Lady Vols grind out win over rugged Rutgers

The Lady Vols shut down the high-octane offense of Rutgers by controlling the glass and switching defenses and emerged with a 55-45 victory in Piscataway, N.J., on Sunday. Go inside with InsideTennessee for game analysis.

The Lady Vols shut down the high-octane offense of Rutgers by controlling the glass and switching defenses and emerged with a 55-45 victory in Piscataway, N.J., on Sunday. Go inside with InsideTennessee for game analysis.

Tennessee (7-2) claimed a much-needed road win against Rutgers (8-2) in what became another classic matchup between the programs. Much had been made of the new look of the Scarlet Knights on offense, as Coach C. Vivian Stringer has turned her athletes loose, but Sunday’s game at the RAC was vintage Lady Vols basketball.

Tennessee controlled the pace and never let Rutgers get its running game in gear, outside of a few slip-ups to end the first half and start the second. The Lady Vols executed the scouting report defense to near perfection in terms of getting back and making sure Rutgers was one and done on the offensive end.

“We were so concerned about their offensive rebounding,” Coach Holly Warlick said.

Rutgers had out-rebounded every opponent this season, including an athletic North Carolina team that beat the Scarlet Knights in double overtime.

Led by the second half surge of Isabelle Harrison, the Lady Vols wiped out a 29-27 edge by Rutgers on the glass and finished with a 54-42 advantage. The Lady Vols trailed on the scoreboard at halftime, 23-20, and it was nip-and-tuck for the first 13 minutes of the second half with Rutgers building, as it were, a four-point lead, 43-39, with 7:13 to play.

In a game in which both teams misfired – the hard rims rattled like a cheap drum set unless the ball found nothing but net; there were no benevolent bounces – a four-point lead seemed substantial.

The Lady Vols put together a 10-0 run led by four free throws by Harrison, back-to-back paint buckets by Jordan Reynolds and a nifty move inside by Cierra Burdick to give the Lady Vols a 49-43 lead with 2:43 left. A six-point lead felt like a considerable cushion in a game in which defense and board play ruled the outcome.

The first Reynolds basket was set up by Harrison, who despite being hooked by a Rutgers player and falling out of bounds, managed to make a pass to a teammate before toppling to the floor.

“It was huge,” Warlick said. “And we got stops. We were blue-collar workers today.”

Meanwhile, Rutgers was one and done on its end and scored just two points – a layup up by Betnijah Laney, assisted by Tyler Scaife – over the final seven minutes.

“When we needed it, we hunkered down and got stops,” Harrison said.

Tennessee and Rutgers matchups tend to be epic defensive clashes and brawls in the paint. This game was no exception.

“That’s the whole team from posts to guards,” Harrison said.

Scaife did her part to get Rutgers’ offense in gear with 22 points on 9-17 shooting, but she got little help, as the next closest scorers were Kahleah Cooper with seven points and Briyona Canty with six.

The Scarlet Knights shot 19-61 overall (31.1 percent). Subtract Scaife’s output and that falls to 10-44 (22.7 percent).

The Lady Vols shot 19-61 overall (19-69), but the scoring help came from five players – Jasmine Jones in the first half and Ariel Massengale and Harrison in the second with big baskets in crunch time from Burdick and Reynolds.

Jones was ready to play from the opening tip and accounted for Tennessee’s first six points. She also disrupted Rutgers’ offense with her defense and board work. Jones finished with 12 points and six boards.

“I thought Jasmine set the tone for us,” Warlick said.

As a team, the Lady Vols stuck to the defensive game plan, despite the frustration of so many missed shots. Tennessee started the game 4-29, and, in the past, that had led to a letdown on defense. But the Scarlet Knights weren’t getting easy looks and if not for a little slippage to close the first half, the Lady Vols would have taken a slim lead into the locker room.

Harrison, who is easing her way back from a knee injury, played tentative in the first half. She decided to forget about her knee in the second half.

“I needed to get it together,” Harrison said.

The result was 11 points and 13 rebounds. As Harrison goes, Tennessee goes. All aspects of the Lady Vols play is better with the senior on the floor – offense, defense and board work.

It was Harrison who challenged Scaife – and forced a miss – late in the game when Rutgers was trying to trim Tennessee’s lead. Harrison is a high-energy player and an All-American candidate who forces the opposition to concentrate resources on her.

“I’ve got to remember I’ve got a target on my back,” said Harrison, who maintained her composure even when getting flung out of bounds and decked from behind on the boards without benefit of a foul call.

Harrison got help from her fellow seniors as Massengale led Tennessee with 13 points and also grabbed five boards. It was Massengale’s offense that kept Tennessee within striking distance in the second half.

Burdick also had the timely basket and cleaned up the glass with six boards. She made an athletic grab of a defensive board before hitting the shot that gave the Lady Vols a 49-43 lead.

“We constantly talk to each other,” Harrison said. “This is our team. We need to lead by example.”

Warlick noted, “Our seniors were huge. I can’t say enough about them.”

Tennessee also got effective minutes from the players who struggled from the field. Bashaara Graves was 0-5 but went 5-6 from the line, including two free throws that tied the game at 39. Andraya Carter was 0-6 but continued to make it difficult for the opponent to get into its offense. She had three of Tennessee’s nine steals. Jaime Nared was 0-5 but got six boards. Alexa Middleton was 0-3 but got three good looks that rattled in and out. Both freshmen got valuable experience on the road in a tight game and held their own.

The Lady Vols were solid from the line at 16-20 (80 percent), and it was the difference in the score. Rutgers was 6-11 (54.5 percent). For the second week in a row, Warlick made each player connect on 500 free throws.

“When you hit free throws, you are in business,” Warlick said.

The stripe work was notable, as were the defense and Tennessee’s ability to slow down Rutgers. The Lady Vols deployed 2-3 and 3-2 zone looks and also a switching man to keep the Scarlet Knights off balance.

“It was a grind,” Warlick said. “We followed the game plan.”

The Lady Vols next play at home on Tuesday against Wichita State followed by Saturday’s matchup with Stanford. Warlick indicated a lot of time would be spent on offense this week. Exams ended the day the Lady Vols left for the Northeast – they enjoyed some team time in New York on this trip – so the players have nothing but basketball on their schedules for the next three weeks.

“We’ve got to get in the gym and get shots up,” Warlick said.

Offense can be rectified with repetition and practice. Effort needs no practice, and Warlick saw plenty of it Sunday.

“I have been preaching so much about our effort,” Warlick said. “We knocked it out of the park. High energy. Everybody was into it. I loved it, loved it.”

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