From Pat Summitt’s viewpoint, Tennessee played like the SEC regular-season champions Sunday night.
The observation by the Lady Vols’ coach was more critical than complimentary after a 75-63 SEC women’s basketball victory over Ole Miss.
Led by Shekinna Stricklen’s 23 points, No. 4 Tennessee (27-2, 15-1 SEC) survived a 34-point scoring blow by Rebels guard Bianca Thomas to set a season record for SEC victories before a crowd of 14,289 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The regular-season finale might have been a preview for Tennessee’s opening game of the SEC tournament. The top-seeded Lady Vols will play the winner of a Thursday first-round game between South Carolina and Ole Miss at noon on Friday (TV: FSS) in Duluth, Ga.
“There wasn’t a sense of urgency in this game, as opposed to our LSU game or our Kentucky game,’’ said Summitt, referring to UT’s past two victories. “. . . We looked like we just won something and decided it’s just not a big deal. We won (the SEC). Now we’ll just wait and go to Duluth.’ ’’
If a rematch with the Rebels awaits, the Lady Vols will need a better plan for guarding Thomas, who set a season scoring high by a UT opponent, surpassing the 29 scored by Rutgers’ Brittany Ray on Dec. 13. The 5-foot-10 senior guard from Henderson, Tenn., had 28 points by the 16:15 mark of the second half before cooling off to a 1-for-9 shooting finish.
“Growing up I was a big Tennessee fan,’’ Thomas said. “I get really excited to come up to Thompson-Boling Arena because I wasn’t recruited here and it feels good to try to go out and beat Tennessee.”
It didn’t feel good to Lady Vol Alicia Manning, who was Tennessee’s primary defender on Thomas.
“She can drive to the basket; she can pull up and shoot threes,’’ Manning said. “You have to make her put it on the ground and have your team help you when she does that. You have to keep a hand in her face no matter what.”
Manning’s best plan was to do her own scoring. She had a career-high 15 points, including a layup with 11:41 left to give UT the lead for good, 52-50. The 6-1 forward also had 10 rebounds, recording her first career double-double.
“I’m very competitive,’’ Manning said. “I think that’s probably where it all starts. I guess having two older brothers picking on me had something to do with it.”
Producing like a post player covered for a dip in the post game’s usual output. Kelley Cain and Alyssia Brewer, who had combined for 58 points in the past two games, collaborated on 16 against the Rebels. Between the two, the most noteworthy achievement was Cain’s three blocks, which pushed her past former Lady Vol Candace Parker to the school single-season record with 101.
“There was a lot of double-teaming and we didn’t kick the ball out soon enough,’’ Brewer said. “We kind of lost our balance at times, but I think we made up for it in the second half.”
Forward Glory Johnson, who didn’t start after a less-than-serious approach to Thursday night’s warm-up session, never got off the bench after halftime, finishing with three points and two rebounds in 12 playing minutes.
“Didn’t do anything to help us early,’’ said Summitt, explaining her decision not to play Johnson in the second half. “We were trying to find someone that would get down and play great defense and also do a good job of attacking inside, not wanting to step away but wanting to get paint points.”
Along with her points, Stricklen also grabbed 10 rebounds.
“The posts tell us that they do all the hard work, they box people out and we are free to get rebounds, Stricklen said. “Getting rebounds is about hustle and that’s what we did.”
And now it’s on to Duluth, where the Lady Vols will try to improve their coach’s viewpoint.
“You have to take what she tells you seriously, but you also have to shake it off,’’ Brewer said. “You can’t worry about the past, and you have to focus on the present.”