Gary Blair coached at Arkansas for 10 years, then moved on to Texas A&M where he won a national championship two years ago.
But when he returned to Knoxville on Thursday night, the scene was all too familiar.
Tennessee was cutting down a net as a memento of another SEC regular-season championship, compliments of a hard-earned 82-72 victory over the Aggies at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“Just like old times,” Blair said. “I brought a better team in here than any I had at Arkansas.
“I thought we played as well as we could offensively. Defensively, we were just getting killed.”
Tennessee’s Kamiko Williams was the lead assassin.
After she and Taber Spani were featured in pregame ceremonies on Senior Night, Williams never left the spotlight.
The senior guard scored a career-high 18 points, made eight of 13 field-goal attempts, had seven rebounds and added three assists in what UT coach Holly Warlick characterized as the best game of her career.
“She had to play long minutes (after point guard Ariel Massengale was injured),” Warlick said. “Any other game she would have been pulling her shirt, ‘I want out.’
“She didn’t want out.”
Williams got Blair’s attention long before her first pull-up jump shot, which served as her most reliable weapon.
“She was out there stirring it up (during pregame introductions),” he said. “She was everywhere.
“I would love to have that kid. She’s an energy kid.”
Williams had enough energy after 28 intense minutes to lead the charge on the net.
Some of her teammates were laughing; others had tears in their eyes as they went up the stepladder. Massengale put down her crutches and climbed. Isabelle Harrison, who also was injured in the second half, reached the top with an ice pack on her right knee.
Warlick was last in line. She held a sprig of netting in one hand and pointed to her mother and sister in the stands with the other.
As the final cuts were made, Williams and Spani circled the arena slapping hands with fans.
Winning SEC championships is nothing new for the Lady Vols, who have yawned their way to some on the way to 22 Final Fours and eight national titles. But few of their 17 conference championships have been more heartfelt than this one.
“It’s special,” Spani said. “It’s Holly’s first one.
“This team has a different feel. We’re more competitive, more motivated to do something special than the previous teams I’ve been on.”
The eighth-ranked Lady Vols (23-5, 14-1 SEC) sometimes looked like an underdog in the early going against No. 13 Texas A&M, which was still in the running for the conference title when the day began.
But they tightened their defense on Aggies post player Kelsey Bone after she scored four quick baskets. They also made tough, clutch shots from near and far while holding the lead — anywhere from one to 12 points — throughout the second half.
“After those four baskets, there was a timeout,” said Bone, a powerful 6-foot-4 center, who finished with 14 points. “You could tell after that they were more focused on me.”
UT didn’t lose sight of the big picture, either. It was intent on turning Senior Night into SEC Night — intent on proving those preseason predictions wrong.
Blair said he didn’t fall in line with the consensus preseason thinking.
“I picked Tennessee second behind Kentucky,” he said.
But the Lady Vols were second to no one in the league Thursday night. And they had the netting to prove it.