By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
Cartell: Championship Notebook
When the final horn sounded at Bridgestone Arena on Sunday following Tennessee’s 70-58 victory against LSU in the championship game of the Southeastern Conference, head coach Pat Summitt climbed up on a ladder and cut down the net after her team had won its 16th league tournament title.
For the Lady Vols, who have made themselves perennial leaders-of-the-pack in the SEC, it seemed like a natural sight. The winningest coach in college basketball was hoisting the trophy after yet another title.
And given Tennessee’s highly scrutinized season that has seen the Lady Vols post a 24-8 overall record amidst the spotlight surrounding Summitt’s announcement of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, feeling normal felt good.
“I was so excited when I saw her get up there and cut the net,” Shekinna Stricklen said. “We just all looked at each other and started screaming thinking ‘Wow, she’s about to cut it.’ Nobody deserves better than our coach. We’re just going to keep working hard every day for her.”
The key to that success appears to center around two key points that Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick consistently brought up in her post-game press conference: team unity and living in the moment.
A question about NCAA Tournament seeding may have seemed normal in past years, but the Lady Vols have learned a single-minded focus towards each game and have embraced the mentality of appreciating the present.
“You know, I’m just happy we won tonight,” Warlick said. “I haven’t even thought past that today. We just wanted to make sure that we had a great showing for us. We played Tennessee basketball.”
It was the third consecutive SEC Tournament title for the Lady Vols, who have won each of the last six league championship tilts in which they have played.
The key to success this season, as it always has been?
Playing together. On the court and on the bench.
“We just approach every day and every practice and every game as it’s a group effort – our entire staff: Dean [Lockwood], Mickie [DeMoss] and Pat,” Warlick said. “I’ve been fortunate to have them behind me helping me make decisions. It continues to be an honor to coach with Coach Summitt.”
Those two factors have been with the Lady Vols the entire season, but the one missing component that came to life during a three-day stay in the Music City was the difference-maker.
“I think the key word for us is ‘toughness;’ we’ve lacked that throughout the year,” Warlick said. “To play three hard games, and we battled. When we needed stops and when we needed rebounds, we got them. It was a great team effort. It has been mental toughness for us. We’ve been trying to focus and take one game at a time. I thought in this tournament we did that.”
For Tennessee’s senior class, those players are aware that in tournament play, their next game may be their last game. It is that resolve to continue the ride as long as possible that has helped elevate their level of play and mental determination.
“We never know when our last game is going to be,” Glory Johnson said. “We always emphasize playing as hard as you can whenever you step on the floor. That’s huge for us, especially now that we’re seniors. We have a whole new mindset. You should see it in our faces every time we step on the floor.”
It showed this weekend.
“I think when our back is against the wall, these ladies had a toughness that we haven’t had in a long time,” Warlick said. “It showed in the three games we played.”