Lady Vols finish road swing with win

The Lady Vols swept through the state of Mississippi and returned home still holding onto first place in the SEC after a 66-56 win over Ole Miss. Go inside for the game story and Inside Tennessee's Take.

Tennessee (20-7, 11-3) ended its two-game trip through the Magnolia State with a victory over Ole Miss (12-15, 2-12) on Sunday at Tad Smith Coliseum.

The win gave the Lady Vols 20 on the season, a milestone Tennessee has reached for 36 consecutive years under Pat Summitt.

The Lady Vols finished the week 2-0 against its sister SEC schools in Mississippi – they dispatched Mississippi State, 57-41, on Thursday – and while neither game was particularly pretty, the coaches will take the victories.

"Obviously, I thought we could've played a whole lot better than we did," Summitt said. "I don't think we came out with a lot of energy, but found some as we went along.

"You have to give Ole Miss credit. They were ready as well."

With Kentucky scheduled to take on Vanderbilt on Monday night, the Lady Vols now hold a slim lead in the SEC. The Wildcats can reclaim the tie with a win; a loss would give Tennessee first place to itself with two games left to play.

Ole Miss opened in a matchup zone, and, as against Mississippi State, the Lady Vols struggled to connect from outside.

"I thought that they had a good game plan," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said. "They made it very difficult to get the ball inside to Glory Johnson early, so we were taking some outside shots.

"It was almost a replay of the Mississippi State game in the first half. We struggled to knock shots down."

Once the ball did get inside to Johnson, she was doubled and fired out to Taber Spani, who was behind the arc and knotted the game at 3 at the 17:29 mark of the first half.

But Valencia McFarland gave Ole Miss a 6-5 lead when she hit her second trey and then knotted the game at 9 when she hit her third one at the 15:32 mark. A three-pointer by Amber Singletary gave Ole Miss a 15-14 lead at the 9:37 mark with all of the Rebels' scoring coming from behind the arc.

Tennessee got the lead for good, 16-15, on a stick-back from Shekinna Stricklen and continued to build on it with Vicki Baugh cleaning up teammates' misses back-to-back for a 26-19 lead followed by a Cierra Burdick baseline jumper for a 28-19 lead with 3:18 left to play before the break.

Burdick hit another baseline jumper and then angled in a layup to give the Lady Vols a 32-21 lead at halftime.

It was the second-consecutive game that Burdick and Baugh provided a major boost off the bench.

"Two games back-to-back we depended on the bench," DeMoss said. "Cierra Burdick has given us offensive power, which we definitely needed. She knocked shots down from the outside.

"Vicki Baugh came in and gave us good minutes. She got some boards and hit some shots for us. We were able to go to our bench and fortunately our bench was able to produce for us."

Johnson got fouled at the rim – she made one of two fouls shots – and Meighan Simmons scored on a nifty layup to give the Lady Vols a 35-27 lead after Ole Miss outscored Tennessee 6-1 to start the second half.

Spani hit a three in transition for a 38-31 lead at the 14:56 mark, but Ole Miss hung close to the Lady Vols. Burdick and Baugh reentered in the second half and, once again, provided a jolt.

"We started off the game a little flat," Burdick said. "Just trying to bring energy coming off the bench is what we really needed.

"I was thankful that my teammates got me the ball when I was open and I just tried to knock it down when I could."

Ole Miss trailed by just four points, 38-34, when McFarland again connected on a three ball with 14:27 left in the game.

Spani extended the lead to six points with two free throws and then Burdick and Ariel Massengale found Johnson at the rim for back-to-back baskets, followed by Burdick sticking a baseline jumper, getting fouled on an offensive board and hitting both free throws and then Baugh scoring at the rim for a 50-41 lead with 9:02 left.

"I think all the guards and even some of the post players, we need to get in the gym and get some shots up," Burdick said. "Right now, everybody knows we're trying to go inside with the basketball. We have great post players.

"If we're not able to shoot well from the outside, we're not going to be able to get it inside."

Ole Miss again trimmed the lead to just four points, 50-46, on a trey from Singletary with 8:28 left, and Tennessee called a timeout with 8:17 to play.

Kamiko Williams saved a bad pass out of the timeout and got the ball to Baugh for a 52-46 lead. A three from Shekinna Stricklen – assisted by Johnson – and a pull-up jumper from Baugh in the paint extended the lead to 57-46 with 6:10 to play.

Ole Miss stayed within striking distance, but Tennessee ratcheted up its defense – including an eye-popping block from Baugh – and the Lady Vols got some easy layups and hit their free throws down the stretch for the final 66-56 outcome.

Ole Miss was led by McFarland with 21 points. The sophomore point guard was 4-6 from behind the arc with four assists. Singletary added eight points, Tia Faleru chipped in with seven and Nikki Byrd had six on the strength of 3-3 shooting.

Byrd, one of three Rebel seniors honored before the game, wore a "We Back Pat" T-shirt at the center court ceremony as did seniors Whitney Hamath, who had two assists, and LaTosha Laws, who had three points.

Ole Miss shot 37.3 percent (22-59) overall, 66.7 percent (8-12) from long range and 57.1 percent (4-7) from the line. The Rebels had 11 assists, 16 turnovers, five steals and one block.

Tennessee was led by Johnson with 13 points. The senior now has 1,492 career points. Stricklen reached double digits with 12 points, as did Baugh and Burdick with 10 each.

Simmons chipped in nine points and now has 803 for her career. Spani added eight points and hit two three-pointers.

The Lady Vols shot 43.6 percent (24-55) overall, 25.0 percent (4-16) from long range and 77.8 percent (14-18) from the line.

Tennessee had 19 assists, 13 turnovers, eight steals and five blocks.

Massengale had seven assists to just one turnover and now has 126 helpers, just seven short of Loree Moore's rookie record of 133.

Tennessee prevailed on the boards, 37-32, with Baugh (7) and Burdick (6) combining for 13. Johnson led the team with eight rebounds, and Simmons grabbed five.

The Lady Vols edged the Rebels, 17-15, in second-chance points; 8-6 in fast break points; and 32-24 in paint points. The Rebels prevailed in points off turnovers, 16-11; and bench output, 22-20.

"We found a way to win," Summitt said. "When you're on the road, you take it and say, ‘It's a win.' "

INSIDE TENNESSEE'S TAKE

At this time of year teams are just trying to survive conference play and get into postseason intact.

Tennessee was successful this week in the Magnolia State with two wins, the latest over Ole Miss and the first against Mississippi State. The Lady Vols spent five days in the country's 20th state and now head home for the final two games of the regular season.

Tennessee was impatient to start both games with shots going up on the perimeter without forcing the zone defense to move.

The first time Glory Johnson touched the ball, she was doubled and fired out to wide-open Taber Spani, who tied the game at three.

It was instructive of how the Lady Vols want to play – inside-out. It doesn't mean the shots have to be attempted inside, but the ball needs to move through the paint to open up the outside.

Tennessee also got outstanding play off the bench in both games, especially from freshman Cierra Burdick and senior Vicki Baugh.

They entered together Sunday in place of Spani and Meighan Simmons – who combined to shoot 3-13 in the first half – and responded with 10 boards and 5-6 shooting combined.

"I try to fill in the holes," Burdick said. "I just try to do what the team needs me to do at all times. If it's getting on the boards, I try to get on the boards. If it's feeding the ball inside, I try to do that. If it's hitting open shots, that's what I really want to do.

"I just want to do whatever my team needs me to do."

Burdick's marksmanship from the field is the result of weeks spent in the gym on her own this season.

"She's been stepping up for this team," senior Shekinna Stricklen said. "She stays in the gym more than anyone."

Burdick injects offensive efficiency and also some much-needed energy. The Lady Vols started slowly in both games on the road.

"It's all flat," Burdick said explaining the low-energy level. "We just need to pick it up. We're not going to get very far in the tournament if we keep coming out flat and playing to our competition's level."

Burdick sometimes has the opposite issue and needs to remember to gather herself.

"I'm just trying to stay composed and poised," Burdick said. "That's been the biggest focus lately. Sometimes, I get too energized and I start to rush my shot.

"I'm just trying to really focus in on the game and get in the swing of things before I start putting the shots up. That's really helped me."

Perhaps that could become contagious. Tennessee's impatience on offense can disrupt the flow of the game, and shots go up that have little chance of going in. That, in turn, energizes the other team and lets lesser-talented ones hang around.

It didn't matter in the state of Mississippi but it will against Arkansas, which has won nine of its last 10 games, and Florida, which defeated Georgia to even its SEC record at 7-7 and is fighting for an NCAA berth.

Those games are at home so Tennessee has the advantage – and Nashville will be full of orange in the SEC tourney – but the Lady Vols won't be in their home state for the NCAA Tournament.

They could very well be playing on a lower seed's home floor in what will feel like a road game in the early rounds. The time to address the undisciplined starts is in the final games before the Big Dance.

Even a freshman realizes that.

"We need to play Tennessee basketball all the time," Burdick said. "If we don't it's going to show come tournament time."

The biggest plus for the Lady Vols in this game was, of course, the win, the 20th of the season.

The coaches also will like the balance of the box score. Despite scoring just 66 points, four Lady Vols reached double digits. They also had just 13 turnovers and shot 77.8 percent from the line with four players – Spani, Burdick, Baugh and Ariel Massengale – perfect from the stripe.

Teams also are in survival mode at this time of year as aches and pains have piled up, and the regular season nears an end. The Lady Vols spent most of this week in hotel rooms while trying to keep up with classwork and balance basketball with college.

With two games at home this week, the Lady Vols can sleep in their own beds, catch up with school and get in the gym on their own time.

"I'm just glad we can get off the road for a little bit," Pat Summitt said.

VIDEO COVERAGE

Game highlights courtesy of utsportstv


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