LEXINGTON, Ky. — As threats go, Pat Summitt’s halftime message to No. 4 Tennessee on Monday night after watching the Lady Volunteers turn it over 17 times in the opening 20 minutes against No. 15 Kentucky registered pretty high on the “uh-oh” scale.
“It was very intense,” said Tennessee forward Shekinna Stricklen. “She said you really don’t want to be at practice with me tomorrow (if this keeps up).”
Stricklen did her best to put her coach at ease, scoring 18 of her 20 points in the second half as Tennessee overcame major turnover trouble to hold off the Wildcats 73-67.
The Lady Vols (22-2, 10-0 Southeastern Conference) ended up turning it over 24 times, but just seven times in the second half to win their 13th straight.
“I love the fact that we had halftime, because we addressed that (turnover) issue,” Summitt said. “I think everyone was a lot more focused in the second half. They shortened their passes and did a much better job of getting the ball inside and not jacking the ball up.”
Meighan Simmons added 15 points for Tennessee, including the clinching free throws with 14.5 seconds left. She turned it over nine times, three times her season average, but gave it away just once in the last 8 minutes after a brief heart-to-heart with her coach.
“The only thing she said to me was keep my composure, sometimes I go 1,000 miles an hour,” Simmons said. “She said just be patient.”
Victoria Dunlap led Kentucky (18-5, 7-3) with 20 points and A’dia Mathies added 18 points, but the undersized Wildcats had their seven-game winning streak snapped once the bigger Lady Vols gained their composure late in the second half.
Kentucky took a 59-58 lead with 6:10 remaining but Tennessee went on an 8-2 run fueled by a pair of baskets from Kamiko Williams and held on.
“We started out strong with a lot of energy and intensity,” Dunlap said. “In the second half … it was a mixture of them taking care of the ball and us letting up.”
It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t pretty. Kentucky made it that way.
Using the fullcourt pressure that has helped coach Matthew Mitchell—a former assistant under Summitt—lead the program to prominence in the competitive SEC, the Wildcats pushed the pace at every opportunity, leaving the Lady Vols gassed at times.
It wasn’t enough, however, for Kentucky to repeat a 10-point win over the Lady Vols during Tennessee’s last visit to Memorial Coliseum in 2009.
“I’m not mad at them,” Mitchell said. “I’m just so disappointed.”
Still, Tennessee had enough even with senior guard Angie Bjorklund missing her third straight game with a sprained right foot.
The Lady Vols outrebounded the Wildcats 45-23, held Kentucky to 40 percent shooting and slowed down Dunlap, the reigning SEC Player of the Year, in the second half.
Dunlap scored just four points after the break and while Mathies did her best to keep the Wildcats in it, Tennessee’s size proved to be too much.
“It was priority for the first half, we didn’t quite get cranked up until the second half with what we needed to do (to stop her),” Summitt said. “She’s a great player and she’s going to knock down shots if you don’t really get up on her early or deny her touches. It’s hard to do that for a 40-minute game.”
Mathies hit a pair of free throws to give Kentucky a 59-58 lead but Johnson and Williams alternated buckets on Tennessee’s next four possessions to put Tennessee back up 67-61.
Kentucky drew as close as 69-67 on a lay-up by Mathies with 16 seconds to go but Simmons, who committed a career-high nine turnovers, atoned with two clutch free throws. Stricklen added two more free throws after Mathies turned it over and Tennessee escaped.
The Wildcats did their best to fluster the Lady Vols from the outset, forcing Tennessee into playing the frenetic style that makes playing Kentucky maddening at times.
It worked. The Wildcats rattled Tennessee so effectively even the easy plays proved difficult. Henderson threw a pass directly out of bounds during one sequence and Simmons missed wildly while tossing the ball to a wide-open Alicia Manning at the top of the key.
Still, the Lady Vols hung around thanks to their size advantage. With Bjorklund out, Tennessee opted to pound the Wildcats inside. The Lady Vols got whatever shot they wanted when they managed to hold onto the ball and despite Dunlap’s brilliance the Wildcats led just 33-30 at the break.