LEXINGTON, Ky. — Tennessee summoned an impressive comeback Thursday night, but the Lady Vols couldn’t come up with a comparable closing act.
The final dramatics belonged to Kentucky’s A’dia Mathies. The junior guard’s driving basket with four seconds left capped her career-high 34-point performance and gave the Wildcats a 61-60 SEC women’s basketball victory before a crowd of 7,961 at Memorial Coliseum.
Mathies got by UT’s Kamiko Williams and then scored her winning basket over Glory Johnson, who was concerned about drawing a foul on the play.
“I just took it one on one,’’ the 5-foot-9 Mathies said. “I seen a couple trees, shot it and it went in.”
Led by Johnson’s 17 points, No. 6 Tennessee (12-4, 3-1 SEC) overcame a 12-point deficit in the final seven minutes and led by three points inside the final minute. But the Lady Vols couldn’t stop Mathies. And Williams’ final desperation shot couldn’t prevent the end of their 36-game conference win streak and a joyous celebration by No. 9 Kentucky (15-2, 4-0).
“We’re not going to look at that one play,’’ said Johnson, whose streak of double-doubles for points and rebounds ended at five games. “We’re going to look at missed layups, missed free throws and turnovers.”
They all added up against the determined Wildcats and their relentless pressure.
The turnovers and missed shots betrayed a relatively promising start by the Lady Vols, who led 20-18 after Ariel Massengale’s layup with 10:06 left in the first half.
Their next basket didn’t come until after halftime. They closed the first half by missing 16 consecutive shots and committing eight of their 20 turnovers.
One Alicia Manning free throw was all that the Lady managed during this barren stretch. They were fortunate to be trailing only 25-21 at the break.
The Lady Vols improved their shooting dramatically in the second half, hitting at a 50 percent clip (14 for 28), and they limited their mistakes. Stopping Mathies was too much to ask, however.
“She hit some great shots,’’ Johnson said. “She was really the leader for her team. Whenever they needed to score, they gave her the ball. That honestly was their game plan. We didn’t guard it very well.”
Mathies warmed up for her final shot by hitting a 3-pointer over UT’s Vicki Baugh and drawing the foul, scoring a four-point play with 9:23 left.
“I wouldn’t call it the smartest play,” said Baugh, who scored 16 points. “I wish I could change it.”
The Lady Vols sure tried. After trailing 50-38 with 7:46 left, UT suddenly surged behind two unlikely scoring sources. Shekinna Stricklen and Meighan Simmons combined to score 14 points and shoot 4 for 18 from the floor. But they each hit a 3-pointer down the stretch to ignite Tennessee’s offense.
A conventional 3-point play by Massengale tied the score at 54 with 3:25 left.
After a Mathies turnover, a transition layup by Baugh gave Tennessee a 59-56 lead with 2:06 left.
But Mathies wasn’t finished. Before her final basket, she followed up her miss to score with 46 seconds left. The Lady Vols had knocked the ball loose twice during the possession but couldn’t come up with the turnover.
UT’s follow-up possession ended with a charging call on Stricklen with 28 seconds left.
“Now we all go back to work and get better,” UT associate head coach Holly Warlick said. “As long as we can learn from this, we’ll be a better team.”
Dan Fleser may be reached at 865-342-6288. Follow him at http://twitter.com/FleserKNS and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/fleser.