DULUTH, Ga. — When Tennessee led Texas A&M by 10 points midway through the second half, Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick said her players got comfortable.
Courtney Walker and the Aggies got busy.
Walker had back-to-back baskets to start No. 19 Texas A&M’s comeback, and Courtney Williams delivered the go-ahead jumper with 33 seconds remaining as the Aggies beat ninth-ranked Tennessee 66-62 in the Southeastern conference semifinals Saturday, ending the Lady Vols’ bid for a fourth straight championship.
Walker and Williams are freshmen.
“How about those young Aggies?” asked Texas A&M coach Gary Blair, who compared his first-year players with the school’s famous Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.
“We keep finding a way,” Blair said. “We might not have had Johnny Manziel, but we had some freshmen step up, knocking down shots.”
Walker had 18 points to lead four scorers in double figures for Texas A&M (23-9), which will face either Kentucky or Georgia on Sunday for the championship.
Walker’s most important points came after Tennessee led 50-40.
“Our back was about to be against the wall, down 10 in the second half,” Walker said. “Somebody just needed to turn it up until everybody got going. So that’s what I was trying to do.”
Taber Spani had a career-high 33 points for top-seeded Tennessee (24-7), the SEC’s regular-season champion. The Aggies, the No. 4 seed, are playing in their first SEC tournament.
When Tennessee had its biggest lead, Blair brought Tori Scott from the bench to guard Spani, who had been defended by Williams most of the game.
“We just said ‘Don’t leave her. Don’t let her breathe,”’ Blair said. “She gave us a chance to relax until Williams could get her head on straight.”
The move by Blair helped turn the momentum back to the Aggies.
“She was denying Taber, not letting her have the ball,” Warlick said. “It was a great move on Gary’s part. We were up 10 and we got comfortable.”
Spani’s last basket tied the game at 62 before Williams gave the Aggies the lead following a Tennessee timeout with only her second basket of the game.
Kamiko Williams’ driving attempt for the Lady Vols bounced off the rim and Walker made two free throws with 6 seconds remaining to pad the lead.
Following a long miss by Tennessee’s Ariel Massengale, the Aggies converged at midcourt for a brief celebration.
Kelsey Bone and Adrienne Pratcher each had 15 points, and Kristi Bellock had 12 points, 12 rebounds and four steals for Texas A&M.
Meighan Simmons had 10 points for the Lady Vols. No other Tennessee player scored in double figures, but Warlick focused on the Lady Vols’ defensive problems.
“It boiled down to us getting stops, and we couldn’t get any stops,” Warlick said. “Texas A&M was persistent and they hit big shots. We didn’t have an answer.”
Spani, a senior averaging 10.2 points, made 11 of 13 shots from the field — including five of six from 3-point range. She set her previous career high with 24 points against Vanderbilt on Jan. 24. It was her only game with 20 or more points in the regular season.
Spani became the first Tennessee player to score 30 points against a conference opponent this season.
“I was just trying to do everything I could to keep us in the game, hopefully with a W,” Spani said. “Unfortunately, we came up short.”
Despite 18 first-half points from Spani, Texas A&M needed an 11-0 run late in the half to lead 35-33 at the break.
Tennessee led 22-18 when a basket by Bellock started the streak of 11 unanswered points by the Aggies. Bellock had six points and Bone had a three-point play in the run.
Spani sank a 3-pointer to end the spurt and added a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to end the half.
Spani continued her hot shooting after the break, scoring the first eight points of the second half. She opened the half with a jumper following a turnover by Bone and then sank two 3-pointers. Spani’s personal 8-0 run gave the Lady Vols a 41-35 lead.
The Aggies were scoreless for the first 4:33 of the half before Walker made one of two free throws. Walker ended Texas A&M’s field-goal drought with a jumper about 5 minutes into the half.
Tennessee led 50-40 before the Aggies answered with an 8-0 run. Walker had back-to-back baskets, with the second field goal following a steal by Pratcher, to start the run. Texas A&M finally pulled even at 52-all on two free throws by Walker.