"I just feel like we were really rushed," Isabelle Harrison said. "We've played good teams like Kentucky and we've composed ourselves. They did play good defense. They were really physical against us, but I felt if we would've taken extra time making plays and think stuff through, we would've been fine."
That is an accurate game summary, and Kentucky – which struggled early this season but has significantly improved its half-court defense of late – can take a team out of rhythm. The Wildcats dropped back and forced a half-court game.
"They decided to change their game plan and send everyone else back in the half court," Meighan Simmons said. "That kind of got us to slow down and make us play in the half-court set because when we get in transition the game becomes more fun, we get easier baskets and we get more momentum in the game. I feel like they took our transition game away."
The Lady Vols still would have been OK, but they turned loose of the ball 22 times and deprived themselves of offensive possessions. The Wildcats had 13 steals and while some of those can be attributed to the defense, others were tossed right to a player in a darker shade of pink than the light version that Tennessee wore for "Think Pink, Bleed Orange."
Three players accounted for 15 miscues – five each for Harrison, Simmons and Cierra Burdick.
"I'm the type of person to put a lot of blame on myself," Harrison said. I blame me, I feel like I had a lot of turnovers. We were getting frustrated and if we would have had a little more composure, we would have been fine."
That is another accurate assessment from Harrison.
Her final miscue was the most costly, as the Lady Vols were down two with 5.4 seconds to play. Harrison received the ball, turned to drive to the basket and had the ball knocked away by DeNesha Stallworth. Kentucky recovered, was fouled with .4 seconds left and hit two free throws for the final score.
"We were trying to get the ball inside to Izzy," Coach Holly Warlick said. "We got what we wanted. They just knocked the ball out of her hands."
While the turnover cost Tennessee a chance to tie the game, the burden doesn't fall all on Harrison. The Lady Vols had four turnovers in their final six offensive possessions. With 4:30 left to play, Tennessee had a 67-64 lead and a full-throated crowd ready to claim the victory.
"I think we were trying too hard," Warlick said. We haven't been doing that. I don't know if we were pressing. It's a little frustrating that you don't get opportunity to at least get a shot off."
Kentucky took the lead off a turnover, 70-69, with 2:23 to play, and the Lady Vols let the ball squirt free again on their next possession. Kentucky made it 72-69 with a jumper by Jennifer O'Neill that drifted right but got glass and banked in with 1:39 left, causing her to thank the backboard in the post-game press conference.
Simmons had a shot to tie the game with 38 seconds to play, but her three ball came up short. From her expression as she headed down court, Simmons clearly thought she was fouled.
"That didn't get blocked, I got fouled. It's just that simple," Simmons said. "Holly asked me that when I went in the locker room, ‘Was it an open look?' and I told her ‘Yeah, it was.' I was wide open and she bumped into me as I went up."
Simmons connected with Bashaara Graves to pull the Lady Vols to within two, 73-71, with 28 seconds left, but the final turnover of the game didn't allow the Lady Vols a chance to tie.
Tennessee will look at film and realize the game shouldn't have hinged on a final possession.
"If you let Tennessee operate in their comfort zone, they are going to kill you, because we just don't have the size to match up with them, but we do have the speed and the defensive ability," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "You have to speed it up and make it a little chaotic."
Tennessee made use of its size – Graves and Harrison each had 20 points and combined for 23 boards, 16 for Harrison and seven for Graves – but the Lady Vols are down a guard still with Ariel Massengale missing her sixth game because of a blow to face suffered Jan. 23.
Carter, when she was on the court, hounded O'Neill, but she was whistled for her fourth foul with 9:09 left on a play in which Carter never touched the Kentucky driver, who, anticipating contact, threw the ball towards the basket – it hit the bottom of the backboard – and fell. The NCAA can change what fouls and contact are emphasized but if the officiating remains at that level of incompetence, it won't help the game at all.
However, film study for Tennessee is likely to emphasize defensive breakdowns, not officiating mistakes. When properly motivated, the Lady Vols played stiff defense. At other times, often due to a lack of communication, Kentucky scored with little resistance.
"I think that we didn't come out and defend very well," Warlick said. "Kentucky hit big shots and I just think we didn't – defense wasn't important for us today."
Kentucky led at halftime 38-34, and the teams played to a 37-37 tie in the second half. Warlick had good reason to be frustrated. Her team had played well, for the most part, in Massengale's absence, especially when the players adhered to the game plan on both ends. But that plan was torpedoed by 22 turnovers.
When the Lady Vols held onto the ball, they played well enough to win. They had 11 assists, nine steals and three blocks. They shot 46.3 percent overall and 74.1 percent from the line, though the misfire relatively late in the game on a one-and-one deprived Tennessee of a chance to score. They nipped Kentucky on the boards, 37-35.
Reynolds, who said she had been working on free throws – she entered the game shooting 50 percent from the stripe – was 6-6 from the line. Simmons went 2-2, and Mercedes Russell was 2-2.
The Lady Vols have been playing shorthanded and when Simmons and Carter both sat for extended stretches in the first half because of fouls, the absence of Massengale was magnified.
Massengale looked alert before the game – that wasn't the case last Monday – and participated in some of the warmups. She also was on the bench for the first time since the injury.
"We were very excited to see her on the bench," Simmons said. "That's all she was talking about, especially when we were doing our introduction. She was saying how it's hard not being able to play, but it's better to be here, be here with you all and with all the fans.
"We're really excited. We definitely need her. I can't wait to see how well she comes back."
If Massengale is closer to getting back, that is good news for Tennessee. Graves also showed more of her old beast mode mentality in this game. Graves' play has been uneven this season, but she was 8-11 from the field with zero turnovers.
"I just came into this game and wanted to play as hard as I can," Graves said. "That's what I'm going to do next game. It doesn't matter how many points I score."
Graves playing hard is a huge benefit for Tennessee. Massengale returning would provide much-needed guard depth, though the staff will find plenty of minutes for Carter and Reynolds, who both play hard as a habit.
With four SEC games remaining, and South Carolina increasing its grip on first place at 11-1, the Lady Vols need to focus on a strong finish and ensuring a first round bye in the SEC tourney. Texas A&M is in second place at 10-2, Tennessee has third at 9-3 while LSU and Kentucky are both 7-5.
The final two weeks of league play should mirror the season as a whole – a scramble for the top.
The Lady Vols faltered after six wins, but no blows are fatal in February.
Game highlights via utsportstv
Coach Holly Warlick
Inside Tennessee: Isabelle Harrison, Meighan Simmons, Bashaara Graves
Coach Matthew Mitchell, Jennifer O'Neill, DeNesha Stallworth