No. 8 Tennessee 82, No. 13 Texas A&M 72

Forgive Tennessee coach Holly Warlick if she wasn’t quite sure
how to respond Thursday night.

”It was a little bit of disbelief,” said Warlick after her
eighth-ranked Lady Vols beat No. 13 Texas A&M 82-72 to clinch
their 17th Southeastern Conference regular-season title.

This may seem like an annual tradition in Knoxville, but Warlick
hadn’t experienced it before as a head coach. She spent the last 27
years as an assistant on Pat Summitt’s staffs before taking over
the program this season.

”I guess I didn’t know how to act. … It’s a little surreal to
me right now.”

The Lady Vols (23-5, 14-1) had already wrapped up a share of
their 17th conference crown Sunday and with the win earned the No.
1 seed in the conference tournament that begins Wednesday in
Duluth, Ga.

Warlick is the second SEC rookie women’s coach to win a
conference title, matching the 2005 accomplishment of former LSU
coach Pokey Chatman.

Tennessee, a perennial conference favorite, wasn’t expected to
win the SEC title in the first year of the post-Summitt era.

Summitt, who led the Lady Vols to eight national titles in 38
seasons, stepped down last April after announcing in 2011 she had
early-onset dementia. She remains on staff as head coach emeritus
and is in the stands for virtually every home game, though she was
out of town Thursday.

The Lady Vols also didn’t return a single player who started an
NCAA tournament game last year in their run to the regional finals.
SEC coaches predicted Tennessee would finish fifth in the league
and Tennessee was fourth in the preseason media poll.

”Holly deserves all the credit,” Texas A&M coach Gary
Blair said. ”She’s got the hardest job in America. Remember how
many people tried to replace John Wooden? They’re still trying to
replace him. You’ve got the right person in Holly. She’s doing a
great job, because Pat Summitt is our John Wooden.”

The Lady Vols outperformed preseason expectations by scoring in
bunches and relying on a balanced attack. That formula worked again
Thursday.

Kamiko Williams scored a career-high 18 points to lead five Lady
Vols in double figures. Cierra Burdick added 15 points and 14
rebounds to help Tennessee outrebound Texas A&M 44-27. Meighan
Simmons scored 17 points, Bashaara Graves had 14 and Isabelle
Harrison added 10.

”We’re finally proving to everybody that this is a team that
means business,” Burdick said. ”We’re here to win championships,
and that’s what we plan on doing.”

This represented the final regular-season home game for Williams
and Taber Spani, who exchanged high-fives with fans in the front
row as the Lady Vols cut the nets to celebrate their title.

Both seniors were honored before the game with their families in
a ceremony that included Spani’s brother-in-law, 2012 Heisman
Trophy finalist and former Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein.
Williams responded by shooting 8 of 13 and pulling down seven
rebounds to go along with her 18 points.

”I think it was her best game by far,” Warlick said. ”She had
to play long minutes. She was tired, but she battled back. Any
other game (earlier) in her career, she’d have been pulling her
shirt to come out. She didn’t do that today. She didn’t want
out.”

The Lady Vols overcame injuries to point guard Ariel Massengale
and center Isabelle Harrison, who both appeared to hurt their right
knees in the second half. There was no immediate word on the extent
of their injuries.

”Our team was pretty upset, especially right after Izzy
(Harrison) went out, to have two of our players go down,” Warlick
said. ”Some of them were crying or upset, but they held on, and
that’s the resilience of this team. They’ve been hit and knocked
down, and they just keep getting back up.”

Adrienne Pratcher scored 20 points, Kelsey Bone had 14, Courtney
Williams 13 and Courtney Walker 12 for Texas A&M (21-8, 11-4).
The Aggies lost for the third time in their past four games.

Tennessee and Texas A&M have spent the season battling for
the SEC lead with No. 10 Kentucky, so it came as no surprise that
Thursday’s game went back and forth.

”It was as good of a basketball game as you’re going to see in
the SEC,” Blair said.