It wasn’t the worst thing that has happened in the world of Tennessee athletics in recent weeks, but it was more bad news for the Vols. At least it took place in the athletics arena.
The Alabama women’s basketball team (15-13, 4-11 Southeastern Conference) ended a 42-game losing streak to the Tennessee Lady Volunteers (16-12, 7-8 SEC), locking down defensively for the 54-46 victory on Senior Night Thursday inside Foster Auditorium. The win is the first for the Crimson Tide in the series since March 3, 1984, and the first in program history at home against the Lady Vols.
“I’m proud of the effort tonight,” said Alabama Coach Kristy Curry. “It was a special night for our seniors. That’s how a team is supposed to play on Senior Night. We’ve led in six SEC games in the fourth quarter and couldn’t finish. I was really proud for our kids tonight to be able to finish this one. This qualifies us for the postseason, and I’m really happy about that for a lot of reasons.”
Alabama’s defense was the story of the night, holding Tennessee to 18-of-69 (26.1 percent) shooting from the floor for the game. The Lady Vols finished 0-for-11 from beyond the arc. The Tide was able to put distance between itself and Tennessee in the second quarter, as the Lady Vols missed all 12 shot attempts in the period and tallied only three points. Alabama capitalized, taking a 28-17 lead into the locker room and held on in the second half for the historic victory.
The Tide led 15-14 after the opening 10 minutes after senor Nikki Hegstetter knocked down a jumper at the horn. Tennessee went in front 14-11 at the 3:24 mark of the period but did not score again before it ended to allow Alabama to pull ahead.
Junior Breanna Hayden connected on a trey on the Tide first possession of the second frame for an 18-14 lead. As the game reached the quarter’s media timeout, the Lady Vols still had not recorded a point. While Tennessee struggled, Alabama made six field goals and outscored the visitors, 13-3. The Tide also held a 16-7 edge on the boards in the period.
After the break, the Lady Vols began trapping on every possession defensively while also working the ball into the post more on offense. It took over three minutes for Alabama to put up its first shot attempt, committing several turnovers in the backcourt due to the press. Tennessee closed to within five at 28-23, but sophomore Hannah Cook responded with a three-pointer to extend the lead back to eight. The Lady Vols trimmed their deficit to five on two occasions in the quarter, but were only able to convert six of their 20 shot attempts as Alabama went into the final period with a 37-29 margin.
A deep trey by sophomore Quanetria Bolton to open the final quarter pushed the lead to 40-29, equaling the largest lead of the night. The Lady Vols put together a small run to get back within six at 40-34, but three points from the charity stripe and a put back by Hegstetter off of an offensive rebound made the score 45-34 with less than six minutes to play.
Following the media timeout, the Lady Vols made one final push with an 8-0 run, slicing the the Tide’s lead to 45-42 with 2:21 on the clock. Alabama would be called upon to put the game away at the free throw line, and the home team would do just that, going on a 6-0 stretch that consisted of only free throws. Over the last two minutes of the game, the Tide made nine of its 14 foul shots while allowing Tennessee to score only four points.
For the game, Alabama shot 18-of-51 (35.3 percent) and grabbed 45 rebounds compared to 46 for the Lady Vols. The Tide’s bench was clutch, scoring 18 points compared to Tennessee’s two for the reserves.
Sophomore Karyla Middlebrook paced the offense with 13 points, while Cook tallied a double-double thanks to 10 points and 10 rebounds. Hegstetter finished with seven points and eight rebounds while playing excellent defense down low in 32 minutes of action.
“Having the atmosphere of the crowd and everything was great,” said Hegstetter. “The people that come up to me after the game and say, ‘You’ve changed my life, and you are a great mentor for my daughter.’ That’s what I do it for, so it’s been a great night. I don’t want it to end, so I don’t think I will go to sleep until 2 or 3 in the morning just so it doesn’t end.”
Fittingly, senior Khadijah Carter came down with the game’s final rebound as the horn sounded.
Senior Bashaara Graves poured in 15 points for the Lady Vols, while sophomore Jaime Nared added 13 and sophomore Mercedes Russell chipped in 10. Russell pulled down 11 rebounds for the double-double.
Next up, Alabama heads to Starkville Sunday to take on No. 16 Mississippi State in its final regular season game. The game is set for a 1:30 p.m. CT tip and will be streamed live on SEC Network -Plus.