Lady Vols perfect in SEC with Georgia win

The Lady Vols stayed perfect in the SEC in what amounted to a scrum Sunday against Georgia as both teams clamped down on defense. Tennessee prevailed 59-51 behind a career-high 15 points from Jordan Reynolds. Go inside for game analysis and video coverage.

Tennessee (17-3, 7-0) overcame foul trouble – and tremendous marksmanship at the line – to prevail over Georgia (17-4, 5-3) before a crowd of 13,428 that showed its stamina in the second half.

It is tradition for the fans to stand at the start of each half until a basket is made by the Lady Vols. That happened in just over two minutes to open the game when Jordan Reynolds got to the rim, a harbinger of what was to come from the sophomore guard.

But it took a little over eight minutes – and two timeouts – for the Lady Vols to get on the board in the second half when Cierra Burdick put back an offensive board with a nifty catch-and-shoot. The crowd roared, as much for the basket – it stopped a 10-0 Georgia run – as for the chance to sit down.

“They’re loyal and they’re going to stay on their feet until we get a bucket,” Burdick said. “I was relieved because we get a little nervous when we aren’t getting the ball in the basket and they are still up there clapping, loyal as ever.

“It was a good feeling to finally have them sit down.”

Georgia likely would have felt better if it could have gotten more separation than five points – Tennessee led 30-25 at the half – with its second-half surge.

It was several minutes of basketball that Tennessee should wipe from its memory as missed shots and turnovers piled up, allowing Georgia to take a 35-30 lead with 15:36 to play.

The Lady Vols then went on a 12-0 run to take a 42-35 lead but hit another lull, and Georgia claimed a 45-44 lead on a three-pointer by Pachis Roberts assisted by Knoxville native Marjorie Butler.

Bashaara Graves tallied six boards – the Lady Vols crushed Georgia on the glass overall, 45-29 – and perhaps none was more important than her offensive one grabbed off a teammate’s miss that didn’t hit the rim.

The errant shot was headed out of bounds but Graves managed to snare the ball and flip it back to Isabelle Harrison, who completed the and-one play with three seconds on the shot clock for a 47-45 lead with 5:51 left.

Tennessee never trailed again, though Georgia hovered until the final 90 seconds.

“I thought Tennessee defended well and made it hard for us to score,” Georgia coach Andy Landers said. “I thought we defended well and made it hard for them to score.

“Except, when they scored, we took unnecessary risk and ended up fouling them and putting them at the free throw line so much that it affected the game big time.”

The Lady Vols were nearly perfect from the line – Harrison misfired with 46 seconds left – as they shot 95.2 percent (20-21) from the stripe.

“I’m really upset with the way that we fouled,” Landers said. “We didn’t affect anything. They have five, six three-point baskets. They hit the shot. We couldn’t have fouled them very hard.

“We’re out of position and we’re fouling someone for no reason whatsoever.”

Tennessee’s game plan was to get inside – not necessarily post feeds but by finding gaps in the zone. Reynolds executed that game plan well and finished with the career high of 15 points, besting her 11 points earlier this season against Auburn.

Coach Holly Warlick had made it clear to the sophomore guard that she had to stop being an observer on offense.

“My coaches have been on me lately because I just really haven’t been in the game, my head hasn’t been in it,” Reynolds said. “So today’s game was a chance for me to just bounce back, so I just had the mentality that I should have had all season long.”

The natural follow-up question for the candid Reynolds was why. She cited her teammates, including the two at the press conference with her in Burdick and Alexa Middleton, and also Harrison.

“Sometimes you just get caught up in watching them,” Reynolds said. “They can really do great things, C, Alexa, Izzy, they just really wow me sometimes. I just get caught up watching and sometimes I could be doing that, too, and I think that’s what’s really got me.”

Burdick and Harrison weren’t able to wow anyone in the first half as they combined for zero points, six turnovers and four fouls.

Warlick went to Middleton and fellow freshman Jaime Nared, who both responded with poise and offensive production. They combined for 12 points and just one turnover in the first half. Freshman Kortney Dunbar also connected on a three to bring Tennessee to within one after they fell behind Georgia.

“I thought Kortney Dunbar came in and hit a big three,” Warlick said. “I thought she was solid. Cierra and Izzy, they didn’t score the first half so the people off the bench carried us and got us through that first half.

“Jaime, we just want her to be aggressive, don’t settle for the three, attack the basket, be a great rebounder. Alexa as well, just play as hard as you can. Kortney needs to shoot the three. Just do your role and do it well.”

Nared stuck to that game plan and went 5-5 from the line. All seven of her points came in the first half. Georgia held an eight-point lead, 22-14, with six minutes to play, but the Lady Vols wiped it out with a 14-0 run led by Middleton, Reynolds and Andraya Carter.

Carter had the highlight basket of the first half – Graves’ save and assist to Harrison claims that honor for the second half – when she skied for a high pass from Middleton and twisted in the air to hit the layup. Reynolds scored the final basket of the first half with one second on the clock, which has become a specialty of hers.

“It just seems to happen,” Reynolds said. “I don’t really plan for it. It just always seems to be in my hands, and I’m trying to make the best of the moment.”

Georgia entered the game with two SEC losses – both on the road in the state of Mississippi – and five league wins, including its last game against Texas A&M. The Lady Bulldogs haven’t reached 70 in an SEC game, nor has an opponent. Tennessee’s 59 points were the most scored on Georgia since Mississippi State tallied 64 in the SEC opener.

The Lady Bulldogs packed the paint against Tennessee and kept players in front of them with the exception of Reynolds, who repeatedly got loose. Tennessee’s launching of three-pointers – and misfiring on all but three (17.5 percent) – aided Georgia’s defensive game plan.

“They had a great defensive game,” Reynolds said. “They really stayed in front of us, and they had a great 2-3 zone. It was really hard to get our shots off.”

The interior play resembled a scrum – Harrison was draped by defenders whenever she touched the ball and finished with nine points – and the Lady Vols lost patience at times on offense.

“My problem with us the first half and probably a large part of the night was we shot the ball quickly,” Warlick said. “If we are not shooting the ball well, come out, make them play defense, move it around and get a good shot. When you are not hitting and scoring, you just can’t shoot the ball quickly.”

Turnovers also were an issue as the Lady Vols let loose of the ball 18 times, which Georgia converted into 13 points. Tennessee, however, caused some damage, too, as it converted 14 Georgia miscues into 20 points.

Bench play was even, as both teams got 25 points from the substitutes. Ariel Massengale added 10 points for Tennessee, while Mackenzie Engram notched 14 for Georgia.

The Lady Vols secured the win on the boards and at the line. They also didn’t let the offensive misfires bring down the defense.

“You can control your defense,” Burdick said. “You can control how hard you play.”

The Lady Vols switched into zone looks, and it stymied Georgia when Tennessee needed stops, especially during its scoring drought.

“We were extremely active,” Burdick said. “We were communicating. I felt like I was having a conversation with Izzy and Bashaara out there as much as we were talking.”

The production from the freshmen was timely. Warlick has been patient, especially with Nared and Middleton, and allowed them to play through mistakes.

“She had a talk with us and told us that she wanted us to play through those mistakes,” Middleton said.

Warlick wasn’t especially pleased overall with the performance – it was an uneven game, though the defense and physical play had a lot to do with that – but she will take a win in the SEC. Only Tennessee and South Carolina remain undefeated in the league.

Warlick’s opening remarks were very brief at the post-game press conference: “It was a great win for us. We will take it and move on to our next opponent.”

That would be Thursday against Kentucky in Lexington, where the Lady Vols last won in 2011. Tennessee should expect to see a similar game plan that tries to neutralize the inside effectiveness of Harrison.

“When they’re sagging in and having three people around Bashaara and Izzy at all times, we’ve got to find a different counter,” Burdick said. “I don’t know what it’s going to be, but we need it soon coming up against a good Kentucky team.”

GAME HIGHLIGHTS FROM UTSPORTSTV

Coach Holly Warlick

Jordan Reynolds, Alexa Middleton, Cierra Burdick

Coach Andy Landers, Krista Donald, Mackenzie Engram


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