LEXINGTON, Ky. — After clinching the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship Thursday and suffering a few injuries in the process against No. 13 Texas A&M, Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said she knew it would be difficult for her team to rise to the occasion for two big games in a row.
Sunday, the No. 8 Lady Volunteers came out flat on the road and dropped their regular-season finale 78-65 on the road to No. 10 Kentucky.
Tennessee (23-6, 14-2) committed a season-high 31 turnovers and gave up 19 offensive rebounds to a Wildcats team that needed a win to clinch the No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament, which begins Wednesday.
"Well, I thought it would be difficult for two games of this magnitude to play back-to-back," Warlick said. "You've got to take care of the ball and you've got to bring your defense. We didn't bring our defense. You've got to bring your defense and you've got to rebound it, and we didn't do those two things."
With the league title wrapped up, Warwick said she considered whether Sunday's loss would play into Tennessee's eventual NCAA tournament seeding. But her primary focus was on how it prepared her team to play in the SEC tournament.
The Lady Volunteers were sloppy at times, particularly at the beginnings of both halves, but came back into an intense focus to draw as close as within two points just before halftime.
Kentucky (25-4, 13-3) opened the second half with nine unanswered points, and it grew a lead as large as 19 points before coasting to the final buzzer.
"We didn't come ready to play, honestly. For me, we started off late in the game," said Tennessee guard Meighan Simmons, who scored a team-high 17 points. "We started to pick things up later on in the game but we didn't start off as strong as we should have."
Both Isabelle Harrison and Ariel Massengale suffered knee injuries Thursday against Texas A&M, and the injury forced Harrison to miss the game Sunday. Warlick said her status is "week by week," and it's unclear if she'll play in the SEC tournament.
Massengale played 34 minutes Sunday and finished with five points and three rebounds.
Tennessee's Kamiko Williams injured her ankle in the first half Sunday. She returned to play and finished with nine points, but Warlick said Williams "wasn't a factor" upon returning.
"It's just things that we've had to deal with," Warlick said. "It's part of the game. People have to step up, and we didn't step up today."
Bashaara Graves had 12 points, Cierra Burdick added 11 with 11 rebounds and Taber Spani also had for Tennessee.
Despite committing 19 first-half turnovers, the Lady Volunteers still trailed just 36-32 at the break by taking advantage of the Wildcats' 31 percent inaccuracy, which might have doomed Kentucky if it hadn't created twice as many opportunities (44 to 22) as Tennessee.
But after taking its largest lead at 30-17 on Azia Bishop's layup with 5 1/2 minutes left in the half, Kentucky was outscored 15-6 behind 3-of-11 shooting. Bishop made two of those baskets in the final 25 seconds, including one as the horn sounded at the end of the half.
Kentucky emerged from a 36-32 halftime lead with a 19-6 run set up by three steals and two rebounds by Samarie Walker (10 points). That put the Wildcats up 55-38 and they stayed safely ahead.
A'dia Mathies scored 13 second-half points, including back-to-back 3-pointers during the run, to help the Wildcats pull away. Mathies, Kentucky's No. 2 career scorer, finished with 16 points in her home finale.
Jennifer O'Neill added four 3-pointers for 16 points for the Wildcats Kentucky (25-4, 13-3).