Tennessee used a rotation of six players, including the debut of Diamond DeShields and Te’a Cooper, and ran roughshod over Central Arkansas, 102-47, in the season opener. Go inside for game analysis and video coverage.
Coach Holly Warlick’s jacket stayed on the entire game. That tells you about all you need to know about Tennessee’s debut Sunday against Central Arkansas. The Lady Vols played inside-out, opened up a 21-6 lead, led 63-20 at halftime and hit triple digits for the final score.
The outcome against an overmatched team of Sugar Bears wasn’t unexpected, but a rotation of just six players was a surprise. Warlick said afterwards that the absent players were either injured or had committed minor violations of team rules, and she wanted to focus on the six who played.
Those six were starters Te’a Cooper, Andraya Carter, Alexa Middleton, Kortney Dunbar and Mercedes Russell with Diamond DeShields off the bench.
“Wow,” is how Central Arkansas coach Sandra Rushing opened her post-game press conference.
“I don’t even really know what to say,” Rushing said. “They’re amazing. They play extremely hard. They’re big, they’re really big. They’re very well coached. This was an opportunity for us, and I appreciate the opportunity to come here and play Tennessee with all the tradition.
“When you talk about women’s basketball, the first thing that comes to your mind is the University of Tennessee. I think Holly has done a great job. She had some big shoes to fill.
Rushing closed her remarks by saying she had always been a Tennessee fan and would be watching to see what the Lady Vols accomplished this season.
So will the Tennessee fan base. Diamond DeShields checked in at the 5:10 mark of the first quarter and despite the long layoff established quickly why she was a coveted recruit. DeShields got to the rim – she completed an and-one play behind the backboard to put the Lady Vols up 42-14 – distributed the ball and played solid defense.
Carson-Newman, which has played several times at Thompson-Boling Arena, was more relaxed than the Sugar Bears, who were a bundle of nerves to start.
“We need to learn how to handle big games,” Rushing said. “I would like to be in this situation at the end of the year at our conference tournament. You hope we can grow from this experience. That’s why I wanted to play Tennessee.”
Before fans get too giddy, it must be noted that the opponent lacked size and speed. Mercedes Russell tallied 20 points and 13 boards and encountered little resistance. Te’a Cooper got to the rim at will. Kortney Dunbar was left wide open at the arc – and she made Central Arkansas pay by connecting on 4-6 from long range.
But it also must be noted that Tennessee looked dominant with just six players in uniform, two players were on the court for the first time, and Dunbar is learning a new position at stretch four.
Dunbar has made a legitimate case to remain in the starting lineup.
“I think we have found a great position for Kortney Dunbar,” Warlick said. “She can shoot the three, but she has really committed to getting on the block and working. That’s tough to defend. I think Dean Lockwood has done a great job with her working with her inside. She did not do any of that last year, but we needed to get her on the floor.
“I think at the four spot we found the opportunity to get her on the floor. She has been solid defensively. I told her to keep people in front of you. She doesn’t have to be spectacular on defense, just be solid.”
Cooper showed quite a bit of savvy for a first-year player. Her stats were eye-popping at 22 points, six assists, four steals and just two turnovers.
“She didn’t play like a freshman,” said Central Arkansas guard Brianna Mullins. “She didn’t play like I thought she would come in and play. She didn’t play timid. She came out, she was scoring, and her defense was amazing. I just feel like she was a good player.”
Cooper played with a knee brace – she had collided with another player’s knee in practice last week and missed the exhibition game – but didn’t seem bothered by it. Rushing joked that she would have preferred that Cooper sit out this game, too.
“I just wanted to get my teammates involved, be a point guard, push the ball down the floor, talk and be a leader,” Cooper said.
Cooper did those things – and scored. She has an odd-looking shot as she lifts the ball from the side, but her wicked-fast first step creates space from a defender not wanting to get too close. Cooper also showed some uncommon common sense on defense for a freshman.
After picking up two fouls in the first, Cooper still stuck close to her player, but she shifted her hands behind her and moved her feet to avoid any whistles. That is easier said than done as most freshmen tend to grab with their hands. Cooper would finish the game with just three fouls despite logging a team-high 38 minutes. It was the kind of defense Pat Summitt would appreciate – and the head coach emeritus had a front row seat to see it at center court.
The debut of DeShields was what Lady Vol fans have been anticipating for a year. The cheering started among the 9,709 in attendance as soon as DeShields started walking to the scorer’s table. She was jumping up and down prior to checking in – something she did not so much out of excitement as trying to stay warm.
DeShields is not 100 percent as she has had a long recovery from a leg injury. But she played 25 effective minutes, tallied 12 points and four boards. She also added seven assists, which ties a career high set at North Carolina.
The knock on DeShields has been that she won’t share the ball – the reputation may be rooted in jealousy by rivals – and she put that notion to rest Sunday. She also candidly addressed it post-game.
“I wanted to send a message that I am a team player,” DeShields said. “The points will come. I’m not worried about that. But getting my teammates involved, it’s not about me. The fact that I was able to have a Kortney Dunbar, a Mercedes Russell, a Te’a, Andraya, Alexa, I think that you have to utilize those assets, and I’m going to do that.
“I’m very capable. I’m going to utilize my vision at all times.”
DeShields sees the floor like a point guard and plays like a forward. She had back-to-back assists in the second half after finding Russell and Dunbar inside. She found Russell again inside for the final basket by Tennessee.
“She is an unbelievable passer,” Warlick said. “I will say this about Diamond DeShields. Not too many people have a feel for the game. She has an unbelievable feel for the game. She sees the floor. That is hard to teach. Players like that can see things develop two to three plays before they happen, and that is one solid thing that Diamond has.
“I told her before she went in, ‘Enjoy this. You have been out for a year and couple months. This is what you wanted. This is why you came to Tennessee. Have fun.’ ”
The Lady Vols got solid play out of Andraya Carter, who logged 36 minutes. She had nine points, seven rebounds – and kept multiple possessions alive with her offensive glasswork – six steals and five assists.
Alexa Middleton notched 15 points, five boards, six assists and three steals. The sophomore played with high energy throughout her 31 minutes.
The Lady Vols had 26 assists on 39 made baskets and shot 54.2 percent (39-72) overall and 47.4 percent (9-19) from the arc.
DeShields mentioned in the press conference that the team has been watching film of vintage Boston Celtics games featuring Larry Bird, Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale. Warlick said she wanted her team to see superior ball movement.
“They were one of the best teams in the history of the NBA,” Warlick said. They are great passers. “I thought with the talent and abilities that we have, we could be really difficult to guard if the ball didn’t get stuck in our hands.”
It was a relaxing game for Warlick – she never once threw her jacket over the bench – and while she stood quite a bit, as she always does, the head coach also took a seat and enjoyed the performance. The fans appreciated the effort of the players, especially with the short rotation. A lot of firepower was on the bench.
“I want to address the players that sat out and why we only got to play six people,” Warlick said a part of her opening remarks. “It was due to injuries and violations of team policies. They had great attitudes. That is all I ask. We have moved forward. That is all I want to say regarding that matter, and if I could just comment on the game, that would be great.”
The players who missed the game were: Jaime Nared (broken hand); MeMe Jackson (concussion protocol after blow to head vs. Carson-Newman, though she signed autographs as the featured poster player after the game, so she seems to be OK); Jasmine Jones (minor injury, day to day); Nia Moore (ribs, day to day); Jordan Reynolds (one missed class after thinking it was canceled); and Bashaara Graves (minor violation of team rules).
All are expected back for Wednesday’s game against Penn State, except Nared, who is likely out two more weeks.
The rotation of six worked well against Central Arkansas, but the schedule gets tougher this week with Penn State and Syracuse on Friday. The offense sputtered a bit in the fourth quarter and the Lady Vols missed some late free throws, an indication of fatigue. Several players will be more-effective long-term if their playing time hovers in the 28- to 32-minute range, rather than in excess of 35 minutes a game.
Dunbar still has to face a challenging post player, but she played hard, pursued the ball on the glass and didn’t shy away from contact. DeShields and Cooper made it a point to find her inside and out, as did Middleton and Carter.
“We had six girls and we really pushed each other,” Dunbar said. “We knew we were behind each other 100 percent. When we have that ability and that high heart coming in, it’s pretty easy to play.”
The question Warlick had for her team was if the performance and energy were an aberration or a harbinger of things to come.
“I asked them if this was a one-hit wonder or an all-the-time things,” Warlick said. “I let them check the box, and they checked all the time, so now I am going to hold them accountable to that.”
Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick
Lady Vols Kortney Dunbar, Diamond DeShieds and Te’a Cooper
Central Arkansas Coach Sandra Rushing, Brianna Mullins, Maggie Proffitt, Taylor Baudoin