Meighan Simmons scored 17 points, including two go-ahead free throws with 1:45 remaining, and No. 6 Tennessee edged 12th-ranked Kentucky 71-70 on Sunday to win its 17th SEC tournament title.
The Lady Vols (27-5) have won seven straight, including a win over No. 5 South Carolina to close the regular season.
“I think we’ve come on strong at the end of the year,” said second-year coach Holly Warlick after her first SEC tournament title.
Asked if she thought her team deserved consideration as a No. 1 NCAA seed, Warlick said “I would think so.”
Tennessee came back from double-digit deficits in each of its three SEC tournament wins. Kentucky led by 10 points in the first half and kept small leads most of the second half.
“I would really like to lead by double digits early if we could,” said Warlick, wearing a white SEC championship cap after the game.
Simmons, who struggled with her shooting from the field throughout the tournament, made the two free throws to snap a 63-63 tie. The free throws gave the Lady Vols only their second lead of the second half, and they didn’t trail again as Simmons added a layup and two more free throws in the final 22 seconds.
Isabelle Harrison had 16 points as Tennessee claimed its record 17th Southeastern Conference tournament title, including four in the last five years.
Kentucky (24-8) played in its fourth final in the last five years but still hasn’t won the tournament since 1982. DeNesha Stallworth led the Wildcats with 21 points.
The Wildcats trailed by four before Jennifer O’Neill sank three free throws with 0.7 seconds remaining to cut Tennessee’s lead to one point. Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said the plan was for O’Neill to miss the third free throw with the hopes Kentucky would grab the offensive rebound.
“Like I told Jenn, we don’t practice missing enough,” Mitchell said.
Following the third free throw, the Lady Vols passed the ball inbounds and launched their celebration with hugs at midcourt.
Simmons, the senior guard who ranked sixth in the SEC with her average of 16.2 points in the regular season, struggled in the Lady Vols’ first two games in the tournament, making only 8 of 36 shots from the field (22.2 percent). She made only six of 18 shots against Kentucky.
Jordan Reynolds had 11 points for Tennessee.
Tennessee needed yet another comeback to continue its dominance in the tournament.
The Lady Vols rallied from a 15-point deficit in Friday’s 77-65 win over LSU in the quarterfinals and then trailed by 10 points early in Saturday’s 86-77 semifinal win over No. 15 Texas A&M.
Tennessee again faced a double-digit deficit after another slow start against the Wildcats, who led 18-8.
Linnae Harper, who had 12 points, scored nine of the Wildcats’ 11 points in a 12-2 run that built the 10-point lead.
Kentucky led 38-32 at halftime. Tennessee cut the lead to one point four times in the first 10 minutes of the second half before finally taking a 52-51 lead on two free throws by Harrison, following a hard foul by Kentucky’s Samarie Walker. Tennessee fans howled in protest after Walker pushed Harrison to the floor.
Walker and Tennessee’s Cierra Burdick were called for technical fouls. With tensions still high, more words were exchanged and another set of technical fouls were called on Stallworth and Tennessee Jasmine Jones before Kentucky’s inbounds pass.
Mitchell said he warned the officials before the technical fouls that Burdick “was starting that kind of activity in the game.” Mitchell said “it’s not the first time that’s happened with that player.”
“It should be stopped at the beginning of the activity,” Mitchell said. “Unfortunately today it was not.”
Burdick didn’t deny making comments to Kentucky players.
“Chippiness happens,” Burdick said. “It happens. This is basketball. It happens every single day. I think the refs did a fine job of avoiding any altercations. Nothing happened.
“Words were said, but words are words. No actions took place.”
The Wildcats quickly reclaimed the lead when Stallworth, left alone at the top of the circle, hit a rare 3-pointer. Stallworth, the 6-foot-3 forward, made only four 3s during the regular season.
Tennessee pulled even at 59-all on Reynolds’ three-point play.
Warlick said junior point guard Ariel Massengale, who has not played since she was hit in the face in a Jan. 23 game against Florida, “might be back” for the NCAA tournament.