Lady Vols fall on road to Wildcats

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The Lady Vols ended the regular season with a loss on the road to Kentucky. Go inside with InsideTennessee for game analysis and video coverage.

Tennessee (23-6, 14-2) buried itself amid a sea of turnovers against the frenetic attack of Kentucky (25-4, 13-3) and wrapped up the regular season with a disappointing 78-65 loss.

Lady Vols Meighan Simmons and Cierra Burdick bemoaned the team's lack of focus and proper approach to being prepared.

"We've just got to go back home and regroup and figure out what we need to do better," Burdick said Sunday after the game.

"Tomorrow marks the beginning of a new season. We just need to put this behind us, learn from it and get better so we can come prepared for the SEC tournament and catch a couple of Ws."

Tennessee won't play again until Friday at noon in Duluth, Ga., against the winner of Arkansas-Florida in the conference tourney. As the winner of the SEC regular season - that was clinched Thursday at home - the Lady Vols earned a first-round bye, as did Kentucky, Georgia and Texas A&M.

The Lady Vols will take off Monday and then use the rest of the week to prepare for the tourney, a practice schedule that must be modified based on available players.

We can't do some of the things we would like to do because we don't have the bodies to do it," head coach Holly Warlick said. "There is a fine line between how much you work and how much you get rest.

"So we are going to have to be really aware of that, and adjust how we practice."

Tennessee got excellent news with regard to point guard Ariel Massengale, who sustained a right knee injury Thursday. She was cleared and logged 34 minutes Sunday.

Post Isabelle Harrison, who also hurt her right knee Thursday, wasn't as fortunate. Harrison remains out and was listed by Warlick as "week to week." Her availability for the SEC tourney wasn't yet known.

The Lady Vols didn't even escape this game unscathed. Guard Kamiko Williams re-injured her right ankle, came out and tried to give it a go again but was visibly hindered.

"I thought Kamiko's injury was tough for us," Warlick said. "I think she came back and wasn't a factor when she came back in off her ankle.

"It is just things that we have had to deal with and it is part of the game. People have to step up and we didn't step up today."

While it is a part of the game, Tennessee has been hammered with far more than its share of injuries all season.

And Kentucky was fully prepared to exploit that advantage.

"I knew that from the scout that they would only play three people off the bench," said Kentucky point guard Jennifer O'Neill, who hit four treys and tallied 16 points.

"We had more people to rotate and more bodies, so why not push the tempo? I think it was the smartest thing to do."

The Lady Vols didn't even have eight Sunday with Harrison out, as that cut the rotation to seven players. Making matters worse for Tennessee was early foul trouble for Simmons and Bashaara Graves.

"When Shar got in foul trouble, we were just extremely limited on what we could do with the tempo and how we wanted to play," Warlick said. "It is what it is. We can't afford to get anybody in foul trouble.

"When Shar picked up her third, we had to change our whole game plan of what we wanted to do."

Coach Matthew Mitchell even did a five-for-five substitution in the first half, and the second group held its own against Tennessee. The message was clear - the Wildcats could come in waves.

"We had quality depth today," Mitchell said. "You know, you can have a lot of players on your bench, but if they don't come and play hard, you don't really have depth.

"I thought our depth was quality and I thought it was able to wear Tennessee down."

Yet the Lady Vols were down by just four at halftime, 36-32, despite 19 turnovers that Wildcats converted into 17 points by the break. Kentucky had taken 44 shots to just 22 by Tennessee midway through the game.

Tennessee shot 45.5 percent in the first half and connected on 10 shots. Kentucky made 14 and shot 31.8 percent. The difference was the miscues - the Wildcats had just six and added eight steals to Tennessee's two takeaways.

The half ended with a bizarre play in which Graves was whistled for a blocking charge and the Wildcat player that was fouled, Samarie Walker, passed the ball for a layup by Azia Bishop that counted and then Walker was awarded a free throw, which she missed. The foul should have ended the play before the layup.

The call brought howls of protest from Warlick, but it was upheld.

"I thought we were really dominating the game in the first half and I thought Tennessee was very fortunate for the margin to be four at halftime," Mitchell said.

"In a way, we were fortunate because we looked like we were going to give it away and maybe they might go into halftime leading. I thought we sort of stubbed our toe a few times on plays that we could have made and if we could have made them, we could have really stretched the lead out."

Kentucky did that to start the second half and built a 13-point lead, 45-32, in a little over two minutes. The lead reached 17 points, 61-44, at the 8:58 mark. Tennessee managed to hover - the Lady Vols were down 11 points, 70-59, with 3:18 left - but the Wildcats continued to get key baskets, shooting 44.7 percent in the second half.

The Lady Vols didn't respond well to Kentucky's pressure - the ball too often ended up in the wrong players' hands - and when they did beat the press the ball squirted loose with bad passes.

Burdick, usually one of the team's pinpoint passers, had seven turnovers. She had plenty of company, as Simmons had six turnovers and three players, Williams, Taber Spani and Jasmine Jones, had four each. The Lady Vols had a season-high 31 turnovers - it bested the 26 miscues in the season opener at Chattanooga - that Kentucky converted into 33 points.

"We just have to come back and regroup and we failed to do that today and I think that really what hurt us," Burdick said. "We didn't handle the pressure well and then we fell under pressure."

Warlick's post-game remarks noted the shortcomings of Tennessee, and they were on target as the Lady Vols didn't take care of the ball and didn't protect the glass. While they prevailed overall on the boards, 43-37, the Wildcats got 19 offensive rebounds and scored 38 points in the paint to 18 for the Lady Vols.

"You have to take care of the ball and you have to bring your defense," Warlick said. "We didn't bring our defense. You have to bring your defense and you have to rebound.

"We didn't do those two things. It was a totally different game. We didn't have it and we didn't get it done today."

During the game much of Warlick's ire was directed at the officials and rightly so. She spent part of one timeout on the court expressing her displeasure with two officials.

Kentucky's theme of 40 minutes of dread works well if the officials are willing to overlook a lot of contact, and they were, especially in the first half.

It was a physical game and instead of dealing with it, the Lady Vols got rattled and forced errors - some of which were caused by uncalled fouls - led to unforced errors, as the physical play affected Tennessee mentally.

Postseason can be brutal in terms of physicality, so the Lady Vols have some valuable film to watch in terms of taking care of the ball and making better decisions against stiff pressure.

Despite the ball getting tossed all about Memorial Gym, the Lady Vols still managed to get four players in double figures led by Simmons with 17 points, Graves with 12 and Burdick and Spani with 11 each. Burdick completed the double-double with 11 boards. Williams and Simmons had seven rebounds each.

It was a valuable experience for a young team as the venue was hostile - the majority of the 7,965 in attendance were hollering for the Wildcats - and the game presented a lot of adversity.

Tennessee can learn from the film and then flush the regular season and get ready for the second act that is college basketball - postseason.

"We've got to take it one game at a time, let everyone recover and do what we need to stay fit and in shape," Simmons said. "We need to make sure that our bodies are relaxed and well taken care of and like Cierra said, tomorrow marks a new day.

"We just need to take it one game at a time and continue to work hard.

VIDEO COVERAGE

Game highlights from utsportstv

Holly Warlick

Cierra Burdick, Meighan Simmons

DeNesha Stallworth, A'dia Mathies, Jennifer O'Neill, Brittany Henderson


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