Lady Vols roll over Georgia

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - The Lady Vols crushed Georgia in their opening SEC tourney game, 75-41, with a dominant performance in the paint and on the glass. Go inside for game analysis and player video interviews from the locker room.

Tennessee (26-4) wiped out Georgia (19-12) - the Lady Vols’ third win this season over the Lady Bulldogs - in a game that essentially was over at halftime.

“This team is extremely focused and we’ve got great leadership, we really do,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “Our seniors have great leadership. They police themselves. When they do that, hold each other accountable, it’s fun to be around.”

Tennessee next will face Kentucky with tipoff Saturday at approximately 7:30 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPNU). South Carolina and LSU meet at 5 p.m. Eastern in the first semifinal game.

A year ago, Tennessee spotted all three opponents a double-digit lead in the SEC Tournament before coming back each time and seizing the trophy crown.

On Friday evening at the Verizon Arena, Georgia led 2-0 early and then Tennessee, fueled by the defense of Andraya Carter and Jordan Reynolds, routed Georgia and took a 32-11 halftime lead.

Georgia’s 41 total points were the fewest ever allowed by Tennessee in an SEC tourney game, breaking the previous low output of 44 points - also by Georgia, in 1982.

“It’s pretty simple; it’s short and sweet,” Georgia coach Andy Landers said in his opening statement. “We didn’t compete; they kicked our tail. End of story.”

The Lady Vols got 11 consecutive stops in the first half. Ariel Massengale was asked about the feat in the post-game press conference, and Warlick was ready to offer an answer, too.

“I love that. I’ll comment on that. I love that. I didn’t realize that,” Warlick said. “I’m glad you brought that stat. We have a drill that’s called the persistence drill. It’s extremely difficult. Love to hear that.”

The Lady Vols went on a 15-0 run in the first half and had a 28-11 advantage on the boards by the break.

“That’s hustle. That’s hustle. That’s hustle. That’s hustle,” Landers said. “That’s us missing a lot of shots. … There was once tonight when the ball hit the rim, I looked up, we had three people running back on defense.

“It wasn’t because we were excited about playing defense. You could tell we weren’t too excited about playing defense. We just didn’t want to go rebound.”

The board advantage ballooned to 47-23 by the end of the game for Tennessee.

“We’ve been giving up a lot of points in the paint because of not rebounding and boxing out,” Warlick said. “We spent a lot of time on it this week, talked about it, emphasized it until they were probably sick of hearing about it. But it paid off. It paid off.”

The Lady Vols’ paint production had become anemic since the loss of Isabelle Harrison three weeks ago to a torn ACL. But Tennessee outscored Georgia in the paint, 44-12, with the posts and guards getting to the rim.

Andraya Carter had the most-impressive offensive board in the first half when she achieved such elevation that the crowd gasped. Carter said she wanted to tip in the ball, but she jumped so high, she decided to come down with it instead and then go back up.

The basket, which was marked by the official scorer as a tip-in, gave the Lady Vols a 30-9 lead with one minute left in the first half. Carter popped back up as if she landed on a trampoline, so the official scorer can be forgiven for not realizing it was a new shot, not a tip.

The box score credited Carter with just one steal, but she forced four turnovers in the first half. While Carter downplayed being left off the SEC All-Defensive Team, her teammates didn’t and considered it a snub. The postseason awards are done by coaches’ vote, and South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said she voted for Carter and didn’t understand the omission.

Tennessee rattled Georgia early with a half-court trap, and Carter was in the thick of it. Warlick backed off pretty early, an indication of not wanting to run up the score and being mindful to rest players.

“I didn’t want to keep it going because I thought we would exert too much energy,” Warlick said. “But we moved, we talked. We were in the passing lanes. We did a great job with it.

“It really separated us because it got us easy buckets to layups. Anytime you can score off your defense, that’s huge for us.”

It was an ideal tourney opener for Tennessee as Warlick was able to use all nine available players - Jannah Tucker is practicing with the team but won’t play again this season - and limit the starters’ minutes.

Landers noticed that Warlick went to her bench. The Lady Vols shot 60.7 percent in the second half and could have won by 50 points had Warlick stayed with her starters. All nine players scored at least three points and grabbed at least one rebound.

“They subbed,” Landers said. “I mean, she was nice the last seven, eight minutes of the game. She was nice. She felt sorry for us.”

Cierra Burdick tallied six points in 24 minutes and joined the 1,000-point career club with a transition basket right before halftime. Burdick also grabbed eight boards and had three assists.

Ariel Massengale tallied 10 points and three assists and is now the fifth Lady Vol to reach 500 career assists.

“I think it’s a great accomplishment for the both of us,” Massengale said. “You know, Cierra is the fourth person this year on our team to reach a thousand points. Just a credit to our coaching staff and teammates how hard we worked over these past four years. It’s great to have our names in great company with other players.”

Nia Moore led Tennessee with 14 points and three blocks. Jaime Nared reached double digits with 10 points and displayed a game of both power and poise. Nared also had four assists with pinpoint passes and snared six boards.

“She’s extremely quiet but is solid for us,” Warlick said. “I love what she’s doing right now. Absolutely love it.”

Bashaara Graves tallied 13 points and 11 boards in just 25 minutes of play. Graves was 5-6 from the field and grabbed six of Tennessee’s 14 offensive boards.

“You don’t box out, you’re going to give up offensive rebounds,” Landers said. “Same person didn’t box out the same person three times in a row on the same frigging possession. Unbelievable.”

Graves kept possessions alive, battled inside and connected both at the rim and from midrange.

“She demands the basketball,” Warlick said. “When you demand the basketball, the guards better get it to her. She wants the basketball. Tonight I thought she worked so hard. I mean, she was getting bumped and hit. She acted like it didn’t even faze her. She’s pretty tough.”

With Harrison out - the senior center had surgery this week and didn’t make the trip - Graves had to return to beast mode and stay there. The junior has done so, and Tennessee is much better when Graves is active and aggressive in the paint.

“I’ve definitely been trying to be more vocal,” Graves said. “I’m used to really staying in the background, just trying to get things done. Now I know I need to step up and be a leader.”

The Lady Vols gathered at center court before the game to receive the SEC regular season trophy, a championship honor they shared with South Carolina as both schools finished with 15-1 records.

“This team, we want them to make a statement,” Warlick said. “We talk a lot about it. We talk a lot about playing in the moment and playing the game. We don’t look ahead. We don’t look behind us.

“They do an unbelievable job of staying focused. They did a great job sticking to the game plan. Just really, really proud of them.”

GAME HIGHLIGHTS FROM UTSPORTSTV

INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO

Andraya Carter

Alexa Middleton

Jaime Nared

Kortney Dunbar

Nia Moore

Jordan Reynolds

Bashaara Graves

Cierra Burdick

Ariel Massengale

Jannah Tucker

Mercedes Russell


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