KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee has followed a new path to its familiar destination atop the Southeastern Conference standings.
The eighth-ranked Lady Vols wrapped up a share of its 17th SEC regular-season crown Sunday by winning 60-54 at Arkansas while Kentucky was losing 77-72 at LSU and Texas A&M was falling 61-51 at Vanderbilt. Tennessee (22-5, 13-1 SEC) can clinch the championship outright by beating No. 13 Texas A&M (21-7, 11-3) on Thursday or winning Sunday in its regular-season finale at No. 10 Kentucky (23-4, 11-3).
"We've got to take care of business," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "We don't want to share it. We want to win it outright. That's been our goal all along. Sharing's great. Please don't misinterpret that. I'm not unappreciative. But we want the title to ourselves."
This drive toward a conference championship has been different from the rest. Tennessee, the SEC's perennial heavyweight, began the season as an underdog.
The Lady Vols say that makes this year's title chase particularly special.
"It would mean a lot," senior guard Kamiko Williams said. "Coming from a place where people don't think or expect much of you and you prove them all wrong, that always feels good to me. I'm pretty sure I can speak for the team on that too."
This represents Tennessee's first year without former coach Pat Summitt, who stepped down last April after announcing in 2011 that she had early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. Summitt had led the Lady Vols to 1,098 victories, eight national titles and 18 Final Fours in 38 seasons. The Lady Vols didn't return a single player who started an NCAA tournament game last year during their run to a regional final.
Tennessee was predicted to finish fifth in the SEC by the league's coaches and fourth by the conference media. Never before had Tennessee been picked to finish below third since the SEC started its media poll in 1990-91. The only three times the Lady Vols were picked third (1990-91, 1995-96 and 1996-97), they went on to win the national title.
The Lady Vols still haven't shown they're legitimate contenders for a national title or Final Four this year. They're 0-3 against teams currently ranked in the top five. Their lone SEC loss was an 80-63 rout at Missouri, which has dropped all five games it has played since.
"Honestly, no one (from the outside) thinks we're going to make it to the Final Four," senior guard/forward Taber Spani said. "But we don't really care because I believe honestly if we play how we can play, we're going to take it one game at a time and I think it will be special, the result we'll get."
Tennessee has benefited from a favorable conference schedule. The Lady Vols are playing Kentucky and Texas A&M once each, whereas Kentucky and Texas A&M squared off twice.
But they've also overcome plenty of adversity.
Freshman guard Andraya Carter started five of the Lady Vols' first seven games before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery in December. Sophomore forward Cierra Burdick missed eight games with a broken right hand. Sophomore center Isabelle Harrison returned to action Sunday after missing six games with an injured left knee.
Yet they've continued finding ways to win.
Junior guard Meighan Simmons averages 17.8 points per game and is in a neck-and-neck competition with LSU's Theresa Plaisance (17.8) and Texas A&M's Kelsey Bone (17.6) for the SEC scoring title. Freshman forward Bashaara Graves ranks third in the SEC in rebounding (8.7). Tennessee leads the SEC and ranks fourth in the nation with 78.6 points per game. Spani calls this "the most competitive and most preserving" team she's been on since arriving at Tennessee.
"We didn't look at it as a rebuilding year," Spani said. "We wanted Holly to start her career head coaching-wise off on a great foot. We have an opportunity to (take) that first step — a regular-season SEC championship. And then we'll look at the tournaments after that."