Burdick leads Tennessee past Kentucky in SEC semis 75-64
NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) Holly Warlick has wanted nothing more than to show the country that it shouldn't forget about No. 5 Tennessee following a season-ending knee injury to standout center Isabelle Harrison.
The Lady Vols earned the right to make their coach's case on a national stage by reaching the women's Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game with a 75-64 win over No. 12 Kentucky on Saturday night.
Tennessee (27-4) did so behind 20 points and 11 rebounds from senior Cierra Burdick, who finished in double figures in points for the fifth time in six games since Harrison's injury.
It's the 23rd time in 35 seasons the defending tournament champion Lady Vols have reached the final, where they'll face a rematch with No. 3 South Carolina - which defeated Tennessee 71-66 in Columbia two weeks ago.
The game will feature a battle for the tournament championship, automatic NCAA Tournament berth and possibly a No. 1 seed.
''This team understands and respects (Harrison's) talent, and she's been our All-American,'' Warlick said. ''But I think you see the talent that we have; we've never at Tennessee built a program around one person.''
Despite Harrison's continued absence, second-seeded Tennessee - which has won the tournament 17 times - won for the fifth time in six games. It did so behind Burdick, who was 8 of 14 from the field, as well getting 13 points from Jordan Reynolds.
''Obviously, with (Harrison) going out, that's like a sister to me and it's hard to see a sister go out,'' Burdick said. ''I think I'm definitely playing with a chip on my shoulder for her.''
Bria Goss led the No. 12 Wildcats (23-9), who lost in the championship game last year, with 16 points.
Kentucky is now 1-7 against Tennessee in the SEC tournament, with its lone win giving the school its only tournament championship in 1982.
The Wildcats led by as many as six points in the first half before the Lady Vols pulled ahead for good and took a 31-24 halftime lead. Linnae Harper added 15 points and Jennifer O'Neill had 11 for Kentucky, which was 26 of 76 (34.2 percent) from the field.
''Tennessee is a great team, they play great defense,'' Kentucky forward Jelleah Sidney said. ''But I think we were just rushing a little too much.''
Goss cut Tennessee's lead to 43-38 early in the second half with a drive and three-point play, but the Lady Vols responded with a 16-8 run to go up 59-46 and put the game out of reach. Reynolds capped the run with a deep 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down, much to the delight of the overwhelmingly pro-Tennessee crowd in Verizon Arena.
From there, free throws helped secure the win for the Lady Vols - who were 18 of 20 overall from the foul line.
Tennessee already owned a pair of victories this season over Kentucky, but the Wildcats - playing their third game in three days - stayed close early. O'Neill tied the game at 20-20 with a jumper late in the first half, but the Lady Vols responded with an 8-0 run - capped by Burdick's second 3-pointer of the half.
''We just couldn't get the ball in the basket,'' Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said.
Kentucky: After scoring 31 points in a quarterfinal win over Mississippi State, Makayla Epps finished with 10 points on 4-of-13 shooting on Saturday. The sophomore also had five turnovers to go along with five assists.
Tennessee: The Lady Vols are 17-5 in SEC tournament championship games. They would own half of the league's tournament titles with a win over No. 3 South Carolina on Sunday.
Tennessee has won 12 of 13 games overall, with the only loss during that stretch being the game against South Carolina. The Lady Vols haven't forgotten the loss, and Burdick said they gained confidence from the emotional game. ''We wanted this, and we asked for it,'' Burdick said. ''And now we're getting what we asked for.''
Kentucky now waits to hear its NCAA Tournament destination.
Tennessee faces No. 3 South Carolina for the tournament title on Sunday.