Two years ago, after a stunning first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Ball State, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt wasn’t certain if her team possessed what it took to contend for a national championship.
On Sunday, the Lady Vols buried that doubt — literally.
Behind a school and Southeastern Conference tournament-best 16 3-pointers, they wrapped up a perfect conference season with a 90-65 victory over No. 16 Kentucky in the championship game at Bridgestone Arena.
In front of 11,150 fans — mostly wearing Tennessee orange — the Lady Vols captured their 15th tournament championship, won their 22nd straight game and pushed their league winning streak to 33 as they all but locked up a No. 1 seed for the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
“I still can almost chew on [the Ball State loss] every day if I wanted to,” Summitt said with a smile. “You know, I think it took something like that to wake this team up. Now you look at the experience we have in this junior class. They’ve invested. ... We have a team. They’ve bought into what it takes to be a champion.”
Against Kentucky, Tennessee (31-2) looked the part, shooting 54.6 percent from the field, including an astonishing 70.4 percent (19-of-27) in the second half. Angie Bjorklund tied a career-high with seven 3-pointers (out of eight attempts) for a game-high 23 points and tournament MVP Shekinna Stricklen added five 3-pointers and 19 points.
“I just can’t imagine when they’re shooting like they did [Sunday] that they’re not the best team in the country,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. “When they’re on, they are tough to beat.”
The game was physical and fast-paced early on as the Wildcats (24-8) hung tight in the first half. They forced 16 first-half turnovers and held tall and lanky Tennessee to just four points in the paint.
Kentucky sliced the deficit to 30-29 with 4:20 left before halftime with a 3-pointer from Bernisha Pinkett.
From there, Tennessee created some space, though. The Lady Vols ended the half on a 9-1 spurt. The last six points came from Alicia Manning, who had 11 points and 11 rebounds, as Tennessee took a 39-30 lead into halftime.
The Lady Vols carried that run over and scored the first five points of the second half. The Wildcats never recovered and the lost their shooting touch. They hit just 10 shots in the second half and shot 27.3 percent for the contest.
“We just let our offense affect our defense. It is tough,” Mitchell said. “You shoot 27 percent. It is just hard to get going. ... We shot under 40 percent in both of the [first two tournament] games to get here. It is pretty remarkable we’re here [in the title game]. It just caught up with us [Sunday], bad shooting.”
Pinkett and Brentwood Academy product Victoria Dunlap each scored 15 points for Kentucky, which reached the NCAA's Elite Eight a year ago. Tennessee, on the other hand, had four players in double figures (SEC Freshman of the Year Meighan Simmons had 16) and got 36 points from its bench.
“It is fun to play when you have the entire team coming in with focus and energy and everyone’s going for one goal,” Bjorklund said. “If we do that every single game ... I’m excited where this team is going to go.”
It appears to be in the chase for a national championship.
• Along with Stricklen, Tennessee’s Glory Johnson and Bjorklund were named to the All-Tournament Team. Dunlap and Vanderbilt’s Tiffany Clarke were also selected.
• Tennessee has captured both the regular-season and tournament championships in the same season seven times. The Lady Vols have won back-to-back tournaments for the first time since 2005-06.
• The four-day, 11-game conference tournament drew 42,140 fans.