NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Candace Parker scored 17 of her 25 points in the first half, and the No. 3 Tennessee Lady Vols will have a shot at their third Southeastern Conference tournament title in four years after beating instate rival No. 21 Vanderbilt 63-48 on Saturday night.
The victory also gives the Lady Vols (29-2) a rematch Sunday night against the last team to beat them in No. 7 LSU, a 66-49 winner over Kentucky in the other semifinal. LSU won the SEC regular season title by routing Tennessee 78-62 in Knoxville on Feb. 14.
Tennessee, which already has 12 SEC tourney championships, will be making its 18th appearance in the title game after knocking off the defending champion. Vanderbilt (23-8) lost for the first time in nine games at the Sommet Center, which is only a mile from its own gym.
It hasn’t mattered where the Commodores play Tennessee. Vanderbilt, whose five tournament titles are more than any other SEC school but Tennessee, had been trying to win this tourney again for the fourth time in seven years.
But the Commodores couldn’t sustain a hot start that had them leading by 10, and they wound up losing a 15th straight game in this series and the 46th in 62 games.
Alexis Hornbuckle added 14 points for Tennessee.
Jennifer Risper led Vanderbilt with 14 points and nine rebounds. Christina Wirth, the Commodores’ leading scorer with 13.1 points, was held to seven.
Even though Vanderbilt was playing so close to home, the biggest crowd ever to watch any SEC tourney session at 12,897 felt like Tennessee’s own court with orange filtering throughout and up to the upper deck.
This was much more a defensive struggle between the SEC’s top two scoring teams, especially in the second half. Tennessee hit only six of 27 against Vanderbilt, which is second only to LSU in scoring defense. But the Lady Vols held Vanderbilt to a season-low in total points and its worst 3-point shooting performance of the season (2-of-17).
The Commodores got within 39-33 on a 3-pointer by Wirth in the opening minutes of the second half. Nicky Anosike scored a three-point play, Risper picked up her third foul and went to the bench. Alberta Auguste put back a miss, and Alex Fuller hit a 3 with 13:33 left for a 47-35 lead that never dipped back into single digits again.
Parker hit four free throws, and Hornbuckle added a jumper midway through the second half for the Lady Vols’ biggest lead at 53-35.
Vanderbilt, which struggled to score points in its 49-44 quarterfinal win over Auburn on Friday night, opened with much more intensity against Tennessee. The Commodores hit five of their first eight shots, and Risper’s putback with 14:29 to go gave Vandy a 14-4 lead. They matched that at 18-8 on a layup by Jence Rhoads.
The Lady Vols, who hit only two of their first seven shots, settled down and got to work. Parker scored six points, and Hornbuckle and Bobbitt each hit a 3 in a 23-4 spurt that put Tennessee up 31-22 with 4:43 left. When Parker hit a 3 from the top of the key, that put the Lady Vols up by seven on the way to a 37-28 halftime margin.