Shekinna Stricklen is glad to finally have something to brag about after all the struggles she and her Tennessee teammates have been through the past few seasons.
With an 80-60 win against LSU on Sunday, the No. 4 Lady Volunteers wrapped up an undefeated SEC season for only the ninth time in coach Pat Summitt’s 37 seasons.
“That shows a lot right there,” Stricklen said. “This class, this team, we’ve been through a lot. It’s good to finally put something in the record books as a good thing. It just shows we’re more mature and we’re playing better as a team and we’re more committed now.”
Stricklen and eight of her current teammates were part of the squad that became the first and only Tennessee team to be eliminated in the first round NCAA tournament after a loss to Ball State in 2009. The Lady Vols finished fourth in the SEC that year after five conference losses.
Now the Lady Vols (28-2, 16-0) are in good shape for the SEC and NCAA tournaments after beating their conference foes by an average 24.1 points. They’re also the first team to log 16 SEC victories in a season after it added two games to each team’s league schedule last season.
“We didn’t set out for that, but you have to give this team a lot of credit,” Summitt said. “Overall, I think their focus and maturity has really helped us to be successful. This team has good chemistry. They really want to win as a team, and it shows.”
Tennessee needed a strong post game to beat LSU 73-65 to open the SEC season on Jan. 2, but relied more on its outside shooting this time against the Lady Tigers (18-12, 8-8).
Stricklen had 17 points and 11 rebounds, Angie Bjorklund had 17 points in her final home game and Meighan Simmons added 10 points. Johnson scored 15 points and grabbed 16 rebounds to finish the SEC season with a double-double average of 13.7 points and 10.3 rebounds, the first Lady Vol to do so since Candace Parker averaged a double-double in 2007.
LSU was trying to get one more impressive regular season victory to make its case for a 13th straight appearance in the NCAA tournament. The Lady Tigers have big victories against Ohio State, UCLA and Georgia while logging a few bad losses and missed getting a first-round bye in the SEC tournament for the first time in 10 years.
The Lady Tigers had held their last eight SEC opponents to 55 or fewer points, but the Lady Vols had logged their 55th point of the game with 15:32 to go off a layup by Johnson.
That was mostly thanks to Tennessee’s first-half shooting. The Lady Vols hit 17 of its first 25 shots and 6 of 9 from 3-point range while holding LSU to 5-of-26 shooting during that stretch, and a 3 by Alicia Manning with 3:29 left in the first half gave them a 44-20 lead.
“I have been watching Tennessee since 1978, and I have never seen them shoot the ball like they did in the first half,” LSU coach Van Chancellor said. “They just shot lights out in the first half. If they can shoot like that all the way, they are going to be a contender for the big championship.”
After struggling against Tennessee’s man-to-man defense, the Lady Tigers settled down and made three straight 3-pointers in the span of 40 seconds, then a pair of free throws by LaSondra Barrett with 44 seconds to go before halftime cut the margin to 44-31.
Tennessee held its lead through the second half until LSU’s Courtney Jones hit a 3-pointer with 2:58 to make it 67-57. Stricklen hit a long jump shot, and Barrett answered with 2:21 remaining in the game, but the Lady Tigers scored only one more point the rest of the way.
Jones had 21 points and 12 rebounds, Adrienne Webb scored 17 points and Barrett added 15.
“It gave us a lot of energy to finish the first half strong, and coming out in the second half we still had that energy, but not all the shots were falling,” Webb said. “We were getting good looks, but they just weren’t going down.”