As Tennessee raced around the Bridgestone Arena floor for a victory lap, Shekinna Stricklen and Glory Johnson led the pack, carrying a Southeastern Conference poster.
It was only fitting given that the duo carried the 13th-ranked Lady Vols to a 70-58 victory over LSU in the championship game of the SEC Women’s Tournament on Sunday night. The veterans combined for 36 points as they and their teammates claimed their third straight SEC tournament crown and 16th overall in front of a title-game record 12,441 fans.
Johnson, a graduate student and the tournament MVP, scored a game-high 20 points and had 11 rebounds. Stricklen scored 14 of her 16 in the second half.
With No. 4 seed LSU (22-10) hanging on and trailing 60-56 with 2:04 left, Stricklen, a senior, dashed LSU’s hopes. The all-tournament selection and last year’s tournament MVP, she scored the next five points and knocked down an open 3-pointer from the right wing for a nine-point lead with 57 seconds remaining.
“They’ve been in that situation time after time again and they keep coming up with big plays,” Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick said. “As coaches, we’d be kind of crazy not to go to who got you there.”
The second-seeded Lady Vols (24-8) never trailed after the 5:42 mark in the first half and led by seven in the opening minutes of the second half. But the Tigers rallied with a 9-2 run and tied the game 41-41 on Theresa Plaisance’s 3-pointer with 15:29 left.
“I saw fight in them,” LSU’s first-year head coach Nikki Caldwell, a former Tennessee standout, said. “I can’t tell you enough how much this group has been hit with adversity, and even [Sunday] they were hit with a little adversity.”
Adversity struck just moments later when, trailing 45-41, LSU senior forward LaSondra Barrett suffered a scary injury. After missing a basket in the paint she fell to the ground. As she began to get up, she caught an inadvertent knee to the head from Johnson with 14:18 to go.
Barrett immediately covered her head and stayed on the floor as medical staff treated her for 10 minutes. She was placed on a stretcher, carted off and sent to a nearby hospital. As she was wheeled off, LSU’s leading scorer raised her arm and waved to the crowd, who gave her a standing ovation.
“They’re going to monitor her and make sure she’s OK,” Caldwell said. “I know she went down pretty hard.”
LSU guard Adrienne Webb, who had a team-high 16 points, immediately responded after the stoppage with a 3-pointer to pull within one.
“We could have easily folded after LaSondra went down,” Webb said. “But we took it as a challenge, to no go out there and quit, but give it our all, put our hearts into the game.”
But that was as close as the Tigers got. Stricklen scored on consecutive possessions with the shot clock winding down. UT’s leading scorer accounted for seven straight points in a 9-0 run and gave the Lady Vols much needed breathing room.
Stricklen’s second-half surge was not uncommon over the last three days. Just two of her 52 points in the tournament came in the first half.
“[Assistant coach] Mickie [DeMoss] coaches the first half and I coach the second,” Warlick joked.
“I think I always start the game tense,” Stricklen said. “I overthink because I want to come out strong. I think I’m overthinking, overdoing it. It takes me a while to relax. Once I relax, I get it going in the second half.”
After the game, SEC commissioner Mike Slive presented legendary UT coach Pat Summitt with the tournament trophy after kissing the coach on the cheek and saying, “You are the finest coach in the history of college basketball.”
The 59-year-old Summitt, who was diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type last August, thrilled the UT faithful when she climbed the ladder and cut down the nets.
Winning the tournament crown is nothing new for arguably women basketball’s greatest program. But this one meant more. Not only because of Summitt’s diagnosis but the Lady Vols had experienced an up-and-down regular season. They lost four league games for just the second time in 15 years and dropped home games to Arkansas and South Carolina for the first time in school history.
“A lot of people don’t expect a lot out of us just because of how many losses we have and who we’ve lost to,” Johnson said. “We want to show people that we haven’t stopped working and every day we go back to work and practice and try to work on the little things. We’re just trying to make a statement.”