DULUTH, Ga. — A trophy was presented and photos were taken. Everyone in Gwinnett Arena could see that Tennessee was the SEC regular-season champions.
After all the pregame pomp, the Lady Vols still were adamant about offering another reminder.
“I think we needed to make a statement early that this is why we won the regular season,’’ UT forward Alicia Manning said. “We needed to come out and play like that.’’
The Lady Vols’ SEC tournament opener served their purpose. A forceful first half set the tone for a 76-51 women’s basketball victory over Ole Miss on this afternoon as UT began working toward another trophy.
Four players scored in double figures for No. 4 Tennessee (28-2), led by Alyssia Brewer’s 21 points on 9-for-11 shooting from the floor. Save for a second-half outbreak of turnovers, the tournament’s top seed dominated virtually all of the meaningful statistics in advancing to a semifinal game at 3:30 Saturday against Friday night’s Vanderbilt-LSU winner.
“I think we’re realizing this is the time we have to do everything to win,’’ Brewer said. “We’re going for a championship. To do that, we have to work as a team. Last year, we still didn’t understand what all this was and now we know.”
Having played No. 9 seed Ole Miss (17-14) last Sunday and twice overall in the past month, the Lady Vols knew their opponent well. The scouting report didn’t change as much as they did.
“I think they understood by looking statistically at the last two games (against Ole Miss) that we really needed to be a great defensive team this afternoon, a lot better,’’ UT coach Pat Summitt said.
The Lady Vols were at their best against Ole Miss senior guard Bianca Thomas. The SEC’s leading scorer torched them for 34 points last Sunday. Five days later, she scored the game’s first basket, a 3-pointer, and had eight points in the first 8:05 as the Rebels lurked within two points, 17-15.
And then she disappeared.
Thomas’ next points were two free throws with 7:45 left in the game. By that time, UT’s two-point lead had ballooned to 29 at 66-37. While Thomas finished with a team-high 15 points, she shot 5 for 16 from the floor. Her 1-for-6 shooting on 3 pointers reflected Ole Miss’ 2-for-19 misfiring from behind the arc.
Several Lady Vols took turns guarding Thomas. Assistant coach Dean Lockwood made special mention of Angie Bjorklund.
The junior guard noted the irrefutable evidence of her effort.
“I even got an off-the-ball foul,’’ she said. “I mean, I must’ve been really aggressive.’’
Bjorklund’s teammates followed her lead in chasing Thomas all around the court.
“The way they set screens for that kid, you also have to skinny up (to Thomas),’’ Lockwood said. “It’s like going through a wire fence. You have to knife through there.”
Tennessee’s lead grew as large as 32 points (72-40) in the second half, allowing the work to be spread around. Alicia Manning, who had 14 points and career-high 14 rebounds, played the most minutes with 29.
The only concerns were an exchange of flailing arms by UT center Kelley Cain and Ole Miss’ Nikki Byrd with 10:08 left. The game officials checked a replay monitor for several minutes before calling a foul on Cain and a technical on Byrd.
“The bigger the production the more you worry,’’ Lockwood said. “How long were they at the monitor?”
Lockwood was mindful of another tussle Wednesday night that resulted in a two-game suspension for Baylor’s Brittney Griner after she punched a Texas Tech player.
“We’ve got a climate right now that’s very sensitive to that,’’ he said.
The other worry was 14 second-half turnovers. They were partly the result of the game’s one-sided nature and some unusual lineup combinations.
“We acted like the clock wasn’t on our side,’’ Cain said. “We were just rushing everything. I have no idea why.’’
Especially since the Lady Vols had made it clear by then that they were better than that.