Front line leads Lady Vols

The Lady Vols kept their series unblemished against Mississippi State, welcomed another player to the 1,000-point club and stayed perfect in the SEC with Sunday’s 79-67 win. Go inside with InsideTennessee for game analysis and video coverage.

Tennessee (19-3, 9-0) and Mississippi State (22-3, 7-3) were expected to put a defensive grind on display. Instead, both teams got their offenses in gear, but the frontline of the Lady Vols ultimately overwhelmed that of the Bulldogs.

The game began with Isabelle Harrison honored with a commemorative ball for reaching 1,000 career points on Thursday against Kentucky. It ended with Bashaara Graves being mobbed by her teammates at center court after she also joined the club.

Add Cierra Burdick’s career-high 24 points – her previous mark was 22 against LSU on Feb. 27, 2014 – and the frontline accounted for 52 of Tennessee’s 79 points.

“They’re hard to deal with, and we just couldn’t guard them,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said.

Tennessee takes pride in its defense. So does Mississippi State. But the Lady Vols shot 56.9 percent for the game while the Bulldogs connected at 46.7 percent.

“We’re the only team in the league that hasn’t had a bye yet, and we need it,” Schaefer said. “My kids need a break. It’s been a long grind, and we’ve played 25 games, winning 22 of them. I’m awfully proud of my team.”

That is mostly correct, except Tennessee also had not had a bye in SEC play yet. The Lady Vols will get one this week, as they next play at Florida in a week. Coach Holly Warlick said she would give the team off Monday and Thursday. On top of sore knees and shoulders, several Lady Vols have been under the weather. Alexa Middleton warmed up and then sat on the baseline with her head down for a while. Jordan Reynolds played sparingly Sunday because she was ill.

“We’re a little banged up, and we haven’t been feeling well,” Warlick said. “We are going to take advantage of this week. It is a grind right now. We’ve got to be mindful of how we feel physically.”

Tennessee’s 79 points were the most scored against Mississippi State in SEC play this season. Vanderbilt tallied 78 points in the first matchup with the Bulldogs and just 44 in the second. LSU reached 71 in two overtimes.

“For some reason today, we gave up a lot of uncontested shots, which is really unusual for us,” Schaefer said. “I’ve told my kids a million times that you’re going to lose the HORSE game every single time in this league.

“Everybody makes open jump shots and Tennessee made every one of them they got. Give them credit for great execution.”

Burdick was 9-15 from the field and connected on her one three-ball attempt. Tennessee took six threes and made four. Mississippi State attempted 16 threes and hit five. Burdick scored on midrange shots, at the rim and from the free throw line.

“I feel like I’m capable of doing multiple things on the offensive end, and I think what got me rolling was I was able to get assists early to my teammates and when they’re hitting that helps me out, and I’ve just been playing with a lot of passion and energy,” Burdick said.

“There’s no formula to what I’ve been doing. I’ve just been trying to keep things simple. I think when I play with my heart, I play at my best and that's just what I’ve been doing.”

Andraya Carter scored four quick points, both assisted by Burdick – the first on a perfect feed to a cutting Carter and the second off a steal and transition basket.

“I’ve been playing with Draya for so long now, I know exactly when she’s going to cut, and I think I definitely have that connection with her,” Burdick said.

Tennessee had 18 assists with Burdick and Graves accounting for 11 of them – six for Burdick and five for Graves.

Graves was 5-6 from the field and 7-7 from the line. She got to 15 points quickly in the second half, but then the inside got choked off by the Bulldogs, and Graves was stuck on 999 career points.

However, on Tennessee’s last possession with seven seconds on the shot clock, Harrison eschewed the short jumper and dropped the ball inside to Graves.

“I wanted Bashaara to join the 1,000-point club,” Harrison said. “That girl was playing her high, and I just threw up that pass, and she did a good job making contact.”

The junior was fouled on the layup attempt and when Graves hit the first free throw, the bench exploded. Graves connected on the second one to bring her career total to 1,001 points.

“I thought she worked to get looks,” Warlick said. “She obviously hits free throws. I thought she played the way we need her to play and the way she is capable of playing.

“I know sometimes we focus on what Izzy is doing inside, but Bashaara is so much a big factor of this basketball team.”

Graves was aware that she was in closing distance of the milestone but didn’t know going into the game how many points she needed. As it turned out, she had plenty of family on hand to witness it, as Graves’ mother, sister, grandmother, great-grandmother, uncle and great aunt all made the game.

“None of them knew I was even close, I don’t think,” Graves said. “It was just great for them to be here and to share this moment with them.”

Tennessee is now 36-0 against Mississippi State, a rather unheard of streak in a league as competitive as the SEC. The 9-0 start in the SEC is the first time for Tennessee since the 2010-11 season when they ran the table.

The Bulldogs entered the game ranked No. 18 in the country and had a section full of fans in the arena.

“We’ve gained a lot of support back home in Starkville,” said sophomore Breanna Richardson, who was scoreless in the first half with zero shot attempts and went 6-10 in the second for 13 points.

“Anywhere we go, there’s a lot of fans following us. It just shows that the fans really support us, and we love our fans.”

Tennessee held a slim 36-31 lead at halftime thanks to a teardrop from Ariel Massengale and a block by Carter, though the box score didn’t record it. The teams were knotted on the glass at 15, and that was addressed at halftime. Tennessee out-rebounded Mississippi State, 20-10, in the final 20 minutes and won the boards, 35-25.

Burdick said the players were reminded of box-outs at halftime – Dean Lockwood tells them to be put butt on bone as a reminder to make contact on a box-out – and Harrison completed the double-double with 10 rebounds. Burdick added eight, and Massengale notched five to go with her eight points and four assists. Massengale is now just eight points away from 1,000 for her career.

The Lady Vols broke open the close game with a flurry of scoring in the second half – driven both by shooting prowess and defense.

“We always talk about how we want to win the first four minutes,” Burdick said. “Great teams win the first four minutes of the game, the first four minutes of the second half, and the last four minutes of the second half, and I think we definitely did that today.”

Tennessee built a 15-point lead, 59-44, within seven minutes. Victoria Vivians, who tallied 13 points in the first half, added just four in the second for the Bulldogs.

But the Lady Vols hit an offensive lull, and Mississippi State trimmed the lead to just five points, 70-65, with 3:19 to play.

Burdick’s voice was the one heard in the huddle.

“She was so positive to keep our team together, rally around each other,” Warlick said. “Everything was positive. That is what you need from a player. She stepped in and gathered her troops together.”

Harrison got to the rim, and Carter drew a charge on the other end to snuff out the rally. Burdick extended the lead back to double digits with four consecutive made free throws, and the Lady Vols secured their ninth win in the SEC.

The Lady Vols were coming off an emotional and bruising win at Kentucky, while Mississippi State demolished Vanderbilt at home.

“We knew they were a great team,” Burdick said of the Bulldogs. “We want to be a great team. You’ve got to come out and play and compete every single night, no matter who you’re playing against.

“We’re trying to be a better Tennessee basketball team. No matter who our opponent is, we’ve got goals that we want to achieve.”

Tennessee will find things to clean up on film, as Mississippi State converted 15 turnovers into 21 points. The 22 miscues at Kentucky weren’t as damaging for Tennessee, because they didn’t tend to be in the open court.

The Bulldogs got 15 second-chance points, while Tennessee got just nine; however, the Lady Vols shot 53.8 percent in the first half and 60 percent in the second so there weren’t a lot of offensive boards to grab. One-on-one defense also broke down at times.

“We had a tendency to get beat on one-on-one and then our posts have to help over,” Warlick said. “I think that is where a lot of time they get their fouls and that is not fair to our posts. We have to understand the importance of keeping your man in front of your and locking your player up.”

Harrison cleaned up three penetrators on the loose with emphatic blocks, including one ball sent into the courtside seats.

“Great game, I am sure it was fun to watch, two athletic teams,” Warlick said. “Really proud of our team for playing as hard as they could. Could we have done some things better? Absolutely.

“But we stayed the course, stayed positive and got a great win.”

GAME HIGHLIGHTS FROM UTSPORTSTV

INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE

Coach Holly Warlick

Bashaara Graves, Cierra Burdick, Isabelle Harrison

Coach Vic Schaefer, Victoria Vivians, Breanna Richardson


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