Tennessee withstood a tough test from Penn State thanks to perfection from Bashaara Graves and a double-double from Mercedes Russell as the post players rescued a rough night on the perimeter in the 74-66 win. Go inside for game analysis and video coverage.
Tennessee (2-0) finally caged a determined pack of Nittany Lions thanks to Bashaara Graves, who tallied 24 points and 13 rebounds on perfection from the field (8-8) and the stripe (8-8).
The Lady Vols hope this is who Graves is – she was named the Beast as a freshman but struggled with consistency for the past two years – as the outcome of this game likely was a loss without the senior’s maximum effort.
“She was in the paint making shots, rebounding, doing anything that she could, all the dirty work,” Mercedes Russell said. “I think she was big for us tonight. I don’t know if we get this win without her.”
Russell filled the box score Wednesday night with 14 points and 13 boards against a stacked frontline for Penn State. It was the redshirt sophomore’s first test against size, and Russell passed. She also has logged 69 minutes in two games after missing all of last season.
“Physically, I’d say I feel great,” Russell said. “I think my conditioning level is at a pretty good level right now.”
Penn State (2-1) had a loud and supportive fan section and, like Tennessee, dealt with foul trouble throughout the game. The total number of fouls, 42, exceeded the minutes played at 40. Tennessee had 18 for the game and 13 in the first half, including four players with two each before halftime. The crowd of 8,858 was peeved all evening with the whistle-fest.
“I thought, when we fouled early, it affected us,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “We have to be more disciplined. We knew the officials were going to call it. They call it the way they are supposed to, and we have to adjust.
“We have to be disciplined enough to move our feet and not play with our hands. It was a concern.”
Peyton Whitted, whose father, Kevin Whitted, played at Tennessee, led the Nittany Lions with 17 points and 16 rebounds. Her father, who was a Vol from 1992 to 1995, sat behind the Penn State bench. Peyton Whitted is from relatively nearby Suwanee, Georgia.
“It was great to come back,” Whitted said. “It was great all around.”
The outcome wasn’t in Penn State’s favor, but the Nittany Lions showed they could play in a tough environment and without one of their best players in Brianna Banks, who went out a little over two minutes into the game with a right ankle injury, the severity of which was not yet known.
“This showed us that even when she is out, we all have her back,” said Kaliyah Mitchell, who notched 11 points. “We played our game and played to our strengths, and we played to our strengths. Once we have her back on the court, we will be great.”
Tennessee had its star power available in Diamond DeShields, but the redshirt sophomore struggled from the field at 2-11 and finished with four points and four assists.
“The only thing I’m concerned with Diamond on, I thought she passed the ball a couple of times where she should have shot,” Warlick said. “I don’t know how many times she’s going to go two for eleven. I think her presence, she had some great assists to help us pull away.”
With Tennessee clinging to a 68-64 lead with a little over three minutes to play, DeShields got a steal in the open court and missed the layup. Graves fought for the rebound and got the ball to DeShields, who found Andraya Carter for the layup and a 70-64 lead with 3:26 remaining.
Penn State had taken the lead, 57-56, on a jumper by Candice Agee – her one made basket of the game – but a jumper by Graves put the Lady Vols back in the lead, 58-57. Penn State knotted the game at 64 after a three-pointer by Lindsey Spann, who tallied 14 points, with 5:26 left in the game.
A tip-in by DeShields following a missed three-pointer by Te’a Cooper gave the Lady Vols the lead for good, 66-64, with 4:55 remaining in the game.
Warlick noted that DeShields, who was hindered all summer and preseason by a leg injury, had practiced with the team for about a week.
“I think it’s just going to be getting in, and dusting the cobwebs off of her, and getting her some reps that she really has not had,” Warlick said. “She’ll get there.”
DeShields, who played solid defense, started the second half, as did Graves. The senior made a great case to stay there. She missed the season opener because of a minor violation of team rules over the summer.
I don’t know who is going to start, but she’s got a great opportunity to do that,” Warlick said. “We went with what started us off with a bang our first game. With this team everybody is going to play, which I love. They all have the capability and ability.
“I don’t know if it as much of who is starting. It’s who is contributing and making a difference. When they get that in their heads we are going to be a pretty tough basketball team. I think they understand that right now. I don’t think starting and not starting has been an issue, and I hope it won’t be.”
Tennessee won’t have much time to think about it. Syracuse is in town Friday for a 7 p.m. tip and brings a stout 2-3 matchup zone.
“We’ve got to get better moving the ball, getting touches, cutting, getting to open spaces,” Warlick said. “We’ve got to get better against the zone. We have been better. Tonight, we just stood and held the ball. Our goal is to make sure the ball doesn’t get stuck in our hands.”
Tennessee did get open looks from the arc but shot 1-12 (8.3 percent). DeShields and Cooper, who lit up the perimeter in the season opener, went 0-6. However, Cooper still tallied 14 points and went 8-9 from the line.
The lone make from long range came from Kortney Dunbar, who swished a corner three in the first half and will be needed against Syracuse’s zone.
“I wish we could have gotten Kortney in a little bit more, but I was worried about her rebounding, and her putting a body on people,” Warlick said. “That’s going to get better. We need her.”
Tennessee also needs this version of Graves.
“She is an aggressive player, very physical and relentless on the glass,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “She has been in a lot of big games, and I thought she was aggressive. When you’re aggressive in this league, good things happen.”
Graves made those things happen with her relentless pursuit of the ball over 30 minutes of playing time. She got on the floor, fought for the ball and cleaned up the glass, especially on the defensive end with 10 boards.
“I just came in knowing I wanted to play hard,” Graves said. “That’s all I did. It came easy when you’re out there playing hard and having fun.”
Jasmine Jones added six points and five boards. She battled inside and was defensively stout – she helped to shut down Penn State on its final possession – but is working her way back as far as getting in sync with teammates on offense after missing nearly all of last season.
Alexa Middleton had a quiet box score with a free throw, two boards, two assists and a steal, but she was played with a high motor, especially on defense. Nia Moore logged a minute and is still recovering from a rib injury.
The Lady Vols scored 48 points in the paint to 34 for Penn State. Russell did all of her work around the rim and at the line (4-6).
“Our goal was to get the ball to her, and they knew it,” Warlick said. “Their goal was to get the ball inside to their post and we knew that, but I thought it was a good battle inside.”
Tennessee nipped the Nittany Lions on second-chance points, 15-7, and prevailed on the glass, 44-35.The Lady Vols had 16 assists on 25 made baskets – Jordan Reynolds led the team with five helpers – and kept the turnovers to a manageable 17, the same number as Penn State. Tennessee had 12 steals, while the Nittany Lions tallied 11.
The Lady Vols misfired early at the line but finished 23-29 (79.3 percent) for the game and secured the win from the stripe.
I think in crunch time when we needed to make plays, we did,” Warlick said. “We hit a lot of free throws, which is a positive thing. We beat a solid Penn State basketball team.”
Coach Holly Warlick
Coach Coquese Washington, Kaliyah Mitchell and Peyton Whitted