Tennessee, 4-2, wasn’t expected to beat Texas, 5-0, especially in the absence of Isabelle Harrison, but marksmanship from the free throw line would have made it in a one-point game late in the second half and at least provided the chance for a signature win on the road.
The Longhorns were off to an excellent start – they beat then-No. 1 Stanford in Palo Alto, a rare occurrence – and had lost five consecutive games to Tennessee. The Lady Vols were coming off a desultory 67-63 loss at Chattanooga and remained without their best post player, Harrison, who sprained her knee Nov. 14.
Harrison participated in practice and shoot-around while in Austin, but was sidelined for the game. She definitely was missed, especially for interior defense and on the glass against a tall and athletic Texas team.
“I was hoping Izzy could get out and help us, and she couldn’t go,” Coach Holly Warlick said.
One thing was established in Austin: Andraya Carter must be in the starting lineup. She started the second half, and her defense set the tone. Carter also looked to score and made multiple forays to the paint and stuck some jumpers. She ended up with 13 points.
Carter also maintained her poise with the ball. She had zero turnovers in 31 minutes against the athletic Texas guards.
Tennessee trailed 30-20 at halftime after shooting 24 percent in the first 20 minutes of the game. But it was the misfires at the line – a total of 13 – that should haunt the players and staff on the flight back to Knoxville.
“You can’t miss free throws,” Warlick said. “Those are opportunities.”
The misses came from guards and forwards, on the front of one-and-ones and after shooting fouls. Carter mentioned the team needed to take more free throws when exhausted in practice – and that can only help – and said players weren’t relaxing when they got to the line.
However, the misses also came early in the first half, so while that could explain the late misses, it doesn’t address the lack of focus early, especially from a team that, by all accounts, practices well.
“We played harder,” Warlick said. “But we didn’t play smart.”
That was in reference to the quick shots to start the game when the scouting report stated to work Texas deep into the shot clock. Warlick rotated different players into the game but the result too often was the same – quick shot, misfire.
That can pan out if players dominate the glass, but Texas set the tone there early, especially on the offensive end.
“It was a battle of who was going to win the boards, and they won the boards,” Warlick said.
The final tally was 39-38, just barely in the Longhorns’ favor, but it was the timing of the rebounds that sunk Tennessee. The Lady Vols would play 20 seconds of outstanding defense, force a shot and then not secure the defensive board. It’s a script Tennessee has often used on opponents, and it saps a team.
In other cases, the Lady Vols would nail a shot and then not get back in transition, nullifying the chip into the lead.
“It’s a momentum killer,” Carter said. “We really wanted to go hard. We really wanted to get stops.”
Harrison fixes a lot of that because she is an athletic rebounder and her presence preoccupies the other team, which opens up space for Bashaara Graves.
Carter indicated the absence of Harrison has a bigger impact than points and rebounds. The sophomore guard said the team misses Harrison’s heart and leadership.
It was the heart of Carter and Graves that kept the Lady Vols in striking distance in the second half after Texas took a 15-point lead. Tennessee would get the lead into a manageable single digits and then a missed box-out or transition basket would give the Longhorns another cushion.
The Lady Vols got the looks they wanted in the second half when they moved the ball better and stopped lofting jumpers so early in the shot clock. Tennessee shot 45 percent in the second half.
“We competed. We just didn’t finish,” Warlick said.
Jones left late in the second half after getting her left arm yanked down while going for a rebound. There was no foul call in what was a brutally physical game inside.
Not that foul calls would have helped in this case. The Lady Vols shot 52 percent from the stripe at 13-25. Those missed free throws were the difference in the game.
Carter expressed frustration at the end of the game over the outcome – and the shooting percentages. Tennessee shot 35 percent for the game because of the anemic start.
“We are all better shooters than we are showing,” Carter said. “It’s really frustrating because we know what we are capable of.”
Warlick sounded hoarse afterwards on her post-game radio show, but she acknowledged her team’s overall heart and said the staff needed to make changes.
“We’ve got a tough team,” Warlick said. “It’s up to me and the staff to try and get this ship right. We’ll get this back on the winning side.”