LEXINGTON, Ky. — Tennessee lost the basketball early and often against Kentucky on Monday night.
But the Lady Vols never lost their nerve, overcoming a brief one-point deficit in the final six minutes for a 73-67 SEC women’s victory over the Wildcats before a crowd of 7,126 at Memorial Coliseum.
Shekinna Stricklen scored a team-high 20 points for No. 4 Tennessee (22-2, 10-0 SEC), which survived 24 turnovers. Freshman guard Meighan Simmons, who was charged with nine of them, gave the Lady Vols the lead for good at 60-59 with a driving layup.
She also hit a huge 3-pointer with 4:25 left and Tennessee leading by one point. Simmons then sealed the outcome with two free throws with 14.5 seconds left, topping off her 15 points.
Victoria Dunlap led No. 15 Kentucky (18-5, 7-3) with 20 points.
After setting a season-record pace with 17 turnovers in the first half, the Lady Vols limited themselves to seven after the break, scoring 43 points and shooting 61.5 percent from the floor as a result to erase a 33-30 halftime deficit.
“That was a huge difference,’’ Stricklen said. “When we were able to hang onto the ball, we got more chances on offense.”
Stricklen was a different player as well after scoring two points and grabbing four rebounds in the first half. Along with her scoring, she led Tennessee’s 45-23 rebounding advantage with a game-high 12 rebounds.
UT coach Pat Summitt earned an assist by reminding Stricklen of her obligations.
“She didn’t get on me,’’ Stricklen said. “She just said I have to step up. I needed to hunt my shots.”
It wasn’t so much what Summitt said to Simmons, either.
“It was the look,’’ Simmons said.
Whatever, it worked. Simmons had just two turnovers after halftime and scored nine of her points.
“She’s young but she’s learning,” Stricklen said. “I’ll take those turnovers. She hit some big shots, and those free throws were huge.”
Kamiko Williams scored 14 points off the bench and Glory Johnson had her fourth consecutive double-double (10 points and 10 rebounds) as Tennessee finished with a season-best 55.8 percent field goal shooting.
Kentucky struck the first blow, thanks to Dunlap. The reigning SEC player of the year scored the game’s first seven points, including her fourth 3-pointer of the season.
The Wildcats achieved the majority of their success with frantic pressure defense that preyed on ball handlers and passes at all points of the court.
The Lady Vols often responded either with turnovers or rushed shots.
Simmons committed almost every conceivable turnover, everything from carrying the basketball to errant passes. And that was just in the first half.
“I was going 100 miles per hour,’’ she said.
The Lady Vols managed a semblance of order by making 50 percent of their shots (13 for 26). In the process, they erased an early eight-point deficit and built a 26-23 lead after Johnson’s rebound basket with 4:27 left before halftime.
But a traveling call on Simmons began a string of five consecutive turnovers by the Lady Vols. The Wildcats went back on the prowl, scoring the final six points of the first half.
Stricklen made up for lost scoring time quickly. The junior forward had nine points in the first six minutes of the second half. Her jumper gave UT a 48-38 lead.
The Wildcats then mounted another charge. This time they relied more on jumpers than pressure. A’dia Mathies, who scored 18 points, hit two 3-pointers to pull Kentucky within a point. Her two free throws gave the Wildcats a 59-58 lead with 6:10 left.
Dan Fleser covers Lady Vols basketball. He may be reached at 865-342-6288. Follow him at http://twitter.com/fleserKNS and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/fleser/