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.