NASHVILLE — Tennessee coach Pat Summitt climbed up a ladder, cut down a net and swung it above her head as the cameras clicked below her Sunday evening at Bridgestone Arena.
Net cutting has become as much a part of UT women's basketball as Summitt's stare and a chorus of "Rocky Top." But a common occurrence had a different feel to it after the Lady Vols defeated LSU 70-58 for the SEC tournament championship.
In fact, the players reacted to Summitt's handiwork with as much enthusiasm as they demonstrated during the execution of crucial plays in a game that extended them more than the final 12-point margin suggested.
"I was so excited to see her cut down the nets," UT senior Shekinna Stricklen said. "We all just looked at each other and started screaming."
The Tennessee fans responded with similar exuberance as their coach for the past 38 seasons came down the ladder, walked through the confetti scattered across the floor, and waved to the crowd as she made her exit.
Just moments earlier, SEC commissioner Mike Slive had referred to Summitt as the "greatest coach in the history of college basketball" while presenting her with UT's third consecutive SEC tournament trophy.
But this time, the nets were more significant than the trophy or accolades.
Remember what Summitt said in preseason when asked about her decision to continue coach
ing despite being diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type?
"I want to cut down more nets," she said with a smile.
She had the nets and the smile again as her team and family — including her son, Tyler, and mother, Hazel Head — gathered around for the postgame celebration.
No one looked happier than associate head coach Holly Warlick, who has taken the coaching lead this season in light of Summitt's illness.
"It continues to be an honor to coach with Coach Summitt," she said. "The only thing I'll tell you is she's got to learn to cut nets down a little better. She chewed the net so bad, I don't think we can put it around the trophy."
Effort would matter more than aesthetics this evening. LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said as much the day before after her team won for the eighth time in nine games to qualify for the tournament championship game.
"It will be a game about everybody's heart, about who's going to play tougher at both ends of the floor," she said.
You knew UT had more talent. Based on the regular season, you couldn't be so certain it had as much toughness.
But the Lady Vols were tournament tough again Sunday just as they had been in beating two good teams the first two days of the tournament.
"I think the key word for us is 'toughness,' " Warlick said. "We've lacked that throughout the year.
"I think when our back is against the wall, these ladies had a toughness that we haven't had in a long time."
The toughness contradicted a regular season in which the Lady Vols too often faltered in close games. Although they won their three tournament games by double-digit margins, they were tested repeatedly.
When Vanderbilt cut a 19-point UT lead to one Friday, UT didn't buckle under adversity as it sometimes did the previous two months. Instead, it maintained its composure and rebuilt its lead.
South Carolina made a nuisance of itself for a half Saturday, just as it did in upsetting Tennessee in Knoxville. But the Lady Vols prevailed in the second half with the same resolve they demonstrated against Vanderbilt.
Then came LSU, which never led after the 5:42 mark of the first half but stayed within striking distance — even after losing its best player, LaSondra Barrett, to injury with 14:18 to play in the game. Yet UT never gave way.
With so much at stake, how could it?
"A lot of people don't expect a lot out of us, because of how many losses we had and who we lost to," tournament MVP Glory Johnson said. "We want to show people we haven't stopped working trying to make a statement, really."
After the Lady Vols made their statement against LSU, their fans had the final say.
"We want Pat," they chanted.
They got Pat, and the nets, too.
Lady Vols win the 2012 SEC Tournament
Game highlights from the LSU-Tennessee SEC Championship game
2012 Women's Basketball Tournament - Tennessee Championship Press Conference
2012 Women's Basketball Championship - Music City Madness
SEC in the Paint on the Lady Vols and the SEC Tournament