Tennessee Lady Volunteers center Isabelle Harrison (20) shoots a basket in the second half against the Kentucky Wildcats at The Arena at Gwinnett Center. Tennessee won 71-70. Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
DULUTH - With another conference title hanging in the balance, a pair of guards delivered in a big way for Tennessee. Jordan Reynolds had three huge baskets and an assist on the tying bucket and Meighan Simmons scored six points over the final 1:45 to seal a 71-70 victory over Kentucky in the SEC championship game at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
The second-seeded Vols captured the program’s 17th conference title and fourth in the last five seasons. For No. 4 seed Kentucky, it was another heartbreaking finish in the league tournament as the Wildcats, who haven’t won an SEC crown since 1982, lost in the title game for the fourth time in the last five years, three of which have come against Tennessee.
“It’s very very special, it really is,” said Tennessee coach Holly Warlick. “Just a great game with two, I think, very athletic teams. It was great competition.”
Simmons was fouled hard with just under 11 seconds to play and sank two free throws to put Tennessee (27-5) up 71-67. At the other end, Kentucky guard Jennifer O’Neill was fouled while attempting a 3-pointer and went to the line with less than a second left. O’Neill hit the first two and in her attempt to miss the third and create a possible rebound situation for the Wildcats, sank the charity shot for the final point of the tournament.
“They gave it everything they had to win the tournament and we came up one point short,” said Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell. “Lost a real tough game today (but) I wouldn’t trade locker rooms, I can tell you that.”
Mitchell’s group, which reached the championship game after upsetting top-seed South Carolina in Saturday’s semifinals, led 59-54 after a bucket by all-tournament team member DeNesha Stallworth (game-high 21 points). That’s when Reynolds got going. The freshman from Portland, Oregon had been relatively quiet for much of the game before scoring five straight points, including a lay up that turned into a three-point play after a foul on Bria Goss. That tied the game at 59-59 with a little over four minutes to play.
Kentucky took back the lead on two more occasions and held a 63-61 advantage on Samarie Walker’s jump hook at the 2:43 mark. Each time Reynolds answered - first with a nice jumper from 10 feet and the last feeding Isabelle Harrison for a lay up that evened things up at 63-63 with 2 1/2 minutes remaining in the game.
Tennessee never trailed again.
Simmons hit two free throws and Reynolds knocked down perhaps the biggest basket of the night, a short jumper that put the Vols up 67-63 with 51 seconds left.
“I was just trying to help my team out the best that I could,” said Reynolds.
“You got to have players step up, Jordan stepped up and got us ahead,” Warlick added.
Harrison, who was named the tournament’s MVP, finished with 16 points, while Simmons had a team-high 17 points.
Tennessee had its first lead since the early stages of the game at 52-51, when with about 8 1/2 minutes to play Harrison hit two free throws.
Linnae Harper was hot early on as the freshman guard had four baskets in a two-minute stretch, including a nifty, banked-in runner in transition, to help Kentucky go up by as much as 18-8 in the opening half.
Harper was quieted for much of the remainder of the game by the Vols’ defense, attempting and missing just one shot over the next 11 minutes and the No. 2 seed began to climb back into the game.
Harper, who was also an all-tournament team member, finally scored again on a pretty reverse lay up at the 2:50 mark, then Kastine Evans drained a 3-pointer and the Wildcats had a 34-28 cushion with 2 1/2 minutes until halftime.
Kentucky held that six-point lead at the break, thanks to a 53 percent shooting performance from the field. Harper and Stallworth were a big reason why, combining to hit 11 of 15 field goal attempts.
After Tennessee’s early shooting struggles (6 for 16 start from the field through the first 10 minutes), the Vols closed by knocking down half of their final 20 attempts and on Jasmine Jones’ jumper with 13 seconds to play were down just 38-32 at the break.
Kentucky went cold in the second half, making just seven field goals, including just three baskets over the final eight minutes.
“We weren’t very good defensively in the first half, we talked about that at halftime: just getting stops,” said Warlick.