Tennessee stayed perfect on the season, but the post-game mood of players and the head coach wasn’t the least bit celebratory after the 59-57 win over Chattanooga. Go inside for game analysis and video coverage.
Tennessee (4-0) erupted out of the gate, led 38-19 at halftime, skidded to a halt in the third quarter and recovered in the fourth quarter to secure the victory Monday over Chattanooga (3-2).
That was about the only positive for the Lady Vols – besides the uptick in performance by Diamond DeShields, who continues to be bothered by shin splints but said after the game she was getting better.
“Diamond came out, and it looked like she was just a lot more comfortable than she’s been,” senior forward Bashaara Graves. “She’s getting back to her normal self, and I love it. She’s just out there playing hard.”
DeShields certainly looked better, especially her elevation to the basket, but the redshirt sophomore is still working her way into basketball mode.
The same could be said of the Lady Vols as they have welcomed back Mercedes Russell after a year off, adjusted to DeShields, who has barely been able to practice, and taken the good with the not so good with Te’a Cooper, who can be electrifying on one play and befuddling on another.
That, of course, comes with a freshman point guard, and Cooper has given coach Holly Warlick plenty of reasons to stick with her, as have guards Jordan Reynolds, Andraya Carter, Alexa Middleton and Meme Jackson.
Therein lies part of the issue. Warlick wants to deploy her depth, and Tennessee clearly is still seeking the right combinations on the floor.
The starting five of Cooper, Reynolds, Russell, Graves and Jasmine Jones got the Lady Vols off to an excellent start on both ends of the court. Warlick went to the bench without a dropoff, and the Lady Vols led after the first 10 minutes, 26-7, much to the delight of the 9,449 in attendance.
The flurry of scoring emanated from a stout defense and solid board work, though Chattanooga played Tennessee to a tie, 12-12, in the second quarter. Still, the Lady Vols led by 19 points at the break, had 14 points off turnovers and 12 on the fast break.
The third quarter began with bad passes, poor shot selection and soft defense. Warlick put in five new players, Carter, Middleton, DeShields, Jackson and Kortney Dunbar, just over two minutes into the third quarter.
“You were probably in the back telling me to get them out,” said Warlick, who has become quite engaging with the media – Pat Summitt enjoyed the back and forth – this season. “We were very casual. We went in to halftime very comfortable, thought the game was over.
“We got that lead because of our efforts on the defensive end. You can't just limit it to two quarters. We just thought we could casually play defense, come down and jack up the shot.
“I had seen enough, so I thought we would try five more."
Jackson got fouled on an athletic play to grab an offensive rebound and made one for a 41-25 lead. Carter found DeShields for a 43-25 lead, and then DeShields got a steal and score for a 45-27 lead.
It appeared Tennessee had rebounded from a bad start, but midway through the third quarter, the quick shooting began anew – and the ball failed to get inside by penetration or post feeds. The Lady Vols went 0-8 from the arc in the third quarter and 3-17 overall.
Chattanooga outscored Tennessee, 17-7, in the third quarter – the Mocs players said they got inspiration from watching last week’s Warriors’ comeback over the Clippers in an NBA game – and trailed by single digits, 45-36, to open the fourth quarter.
“We kept thinking about Golden State coming back to win against the Clippers, we kept talking about that,” said Queen Alford, who tallied 19 points and hit two three-pointers.
The Mocs started connecting from the arc, and the Lady Vols went to work inside with Russell scoring back-to-back baskets for a 49-42 lead with eight minutes left in the game. The Mocs kept answering, and a Reynolds pull-up followed by a Graves basket inside gave Tennessee a 53-47 lead – the latter basket coming after a DeShields block and takeaway.
“You’ve got to get the ball inside, and that’s what we did in the fourth quarter,” Warlick said.
DeShields was fouled on a drive and made both for a 55-51 lead. DeShields found Russell for a 57-51 lead and then banked in a shot for a 59-53 lead.
Alicia Payne made one of two free throws after a Russell foul to trim the lead to 59-54 with 61 seconds left. Chattanooga had just two team fouls, so the Mocs had to foul to stop the clock – and they did once – but then they let Tennessee play keep-away on the perimeter. Reynolds missed a jumper with nine seconds remaining, and Chattanooga made a meaningless three with two seconds left.
Chattanooga coach Jim Foster said after the game that he was hoping for a turnover or someone to make a play. Instead, Chattanooga simply ran out of time.
“We were just trying to make a play, we wanted to win,” Foster said. “I always thought that when a player fell down with a dribble that it was a walk. I guess I will have to look at the rule book.”
The win was a grudge match of sorts after Chattanooga upset the Lady Vols, 67-63, in Chattanooga last season. After that game, Foster discussed which bottle of red wine – Opus One, a very fine selection – he would enjoy after the game. Foster, the longtime coach at Vanderbilt before going to Ohio State and then Chattanooga, has never been fond of Thompson-Boling Arena – or Tennessee.
After Monday’s game, he complimented DeShields when asked about her play and noted her athleticism made her difficult to guard, especially when she got to the rim.
“When she gets down close to the basket she uses her athleticism and her size,” Foster said. “She’s a very effective player.”
The effectiveness of Tennessee in the paint, whether through the posts or penetration, is why Warlick was so peeved with her team and all of the jump shots in the third quarter.
“We started looking at the clock and thinking we’re up so we can just relax, and you just can’t,” Warlick said. “I don't care who you play. We got real casual and relaxed, and thought this game was over.
“It's a 40-minute game. Tonight, we thought it was maybe a 20-minute game, maybe. Until we learn that, and until we can carry it over to play hard all the time, no matter what the score is, we will continue to have these problems.”
The three players at the post-game press conference, Graves, Russell and DeShields, didn’t have the countenances of the winning team.
“I just think offensively we had a tough night,” Russell said. “We couldn’t hit jump shots. We didn’t really get the ball inside a lot, and we needed to. On the defensive end, we weren’t getting stops, either. Altogether, it just wasn’t a good performance.”
Russell did her part, shooting 5-8 for 13 points. Graves added 10 points on 4-7 shooting and grabbed 11 rebounds for another double-double. DeShields led Tennessee with 17 points and four steals.
Chattanooga, despite the loss, was in a good mood in the post-game press conference. The Mocs connected on 7-15 three pointers (46.7 percent) and overcame 21 turnovers and a wretched start to push Tennessee to the final minute.
“It felt like an out-of-body experience,” said Ansley Chilton, who tallied 15 points and made three three-pointers. “I have watched Tennessee play while I was growing up, and to be out there and compete was awesome.”
Warlick delivered her shortest post-game opening statement of the young season: “It was a win for us. We’ll take it, but it wasn’t very pretty. I’m not very happy. We’ll take the win and move forward.”
Coach Holly Warlick
Chattanooga coach Jim Foster, Ansley Chilton and Queen Alford