Kaela Davis, a former Lady Vol commit scored the first points of the game on a drive to the basket – and she would pour in 23 more points until Cierra Burdick put a stop to it in the second half – but Tennessee took a 3-2 lead on a free throw by Isabelle Harrison and jumper by Meighan Simmons in transition and never lost it.
The Lady Vols compiled an 18-point lead, 41-23, with just under three minutes before halftime, but a series of misfires from the field – more on that in a bit – and 23 points combined from Davis and Aaliyah Whiteside pulled Tech to 44-35 by the break.
"I think they played hard but we got comfortable – and we can't get comfortable," Coach Holly Warlick said. "We started quick shooting the basketball, and Georgia Tech was either getting three-point shots or an and-one play and they got back in the game.
"If we can play a complete game we can be really, really good. We just have not played a complete game yet. When we do that defensively and offensively, we're a good basketball team."
Davis got loose against Tennessee and had 25 points midway through the second half. Then, Burdick was assigned to face-guard the freshman, and she didn't touch the ball until late in the game with an and-one play on a drive to the paint to finish with a game-high 28 points.
"Cierra is always trying to challenge herself on defense and I think she did a great job," said Andraya Carter, a former teammate of Davis' at Buford High School in Georgia. "Holly said it was her best defensive game as a Lady Vol, so to hold Kaela after she had scored so many points to so few at the end is good.
"Cierra did a great job and we're all super proud of her for it."
Georgia Tech coach MaChelle Joseph saluted her freshman's performance at the school where she had once been committed.
"I'm really proud of the way Kaela came out and played," Joseph said. "I thought it was a tough situation for her. It was one of the most gutsy performances I've seen from a freshman my entire career."
Davis' twin brother, A.J. Davis, who plays basketball for the Vols, cheered for his sister.
"I definitely noticed him," Davis said. "He's a big guy, so he stands out. He's always supportive and that meant a lot to have him here. Thompson-Boling is a tough place for anyone to play here. Tennessee has some of the greatest fans, so I knew it would be a big crowd. It was an honor to play here."
A glance of Tennessee's shooting stats – 38 percent overall and a ghastly 15.4 percent from long range – would not portend that the Lady Vols would tally 87 points.
But led by career-high boards of 18 each from Harrison and Bashaara Graves, the Lady Vols dominated the glass, 65-38 and scored 21 second-chance points and 46 points in the paint.
"Any time you have two posts end up with 36 rebounds in a game … I have to give them credit. … Obviously, we're going to go back and see how to keep a team from getting 65 rebounds. When we do that, it's a different ballgame," Joseph said.
The board work of Harrison and Graves and some timely defense ensured that every Tech comeback was snuffed.
The Yellow Jackets cut the lead to four points, 64-60, with 10:30 left in the game, but Ariel Massengale drove and somehow wrapped the ball around Davis for a 66-60 lead.
That was followed by a steal by Simmons and layup for a 68-60 lead. A step-back jumper by Massengale with 5:39 to play gave Tennessee a 75-65 lead, and it never fell below double digits – it reached 17 points, 82-65, with less than three minutes to play – and the Lady Vols had secured the fourth win of the season.
The best news for Tennessee was the return to form of Graves, who had 23 points, 18 boards and five assists. On Thursday, the sophomore said she wasn't playing aggressively like she did a year ago. She changed her mind-set before Sunday's game.
"It was to play aggressive," Graves said. "And that's what I did. I just wanted to play more aggressively than I have been."
Graves had been in foul trouble to start the season as she struggled to adjust to the new rules, but she had no infractions Sunday in 30 minutes of play.
"I saw that when I was walking over here," Graves said with a smile. "At the MTSU game, I was in deep foul trouble and I fouled out and I think that caused me to play timid in the next game, but in this game, I just got back into it and played defense without fouling."
Tennessee now needs to get Simmons back in All-SEC form. She is struggling offensively – though she had 13 points, she was 1-6 from the arc – but she took care of the ball with no turnovers and had two assists and a steal.
Simmons' struggles have been abated by the guard play of redshirt freshman Andraya Carter and true freshman Jordan Reynolds.
While Carter didn't shoot well in this game – she was 2-6 from the field – she has connected enough to make the defense guard her, and she brings an abundance of energy on defense. So does Reynolds.
"I thought Jordan didn't shoot the ball as well as she has, but I thought she played solid defense," Warlick said. "She distributed the ball, she ran the team. So I was pleased with Jordan and Mercedes.
"They keep getting better and better and they're playing in environments that they're not really used to. The more minutes they get, the more they play game situations, the better they're going to get."
Warlick was referring to Mercedes Russell, who tallied 14 points and five boards. The freshman is adjusting to the speed of the game, but she is active – and accurate – around the basket.
Warlick has stayed with her veteran lineup as starters, but she continues to experiment with combinations – all 10 players logged minutes in the first half – and she said the lineup could change.
Carter, because of her energy overall and pressure on the ball, is a candidate to move into it, especially since she plays well with Massengale.
"If she's closest to the ball, she'll bring it in and if I'm closest to the ball, I'll bring it in," Carter said. "We both know the one and the two and if she needs some relief, I can help her. If I'm struggling, she can get the ball and help me. We're a good combination."
That was the case last year until Carter's season was ended after seven games because of shoulder surgery, but the two have seamlessly restored the synergy.
"I think our team has tremendous respect for both of those young ladies as far as leading the team both on and off the court," Warlick said. "I don't have any problem with Massengale going to the two guard and Andraya stepping up at the point.
"It's about production, and I think those two actually play really well together."
Warlick is definitely willing to tinker with her starters, although the five returners have been solid so far. It wouldn't be because of what they weren't doing, so much as what someone else could do – namely Carter and also Russell, once she gets used to the pace and physicality of college basketball.
"I don't think there's going to be a set lineup," Warlick said. "I think it's what we emphasize and what we need and who can get us off to a quick start, who's going to come in and give us a boost. I would be surprised if we kept this lineup the whole year."
It would be hard to remove Graves and Harrison, especially with how effective they are on the glass. Dean Lockwood, who coaches the posts, had to be thrilled about their combined 22 offensive rebounds.
"When the game starts, Dean always whispers into mine and Bashaara's ears to get however many amount of rebounds," Harrison said. "We definitely exceeded his goals for us tonight. He told me 14."
"He just tells me to take it five rebounds at a time," Graves said. "Every time he talks to me, he just says, ‘five more,' and that's what I do."
Tennessee's post-game notes list the rebounding accolades.
Graves is just a sophomore, while Harrison is a junior. Carter is a redshirt freshman, and Reynolds and Russell are freshmen. The young talent at Tennessee is impressive, and the true freshmen showed glimpses of what is to come on a series in the first half.
Reynolds was on the wing and fired the ball into Russell, who was well guarded. Russell sent the ball back to Reynolds, who executed an up fake, stepped to the side and delivered the ball to a wide-open Russell at the rim. Reynolds went right back to Russell on the next possession for her two assists. As Warlick said, the more game minutes the duo gets – Reynolds had nine, Russell had 23 – the better they will get.
Warlick may have just 10 players, but she can get production from all of them. Jasmine Jones and Carter changed the perimeter defense when they were on the floor together. Nia Moore made use of her minutes with two blocks and an assist. Burdick struggled offensively but stuck to Davis to ensure Tech wouldn't take the lead.
"I think Cierra Burdick's defense tonight was the best she's played at Tennessee," Warlick said of the junior forward. "Once Davis hit some shots, we asked her to face guard and limit her touches and I thought Cierra did a great job.
"She didn't let her offense affect her defense. I'm very proud of Cierra for that aspect of her game."
The Lady Vols have a week off before hosting Oakland, located in Rochester, Mich., next Sunday at the arena for an afternoon game. That will be followed by a holiday trip to the Bahamas.
Tennessee can use this coming week to loft some extra shots, but the return to beast mode of Graves and the glass work of Harrison more than made up for the misfires.
"Dean said the same thing in the locker room – on nights when we are 30 percent from the field and 15 percent from the three-point line, we can still get a good win," Carter said. "Half of those misses were getting put right back in the basket because we were being so active.
"You can afford to miss some shots when you have great offensive rebounders, and that's what they were for us tonight."
Game highlights from utsportstv
Andraya Carter, Isabelle Harrison, Bashaara Graves
Coach Holly Warlick
Coach MaChelle Joseph, Kaela Davis