Senior Kamiko Williams stepped up for Tennessee for the second consecutive game to provide perimeter relief off the bench and responded with nine points, five boards, three assists and three steals.
Assistant coach Kyra Elzy, who was known for her defensive intensity, has been a consistent buzz in Williams' ear to play to her much-lauded but unreached potential, and the senior has responded.
"I thought the difference tonight was coach Elzy," Williams said. "She was just in my ear the whole time just telling me to play defense like I know I can.
"We just have this little inside thing going, and she just got me pumped up. When my teammates tell me they need me, I'm just going to go out and do it for them."
Tennessee needed Williams – without her stellar play the game likely ends in a loss – because sophomore Ariel Massengale was bothered late by leg cramps and freshman Andraya Carter, whose sticky defense helped to fuel the comeback, reinjured her right shoulder and had to leave the game with 7:35 left to play and the Lady Vols down by just three, 61-58.
With Carter out for the rest of the game – she will be evaluated Thursday – Massengale had to return and Williams, who was already on the floor, had to remain there. Both finished the game, and went the distance in overtime.
Williams ratcheted up her pressure – she stripped Middle Tennessee point guard Shanice Cason of the ball and drew a late charge to seal the win in overtime – and earned praise from Holly Warlick for her defense.
"I think today Kamiko was the most consistent at guarding the basketball," Warlick said. "You're seeing the result of her having great practices and being focused and being into practice. The result is she's playing really well in the games.
"She's got a lot of confidence right now, and we're doing our best to keep that confidence in her."
Tennessee was already down one player as juco sophomore Jasmine Phillips wasn't on the bench. Warlick said after the game that Phillips violated team rules and the length of her suspension hadn't been decided yet. No other details were disclosed per program policy.
The Lady Vols trailed for nearly the entire game – Williams put the team ahead after a steal and bank shot with less than five minutes to play in regulation – and had to rely on defense to overtake the Blue Raiders.
Warlick got it inside from Isabelle Harrison, who had six blocks, and Bashaara Graves, who had three steals, and outside from the guard trio of Carter, Massengale and Meighan Simmons and then from Williams in crunch time.
"We do a drill in practice," Warlick said. "It's called a persistence drill. It's a defensive drill where the players can't get off (the court) for 45 seconds. There's more to it than that, but it's an extremely tough drill. One day we ran it for 45 minutes.
"We just kept going in the huddle saying this is our persistence drill. We've got to get stops. We've got to get stops. I thought that was key for us. Once I calmed down and started realizing we needed to use the persistence drill, I was OK."
The Lady Vols went down by 12 in the first half but managed to pull to within four points, 39-35, by halftime.
They trimmed the lead to just two points, 42-40, on a Massengale three-pointer, but Middle Tennessee surged again and led 55-44 on a three-pointer by Laken Leonard with 14:26 left. It could have deflated the team, but instead the Lady Vols trimmed it again by getting on the glass and getting to the line.
"I was proud of our team for not giving up and down by 11, we could have just thrown in the towel, but they battled, played hard," Warlick said.
Williams' bank shot gave the Lady Vols their first lead of the game at the 4:26 mark, but Middle Tennessee wiped out a five-point deficit in the final 55 seconds to send the game to overtime after a three ball by Icelyn Elie with less than three seconds left.
"We knew they were going to make a run, and we were going to make a run," Middle Tennessee's Ebony Rowe said. "More than anything we just wanted to stay together as a team, and even when they did take that lead, we were still confident that we would win the ballgame.
"We knew that we had a lot of people like Ice that could step up and just make those big-time plays like she did, so once she hit that shot, the momentum swung back in our favor."
Harrison got the first basket in overtime, but Middle tied it and took the lead, 77-75, on two baskets by Rowe. Simmons tied the game at the line, and then Cierra Burdick was fouled on a drive and gave Tennessee the lead 79-77 with 2:04 left. The Lady Vols never trailed again thanks to the defense of Williams and Simmons, and Massengale secured the game at the line for the final 88-81 score.
Middle Tennessee was led by Elie with 21 points while Rowe tallied 19, Leonard had 17 on the strength of five treys, and Shanice Cason added 13 points.
The Blue Raiders shot 45.8 percent (33-72) overall, 38.9 percent (7-18) from the arc and 66.7 percent (8-12) from the line. They had 17 assists, 17 turnovers, 10 steals and three blocks.
Tennessee also had four players in double figures led by Simmons with 19 points. Graves and Massengale tallied 15 points each and Harrison added 10. Williams nearly joined them at nine points, and Jasmine Jones chipped in with seven points and four boards and drew a key charge in the first half when the Lady Vols were chipping into Middle Tennessee's lead.
Graves recorded her second career double-double with 15 points and 12 boards, and Simmons is now just 10 points shy of 1,000 for her career.
The Lady Vols shot 43.6 percent (34-78) overall, 30.8 percent (4-13) from long range and 76.2 percent (16-21) from the line. Burdick, Simmons, Harrison and Taber Spani were all perfect from the stripe.
Tennessee had 17 assists, 13 turnovers – and just four after halftime – 12 steals and eight blocks. The Lady Vols nipped the Blue Raiders on the boards, 45-42.
"We battled and I was proud of them for finishing," Warlick said.
"We've got a pretty good basketball team, and we're experienced," Middle Tennessee coach Rick Insell said. "We felt like we could play with Tennessee and two good teams out there battling, and that's about all you can say.
"Both teams battled. Neither team gave an inch. We made some smart plays from both sides, didn't handle the pressure at the point as well as I'd like. I'm awful proud of our basketball program right now. Credit Tennessee too; they did a good job."
MY TAKE FOR INSIDE TENNESSEE
Tennessee had been in this position before just five games and less than three weeks ago ago – down by double figures to an experienced team and relying on youngsters to get back in the game.
In the season opener the Lady Vols lost. In the sixth game played in November, the Lady Vols prevailed.
"It was two teams going at it," Head coach Holly Warlick said. "I like the way we battled."
It was indeed a battle for Tennessee as Middle Tennessee took a 5-0 lead and forced the Lady Vols to play from a trail position for nearly 36 minutes.
Tennessee took its first lead of the game with 4:26 left to play when senior Kamiko Williams hit a bank shot to put her team ahead 64-63, and the crowd of 10,768, which had gotten restless but stayed supportive, erupted.
"I think you're seeing Kamiko Williams at her best right now," Warlick said. "She put (together) two games, back to back, and I was extremely proud of her and proud of our whole team for just getting a win."
Middle Tennessee coach Rick Insell would have preferred not to see this new version of Williams, whose career at Tennessee has been marked by inconsistent play.
I wish she'd been a little more inconsistent tonight," Insell said with a wry look. "She came in, and her length and her strength just overtook (Shanice) Cason, and then she stepped up when they needed that three and hit it. That was big; that was her big play, but she's a senior, and that's what seniors are supposed to do."
Williams' trey came with 55 seconds left in regulation and the shot clock at three when it left her hand. That gave Tennessee a 73-68 lead and the points were vital as the Blue Raiders tied the game in regulation with a jumper by Ebony Rowe and a three ball with three seconds left by Icelyn Elie.
Tennessee had been down by as much as 12 in the first half and 11 in the second half, but the Lady Vols battled back this time – unlike the season opener at Chattanooga.
"I think it is a sign of growth," Warlick said. "I think Middle Tennessee is an outstanding basketball team. They are very well coached and they pushed us to the limit and made us do some things we probably have not had to do this year. I was proud of our players for not giving up.
"We could have thrown in the towel being 11 down and we battled. That is the sign of a solid basketball team; when you do not give up and you battle and we were not concerned being down 11. All we were saying was that we needed stops. I think UTC prepared us for this game tonight."
There was a major difference, of course. Tennessee was at home Wednesday and had an enthusiastic crowd on its side. But there was also another difference. Middle Tennessee is a better basketball team than Chattanooga.
The Blue Raiders have three First Team players from the Sun Belt Conference and have a balanced attack inside and out. They lack depth, but they are laden with veterans who have been tested in postseason.
Middle Tennessee did an excellent job of moving the ball – and its players moving without the ball – and Tennessee's only hope to wipe out the deficit was to play defense.
The difference makers were a freshman, sophomore and a senior.
Andraya Carter entered the game and Cason could no longer turn the corner and get to the rim with the freshman hounding her every move.
Williams had to provide relief for Ariel Massengale, who suffered leg cramps, and then Massengale had to return for Carter, who re-injured her right shoulder at the 7:35 mark of the second half and didn't return to the game.
Add a junior to the mix, too. Meighan Simmons continues to play the best defense of her career, and she combined with Williams in overtime to seal the game with back-to-back steals and layups – Williams' theft to Simmons' score and then Simmons' takeaway and Williams' layup for an 83-77 lead with 40 seconds left.
On the next play, Williams drew a charge near center court and celebrated with such exuberance that Simmons referred to it as a "mini seizure."
Warlick joked it was the first charge of Williams' basketball career.
"I think I got more excited because we were just doing a charge drill in practice not too long ago, and I don't really know how to take charges," Williams said. "It was probably the first time I've ever taken a charge, so I got excited."
It wasn't, but it likely was the most important one she has taken at Tennessee as it secured the win since the Lady Vols got the ball back and Isabelle Harrison scored inside on a well-executed side-out-of-bounds play for an 85-77 lead with 33 seconds left in overtime.
It was a physical game inside and freshman Bashaara Graves didn't back down, as the post affectionately called "The Beast" by her teammates put up a double-double with 15 points and 12 boards.
Graves also had three steals, one assist and just one turnover in 39 minutes of play. She had to leave the game briefly in the second half to be treated for leg cramps.
Jenny Moshak will likely be running triage Thursday – the players are off the practice court but should be in the training room – as Carter's shoulder will need to be treated; Massengale, who logged 37 minutes, is still recovering from an Achilles injury; and several other players were slow to get up after hard tumbles. Simmons nearly went the distance at 41 minutes and led Tennessee with 19 points.
"The fight," Massengale said by way of explaining the win. "We've had a couple tough practices lately. Coach keeps reminding us not to back down. No team is just going to give us a ‘W.' We have to go out there and take it.
"Through our practices, everything we do is for this moment right here. It just a matter of going out and making the preseason and work worth it."
Warlick hit the right note in the second half when, tired of the no calls inside – even Graves appeared visibly frustrated after one hard hack and no whistle – she left the first media timeout huddle and spent some one-on-one time with an official, much to the crowd's delight.
"I was frustrated with our players," Warlick said with a smile when asked if the officials upset her. "You know, I thought we could have been playing a lot better, and I'm just emotional. "I think I got a little too emotional, and I calmed down. I just think we were not doing what we needed to do, and we needed to somehow get back in the game. ... "
It was actually needed and answered another question about Warlick as a head coach – would the officials listen to her? They did, and Tennessee got to the line 17 times after the break compared to just four times in the first.
The comeback also was vintage Tennessee as the Lady Vols forced Middle Tennessee deep into the shot clock and stepped up their glass work. The result was a come-from-behind win that had loss oozing from it for nearly 36 minutes.
"I would say it's a tough win, but I would also say it's a test for our future and who we face later on," Simmons said. "Not to think ahead, but it's a test to see where our mentality is.
"When adversity gets you, what are we going to do? Are we going to keep our backs against the wall or fight back? I think we found our second wind in overtime and responded to the adversity."
GAME HIGHLIGHTS FROM UTSPORTSTV
INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE
Kamiko Williams, Ariel Massengale, Meighan Simmons
Coach Rick Insell, Ebony Rowe, Icelyn Elie