and driving layup with 1:10 to go, but it wouldn't be enough.
"I give them a lot of credit because they didn't give up the whole game," said Angie Bjorkland, one of three different Vols with eight points. "They fought all the way until the end. That's the sign of a great team."
Mathies, the SEC Freshman of the Year, had 11 points, five assists and four rebounds.
SEC Player of the Year Victoria Dunlap led all scorers with 21 points, six rebounds and three blocked shots.
Guard Keyla Snowden added 10 points.
"We came in here to win and came up a little short today," Mitchell said. "Our players battled against a really fine basketball team today, and I thought we found out a lot about our team.
"One thing I do know is they wanted to win today and it certainly showed out there on the court."
It was a much different Kentucky opponent than the one the Vols played less than two weeks ago.
"A different level, a whole different level," Summitt said to describe the UK team she saw Sunday versus the one in Knoxville.
Before the game, the coach had this warning for her team: "Get ready to have the best shot ever coming at you this season. I know (Mitchell), I know his staff. They have a toughness. They didn't give up on anything."
The first UK win gave the Vols (30-2) the outright SEC regular-season title and Sunday night's win provided the tournament title.
It was the first time since Mitchell and UK assistants Shalon Pillow and Kyra Elzy sat on the Volunteers' bench in 2000 that Tennessee won both the regular season and tournament titles.