Thursday's game came close to being a breakthrough one for the Bulldogs and while it got tight, it never seemed like the Lady Vols lost control of the contest.
Three big reasons for that were the reemergence of sophomore Bashaara Graves and the emergence of freshmen Andraya Carter and Mercedes Russell. Add a fourth – Ariel Massengale's performance from the line. She was 7-7 in this game and has hit 22 in a row overall from the stripe.
"It was a great win," a relieved coach Holly Warlick said on her post-game radio show. "This is a tough place to play."
Tennessee has a long history of physical battles in Starkville. The best news for the Lady Vols, besides the win, is that no player will leave Mississippi with new injuries. They all emerged unscathed.
Tennessee's wounds in this game were self-inflicted – missed layups to open the game and too many turnovers in both halves for a total of 22.
Warlick noted such in her post-game remarks, but she also pointed out that she was proud of her players.
"We battled," said Warlick, who wore a heart on her jacket lapel as a reminder to her team to play that way. "I'm proud of them."
Tennessee opened in a 2-3 zone on defense and stayed with it quite effectively for nearly the entire game.
Tennessee led 26-23 at halftime, and the Bulldogs were 1-8 from long range and shot 33.3 percent overall. Tennessee had a slim lead because its shooting percentage was just 35.7 percent with an 0-5 mark from the arc.
Tennessee's corner traps were particularly effective, especially with the 6-6 Russell standing guard.
"Everything was going to the corners and they were pulling us out and we'd either go inside or go to the corners," Warlick said. "So I just thought let's start trapping down in the corners and it kick-started our defense, got us rolling on offense."
But Mississippi State starting finding its range late in the second half, and the Lady Vols never got much separation from the Bulldogs. Tennessee switched to a man disguised as a zone to close out the game and secure the win.
The Lady Vols also shot 66.7 percent in the second half and 49.0 percent for the game. They attempted just seven shots from the arc, and Meighan Simmons accounted for the lone make.
Simmons didn't start the game and logged just 16 minutes. Warlick said after the game that Simmons was still feeling the effects of a car wreck last week and had a stiff neck. The break may have been fortuitous for the senior because she has been somewhat uptight on the court since SEC play started. This could allow Simmons to lower the pressure she has put on herself and just relax and play.
It helped that Carter had one of the best overall games of her nascent career. The redshirt freshman was 4-6 for nine points with five boards. Her glass tallies don't include the tipped balls and commotion she caused inside with the posts to keep possessions alive for Tennessee.
She is usually fairly stoic on the court, but Carter let loose with a fist pump and a yell after an and-one play that gave Tennessee a 53-47 lead. She followed that with a steal, which ended with Graves at the line for a 55-49 lead. Carter also had a critical backdoor cut to the basket to give Tennessee a 64-59 lead with 36 seconds left to play.
"I thought Andraya Carter was huge for us," Warlick said. "That is just basketball instinct."
Graves was moving noticeably well on the court and was 4-6 from the field and 5-6 from the line for 13 points. She also had two assists on sweet feeds to her fellow posts.
"That is my first look every time," Graves said.
Tennessee's bigs, Graves, Russell and Isabelle Harrison, have soft hands and can both pass and receive the ball. The high-low game can be a source of post strength for Tennessee and with Graves back in the flow, the Lady Vols can restore its timing.
Graves said after the game that her calf and back weren't injuries, per se, but she was dealing with soreness and stiffness. Her movement had clearly been affected in past games, and Graves said she was "trying to push through it and got frustrated."
"I couldn't move like I wanted to move," she said.
Graves moved well Thursday and logged 29 effective minutes.
"It's great to see Bashaara Graves come around," Warlick said. "I said, ‘Welcome back.' "
Graves laughed when Mickey Dearstone said the same thing and asked where she had been.
"I don't even know," Graves said.
Graves, the SEC freshman of the year last season, is critical to Tennessee's success on both ends, because she can defend, score and rebound.
The bright side is that Russell has logged valuable game minutes while Graves has been on the mend. The freshman had six points, five rebounds, one block and several shots severely altered in 20 minutes of play.
Tennessee got balanced scoring as Ariel Massengale tallied 13 points with seven assists – she won't like the five turnovers in the box score – while Harrison added 10 points and five boards. Cierra Burdick hit some key jumpers to answer Mississippi State's baskets at crunch time and tallied nine points with five boards.
The Lady Vols nipped Mississippi State on the glass, 35-31, and had 16 assists on 24 made baskets.
It may seem odd to call a game in January a must-win one, but Tennessee needed this victory after a shaky defeat at Vanderbilt.
"Hey, I'm proud of them battling," Warlick said. "It didn't go perfect. It didn't look good all the time, but we battled through it and I'm proud of it."
It also doesn't get any easier. Notre Dame will be in town Monday – "We need everybody's support," Warlick said – and then Tennessee gets back in conference play by hosting Florida, which beat Kentucky on the road, and then traveling to Texas A&M, which is undefeated in the SEC after holding off a surging South Carolina in overtime.
Warlick used a one-guard starting lineup on Thursday, but after the way Carter played, an argument could be made to make it a two-guard lineup for the next game.
The Lady Vols remain a work in progress with a coaching staff determined to instill defense, discipline and good practice and game habits.
Will a different five take the floor against Notre Dame? That seems likely. It's a gamble to switch lineups so much, but the message is getting delivered and it's been a long time coming – all playing time will be earned, not bestowed.
Game highlights from utsportstv