- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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DULUTH, Ga. -- For the first time since 2003, the champion of the SEC women's basketball tournament will come from someplace other than the state of Tennessee. And it took Gary Blair's second win over Tennessee in his long career as a head coach to ensure it.
The fourth-seeded Aggies started Saturday's semifinals with a 66-62 victory over No. 1 seed Tennessee. Then second-seeded Kentucky beat No. 3 seed Georgia 60-38. That sets up a championship matchup Sunday (ESPN2/WatchESPN, 6 p.m. ET) between a program that hasn't won this title since 1982 -- Kentucky beat Tennessee that year in the final -- and one that has never been SEC tourney champ.
Of course, that's because Texas A&M never had the chance before, having just joined the SEC this season. But the Aggies sure do have this league-tournament-final thing down: They've gotten that far six years in a row. The Aggies won the Big 12 tournament in 2008 and 2010, while losing to Baylor in 2009, '11 and '12.
Texas A&M left the Big 12 but didn't abandon its "Aggie War Hymn" song that celebrates beating a team -- longtime hated rival Texas -- they no longer face. Saturday, though, a part of the lyrics had to change only one word to match the Aggies' opponent.
"Goodbye to Tennessee University; so long to the orange and the white."
A Blair-coached team had beaten Tennessee just once previously: in 1996, when his Arkansas squad won in late December. The Lady Vols had 10 losses that season -- yet still went on to win the national championship.
In 2008, Blair's Texas A&M squad fell to Tennessee in the Elite Eight; the Lady Vols went on to their eighth NCAA title. Blair and the Aggies have since won a national championship of their own, in 2011.
By beating the Lady Vols on Saturday, Texas A&M put an end to a nine-year streak in which either Tennessee or Vanderbilt had won the SEC tournament. But to win their first tourney in this league, the Aggies must top a Kentucky team that beat them twice already this season and has won eight of its past nine games.
Kentucky had a lethargic start against Georgia in Saturday's second semifinal, but once the Wildcats woke up, they dominated the game.
"Basketball is no fun when you don't hit shots," Georgia coach Andy Landers said of his team's 22.2 percent clank-fest.
It was quite a contrast to Georgia's offensive performance in a 75-71 victory at Kentucky on Feb. 3. That loss stung the Wildcats, coming on their home court, and they refocused afterward. Their only loss since was at LSU on Feb. 24.
"We're very excited to be playing for the championship," Kentucky coach Matt Mitchell said. "We came down here with the intention of winning the tournament."
Bria Goss, a sophomore guard who started 22 games this season, has been coming off the bench since the loss to Georgia. She's part of the depth that has been so crucial for Kentucky (27-4).
"Ever since summer workouts, when we were getting up four times a week at 5 o'clock in the morning, we were talking about how this was what we wanted to do," Goss said of playing for the SEC tournament title.
Against Georgia, 12 Wildcats got into the game, and no one was on the court for more than 30 minutes.
"Our legs have to be at least as fresh as anybody's," Mitchell said. "So we have to use that to our advantage."
DeNesha Stallworth led Kentucky with 18 points; she and fellow interior starter Samarie Walker know what a tough matchup Texas A&M will be. The Aggies also have depth, as their victory against Tennessee showed.
"They are a lot like us," Walker said. "The only difference is we can push the pace a little bit longer."
Or at least the Wildcats hope they can. They beat Texas A&M 65-62 in Lexington, Ky., on Jan. 10, and then held off the Aggies 70-66 in College Station, Texas, on Feb. 18.
"That February game was one of the best games of the year," Mitchell said. "Very hostile environment. Very impressive place to go, Texas A&M. They had a great crowd that night."
Improving attendance is something both Blair and Mitchell devote significant time and energy to as coaches. Kentucky averaged 6,144 fans in their 17 home games this season. Texas A&M in the same amount of games averaged 5,439. In the women's college basketball world, those are very solid attendance figures.
These two schools being in the SEC final, though, might cause a drop in attendance from Saturday's 6,630 at The Arena at Gwinnett Center; Tennessee is consistently one of the biggest draws in the country, and Georgia is the "home" team with its campus just an hour away. But what both Blair and Mitchell have done to increase their programs' popularity is important to the sport as a whole.
"I think women's basketball is a grass-roots marketing effort," Mitchell said. "Give your fans a reason to come out and watch. They come because they connect to the players and appreciate their effort.
"And as a coach, you have to go wherever in the state someone will listen to you talk about your team. You have to tell them what your plans are, and have a style of play they can connect with. Plus, our university has given tremendous resources to market our program."
All of that is true of Blair and Texas A&M as well. The Aggies have broken through to a national championship, which is a goal the Wildcats have, too.
Yet both programs very much value an SEC tournament championship, too. Blair didn't win one in his 10 seasons at Arkansas, from 1993-2003. Mitchell, as either a head coach or assistant, has taken part in the SEC tournament 12 times.
"And I have watched many more than that," he said. "You can't believe how much respect I have for this tournament because of the teams I've seen cut down those nets. It is awfully tough to win, so this would be a huge step for our program."
16dBonnie D. Ford