NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — DeWanna Bonner let fly with a long 3-pointer that dropped straight through the net, then backpedaled downcourt with her tongue out and her shooting hand extended.
Calm, tough and never intimidated, Bonner scored 26 points to lead No. 6 Auburn over No. 19 Tennessee 78-58 Saturday night. The Tigers went on a 21-4 run at the start of the second half to hand the Lady Vols their most lopsided loss in a Southeastern Conference tournament game.
“We were fully aware that you go through Tennessee to get to a championship, and that’s what we had to do tonight,” Auburn coach Nell Fortner said. “I felt like in the 20 minutes of the second half we understood that and played much better basketball.”
Auburn (29-2) advanced to the championship game at this event for the first time since winning the title in 1997.
Whitney Boddie scored 17 of her 19 points in the second half for the Tigers, including eight during their decisive run. Bonner sank her long 3-pointer to make it 60-41 with 9:04 remaining.
Angie Bjorklund scored 17 points for Tennessee (22-10), which led by five at halftime but ended up with a 20-point defeat. The Lady Vols lost to Alabama 85-66 in the 1984 SEC tournament, but this was one point worse.
“We went in at halftime feeling pretty good about what we had done,” Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. “The wheels fell off in the second half.”
The Auburn celebration really began at the start of a timeout with 3:34 remaining, when the Tigers came off the court exhorting their small section of fans to cheer louder. The Auburn band began playing “Ticket to Ride”—with Tennessee 20 points behind and facing certain elimination.
Auburn will bring that swagger into Sunday night’s championship game against No. 22 Vanderbilt.
Bjorklund scored all of her points in the second half, but that wasn’t nearly enough to keep it close. Summitt was annoyed enough with her team that she called a timeout with 2:38 remaining and the outcome no longer in doubt.
“I just didn’t want us to quit playing,” Summitt said. “I don’t care if there are three minutes left to go, it’s still a teaching moment. We caved in. We gave in in the second half.”
The first half went much better for Tennessee, which was seeded fifth in this tournament but appeared poised for an upset with the help of its usual crew of orange-clad fans. Despite an early injury to 6-foot-6 Kelley Cain, the Lady Vols led 31-26 at halftime.
“We saw a player go down and we never want to see that,” forward Alyssia Brewer said. “We knew that we had to come together and replace what Kelley would give us.”
Briana Bass, the Lady Vols’ 5-foot-2 guard, drove to the basket and scored after faking a pass to the perimeter. That started a 14-6 run to close the half that had Summitt pumping her fists as her team headed off the court.
Cain returned for Tennessee in the second half, but it was top-seeded Auburn that took control of the game. Boddie’s jumper put the Tigers ahead 35-33, and Bonner added a layup on a fast break for a 44-33 lead.
“Every game we’ve been here, they have the home-court advantage with all their fans,” said Bonner, Auburn’s career leader in scoring. “But our fans were awesome tonight. You could hear them as loud as the Tennessee fans.”
Tennessee lost five SEC regular season games this season for the first time — and missed out on a bye at the SEC tournament for the first time since 1997. The Lady Vols can take some solace in what happened that year: They lost to Auburn in the SEC tournament semifinals, then went on to win a surprising national title.
“I think we’re at the crossroads,” Summitt said. “We’ve got to decide who we are. Are we going to be a 40-minute team? Are we going to commit to our defense for 40 minutes? And we’ve got to make shots.”
For Auburn, the talk is now of another No. 1 seed—this one in the NCAA tournament. The Tigers still have another game to play against the SEC, but their resume seems to improve every time they take the court.
Auburn’s win was its second this year against the Lady Vols. The Tigers won the regular season matchup 82-68.
“Tennessee is a measuring stick for everybody, and I think that we measured up pretty well this year against ‘em,” Fortner said. “We’re building our program at Auburn, and we feel good about the direction we’re going.”