Lady Vols stumble at Missouri

The Lady Vols perfect run in the SEC ended in an unlikely place Sunday when Tennessee fell on the road to Missouri. Go inside with InsideTennessee for game analysis and videos.

Tennessee had been flirting with this type of outcome in January and it came to pass in February when Missouri rode a wave of confidence to an 80-63 win in Columbia, Mo., at Mizzou Arena.

The Lady Vols played "uninspired" in the words of head coach Holly Warlick and endured yet even more injuries and the combination torpedoed any chance of an undefeated conference slate.

Tennessee (17-5, 8-1) did hold onto first place in the SEC with Texas A&M hovering at 7-1 and facing LSU on Monday night. An Aggies win means a tie for the top spot. A LSU win – and the Lady Vols face those Tigers next – means Tennessee has first place to itself.

Sunday was all about Missouri (15-8, 4-5), as the Tigers got hot from the arc, got on the boards to a 31-31 tie and took advantage of the Lady Vols 19 turnovers, a good portion of which were unforced and came from poor passes or losing the handle.

"Missouri was a better team than us today," Warlick said. "I think you see the result of where basketball has gotten. It happened to us last year. We beat Arkansas by 40 and they beat us at home.

"Missouri played harder and better. They hit more shots, more threes and they played a better game. You just cannot be average. I don't care who you play, where you go. You cannot be average and actually we were below average today, which was a result of what they did and how hard Missouri played."

Tennessee played passively on defense to open the game, settled for jump shots and allowed a Tigers team that plays better at home and was looking for some redemption after the 84-39 demolition in Knoxville to gain more confidence as the game went on in front of 4,181 fans.

"Big win for us, and I think it is a statement win," Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. "Certainly doesn't define us, like I always talk about; no win or loss defines this program. It is all about the process. I feel like tonight, though, and this past week, the growth we have seen beating a very good Florida team and Tennessee.

"We have so much respect for that program and their players are awfully talented. I am extremely proud of our girls and our staff, who continue to work hard, and the players continue to stay the course. Special night today, that is for sure."

While the outcome is a major upset, Tennessee's track record this season suggests it should not be a complete surprise. Tennessee had to come from behind to beat Auburn and was taken to overtime by Florida. Missouri beat both teams and can now add Tennessee to the list.

The pileup of injuries can't be ignored, either. Cierra Burdick is barely back from a broken right hand. Isabelle Harrison was back home in Knoxville after knee surgery on Friday.

Harrison was replaced in the starting lineup by Kamiko Williams, who was on her way to a career day with 14 points and six boards in the first half.

Then, Williams went out some three minutes into the second half when she landed on a player's foot after leaping for a rebound. Her right ankle turned badly, and she didn't return to the game.

"We've been hit by injuries and it has affected us," Warlick said. "I thought it affected us today with Isabelle Harrison out. It has just been difficult.

"With Kamiko going out, I thought it hurt us because she was one of the few who was playing hard and kept us in the game."

It got worse for Tennessee. Jasmine Jones had the shoulder of an opposing player slam into the front of her right knee in the final minute during a scramble for a loose ball in the paint. The collision sent Jones reeling backwards, and she had to be helped from the court.

Both players were officially listed as day to day, and it meant the Lady Vols finished the game with just seven available players, two of which have played sparingly this season in Nia Moore and Jasmine Phillips.

Williams was Tennessee's high scorer at 14 points and that sums up how the offense was executed since she missed nearly the entire second half.

Post player Bashaara Graves, one of the Lady Vols' steadiest players, went 37 minutes and got just five shots. Tennessee had just six assists with Williams accounting for two of them. Ariel Massengale had three, and Jones had one.

Warlick called the display "selfish," in her post-game radio show.

"We've got to distribute the basketball and not worry about, ‘I'm going to get my points,' " Warlick said.

Pat Summitt used to call that "my turn" basketball, meaning players, instead of moving without the ball and looking for an open teammate, start lofting jumpers outside of the offensive plan of attack.

The shooters were motivated by trying to make something positive happen for the Tennessee, but the misfires just fueled Missouri's confidence and, ultimately, their lead, as the misses seemed to also deflate the Lady Vols' defense.

The Tigers attempted 24 threes and made 11 of them (45.8 percent). Morgan Eye was 6-12 from long range and poured in 26 points.

"We just didn't have a lot of discipline today in our defense and what we wanted to do," Warlick said. "They had an opportunity to get a lot of looks. They had 24 3-point looks and I would bet that a lot of those were wide open threes they just missed.

"It wouldn't have anything to do with our defense. I don't have an explanation. I know what we practice and know what we did today. We're not a disciplined team when we need to be disciplined. We're kind of all-or-nothing and today we were nothing."

That is harsh but ultimately accurate. Tennessee has been depleted by injuries and is relying on youngsters at key spots.

The best perimeter defender on the team was freshman Andraya Carter, and she went out in December for the season with a shoulder injury.

The next best perimeter defender was Williams, who went out early in the second half. Taber Spani had drained a three on an assist by Massengale and the Lady Vols led 41-39 three minutes into the second half when Williams had to depart.

When Williams, who had been slicing through Missouri's defense with ease, went out, it seemed to take the fight and focus out of Tennessee.

"That's a big loss," Spani said. "Kamiko was playing really good. She is a sparkplug on defense for us. We have to be tougher than that, it doesn't matter if we play six people, seven people, or five people, a lot of us are playing a lot of minutes right now, but that's just part of that. We have to overcome that.

"I think that our youth showed a little bit, and it's my job as a senior leader to make sure our maturity level is better than that. So, put that one on me."

Eye put Missouri up 47-45 with 13:04 to play, and the Tigers never trailed again.

Tennessee didn't help itself with quick jump shots and when the Lady Vols did get the ball inside, Graves got fouled and struggled from the free throw line, where she had been solid mostly this season.

"I think they packed it in inside and we weren't hitting outside shots," Warlick said. "And then Bashaara gets frustrated and doesn't get it and she goes to the free throw line and shoots 50 percent."

Graves was clearly frustrated by the misses at the line. She finished with 11 points on 3-5 shooting from the field and 5-10 from the stripe. Meighan Simmons also reached double figures with 13 points on 5-16 shooting after starting the game 2-13.

Spani added 12 points and was 3-6 from long range. Massengale tallied 10 points on 3-8 shooting.

Williams was 7-9 from the field and her absence ultimately meant the Lady Vols took their first SEC loss, which is a testament to the renaissance of the senior this season.

The Lady Vols remain the hunted in the SEC, despite the coaching change, rolled-over roster and youth.

"I think our kids are going to be really proud of it and an eye opener for recruiting, and opens up some doors for that too," Pingeton said.

Missouri is in its first year in the SEC. It was a signature win and a well-earned one.

It was a game that Tennessee had no business winning but had managed to do so a couple of times this SEC season. From that vantage point, it's a good loss if lessons get learned about shot selection, game plans, scouting reports and defensive communication.

It is the last month of a grueling SEC season and a long one for first-year players. Tennessee needs to somehow get healthy and hold on these final four weeks. The coaches also have to find minutes for Moore and Phillips. Fatigued players don't talk – or recover well – on defense, and the minutes are piling up for too many players.

Warlick also graciously gave credit where it was due – to the Tigers.

"Congratulations to Missouri," Warlick said. "They just played a great game, had a great game plan and they fought for 40 minutes. When you do that, you have great results, so credit to them and their coach.

"We were not very inspired today and I apologize for that. You cannot come to win with low energy and expect to win in the SEC and here at Missouri."


Game highlights from utsportstv

Taber Spani, Ariel Massengale

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