The raw emotion of that moment was so intense that the game which followed seemed almost anti-climactic. Still, Tennessee and Vanderbilt put on a pretty good show before a season-best crowd of 14,716 fans. Ultimately, the 12th-ranked Lady Vols finished off the Sunday afternoon contest with a 13-4 run that sealed an 83-64 victory.
On a day devoted to breast cancer awareness, Warlick devoted several minutes to recapping the game, then addressed that touching moment when she walked to the South stands, presented the game ball and hugged her sister, Marion Ferrill.
|LadyVol senior Taber Spani lifts up a shot over the outstretched arms of Vanderbilt defender Jasmine Lister. Spani finished with 12 points.|
"Emotional? Yes. I gave her the ball and said she's my greatest hero. And she is because, as we're battling for a game, that is the battle of her life. So, you talk about mental toughness … understanding what you have to go through. I understand it, so I keep it in perspective. I would put her battle first, before any battle in basketball."
Then, acknowledging InsideTennessee staffer Maria Cornelius, who missed the game recovering from cancer surgery, Warlick added: "My thoughts and prayers are with her, as well. We're going to do all we can to find a cure – awareness, research … whatever we have to do."
Three $15,000 checks were donated in pre-game ceremonies – one each going to the UT Breast Health Outreach Program, the Kay Yow Cancer Foundation and the Brady James Foundation. Warlick was a lot more pleased with that than she was with the uneven Lady Vol performance that followed.
Tennessee raced to a 10-3 lead and expanded it to 14-5 five minutes into the game. Vanderbilt answered with an 11-2 surge, however, and pulled even at 16-all. Freshman Jasmine Jones came off the bench to give the Lady Vols a huge lift at this point.
Following a 3-pointer by Meighan Simmons, Jones scored on a 12-footer and a putback as Tennessee eased ahead 23-18. She subsequently added a five-footer from the lane and a 17-footer from the left wing as Tennessee went up 33-24. Her five-footer with eight seconds left in the half gave the Lady Vols' their biggest lead (39-29) going to the break.
With 10 points, 3 rebounds and 2 steals in 10 relief minutes, the 6-foot-2 freshman was pretty much the key figure of the opening half.
"I was more composed than usual," she said, subsequently adding that she also was "more patient with my shots."
Tennessee opened the second half with a 14-6 spurt that widened the gap to 53-35. When Ariel Massengale's drive bumped the lead to 20 points (60-40) with 12:39 to go, the suspense appeared over. It wasn't.
Vanderbilt's Jasmine Lister, a 5-foot-4 perpetual-motion machine, drained back-to-back 3-pointers to open a 10-0 spurt that she closed with a five-footer from the lane. Suddenly, Tennessee's lead was just 10 points (60-50) with 8:39 remaining.
Warlick called a timeout at this point. Whatever she said, something in the message hit home with Bashaara Graves. The 6-foot-2 freshman converted back-to-back offensive rebounds into putbacks, one of which also carried a foul shot. Those five points slowed Vanderbilt's rally but didn't stop it.
The Commodores again whittled the deficit to 10 points (70-60) with 5:04 remaining but Massengale and Kamiko Williams stepped up at this point. Williams hit a free throw, Massengale nailed a 10-foot pull-up jumper from the lane, then Williams made a driving layup. Massengale added a transition layup off a spectacular behind-the-back pass from Simmons to cap a 7-0 run that widened the gap to 77-60 with 2:32 remaining and finally put the game on ice.
|Tennessee freshman Jasmine Jones (right) attempts a field goal while being closely guarded by Vanderbilt's Tiffany Clarke. Jones sank 6 of 8 shots from the floor.|
"Vanderbilt's always going to come into Knoxville and try to prove a point," she said. "We just had to come out there, play twice as hard and give it our all out there on the floor."
Simmons scored 17 points to pace the Lady Vols, who improve to 20-5 overall and 11-1 in SEC play. Tennessee now has won at least 20 games 37 seasons in a row. Massengale added 14 points and 5 assists but committed 7 turnovers. Graves chipped in 13 points, Jones and Taber Spani 12 each.
Warlick rewarded Jones with 17 second-half minutes and some post-game praise.
"I thought she was huge today," the coach said. "She played on the offensive end. She's a great defender for us. She got huge rebounds. One time I thought she was going to hit her head on the rim. She came out of nowhere. That's her athleticism and that's how she plays.
"She's an X-Factor for us. When we need a stop, need a rebound, need a bucket, she seems to be the one to get it."
Ironically, Jones' behavior during pre-game warmups suggested she might be a non-factor against Vanderbilt.
"Today she was real quiet in shoot-around and in pre-game," Warlick said. "I was a little concerned but I guess she needs to be quiet more often because she played a heck of a game."
Lister scored 24 points to lead Vanderbilt, which slips to 16-9 overall and 6-6 in league play.
Tennessee shot a sizzling 55.0 percent (33 of 60) from the field and 41.2 percent (7 of 17) from 3. The Lady Vols won the backboard battle 38-31 but still had to scratch and claw down the stretch. Warlick flashed a wry smile as she opened her post-game news conference.
"Any win's a great win for us; I'll tell you that," she said. "We fought hard. We had a couple of lapses but we got the job done."
Those "lapses" occurred in the second half, when Vanderbilt shot 50 percent (16 of 32) from the field, despite missing a lot of open looks. Warlick was disappointed in the defensive effort, especially since her team had a week to fine-tune it since hammering Ole Miss 97-68 on Feb. 10.
"I thought we would be more disciplined because we did work on it quite a bit," the coach said. "We were giving up penetrations and baskets. We ran into screens."
Warlick was understandably pleased with the offensive effort but surprised by it, as well.
"We hadn't really focused (in practice) on our offense," she said, laughing as she added: "That's a sign of a great coach … when you're focusing on defense and we score."
Bashaara Graves, Jasmine Jones, Meighan Simmons