The Lady Vols stayed perfect for the season by, in the estimation of the head coach, outlasting Syracuse, 57-55. Go inside for game analysis and video coverage.
Tennessee (3-0) went off script Friday evening to beat Syracuse (1-1) and its stout 2-3 matchup zone defense. With the perimeter shots not falling from anywhere on the court, the Lady Vols scored 46 points in the paint and survived an anemic performance from the arc.
Coach Holly Warlick said in the post-game press conference that the message to stop firing from the arc was emphatically delivered in the second half – she joked she threatened to cut off the arm of the next shooter who launched an ill-advised long-range shot – and it was sound advice.
Mercedes Russell and Bashaara Graves combined for 29 points with Jasmine Jones adding 12 off the bench for a frontline scoring total of 41 points. The three balls ranged from quick shots – one was particularly galling because the post players had not even gotten set yet – to an air ball.
The Lady Vols were 1-12 (8.3 percent) from long range with the lone make coming from Te’a Cooper right before the third quarter buzzer to give the Lady Vols a 48-44 lead. The team’s best three-point shooter, Kortney Dunbar, remained sidelined because Tennessee opted to stay primarily in man defense against Syracuse’s three-guard lineup on the perimeter.
The patented Lady Vol defense arrived in the final five minutes, spearheaded by Jones, as Syracuse didn’t score over the game’s final five minutes, while Tennessee scored just two points during the same timeframe on a layup by Graves with 2:48 remaining following pinpoint passing by Russell and Cooper. That was followed by a shot clock violation by Syracuse. Cooper also had a key steal with 1:17 left in the game to allow Tennessee to cling to its lead.
Graves was 8-9 from the field and missed perfection after being dumped the ball with two seconds on the shot clock and 51 seconds left in the game. She followed that play with a block with 25 seconds left to play, and Syracuse was forced to foul twice to stop the clock. The Orange, needing a turnover to not run out of time, got it when Jones got stripped from behind.
Brianna Butler missed a three with 10 seconds to play and got the rebound. Jones was called for a foul on a driving Brittney Sykes, but she missed both free throws with six seconds left, and Russell secured the defensive board for the win.
The crowd of 10,007, which spent a good portion of the evening booing the officials, should get an assist for the noise generated in the game’s final five minutes, especially with the chants for defense.
“I give Tennessee a lot of credit, the fans and environment were incredible,” Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said. “I just have to give the fans credit. I thought it was a good experience for our players.”
The fact Graves could tally 16 points while Russell notched 13 point against a zone defense bodes well for Tennessee’s post game going forward.
“They play opposite blocks and high posts,” Hillsman said. “They did a really good job, obviously, of occupying the box. Tennessee had a great game plan.”
Graves was 8-9 from the field and missed perfection after being dumped the ball with two seconds on the shot clock and 51 seconds left in the game. She also grabbed 10 rebounds. Graves had an and-one play waved off late in the second half after being called for a charge – replays showed the Orange player slid under Graves – but she didn’t get frustrated, as she was prone to do last season.
Graves said in the post-game press conference that as a senior she knows she has to set the example. While Graves has a lot of experience, the Lady Vols are relatively young and also working players back into the rotation, such as Russell and Jones.
“I would say we are still growing as a team collectively,” junior guard Jordan Reynolds said. “We’re still looking for that niche for all of us to get used to one another. We have a lot of young players and a lot of players coming back so right now we’re trying to get a feel for each other and really try to come together especially during these early games.”
“We have a lot of competition coming up so have to get it together these next couple of games.”
Russell added eight rebounds and four blocks in what was her best game of the young season on both ends. The fact she could play 35 effective minutes just 48 hours after logging 33 minutes against Penn State speaks volumes about her conditioning in the off-season.
The game started well for Tennessee, which took a 9-2 lead with Cooper and Andraya Carter getting the ball inside to the posts, and Graves going to work inside. The Orange misfired repeatedly to start the game but regrouped to take a 17-16 lead by the end of the first quarter.
“In the first five minutes of the game, I thought we really moved the ball,” Warlick said. “We were passing. We were cutting. We got great looks, just didn’t make them. Then, I thought we started standing.
“Offensive players for one reason or another, their game is determined by how they are playing offensively. That isn’t good, but sometimes it is a reality. When we didn’t make shots, we started standing. When we start standing, we can’t get good looks.”
The game was knotted at 31 at the break, but Syracuse claimed a six-point lead, 41-35, midway through the third quarter. With points at a premium, Tennessee mounted a comeback when Carter got inside the zone, and Graves hit a short jumper. Diamond DeShields got a steal and found Cooper to pull Tennessee to within three points, 44-41.
In a play indicative of both Cooper’s inexperience and gamesmanship, Cooper got a defensive board, took a bad shot on the next possession, got the offensive rebound and found Jones inside to trim the deficit to just one point, 44-43.
Reynolds got an open court steal and layup for a 45-44 lead, the crowd erupted, and the Lady Vols never trailed again, though the fans weren’t able to exhale until Russell grabbed her final rebound.
The Lady Vols nipped Syracuse on the glass, 45-43; made just 4-7 free throws; and turned loose of the ball 19 times – though just six miscues after the break. The game was won with defense.
“Defense was most intense in that last minute just because we knew that we had to dig down,” Reynolds said. “We had to pull together.”
Tennessee had seven blocks, with Russell swatting four shots. On the play before Cooper nailed the three to end the third quarter, Russell held her ground on the baseline, got the block and took the ball away.
“I love blocking people,” Russell said. “When I’m on defense I just try to go as straight up as I can and block as much as I can without fouling.”
Graves also rejected a shot and seemed to particularly enjoy her teammate’s swats.
“We know Mercedes can do that; she just needs to bring it every game,” Graves said. “We know she’s going to block anything that comes into the paint.”
The Orange of Syracuse departed Knoxville knowing they gave the orange and white of Tennessee everything it could withstand and still win.
“If you told me we would come on the road and hold Tennessee to 57 points, and still lose, I wouldn’t believe that,” Hillsman said.
Had Warlick known the Lady Vols would be outscored from the arc, 24-3, she might have expected a different outcome. But Tennessee got another stellar game from its post players despite a packed paint.
“Their zone is great, that’s what they do,” Graves said. “It was hard to get open shots in the zone, and we kept turning the ball over, but I think we got comfortable in the middle of the game just by taking our time and moving the ball.
“Overall I think we did a great job handling their zone.”
DeShields struggled again – she was 0-5 from the field – while Cooper was 4-17. But Warlick has wisely opted to let the freshman point guard play through her mistakes, and she knows DeShields will round into form. Cooper doesn’t let a bad play affect her on the next play, a rare trait for a freshman.
“I think Te’a does some good things, then I think she does some freshman things,” Warlick said. “That is what we have to work out. I thought our perimeter quick shot the basketball a couple times. We have to understand – and I think Te’a does, too – time and possession.
“That is going to come with experience. I think she is a heck of a competitor. She is going to be a great point guard for us.”
Tennessee has definitely found its top two interior players in Graves and Russell.
“That is exactly what I expect of them,” Warlick said. “Bashaara because of her experience and how hard she plays, and Mercedes because of her talent, and she's healthy.”
Syracuse agreed to a home game with Tennessee without getting a return trip from the Lady Vols. That is rare for a top 25 program.
“We need this game,” Hillsman said. “We need this. We love to compete. Are there any other places better to go to than this? We wanted to come here. We like tough games, we are not ducking anybody.”
The Lady Vols shot 35.9 percent in the first half, but improved to 46.2 percent in the second, dropping the three attempts from nine to three.
“Give Tennessee credit, they shot for 46 percent in the second half, and that’s tough,” Hillsman said.
Hillsman told Sykes as she left the court the game wasn’t lost on missed free throws. The first attempt drew front and back iron but bounced off.
“We never put it all on one possession or a play here or there,” he said. “It is about us shooting 25 percent in the second half, not about that play.”
The Lady Vols will see a different style of play Monday when Chattanooga comes to Knoxville, the first of three games next week.
“Chattanooga makes you play about 28 seconds on the defensive end,” Warlick said. “They are going to move that ball around. They’re not going to quick shoot the basketball. You’re going to have to communicate. They’re going to get great shots, and it’s going to be really deep in the shot clock.
“They are going to make us beat them from the outside. We’re going to have to make shots.”
Warlick knows that teams are going to stay in a zone against Tennessee, until the Lady Vols give them a reason to come out of it. In the meantime, the ball will still find the paint.
“Anybody that knows Tennessee knows that we play inside-out, and that our posts are going to touch the basketball. We got the guards opportunities to shoot, and we just didn’t knock down shots, and we’re going to get better at that.”
Coach Holly Warlick
Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman, Alexis Peterson, Brittney Sykes