Tennessee claims share of first place

The Lady Vols got the first win in their two-game Magnolia State road trip and, thanks to an Alabama upset of Kentucky, Tennessee earned a share of first place in the SEC with the 57-41 victory over Mississippi State.

Tennessee (19-7, 10-3) found enough offense Thursday – thanks to a big jolt from the bench – to defeat Mississippi State (14-12, 4-9) in Starkville.

"I wouldn't say this was a pretty glamorous game," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said. "It was just a grind. I think anytime you come to Mississippi State, they have a good basketball team. We knew that it was probably going to be a grind.

"We thought we might shoot the ball a little better than we did. Our defense stayed intact, kept rebounding, and we didn't let our offense affect that phase of our game."

The Lady Vols shot 36.7 percent in the first half – which was actually presentable considering how they started the game – and 40.6 percent in the second half.

The rescue came from the bench in Vicki Baugh, Kamiko Williams and Cierra Burdick, who settled down the Lady Vols on offense after the starters, as a group, sputtered.

The Lady Vols' bench – led by Burdick's 10 points – outscored Mississippi State's bench, 20-0.

"I think that's the power of our bench," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "Our starters didn't have a particularly good game in the first half."

Kendra Grant kept Mississippi State in the game. She had 11 of the Lady Bulldogs' first 14 points.

"Hopefully, this game will help her confidence," MSU Coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "I know she is learning the system better and understanding defensive concepts more and getting tougher every day.

"Freshmen are going to continue to get better, and we just have to have everybody on this team to continue to improve and expect to score. We need more balance and get the ball inside to our post players more."

Tennessee got 28 of its 57 points in the paint. Mississippi State managed just 12 points inside.

Grant finished the game with a career-high 17 points on 6-13 shooting, including four three-pointers.

"I feel really good about that," Grant said. "This game especially, means the most out of the whole season. I grew up watching Tennessee and to me, they are like a pro team.

"Being able to play against them, I felt like I needed to do something."

Tennessee wanted to get its high-octane offense in gear – the Lady Vols play better at high speed – but the ball squirted loose with too much frequency with 13 first-half turnovers.

"We wanted to pick the pace up and run on them, but we really had a sloppy start," Coach Pat Summitt said. "Shots weren't falling, and we were turning the ball over a lot.

"We finally got into a groove on offense, and defensively we played well for the most part of the game."

The Lady Vols got the ball in the hands of Shekinna Stricklen in the second half, and she delivered with 20 second-half points.

Tennessee also dominated the glass – 59-37 overall – with Stricklen (12 boards) and Glory Johnson (15) leading the way.

"I thought Glory and Stricklen did a good job on the boards," Summitt said. "We needed that. If you can control the boards, you have a great influence on controlling the game."

Tennessee maintained control in the second half – enough so that the coaches could spread out minutes – but Mississippi State made one late charge to pull within 10 points, 48-38, with 3:37 left on an and-one play by Porsha Porter.

Summitt summoned Stricklen to reenter the game, and she took the floor after Meighan Simmons was fouled on a baseline jumper. Simmons missed both free throws, but Stricklen got the offensive board and hit the layup for a 50-38 lead with 2:18 left in the game.

When Ariel Massengale missed the front end of a one-and-one, Stricklen also got that offensive board, hit the layup and was fouled. She made the free throw for a 53-40 with 1:07 left.

Mississippi State fouled twice more to force Tennessee to line – Simmons and Stricklen went 4-4 in the final minute for the final 57-41 score – and Simmons dribbled out the clock for the final 14 seconds after a Baugh defensive board with the Lady Bulldogs declining to foul on that last possession.

Mississippi State was led by Grant with 17 points. Porter added 15 points. Diamber Johnson, the team's leading scorer at 16.0 points per game, had just three – she was 1-6 from behind the arc and 1-15 overall – but tallied seven assists.

The Lady Bulldogs shot 23.2 percent (16-69) overall, 30.0 percent (6-20) from long range and 60.0 percent (3-5) from the line. MSU had 10 assists, 13 turnovers, seven steals and four blocks.

Catina Bett had six rebounds for Mississippi State, but had to leave the game after fainting while lined up for a teammate's free throw attempt in the second half. Stricklen was talking to Bett, who took a step back and fell with Burdick reaching to try to catch her. Fanning-Otis said Bett, who was taken to a local hospital, appeared to be suffering from dehydration.

Tennessee was led by Stricklen with 22 points. Burdick tallied 10 points with Williams nearly reaching double figures with eight. Johnson chipped in with seven points and Simmons added six.

The Lady Vols shot 38.7 percent (24-62) overall, 11.1 percent (1-9) from long range and 57.1 percent (8-14) from the line. Tennessee had 10 assists, 19 turnovers – six in the second half – six steals and six blocks.

Tennessee will stay in the Magnolia State and take a bus to Oxford on Friday.

The Lady Vols will finish the road portion of the SEC with Sunday's game at Ole Miss (2 p.m. Eastern, TV: SEC Network) before returning home to close out the regular season next week with games against Arkansas and Florida.

The Lady Vols are now in position, if they win out, to claim at least a share of the SEC regular season crown. The first step was Thursday's win in Starkville.

"I thought we buckled down and did what we had to do," Summitt said.

INSIDE TENNESSEE'S TAKE

Get the win and get out of town.

That has been the goal of Tennessee in every trip to Starkville, and the program has been successful 15 consecutive times now.

Mississippi State is the only team in the SEC that has never beaten Tennessee – the overall series record is now 33-0 in favor of the orange.

It is not because of lack of defensive effort by the Lady Bulldogs. The games tend to be physical and low scoring.

That was the case Thursday – Vicki Baugh had her mouth bloodied on what was ruled a flagrant foul, though it didn't appear to rise to that level on the replay – and several players on both teams needed a stop in play to restore contacts to their eyes.

It was a typical Tennessee-Mississippi State game in that it wasn't pretty to watch – even steady ball distributor Ariel Massengale had just one credited assist – and baskets were hard to come by on both ends.

Mississippi State played right into Tennessee's hands as the Lady Vols opened in their matchup zone – they didn't play a possession of man defense until three minutes into the second half – and the Lady Bulldogs were content to take, and miss, jump shots.

The problem for the Lady Vols is that they were doing the same thing. The two teams combined to shoot 1-20 to open the game.

It started with brief promise when Meighan Simmons hit a jumper in transition for a quick 2-0 lead, but then the misfires began from various spots on the floor by assorted players. Simmons, Massengale and Shekinna Stricklen combined to shoot 3-19 in the first half.

At the 13:40 mark of the first half, Mississippi State led 5-2 on the strength of back-to-back jumpers by Kendra Grant and Diamber Johnson, who hit a trey.

"In the beginning we started off really, really well," Grant said. "Everything was flowing and we had the lead at one point. We knew what we had to do in order to beat them.

"It was a big game and all week we had a saying, ‘shock the world.' That is what we were trying to do. We came out with that mentality."

Taber Spani, who didn't appear to be physically comfortable in the game, pulled Tennessee to 5-4 with a middle drive and midrange shot, but the Lady Vol starters, as a whole, continued to sputter.

Enter Vicki Baugh, Kamiko Williams and Cierra Burdick.

Baugh got on the glass – five of her six boards came before halftime – Williams used her ability to create shots to get Mississippi State off balance and Burdick brought calmness to the floor on offense with her passing and her shooting.

The trio halted any notion of a shock to the Lady Vols' system.

Burdick set up teammates and gave the Lady Vols an 8-7 lead at the 9:39 mark of the first half that it never lost.

"Cierra and Kamiko came in and really carried this team," Stricklen said. "They stepped up coming off the bench. I give those two a lot of credit because they really got us going in the first half."

Burdick, Baugh and Williams shot 6-6 in the first half to lead the Lady Vols to a 22-13 halftime lead.

Stricklen and Glory Johnson needed the pick-up because they opened the game missing inside and out.

"We didn't really have composure on our shots," Stricklen said. "We were fading away from our layups. Glory and I were just fading away. We just have to start going into it and going up strong."

Stricklen got on track in the second half – she had two points at the break and finished with 22 to lead all scorers – and Johnson dominated the glass with 15 boards.

Four of Stricklen's points came on stick-backs of teammates' misses at the free throw line. She credited Johnson with opening up the path to the rim.

"I have to give Glory the credit," Stricklen said. "When she goes through she clears it out."

Stricklen was 1-7 in the first half and 7-11 in the second. She scored from the line (5-6), stroked a three-pointer and got to the paint.

"I was more aggressive, not thinking and just playing," Stricklen said. "My teammates were carrying me a lot. They were telling me, ‘It's going to fall. Just keep going hard.'

"That's what I did with my teammates having my back, this team being together, everyone stepping up and playing their role."

Any Lady Vol observer expecting a continuation of the fun-fest against Kentucky – a 91-54 romp on Monday – wasn't very aware of the history of the UT-MSU series and especially games in Starkville.

The game also came on short rest with the preparation day also being the travel one for the Lady Vols. Kentucky, with first place in the SEC all to itself when Thursday started, was still in a funk and ending up losing to the last-place team in the league in Alabama.

The Lady Vols summoned enough offense – led by Stricklen's 20-point output in the second half – and played decent defense to secure, in the end, a 16-point win.

"We did what we needed to do," DeMoss said. "There were some gaps in (the zone). They penetrated on us a little bit and got in the gaps a few times. All in all, it was pretty solid and that's a good thing.

"A lot of people have zoned them this year, so I knew they would have more options against the zone. All in all, we went to some man in the second half to change up to cover their shooters a little bit better. I thought our zone was pretty good."

Mississippi State is a team that will try to win a game with its defense.

"Our defense played hard enough for us to win the ballgame," MSU Coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "They have awfully good athletes, with great size, at all positions."

That is indeed true. Tennessee's 57 points was its lowest output in an SEC game this season. And when its first wave faltered, in went Baugh, Williams and Burdick, a very effective trio off the bench.

"It wasn't the prettiest game," Holly Warlick said. "It was a grind for us and we found a way to win."

That is indeed true.

And against Mississippi State, take the win and get out of Starkville.

VIDEO COVERAGE

Game highlights courtesy of utsportstv


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