Updated at: 02/28/2013 9:38 PM
By STEVE MEGARGEE
(AP) KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Now that a Southeastern Conference regular-season title has slipped out of reach, Texas A&M coach Gary Blair wasted no time adjusting his team’s goals.
"Every time we’ve won the tournament in the Big 12, we never won the regular season," Blair said Thursday night after No. 8 Tennessee clinched its 17th Southeastern Conference regular-season crown outright with an 82-72 victory over the 13th-ranked Aggies.
"We’re going to go back and set that as our goal."
Tennessee (23-5, 14-1) already had wrapped up a share the SEC regular-season title Sunday, but this victory clinched sole possession of first place and guaranteed them the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament that begins Wednesday in Duluth, Ga.
Warlick is the second SEC rookie women’s head coach to win a conference title, matching the 2005 accomplishment of former LSU coach Pokey Chatman.
Although the Aggies (21-8, 11-4) fell short of the SEC championship, Blair believes they’ve already made a statement in their inaugural season in the conference.
"This is like A&M coming into the conference in football and everybody said we were going to get run over in football," Blair said. "A&M is here for real in every sport."
Texas A&M (21-8, 11-4) lost for the third time in its last four games. The Aggies lost 70-66 to Kentucky on Feb. 18 and 61-51 at Vanderbilt on Sunday.
Kamiko Williams scored a career-high 18 points to lead five Lady Vols in double figures. Cierra Burdick added 15 points and 14 rebounds to help Tennessee outrebound A&M 44-27. Meighan Simmons scored 17 points, Bashaara Graves had 14 and Isabelle Harrison added 10.
"We’re finally proving to everybody that this is a team that means business," Burdick said. "We’re here to win championships, and that’s what we plan on doing."
Adrienne Pratcher scored 20 points, Kelsey Bone had 14, Courtney Williams added 13 and Courtney Walker 12 for Texas A&M (21-8, 11-4). Pratcher had 15 points in the second half to keep the Aggies close until the final minutes.
"Coming back to play in your home state is always fun," said Pratcher, who hails from Memphis. "We went to Vanderbilt last week, and I had family come to the game, but I knew they weren’t going to be able to make it to this game because it’s way farther than Vanderbilt."
This represented the final regular-season home game for Williams and Taber Spani, who exchanged high-fives with fans in the front row of seats as the Lady Vols cut the nets to celebrate their title.
Both seniors were honored before the game with their families in a ceremony that included Spani’s brother-in-law, 2012 Heisman Trophy finalist and former Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein. Williams responded by shooting 8 of 13 and pulling down seven rebounds to go along with her 18 points.
"I think it was her best game by far," Warlick said. "She had to play long minutes. She was tired, but she battled back. Any other game (earlier) in her career, she’d have been pulling her shirt to come out. She didn’t do that today. She didn’t want out."
Tennessee, a perennial conference favorite, wasn’t expected to win the SEC title in the first year of the post-Pat Summitt era.
Summitt, who led the Lady Vols to eight national titles in 38 seasons, stepped down last April after announcing in 2011 she had early-onset dementia. She remains on staff as head coach emeritus and attends virtually every home game, though she was out of town Thursday.
SEC coaches predicted Tennessee would finish fifth in the league and the Vols were fourth in the preseason media poll.
"Holly deserves all the credit," Blair said. "She’s got the hardest job in America. Remember how many people tried to replace John Wooden? They’re still trying to replace him. You’ve got the right person in Holly. She’s doing a great job, because Pat Summitt is our John Wooden."
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)