Tennessee (13-3, 2-2) fell to Vanderbilt (14-3, 3-1) and now finds itself in the middle of the pack in the SEC just two weeks into league play with another road game coming up on Thursday at Mississippi State.
"It's about what's important on the other end," Coach Holly Warlick said. "Our mentality is we can outscore people. Until defense is important to us, we're going to struggle."
That was Warlick speaking at the post-game press conference. She said the same thing on her radio show.
"We couldn't stay between them and the basket," Warlick said. "Until we deem defense is important, we're going to keep struggling."
Tennessee misfired to open the game and trailed 10-2 in the first five minutes, but solid defense and offensive board work – especially Andraya Carter, Cierra Burdick and Mercedes Russell – got the Lady Vols on track, and they took a 30-29 lead into halftime.
That came despite Isabelle Harrison logging less than a minute in the first half, because of two quick fouls. Russell held her own in the first half, as did Jasmine Jones, who was one of the Lady Vols' bright spots during an otherwise abysmal end to the second half for those in orange.
Jones, whose perimeter defense was sticky in this game, also tallied 13 points and six boards. But she echoed the words of her head coach in the post-game radio show.
"We just need to start playing defense as a team consistently," Jones said.
That lack of consistency leaves the Lady Vols vulnerable to aggressive teams.
The Commodores will always launch treys – though in this game they took 14 and made just three – but they also got to the paint against Tennessee.
"When we give up layups, no lead is (safe)," Warlick said.
Even more damning was this statement from Warlick: "They looked to me like they wanted it more than Tennessee."
Warlick is in her second season as a head coach, and she has acknowledged her shortcomings and when she needs to do better. But her assessment was correct in this case. Tennessee built a 10-point lead in the second half and then didn't get back on defense.
When Isabelle Harrison got a technical and fouled out – the second player this season to lose her cool in an SEC game and get disqualified with a lot of time left in the second half; the first was Meighan Simmons against LSU – the Lady Vols led 48-44 with 9:23 remaining.
At that point, Tennessee needed to take good shots and take care of the ball. Instead the possessions were: missed shot, missed shot, made shot, turnover, missed layup, turnover. Within three minutes, Vandy had a 51-50 lead and never lost it.
The Lady Vols missed Harrison, because she is a consistent scorer and rebounder. Her frustration was warranted – the block was clean, and she got undercut on the play after just taking a shot to her knee on the other end – but her absence from the court adversely affected Tennessee, and she looked crestfallen on the sideline.
"Izzy is a tough player, and we definitely need her on the floor as much as possible," Jones said.
Warlick, to her credit, refused to blame Harrison for the loss.
"We can't stop penetration, you know it's not just Harrison," Warlick said. "It's about what's important on the other end. … With Harrison on the bench or not, we've got to get stops."
It may be time to get Bashaara Graves back in the starting lineup. The sophomore is one of Tennessee's toughest players.
"I think Bashaara was fine today," Warlick said. "I think that she's been hurt, but I think that today she was fine."
Warlick may be saying that so as not to appear to be offering any excuses. Graves has been dealing with calf and back issues, but if she is indeed OK, the SEC newcomer of the year a season ago can help Tennessee get off to a good start.
On the other hand, there were times Sunday that Graves didn't appear to be moving well laterally, so perhaps the injury effects are still lingering. She seems frustrated, and Tennessee needs an engaged and healthy Graves, especially on defense.
The officiating was atrocious, so much so that Vandy grad and ESPN broadcaster Carolyn Peck questioned some of the calls against Tennessee in the second half, but the Lady Vols had a 10-point lead within the first four minutes of the second half and instead of ratcheting up the intensity, the Lady Vols relaxed.
Credit also needs to be extended to Vanderbilt. The Commodores mixed up their defenses and tried to confuse Tennessee, showing man and then falling into a matchup zone and vice versa.
"We thought they had four very quality scorers," Vandy coach Melanie Balcomb said. "We worked on their individual tendencies. We tried to make them use their weaknesses, not their strength. Our overall game plan of changing defenses, making them think, making them react, I think was the key.
"Our kids were all on the same page, running the same defenses, keeping them off balance. We changed a lot of things, because if you keep your defense the same all night, all of these kids will make you look bad. I think they'd score 85 points a game if you don't. And that's what is really cool, because we held them to 63."
While the rivalry is heated, Balcomb and Warlick get along well, and their teams know each other well. Vandy will come to Knoxville on Feb. 10 for a "Big Monday" game.
Balcomb's remarks underscore why the Lady Vols think they can outscore teams. Often, they can. However, Warlick knows they have to stop teams, too. And Vandy's players were "all on the same page" defensively. Tennessee's weren't.
"It's my job to go back and try to get them ready and make them better defensively," Warlick said.
Maybe this game will help the coach's cause. A lineup change might also be order. Grade the film by defense and start the best five on that side of the ball in the next game. And the one after that. And the next one, too. What does Tennessee have to lose?
Game highlights from utsportstv
Cierra Burdick, Ariel Massengale
Vandy coach Melanie Balcomb