Spani, Simmons lead Lady Vols

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The Lady Vols stayed perfect in the SEC and claimed sole possession of first place with the 83-75 win over Vanderbilt. Go inside with InsideTennessee for game analysis and videos.

If there was any doubt about the nature of the rivalry between Tennessee (16-3, 7-0) and Vanderbilt (13-6, 3-3), consider this quote by Meighan Simmons after the Lady Vols' win Thursday at Memorial Gym.

"We had to remind ourselves there's only one school in the state of Tennessee, and that's the University of Tennessee," Simmons said. "We wanted to prove that point tonight."

Coach Holly Warlick sighed as she sat down for the post-game press conference and said she was so sore that she felt like she had played. Warlick was thrilled with the win.

"It's great to be undefeated and be on top of the SEC," Warlick said.

She also knows the calendar reads late January with a lot of basketball left to play.

"Exactly," Warlick said. "We're not satisfied, absolutely."

It was a typical Tennessee-Vandy matchup with a series of runs by each team. Players and coaches will say that basketball is a game of runs, but it seems especially true when these two teams take the court in Nashville.

Tennessee got off to a fast start - a departure from its recent games - and led by 10 points, 16-6, less than five minutes into the game on a three ball from Taber Spani. The margin reached 12 points by halftime and the Lady Vols took a 41-29 lead into the locker room.

"It was our effort in the first half that was the difference," Vandy's Tiffany Clarke said.

By that she meant lack of such, and the Commodores did seem flat before an announced crowd of 10,154 with packs of orange-clad ones in the upper deck and others scattered in the lower sections.

Spani and Simmons had already reached double figures by the break - 15 points for Spani and 10 for Simmons - and Tennessee shot 46.2 percent overall (18-39) and 62.5 percent (5-8) from the arc in the first 20 minutes.

Vandy was 2-12 (16.7 percent) from long range and shot 25.6 percent overall (10-39) before the break.

"To let people run around and score like that, it's frustrating," Vandy's Christina Foggie said.

So the Lady Vols returned the favor, as it were, to start the second half.

Warlick couldn't wait for the media timeout. After a 7-0 start for Vandy, she walked nearly 15 feet onto the court and signaled emphatically for a timeout barely two minutes into the second half.

Tennessee responded with a three-second call for a turnover, and Vandy went on a 5-0 run to tie the game at 41 when Jasmine Lister connected from long range at the 16:09 mark.

"We were not a mature team the first four minutes of the second half," Spani said. "We had to battle back."

The Lady Vols did exactly that with Bashaara Graves scoring on a feed from Ariel Massengale - she had six assists for the game - Simmons hitting two free throws after being fouled on a drive and Graves getting doubled and firing out to Simmons for a three to finish a 7-0 Lady Vols run and give Tennessee a 48-41 lead.

The Lady Vols never lost the lead during that Vandy run and never trailed from opening buzzer to final horn.

The Commodores did stay within striking distance throughout the second half, as the lead was in single digits minus a 12-point margin, 57-45, when Spani got an offensive board, hit the layup, was fouled and connected from the line.

Vandy outscored Tennessee by four points in the second half, 46-42, which caused Foggie and Clarke to bemoan the Commodores' sluggish play in the first half. Foggie even noted the premature reaction to the 12-0 start to the second half.

"We can't celebrate when we make runs," Foggie said.

Warlick also had plenty to caution her team about after the game, starting with offensive boards. Vandy got four shots on one possession - connecting on the fourth one - at a time when Tennessee was clinging to its lead.

The Commodores were nipped on the boards overall, 46-43, but grabbed 21 on the offensive end, a galling stat for Tennessee. The Lady Vols had 14 on that end and converted them into 16 second-chance points while Vandy got 17.

Vandy also outscored Tennessee in the paint, 38-32, with post Tiffany Clarke tallying 19 points. Foggie led the Commodores with 22 points despite going 1-9 from long range. Kady Schrann added 14 points.

Warlick reminded her team in that early second half timeout to get back to playing hard on the defensive end - Vandy scored way too easily to open the half - and the Lady Vols responded.

That the Lady Vols came out a tad too relaxed after halftime is the mark of a young team. That they regrouped and held off Vanderbilt in a tough venue is a sign that a young team is maturing over the course of the season.

However, it was two upperclassmen that were all over the box score in the senior Spani and the junior Simmons.

Simmons will have one more trip to Memorial Gym in her career. Spani said good bye to the strangely configured court with 24 points on 8-14 shooting overall, 3-5 from the arc and 5-5 from the line. She also had six boards, an assist and a steal.

The steal was one of her best plays of the night. Spani tipped away the ball by overplaying the passing lane, wrestled it away Schrann and passed it ahead to Simmons from her knees.

Warlick said the performance overall was the best of Spani's career. It was the first time Spani scored 20-plus points since a loss at Virginia a year ago. That was also the game in which Spani hurt her knee and this season she is dealing with back issues, but they haven't slowed her down and especially so since she moved into the starting lineup after Cierra Burdick went out with a broken right hand.

Spani smiles when asked about her back, as clearly it bothers her, but she is playing through the pain in her final season in orange and white.

Over the final two minutes of the game, Spani and Massengale went 4-4 from the line and Simmons was 2-2 to stymie any chance Vanderbilt had to erase the lead and protect its eight-game home win streak this season.

Freshman Jasmine Jones didn't score in this game but grabbed seven boards and played stiff defense, a scenario that Warlick can't live with, especially when scoring continues to come from freshman post Bashaara Graves.

Graves was 6-11 from the field for 16 points and also grabbed eight boards.

The newcomer from Clarksville, Tenn., was playing her first game at Memorial Gym, but she had been in the venue on previous occasions for basketball camps. Graves also said she had watched several games there, and she remembered Tennessee losing to Vanderbilt in Nashville a year ago, a game Graves had attended.

That loss lingered into this season, and Spani had said before the team departed that the rematch in Nashville was a bit of a redemption one.

The next one comes Monday against Notre Dame, a game Warlick said she kept being asked about but wasn't going to discuss until after the Vanderbilt one.

It will be an "Orange Out" game with fans encouraged to wear orange. A banner honoring Pat Summitt will be raised before the game.

Summitt sat beside Gov. Bill Haslam in just her second road game appearance of the season, with the first also in the state of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the season opener.

"We were so excited when we found out she was coming, I was really trying to look for her, and I finally found her before the game," Spani said. "She brings inspiration to our team every time we see her."

After the game and right before the Lady Vol players came to the post-game press room, there were sounds of shrieking and screaming outside. It was too early for the players to leave - fans will always gather on the road near the team bus - but Summitt had already walked outside, and fans reacted to seeing her.

Summitt had a front row seat right behind the Tennessee bench and her successor in Warlick, who spent most of the game standing, stomping and encouraging her team.

It was Warlick's first win as a head coach against Vanderbilt, a bitter rivalry that Warlick has lived since the late 1970s.

Simmons and Spani made sure Warlick had a happy bus ride back to Knoxville.


Game highlights from utsportstv

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick

Meighan Simmons, Taber Spani, Bashaara Graves

Vandy coach Melanie Balcomb

Christina Foggie, Tiffany Clarke

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