Shyra Ely leads the Lady Vols with 25 points
Milestones can wait for Pat Summitt. The Tennessee coach has a Southeastern Conference tournament championship to celebrate for the first time in five years. Tennessee beat top-ranked LSU 67-65 on Sunday in the SEC final, moving Summitt within a victory of Dean Smith’s career record with her 878th win.
“Nothing has broken the spirit of this team. I’ve worked them hard and they’ve bought into it. That’s more important to me right now than numbers,” Summitt said. “I’m glad to get up on the ladder and do something other than wash windows. I got to cut down the nets.”
The fifth-ranked Lady Vols (26-4) had been in LSU’s shadow this season ever since Feb. 10 when the Lady Tigers had their way i
nside in the 68-58 defeat. And while Summitt never focused on payback, the loss galvanized her team, which has won its past eight games since. “Our philosophy is to take that and learn from it,” Summitt said. “We went back to work and became a better basketball team because of that loss.
That’s when I saw a team that understood we can not do this individually.” Those lessons were evident late in this one. Trailing 65-61 with 1:28 left, Tennessee rallied with Shanna Zolman’s 3-pointer and Shyra Ely’s fast-break layup to move in front 66-65. LSU (29-2) had the play it wanted the next time down, but a wide-open Sylvia Fowles couldn’t handle Temeka Johnson’s pass beneath the basket. Alexis Hornbuckle collected the loose ball for Tennessee and made a foul shot for the final points.
Scholanda Hoston had a straightaway 3-point try at the end that hit hard off the rim and bounced away, ending LSU’s 16-game winning streak – and possibly its hopes for landing the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament. Ely, who led Tennessee with 25 points, grabbed the ball after the horn sounded and flung it high into the stands, as her teammates jumped high in celebration. “It’s been a long time since Tennessee has done this, not just here, at any tournament,” Zolman said. No one on the roster was around for the team’s last tournament title. While they’ve gone to the past three Final Fours, Zolman says anything short of victory doesn’t cut it.
Summitt, who won her 11th SEC tournament crown, is a good bet to at least tie Smith, the longtime North Carolina men’s coach, as the leading winner in Division I when the NCAA tournament begins in two weeks. LSU players sat quietly on the bench as the tournament trophies were given out. Ely was named the SEC torment’s MVP.
Then Tye’sha Fluker and Shanna Zolman paraded an SEC logo around the court in triumph. “I feel like we let something go that should’ve been ours,” Johnson said. Seimone Augustus had 23 points to lead LSU while Johnson had 13 points and 12 assists. The loss by LSU (29-2) finished a bad Sunday for No. 1 teams. On the men’s side, top-ranked Illinois lost its perfect season with a 65-64 defeat at Ohio State. For so long, Tennessee dominated the Lady Tigers, winning 29 of 34 games between 1977 and 2002.
But over the past few seasons, the LSU-Tennessee game has grown into the SEC’s most anticipated matchup. The Lady Tigers first showed their power at the 2002 SEC tournament, defeating Tennessee 81-80 in the semifinals. Next year came a rematch for the tournament title with LSU on top again, 78-62. But in the Final Four last spring, Tennessee outlasted the Lady Tigers 52-50 when LSU point guard Temeka Johnson turned the ball over and LaToya Davis scored with 1.6 seconds left to save the Lady Vols.
This year’s regular-season matchup was seen by a 15,233 at LSU, the biggest Lady Tigers’ crowd in history. So it was no surprise when neither team could get very far ahead of the other for most of this one. There were 16 ties. LSU’s biggest lead came at the half, 37-31, and Tennessee quickly erased that in the first 5 minutes of the second half to retake the lead, 42-41. The Lady Vols never got up by more than 51-47, a lead that also didn’t last long. Summitt said both Tennessee and LSU deserve No. 1 seeds for the NCAA tournament.
Augustus says the Lady Tigers will use the break between tournaments to regroup. “It’s a learning experience that no one wants to experience,” she said. “Of course we’ll bounce back.” They just might find Tennessee waiting there when they do.