KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s Isabelle Harrison thought for a second. Teammate Cierra Burdick didn’t need to think at all.
The Lady Vols had been asked about a snapshot moment they’d take away from the SEC women’s basketball tournament. Burdick seized the opportunity. She replied as if hers already had been framed and was hanging in her memory.
“I think there was about 11 seconds left in the game,” said the junior forward, referring to UT’s 71-70 championship victory over Kentucky on Sunday at The Arena at Gwinnett Center. “We all huddled together. I mean there was no room for any space. It was all 11 of us, all four coaches. I just remember thinking in my head: This is what it’s all about.”
At that point, the tight-knit group had collaborated on a four-point lead. Only Burdick’s ill-advised foul on Jennifer O’Neill’s 3-point shot inside the final second could possibly spoil the scene. Burdick said she was “distraught.” Her teammates were not.
“I was mad at myself for fouling; it was a dumb play on my part,” Burdick said. “I looked at my teammates. They helped me keep my head high. They told me we were going to win this game.”
The outcome was sealed after O’Neill didn’t miss her final free throw attempt to set up a tip play. For No. 4 Tennessee (27-5), the 17th SEC tournament championship in program history was all about huddling up to the very end against all manner of difficulty.
“They’ve got a little bond here going together and a trust for each other that is really strong,” UT coach Holly Warlick said.
Warlick made a point during the offseason to invest in team bonding. At the team’s preseason media day she mentioned improved team leadership and dynamics before anything else. She described the Lady Vols then as “a special team as far as getting along.”
The basketball benefits weren’t immediately apparent. The Lady Vols weren’t at their best in wins against overmatched opponents in early December. They then went 4-4 during an eight-game stretch that extended into mid-January. It culminated with a second-half collapse during an 86-70 loss to No. 2 Notre Dame.
Since then, they’ve won 13 of 14. Last weekend, they were a different team than the one that folded against the Fighting Irish. They erased double-figure first-half deficits in all three of their victories in Duluth, Ga.
“You can hit us in the mouth; you can get us down, but we’re going to get right back up and we’re going to come after you,” redshirt freshman Andraya Carter said. “We’re down 15, we’re still coming. We’re down by two, we’re still coming. It just shows we’re a team.”
In one instance on Sunday, UT’s competitiveness drew the ire of the opposition. Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell singled out Burdick as an instigator of the circumstances that eventually resulted in double technicals on both teams with 8:53 left.
“I’d rather see two teams play,” he said, “not have a bunch of talking, yapping, unsportsmanlike conduct. But that’s what happened.”
Burdick referred to the incident as “chippiness” and 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.”
Something has happened to Tennessee, however. Instead of just getting along this weekend, they stuck together.
“We were always talking to each other,” Harrison said. “There wasn’t a moment that we were quiet on the court.”