There was bountiful cause for Tennessee celebration Thursday night.
Senior guard Kamiko Williams rose to the Senior Night occasion, scoring a career-high 18 points to lead five double-figure scorers.
Yet after the stepladder was ascended, a net was harvested and the team had finished the postgame festivities before the remnants of 12,213 at Thompson-Boling Arena, there were two lingering reasons for the Lady Vols to be concerned.
Point guard Ariel Massengale and center Isabelle Harrison suffered right knee injuries during the second half. Although both players actually took their turn on the ladder, Warlick offered no word afterward on their condition.
“It’s what we’ve been battling and dealing with all year,” Warlick said.
On the other hand, they weren’t overly burdened by expectations. The Lady Vols were picked to finish fourth in the preseason by the media and fifth by the coaches. They had to create a higher standard for themselves.
“They didn’t like being picked fifth so they had a little chip on their shoulder,” said Warlick, who became the second women’s coach in league history to win a regular-season championship in her rookie season. “So they went to work.”
They had a strong offensive performance to show for their effort against the Aggies.
Along with Williams, Meighan Simmons scored 17 points and Cierra Burdick had 15 for No. 8 Tennessee (23-5, 14-1 SEC). Bashaara Graves added 14 and Harrison scored 10 before departing with 1:52 left.
Overall, UT shot 57.1 percent from the floor in the second half and 48.5 percent for the game (33-for-68).
They needed virtually all of their points and efficiency since No. 13 Texas A&M (21-8, 11-4) also mustered four double-digit scorers and shot 47.8 percent (32-for-67). Guard Adrienne Pratcher, who’s from Memphis, scored a team-high 20 points.
“It was as good a basketball game as you’re going to see in the SEC,” Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said.
The Lady Vols began the game in chase mode. They gained traction when Burdick began gathering rebounds as if they were precious stones. She had nine in the first half and finished with a game-high 14. Nine were offensive rebounds. The 6-foot-2 sophomore forward was vital to UT’s two biggest offensive advantages: a 25-7 edge in bench scoring and an 18-10 advantage in second-chance points.
“Dang! C!” said Graves, who then shared her nickname with her teammate by saying: “She’s a beast. That says it all.”
After six ties and seven lead changes, UT overcame its biggest deficit (30-25) by scoring 12 of the first half’s final 14 points.
The Lady Vols led by as many as 12 points in the second half. But an Aggies rally, which cut the lead to 66-62, coincided with Massengale crumpling to the floor in pain. She was helped off with 7:44 left.
The lead was 78-72 when Harrison slipped down after leaping for a pass.
Warlick said some of the players were crying over the injuries. They might have shed tears but they didn’t lose their resolve.
“I think the fact that almost everyone has gone down to some sort of injury this year at some point has helped us become fighters,” senior Taber Spani said.
After the victory, Warlick seemed at a loss to describe the moment, referring to it as “surreal.”
Warlick mentioned former coach Pat Summitt, who was out of town and didn’t attend the game. Most of all, though, she paid tribute to her players.
They were cause for celebration.