NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Tennessee couldn’t finish what it started Saturday night.
The closing act was all Auburn’s — all the way to the SEC women’s basketball tournament championship game.
The Tigers went into the locker room at halftime trailing by five points and looking like a rather ordinary team. They re-emerged as the conference’s regular-season champions and the nation’s sixth-ranked team.
Auburn (29-2) shrugged off that deficit and steamrolled the Lady Vols with 52 second-half points, more than enough for a 78-58 semifinal victory at Alltel Arena.
DeWanna Bonner led the way with 26 points. Whitney Boddie added 19, scoring 17 in the second half. Sherell Hobbs had 16.
“We were fully aware that you go through Tennessee to get to a championship,’’ Auburn coach Nell Fortner said. “I felt like in the 20 minutes of the second half we understood that and played much better basketball.’’
No. 19 Tennessee (22-10) had no answer for Auburn’s 57.1 percent field-goal shooting (16-for-28) after the break. The Lady Vols merely compounded their problems by shooting 26.3 percent (10-for-38) and committing 10 of their 17 turnovers in suffering their worst loss in the program’s SEC tournament history.
Kelley Cain’s return from a first-half knee injury didn’t stop the onslaught. Nor did Angie Bjorklund scoring all of her team-high 17 points in the second half.
“We came in at halftime feeling pretty good about what we had done,’’ UT coach Pat Summitt said. “The wheels fell off in the second half. At times, we just didn’t defend. They had their way with us in transition and off the bounce.”
The beginning was painful for Tennessee and Cain in particular. The redshirt freshman center’s surgically repaired right knee collided with the knee of Auburn forward Trevesha Jackson with 18:25 left in the first half. Cain crumpled to the floor and had to be helped to the locker room.
The Lady Vols also lost Bjorklund to early foul trouble. The sophomore guard, who scored 25 points against Florida on Friday night, played just six minutes before halftime.
Down two starters, UT’s response was both determined and resourceful. At times, the Lady Vols were playing with five freshmen. Yet they went off at halftime with a 31-26 lead.
Alyssia Brewer had nine of her 11 points and 10 of her game-high 15 rebounds by the break.
Rookie point guard Briana Bass scored on a double-pump driving layup and connected with fellow freshman Alicia Manning on a lob pass for a layup.
Although it was that kind of half for Tennessee, it didn’t turn out to be that kind of an ending. Cain’s comeback was more courageous than anything. She attempted just one shot, converting a reverse layup for her only two points.
“She had been a big part of our offensive game plan,’’ UT assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. “Kelley gives us another dimension … The thing is she scores so easily. We didn’t have that.”
Few Lady Vols were scoring period, as Auburn started the second half with a 19-2 run. Bjorklund ended up scoring all but 10 of her team’s second-half points.
Freshman guard Shekinna Stricklen, an all-tournament candidate through the first two games, looked spent in shooting 3-for-19 from the floor and scoring six points. She had five turnovers.
“I was shooting short; I wasn’t using my legs,’’ Stricklen said. “It was something I couldn’t get over. That shouldn’t be an excuse.”
Lockwood said that the assistant coaches were speculating whether a tougher-than-expected first-round victory over Alabama and Friday night’s alley fight with Florida took a toll.
“I wonder if there’s a point where some kids hit a physical, mental wall,’’ he said.
There’s no debating that Auburn took a toll on Tennessee. And the Tigers needed only 20 minutes to do it.
“We were not happy with how we played but we played a team tonight that was just better than us in the second half,’’ Summitt said. “And it was obvious that they were the more aggressive team and the more skilled team.”