A year ago, Tennessee’s locker room was silent and empty. The same room was full of sound and celebration Thursday night.
The Lady Vols clinched an SEC regular-season championship with an 81-65 women’s basketball victory over Kentucky before a crowd of 12,100 at Thompson-Boling Arena. The achievement wasn’t readily apparent on the court afterward. The scene was much different behind closed doors, the same doors that were closed to the team after their loss at Kentucky on Feb. 19 last season.
“We went crazy in the locker room,’’ guard Shekinna Stricklen said, “just not on the court.”
No. 4 Tennessee (26-2, 14-1 SEC) was all business on the court in handling a scrappy bunch of Wildcats and securing the team’s 15th SEC regular season title and its first since 2007. Five Lady Vols scored in double figures, led by Kelley Cain’s 14 points in 19 playing minutes. Tennessee’s center also had seven blocks.
Alicia Manning’s 11 rebounds led UT’s 45-37 rebounding advantage.
Victoria Dunlap had a game-high 22 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for No. 16 Kentucky (23-5, 11-4), but she didn’t have enough help. The Wildcats only other double-figure scorer was Kayla Snowden with 14 and she scored six of her points in the final minute.
Overall, Kentucky shot 29.9 percent (20 for 67) from the floor.
“It’s great to watch the progress this team has made from last year to this year,’’ UT coach Pat Summitt said. “It’s because of the investment they’ve made on the court and in the weight room. They understand what it takes now.”
Even UT junior guard Angie Bjorklund, who celebrated a national championship as a freshman, got caught up in the moment.
“We finally won something,’’ she said. “We’re all pretty excited.”
The Lady Vols were pretty motivated at the outset by the memory of last season’s 66-56 loss to the Wildcats. Along with losing their locker room, the players also lost the use of their practice attire. They had to bring their own gear and do their own laundry.
“We talked about it right after the LSU game (on Monday night),’’ Johnson said. “We wanted to make sure that we were ready for this team. We remembered what they did last time and we didn’t want it to happen again.”
The Lady Vols put their conversation into action by bolting to a 20-6 lead at the outset. Their shooting percentage never dropped below 50 percent and their advantage grew to 21 points until they sputtered into halftime with a 45-31 edge.
Not bad, considering Cain played just three minutes because of early foul trouble.
With Cain back, Tennessee went back to work in the second half, building their lead in methodical fashion until it reached 26 points, 71-44, with 6:37 left.
Even as the Lady Vols’ field goal accuracy cooled to 45.6 percent, they maintained a sizzling 92.6 percent accuracy at the free-throw line (25 for 27) — a stunning performance by a team that’s been shooting 62.1 percent from the free-throw line in conference play. Summitt credited the new practice edict of no talking while shooting free throws.
“If they’re talking, they’re not real good,” she said. “If they’re focused, they’re good.”
From Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell’s vantage point, UT was very good.
“I thought they really showed that when they want to assert themselves, they can be a very powerful basketball team,’’ he said.
Only the ending was anticlimactic as the reserves had a hand in squandering nearly half of UT’s lead while topping off the team’s 22 turnovers.
The finish didn’t spoil the locker-room mood or the achievement.