KNOXVILLE — Tennessee coach Pat Summitt could tell a difference in her team in its first game since clinching the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship.
She was hardly happy about it.
Shekinna Stricklen scored 23 points to help the No. 4 Lady Volunteers fight off a second-half rally from Mississippi for a 75-63 victory Sunday night, but Summitt was in no mood to celebrate Tennessee’s 11th consecutive win to close out the regular season.
“Do I look like I’m happy? Do I sound like I’m happy?” Summitt said. “I’m disappointed in our team not bringing it all the time. If you are a team on a mission, you can see it. You can feel it, you know, and it’s just obvious. But no, in this game, we decided to pick and choose, and we had two players step up and play great.”
Alicia Manning recorded her first double-double with a career-high 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Lady Vols (27-2, 15-1 SEC), and Stricklen also had 10 rebounds.
“We won, and I know it’s not one of our best games,” Stricklen said. “But right now, we just have to let it go and just get ready for tournament time, and just go hard in every one of the games we play.”
The Rebels (16-13, 6-8) got 34 points from Bianca Thomas and erased a double-digit deficit in the second half only to lose for the eighth time in 10 games and the second time this season against Tennessee.
Elizabeth Robertson’s putback with 12:37 remaining completed Mississippi’s comeback to tie the score at 50, but Tennessee put away the game by scoring 17 of the next 21 points.
Thomas, the SEC’s leading scorer, hit 11 of 27 field goals and four of her 10 3-point attempts to post the second-highest point total of her senior season.
“I think she proved to everyone again tonight that she is one of the top players in the conference,” Rebels coach Renee Ladner said. “She’s still the leading scorer in the conference. I’ve said it all year. I think she’s been a little disrespected, and she continues to prove people wrong. She was just outstanding for our team.”
This one lacked some of the late drama of the last two meetings between the teams, both of which were won on last-second shots by Lady Vols guard Angie Bjorklund.
“It’s happened two years straight,” Thomas said. “Angie got a shot at the end in Oxford. It was very heartbreaking, not only to me but to the whole team.”
The two teams could meet again in just a few days. The loss dropped Mississippi to the No. 9 seed for this week’s SEC tournament in Duluth, Ga., where the Rebels will open Thursday against eighth-seeded South Carolina.
The winner will advance to play Tennessee for the third time this season on Friday.
“If we have to play Ole Miss again, that’s a big challenge,” Summitt said. “South Carolina is playing well.”
The Lady Vols scored the game’s first eight points in less than two minutes — including two 3s by Stricklen — and took a 40-32 advantage into halftime.
Stricklen finished with double-digit scoring for the sixth consecutive game for Tennessee, which shot 42.6 percent and scored 34 points in the paint.
“I think she’s been in the gym and getting up just shot after shot after shot,” Summitt said of Stricklen. “She’s just committed to being a player that’s going to have repetition offensively, and not just occasionally but often.”
Wow who would have ever thought that ALICIA MANNING was going to become the X-factor on this LadyVols team? I must admit, I didn’t at the beginning of the season, but every since she was inserted into the starting lineup, Alicia Manning has been playing like a woman possessed. Eating up rebounds on the offensive end, and laying the ball back up. Now if she get’s more confident to take the WIDE-OPEN jump shots, the opponents are done for. I am so happy to see her get an opportunity, but glad she doesn’t have to be the point guard, just able to be like a roamer on defense, and she takes it personally, and I love that. She get’s in there and mix it up with the best of them, and her toughness can not be denied. Alicia Manning I tip my hat to you, the Ladyvols are undefeated with you in the starting line-up, and now it’s tournament time.
THE ROAD TO REDEMPTION CONTINUES.