- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Tennessee seniors Vicki Baugh and Glory Johnson talk about the team playing up to its potential and making it to the SEC title game again.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The tantalizing promise of what Tennessee is "supposed" to look like has bloomed and then withered more than a few times in 2011-12. But maybe what the Lady Vols are showing now in the SEC tournament really is the full flower and could be here to stay for the postseason.
The second-seeded Orange Crush -- backed by a crowd that made Bridgestone Arena here in Music City sound like Thompson-Boling Arena back in Knoxville -- beat No. 6 seed South Carolina 74-58 in Saturday's second semifinal.
It avenged a 64-60 loss to the Gamecocks on Feb. 2, just as Friday's quarterfinal victory over Vanderbilt was payback for Tennessee's 93-79 loss to the Commodores on Feb. 9.
It sets up a rematch with No. 4 seed LSU, but there's not really a "revenge" factor there; Tennessee beat the Lady Tigers 65-56 on Jan. 19 in Knoxville. Besides that, Sunday's final (ESPN2, 6 p.m. ET) matches close friends: LSU coach Nikki Caldwell is a former Tennessee player and assistant. She and Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick have that long history, plus their "motorcycle mama" camaraderie. The two have raised more than $250,000 for cancer research with their "Cruisin' for a Cause" long-distance rides.
Caldwell really is about to become a mama; her baby is due March 24. Normally before a game, she and Warlick would chat with each other. But not this time.
"It's going to be different, because I'm not calling her tonight or tomorrow," Warlick said, smiling. "Nikki has done a great job; she prides herself and her team on defense and rebounding. I love Nikki Caldwell, but she's not going to be a great friend of mine tomorrow. Maybe after the game."
Of course, Warlick has handled a great deal of the sideline duties this season as head coach Pat Summitt is coping with her battle against dementia. And there have been some trying times on court for the Lady Vols, such as that game last month against South Carolina when Tennessee's defense wilted and its offense dried up in the final minutes.
As recently as Feb. 23, Tennessee lost at home to Arkansas, 72-71 in overtime. The next game, Tennessee's regular-season finale and senior day, the team's five seniors -- Glory Johnson, Vicki Baugh, Shekinna Stricklen, Alicia Manning and Briana Bass -- all started. Tennessee won 75-59 and has stuck with that starting lineup through its two games in the SEC tournament as well.
Johnson led the way Saturday with 23 points and 10 rebounds. Stricklen had 16 and five, and Baugh eight and 10. Tennessee led by six at halftime, then stayed on the gas pedal throughout the second half.
All the seniors except Bass played at least 27 minutes; she was in for nine, with freshman Ariel Massengale playing 30.
However, emotionally, all the seniors seem to be equally part of this last big push to make a statement about what type of team Tennessee is as they finish their college careers.
"The first half, Vicki Baugh just dominated," Warlick said. "And Glory continues to amaze me; just when I think she's played as hard as she can, she keeps taking it to the next level.
"I go back to our defensive effort; South Carolina is a very athletic, well-coached team, and we weren't ready to guard them in Knoxville. We got into foul trouble and just couldn't get into a rhythm. We've gone back and really put in the time with our defense. You're seeing it pay off."
Holly Warlick talks about the senior leadership in Saturday's win over South Carolina, plus praises the Tennessee fans showing up in big numbers in Nashville. Saturday's session drew 11,029 fans.
Familiar foe awaits in the SEC final
In LSU, Tennessee will face another team that has focused hard on defense. The Lady Tigers allowed Arkansas 40 points in the quarterfinals and held No. 1 seed Kentucky to 16 points in the first half of their semifinal. The Wildcats finished with 61, but they never seemed in sync offensively all game Saturday. And defensively, Kentucky was just as frustrated, again and again sending LSU to the foul line. The Lady Tigers shot 43 free throws to just 13 for Kentucky.
Such a wide disparity likely had more than one Wildcats fan howling mad, but it pointed out how important it is to resist having a game be dictated by LSU's slowdown pace and physicality.
"We have to stay strong with the ball, and try to get to the line," Johnson said of facing the Lady Tigers. "We'll have to figure out how LSU will guard us, and focus on the small things."
Small things, though, are rarely "small" in reality for a basketball game or an entire season. Hustle plays, avoiding careless turnovers, setting a tone that doesn't waiver all could be labeled as small. But all will make a big difference in Sunday's showdown for the SEC title.
It will be a testament, for sure, to the Tennessee way of doing things, even if one of the practitioners of that is now representing the purple and gold of LSU.
"Our ties come back to Tennessee," said Caldwell about herself and Warlick, both natives of the state. "The dynamics of women's basketball have been so impacted by Coach Summitt. There's nothing more remarkable than when you see the lineage that she has, and it will continue to filter throughout this sport."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
18dBonnie D. Ford