- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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DULUTH, Ga. -- Tennessee had the No. 1 seed, acquired with gutsy play throughout its injury-plagued SEC season. The Lady Vols had the crowd support, with their contingent of orange-clad fans dwarfing the maroon group for Texas A&M. And they had Taber Spani having a career game, as she was trying to help Tennessee continue on the path to a fourth consecutive SEC tournament title.
What Tennessee didn't have enough of, though, were two things that have long been a staple of the Orange Crush: defense and rebounding. The deficit in those areas cost the Lady Vols a chance at another title.
"It boiled down to getting stops," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "And we couldn't get any stops."
Not when they most needed to, anyway. No. 4 seed and SEC newcomer Texas A&M defeated Tennessee 66-62 Saturday, sending the Aggies to their sixth consecutive league tournament title game. The past five, of course, were in the Big 12.
But in their first season in the SEC, the Aggies have turned a late-season slump into a postseason surge. Frankly, it probably doesn't thrill the SEC tournament organizers that Tennessee won't be in Sunday's final in The Arena at Gwinnett Center. Lady Vols fans always lead the pack in attendance, no matter where the tournament is held.
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair took the opportunity in his postgame news conference to implore Tennessee backers to still come to the title game. But that might be a bit too painful for the Lady Vol supporters hoping to see a happy ending in the SEC for Spani and fellow senior Kamiko Williams.
Now, Tennessee has to get back off the mat -- which the Lady Vols already have done a few times this season -- shake off the disappointment and prepare for the NCAA tournament.
The Lady Vols (24-7) are hosting the NCAA early rounds in Knoxville, Tenn., on March 23 and 25. And they've certainly proven this season that when they're playing well, they have the talent to go deep into the NCAA tournament. But they've also shown some vulnerabilities, and that's what Texas A&M took advantage of Saturday in a hard-fought, entertaining game that had the spectators engaged from start to finish.
Spani played the game of her college career, hitting 11 of 13 shots and all six of her free throws for 33 points. She also had eight rebounds and was on the court for all 40 minutes.
"I was trying to do everything I could to keep us in the game and hopefully with a [win]," Spani said. "But it was just a little bit short."
Warlick said of the loss on a career-high scoring day for Spani: "I hate it for Taber. I thought she played an outstanding game. She's battled injuries her whole career here. She still has a little bit of a back problem. Taber is a competitor. I don't know how much more she could have done for us."
Junior Meighan Simmons was the only other Tennessee player to score in double figures; she had 10 points, but those came on 4-of-12 shooting. Fellow guard Ariel Massengale was one of six from the field for two points. Take away Spani's sharpshooting, and the Lady Vols were at 30.2 percent from the field.
Part of Tennessee's offensive problem was that Texas A&M took care of the ball well and didn't give the Lady Vols many transition opportunities off Aggie turnovers. Still, when the teams met in Knoxville on Feb. 28, the turnover numbers were exactly the same as they were Saturday: Texas A&M had nine and Tennessee 15.
The biggest difference between that 82-72 Tennessee victory and Saturday's Aggies' triumph was rebounding. The Lady Vols won the battle of the boards in the matchup at Thompson-Boling Arena 40-24. Saturday, the Aggies prevailed 42-31 on the glass, led by senior Kristi Bellock's 12. She also had 12 points.
"Sometimes, she gets the quietest double-doubles you've ever seen," Blair said of Bellock, who is finally getting her chance to play this season after being behind so many other top players at Texas A&M. "She's a kid who's waited her [turn]. Good things are happening to her."
Same for Texas A&M, which lost four of its last five games before the SEC tournament. The loss at Tennessee was the game that clinched the regular-season league title for the Lady Vols, but Blair said his team's depth had him feeling confident coming into the SEC tournament.
The Aggies had four players score in double figures Saturday, led by freshman Courtney Walker with 18. And when Spani was proving nearly impossible to slow down, Blair went to the bench for his quickest player, guard Tori Scott, who did not play in the first half. She put in six important minutes guarding Spani, which helped the Aggies a lot.
"We said, 'Don't leave her; don't let her breathe,'" Blair said of Scott's instructions about marking Spani.
That did slow Spani, but as Warlick said, there wasn't much more the senior could have done for the Lady Vols. They needed better play from other areas, and it would have also been a huge aid if center Isabelle Harrison were healthy enough to play. She is dealing with a knee injury.
"We thought we had a chance to get her back this weekend," Warlick said. "We had a practice on Thursday, and somebody ran into her and tweaked her knee again. I think we'll have her for the NCAA tournament. The next two weeks will be huge for her to rest and rehab and get her knee solid."
It will also be important time for the Lady Vols to solidify their defense and work on some of the basics that always have been so crucial for this program.
"This team is resilient," Spani said. "This one hurts right now. Probably going to hurt for a couple of days. Honestly, we wanted to go 4-for-4 [in the SEC tournament] -- Kamiko and I as a class.
"[But] NCAA championships are why you play. I think the biggest part of our season is still left to come."