- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Well, sure, it had to end this way Sunday. The same way the SEC women's basketball tournament had ended 15 times previously: with Tennessee coach Pat Summitt holding the trophy.
The second-seeded Lady Vols -- who lost four games during SEC regular-season play -- were not to be denied here in middle Tennessee, not that far from where Summitt grew up. They beat No. 4 seed LSU 70-58 at Bridgestone Arena, to the delight of the orange-clad among the 12,441 fans in attendance. Which was the bulk of the crowd.
They cheered Summitt at every opportunity -- when she walked in, when she got up to chastise the referees, when her picture was flashed on the giant video screen. And when the game ended, a spontaneous chant of "We love Pat!" swept through the arena.
Of course they love her. Summitt has spent her entire life in Tennessee, and no one has better symbolized consistent excellence for any university than she has. Sunday's victory meant Tennessee now has a "Sweet 16" collection of SEC championship trophies.
And because of Summitt's personality, she refuses to let this one be bittersweet. She's battling the cruelest of foes, dementia. But she has continued to be a motivating force for the Lady Vols, and that was evident at the SEC tournament. She told this group it was her favorite team. That could well be because she knows these players have had to do so much more without her voice and personality at full strength -- something no previous Tennessee squad has had to face.
"You should have seen us; we went crazy," Tennessee senior Shekinna Stricklen said of hearing that declaration from Summitt for a team that has lost eight games. "Just hearing her say that when we have let her down with not buying into the system, not being committed to defense. That's something we're trying to change, and the seniors are trying to lead the way."
They certainly did that throughout this SEC tournament. Glory Johnson, the tourney MVP, had 20 points and 11 rebounds Sunday, while Stricklen had 16 points, and Vicki Baugh 10 points and seven boards.
"We have a whole new mindset," Johnson said. "You can see it in our faces every time we step on the floor."
Speaking of new attitudes, though, LSU has that this season with coach Nikki Caldwell, a former player and assistant at Tennessee in her first year in Baton Rouge, La., after three seasons running the show at UCLA. Even though she's expecting a baby later this month, Caldwell never lacked for energy in exhorting the Lady Tigers to match Tennessee's effort. Which LSU did for the entire game, even after it lost senior standout LaSondra Barrett with just more than 14 minutes left in a scary accident in the paint.
Barrett fell down as she missed a shot, and as she tried to get up, her head collided with the knee of Johnson, who had turned around to run back up the court. Barrett had to be taken off the court on a stretcher and was sent to a hospital as a precautionary measure. LSU officials said Sunday evening that she had been cleared to fly home with the team.
The NCAA tournament will not start for almost two weeks, so hopefully Barrett will be ready to go for that. LSU definitely missed her when she went out -- she had nine points and four assists -- but the Lady Tigers still hung tough, trailing by just four points with 2:04 left.
That's when Stricklen stepped forward, hitting a jumper and then a 3-pointer; the latter, with 58 seconds left, was the shot that really sealed the victory for Tennessee.
"We had our ups and downs and struggles," Stricklen said of this season. "But this tournament proved a point: that this team is still together, and we're going to keep working hard."
The SEC final was really a celebration of Tennessee basketball, considering that two former Lady Vols -- Caldwell and assistant Tasha Butts -- are on the LSU staff. Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick and Caldwell are former co-workers who remain close friends.
"Last night I texted her, and I told her I hope her water broke so she wouldn't be on the court," Warlick said, laughing. "She texted me that it did, and she had a little point guard ready to play."
Actually, Caldwell doesn't yet know whether her baby baller will be a boy or a girl, although she could use another point guard of the grown-up female variety. LSU has had some bad luck against Tennessee this season, having lost senior point guard Destini Hughes to an ACL injury in LSU's regular-season loss in Knoxville, Tenn. Barrett, despite being 6 feet, 2 inches and listed as a forward, has filled that role at times since Hughes was hurt. But mostly, it has been a point guard by committee -- a lot of "improvising," as Caldwell puts it.
That's something she learned, though, in playing for and coaching with Summitt: You figure out how to deal with whatever you're facing. For Summitt, that now is something much bigger than basketball. But on a day such as Sunday, with confetti falling on the floor and the legendary coach cutting down yet another net, it was a good freeze-frame moment to just appreciate Summitt and her success.
Her Tennessee team won the SEC tournament the first time the event was played, back in 1980. It was held in February then, actually, just about two weeks before the U.S. hockey team's "Miracle on Ice" at the Lake Placid Olympics. It was starting to become evident even at that time that a miracle program was what Summitt was building in Knoxville.
Tennessee didn't yet have an NCAA tournament title then because that event wouldn't start for another two years. However, the Lady Vols had played well in the AIAW tournament the previous three seasons, placing third in 1977 and '79. They'd finish second nationally in 1980, which ended the college career of a feisty guard named Holly Warlick, a native of Knoxville. Who, of course, ended up being Summitt's right-hand assistant, starting her career as a Lady Vols coach in 1985.
All these years later, despite the larger role she has taken on this season, Warlick reminded everyone Sunday that, "Coach Summitt is still my boss. She still contributes every day. I told [the players] it's an honor to coach them, and it's an honor to coach beside Pat Summitt because of what she's done."
Including one more SEC title, adding to those that Summitt's teams won in 1980, '85, '88, '89, '92, '94, '96, '98, '99, '00, '05, '06, '08, '10 and '11.
"When I saw her cut that net down, it almost brought tears to my eyes," Stricklen said. "I was so happy. Glory and I looked at each other like, 'Wow.'"
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
15dBonnie D. Ford