NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — After a Southeastern Conference Tournament championship run filled with come-from-behind victories a year ago, Tennessee coach Holly Warlick was much more at ease this time around.
Led by 13 points and 11 rebounds from Bashaara Graves, the No. 5 Lady Vols (26-4) left little doubt about their status as defending champion with a comfortable 75-41 win over Georgia on Friday night.
Tennessee, which has won the tournament 17 times in 35 seasons, advanced to the semifinals for a 22nd straight season.
It did it in a much easier fashion than a year ago, when the Lady Vols had to come from double digits down in each of their three wins on the way to the tournament title.
“I feel a lot better,” Warlick said. “Last year, it was tough, but these young ladies battled.”
Tennessee has won 11 of its last 12 games, with the only loss coming at No. 3 South Carolina two weeks ago. It’s also won four of five since a season-ending knee injury to All-SEC center Isabelle Harrison.
Even without Harrison, the Lady Vols looked as dominating as ever. They outrebounded the Lady Bulldogs 47-23 and held them to 27.1 percent (16 of 59) shooting, including an abysmal 5 of 30 (16.7 percent) in the first half.
All nine players scored for Tennessee, which was led by Nia Moore’s 14 points and will face No. 12 Kentucky on Saturday. The Wildcats beat No. 11 Mississippi State 76-67 Friday.
“When your star player goes down, they just kind of forget about you,” Warlick said. “… We miss (Harrison), a huge loss for us, but we’ve got some unbelievable talent and unbelievable basketball minds.”
Erika Ford and Krista Donald had 13 points each to lead Georgia (19-12), which now has its run of 20 straight NCAA Tournament appearances in jeopardy after its ninth loss in the last 11 games.
The Lady Bulldogs had won two in a row following an eight-game losing streak, but they went more than seven minutes without scoring in the first half. Tennessee went on a 15-0 run during that time and took a 17-4 lead, delivering an early knockout blow to a Georgia team that had stayed close in two earlier losses this season.
“It’s pretty simple, it’s short and sweet,” Georgia coach Andy Landers said. “We didn’t compete, they kicked our tail. End of story.”
Tiaria Griffin scored the first nine points for the Lady Bulldogs against the harassing Tennessee defense, but the junior was the only Georgia player to score until Nared’s jumper with 10 seconds remaining in the first half. The Lady Bulldogs, other than Griffin, missed their first 20 shots of the game before that.
Tennessee, meanwhile, had no such problems on either end of the court — scoring 21 points off 17 Georgia turnovers, including a layup on the fast break by Cierra Burdick to go up 32-9 late in the first half.
“I just don’t think we came out ready to play from the start,” Griffin said. “A lot of us just (weren’t) on the same page.”
Georgia: The Lady Bulldogs moved up from 63rd to 55th in the NCAA’s RPI standings after a win over Missouri to open the tournament on Thursday. However, after starting the season 17-3 — before a broken right leg suffered by leading scorer Shacobia Barbee — the jump might not be enough to overcome a late-season swoon. Even Landers said after the game that he didn’t think Georgia had won enough this season to earn an NCAA berth.
Tennessee: With her first-half assist to Andraya Carter, Ariel Massengale became only the third Tennessee player to have 1,000 points and 500 career assists. The others are Lea Henry (1979-83) and Alexis Hornbuckle (2004-08).
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
Supported by a large contingent of Tennessee fans, the Lady Vols improved to 74-18 overall in the SEC tournament — which it has won in four of the last five seasons. Tennessee last failed to reach the tournament semifinals in 1993, when it was upset as the top seed in the quarterfinals by Georgia.
Georgia: Must wait to find out its postseason fate.
Tennessee: Faces Kentucky on Saturday night.
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.