Texas A&M Aggies players hold up the SEC sign after winning the SEC championship against the Kentucky Wildcats during the championship game for the SEC tournament at The Arena at Gwinnett Center. Texas A&M defeated Kentucky 75-67. (Photo: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)
DULUTH — The Southeastern Conference Women's Basketball Tournament's return to the Arena at Gwinnett Center had a historic conclusion Sunday, with Texas A&M winning its first league title since joining last year.
MVP Kelsey Bone, a powerful 6-foot-4 junior, took over in the second half as the 19th-ranked Aggies, the fourth seed, completed their championship run with a 75-67 victory over seventh-ranked Kentucky, the tourney's No. 2 seed. Texas A&M (24-9) also knocked off the No. 1 seed, Tennessee, in the semifinals.
"Texas A&M, it's an all-purpose school," veteran Texas A&M women's coach Gary Blair said. "We're not just a football school. We're not just (Heisman Trophy winners) Johnny Manziel, John David Crow. We win in everything. Every sport we win. But what this means, it's our first SEC championship. We've got individual championships, which we've already won. We've got West Divisions. Well, there's no divisions in basketball. And we inherited the hardest schedule in the SEC in conference play."
Bone sat the bulk of the first half with foul trouble and had just four points at intermission. But she was dominant in the second half, particularly during two decisive runs, and finished with 18 points and 15 rebounds.
She was efficient on her offensive touches, making 8 of 12 field goals, which helped the Aggies make 16 of 32 second-half shots. Meanwhile, Kentucky struggled to 12 of 38 (31.6 percent) second-half shooting and watched its two-point halftime lead quickly disappear.
It was a satisfying return to the league for Bone, who was the SEC freshman of the year as a South Carolina freshman before transferring to Texas A&M.
"It's a storybook ending for me," Bone said. "I fell in love with the Southeastern Conference as a little girl and always wanted to play in the Southeastern Conference. That was a lot of the reason why I made my initial decision. Going back to the Big 12, then boom, I'm back here in the SEC. That doesn't happen to everybody who transfers. I'm probably the only person who can ever say that.
"For me, this is about my team. We could still be in the Big 12. We could be in the Big Ten. It didn't really matter. I'm happy, having fun with the group of girls that I go to practice and line up with every day. We're just having fun. When we're having fun, we're a hard team to beat."
Bone got plenty of help from her teammates throughout the tournament run.
Kristi Bellock had 15 points and eight rebounds in the finals, Courtney Walker had 14 points and seven rebounds and Courtney Williams added 11 points for the Aggies (24-9), who lost to the Wildcats twice during the regular season.
Kentucky (27-5) was led by A'dia Mathies' 19 points and seven rebounds. Jennifer O'Neill contributed 17 points and DeNesha Stallworth scored 10 as the Wildcats fell just short of their second SEC Tourney title ever — the only previous win came in 1982.
Much of of their issues on Sunday involved slowing down Bone.
"Yeah, you really have to have a good team effort to guard her," Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "We did that very effectively in College Station. We didn't today. It's very disappointing to get this close and not be able to win. But if you let her get that close to the rim, she's going to have a big day on you. She certainly did."
The five-day showcase, which returned to Gwinnett after a two-year hiatus, drew more than 29,000 fans despite two of its major attendance draws, Tennessee and Georgia, both losing in the semifinals. The venue previously hosted it in 2007 and 2010.
Local fans won't have to wait for the SEC Tourney's return to the Arena at Gwinnett Center, which also hosts the event in 2014.
"That was a great game for television, just like any time you have an SEC championship," Blair said. "The SEC is back, OK. The SEC is back. I know we were in the Big 12 and we thought we were the best back then. Probably Baylor is (best) on the court right now. But the SEC, with the tournament that we had here, with the quality and the depth of this league, it's going to be special in years to come."