KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Pat Summitt had a secret goal this season for her Lady Vols: 20 wins.
Her squads had done it for the past 33 consecutive seasons with few problems. After many painful losses, this year’s team—her youngest ever— managed the feat in the final game of the regular season with a 75-66 win over No. 19 Vanderbilt on Sunday night.
“I normally don’t set goals for how many games, but my goal was 20 wins,” Summitt said. “I kind of sat on that. I didn’t talk about it much, and there was a time I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t know if we’ll get 20 wins or not.”’
The win also helped the 18th-ranked Lady Vols (20-9, 9-5 Southeastern Conference) remain perfect against the Commodores (21-8, 10-4) in Knoxville and avoid a season sweep by their interstate rival. Vanderbilt beat Tennessee for only the seventh time in history, 74-58 in Nashville on Jan. 11.
Summitt was so angry after that loss she made the Lady Vols launder their own practice clothes, the first of many creative motivational tactics she tried this season to little avail.
She surprised her players at courtside before the game dressed head-to-toe in the signature Tennessee orange, prompting chuckles from the players. Summitt declared it a good-luck charm.
“That’s all I’m wearing for the rest of the season,” she said. “I thought, ‘Can I do this? I did take my orange shoes off.”
Even with the lucky orange and the win, Tennessee finished the season with its worst SEC record and will play Alabama on Thursday in the first round of the conference tournament—the Lady Vols second appearance in the opening round.
Vanderbilt, which was tabbed by the league coaches in the preseason to win the SEC, fell one conference win shy of tying its record for SEC victories and finished second behind Auburn, receiving a first-round bye in the league tournament.
Tennessee dominated the boards, grabbing 48 rebounds to Vanderbilt’s 20.
“It really came to rebounding,” Commodores coach Melanie Balcomb said. “They really pounded the glass, and we just didn’t get the job done on the boards. I think that was the difference in the game, because I think we beat them in a lot of other areas.”
Shekinna Stricklen, who led Tennessee with 18 points, hit a fast-break jumper to give Tennessee a 57-48 lead with 9:28 left in the game.
“In the first half, I was having trouble breathing, but coach was getting on me and told me that it wasn’t an excuse, and she told me that I just had to play through it,” Stricklen said.
Vanderbilt went on an 8-0 run, and Meredith Marsh hit 3-pointer with 7:02 left to cut the margin to 57-56, but the Lady Vols responded by going on a 16-3 run.
Alex Fuller, the lone senior honored on senior night, had a double-double for Tennessee with 17 points and 14 rebounds. Angie Bjorklund added 16 points and Kelley Cain had 15.
Christina Wirth led Vanderbilt with 20 points. Merideth Marsh added 13 points and Tia Gibbs had 12.
Vanderbilt, which averaged 46.4 percent shooting this season, managed only 38.5 percent against Tennessee.
“Good shooters keep shooting, and I have confidence in all of our players,” Wirth said.
The Commodores scored 23 points off of 17 Lady Vols turnovers while committing only nine of their own.
“I think that’s a really good effort,” Balcomb said.