Lady Vols make defensive stand against Albany

Texas comes to town for big matchup Sunday

The Lady Vols stayed perfect – and did so in typical unnerving fashion for the fans – with a 63-55 win over Albany on Friday. Go inside with for game analysis and video coverage.

Tennessee (5-0) has managed to find ways to win – primarily with defensive stops down the stretch, the latest coming with a critical charge drawn by Diamond DeShields. Albany (4-1) had three SEC teams trying to bring the Great Danes to town and chose Tennessee – the players voted – because they wanted a big stage.

The Great Danes, led by Shereesha Richards with 19 points and 10 boards, were in position for an upset, but Tennessee summoned its defense and Bashaara Graves hit four consecutive free throws to secure the win.

Coach Holly Warlick wasn’t fuming like she was after the Chattanooga win because she saw plenty of effort. She also saw plenty of turnovers, and that was disheartening. The Lady Vols tallied 21 miscues, and a lot were unforced, what coaches call wasted possessions.

“I thought we had better looks, but we had 21 times that it was taken away from us, and we don't get a shot off,” Warlick said. “You’re not going to win a lot of ball games with 21 turnovers. We keep doing it and doing it. We’ve got to get ahold of that.”

Getting ahold of the ball would be a good start. The turnovers were not ones in the category of trying to make a play – though a few came from up-tempo action – but more in the categories of poor ball security and bad passes.

Two came at the top of the floor in the third quarter – generally an automatic fast break and two points for the opponent – but Andraya Carter sprinted back to erase her teammate’s mistakes with the Lady Vols leading just 39-36 after a DeShields three-pointer. Carter got a clean block that was called a foul, but Albany’s Imani Tate made just one free throw.

That was followed by Tate again swiping the ball with Carter stopping the fast break and forcing the ball loose. DeShields grabbed the ball, sprinted down court and found Mercedes Russell for a traditional three-point play and a 42-37 lead with 1:51 left in the court that energized the matinee crowd of 9,806. What could have been a one-point deficit instead was a five-point lead.

What was even more notable about that play was how DeShields motored down court as if shot from a cannon.

“I know on the transition, I hadn’t run that fast in a really long time,” DeShields said. “The more I do, it’s something that I’m really excited about – just pushing myself, stretching my potential every day.”

Once again, the game started well for Tennessee, as the Lady Vols opened an early 11-4 lead thanks to crisp ball movement and three-pointers from Te’a Cooper and DeShields. After a steal by Reynolds and basket by Alexa Middleton, the Lady Vols led 21-13, and Albany needed a timeout.

Tennessee didn’t lose any momentum after the stoppage. The Lady Vols forced a turnover out of the timeout and got a jumper from Graves and a steal by Jasmine Jones, who was fouled and hit both for a 25-13 lead.

But a three-pointer by Albany was followed by a missed jumper and back-to-back turnovers. Tennessee got Kortney Dunbar in the game to try to open up a packed Albany zone, and she connected on a three-pointer for a 30-24 lead but landed awkwardly on another attempt and limped to the bench with an ankle injury.

“She came down on the kid’s foot," said Warlick, who indicated she had wanted to get Dunbar some good minutes in this game.

Dunbar later returned to the bench wearing a boot on her lower right leg. The good news is the injury was believed to be minor, and she is expected to be available Sunday against Texas.

Tennessee stayed stuck on 30 points and went into halftime with a precarious 30-28 lead. Albany seized a lead of its own, 32-30, with a three-pointer by Erin Coughlin – she would connect on four from the arc for the game – but Jones tied it with an offensive rebound, and Russell got inside for a 34-32 lead. The Lady Vols never trailed again, but Albany kept the outcome in doubt until the final seconds.

“We came in here and my biggest thing was I wanted them to be fearless,” Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said. “I wanted them to be tough. I wanted them to be fighters. I wanted them to not get affected by the crowd. You don't see that type of crowd every day.

“I wanted them to play like we know we can play. The great part about this game was that we played a high-level team in our fifth game and didn’t wait until the end of the year, then it’s NCAA tournament.”

Albany nearly took out Duke in last season’s NCAA tourney – it took a deep three-pointer by Duke and a missed one in the corner by Albany for the Blue Devils to escape in the first round at home.

“It was a lot of fun coming in here, and we talked about how we can do it,” Coughlin said. “It doesn't matter about the name on the jersey but more the way we approach the game and if we follow our game plan. Anything is really possible when you do that and if you believe and everyone on your team believes it can be done.”

Albany played what is called in basketball parlance as a "guarantee game," meaning Albany is paid to come and there is no return game. Three SEC teams had been vying for a matchup, and Albany selected Tennessee because of the atmosphere.

"That's why we played here, because I want to be on a big stage for our seniors and our seniors stepped up today," Abrahamson-Henderson said.

Albany also has a legitimate WNBA draft pick in Richards. Her impressive showing on a big stage can only raise her pro stock.

“This young woman is amazing and she is so humble and she is so hungry and she is so tough and she is relentless and she is fierce and she is in great shape,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “I could go on and on, but she is a dream to coach. I have to turn her down. I never have to turn her up. It's really been awesome, her coming from Jamaica and her playing net ball.

“At the next level she is going to have to play the three offensively, defensively she can guard anybody on the perimeter, man, zone, it doesn’t matter. I think she is the best mid-major player in the country, and I think she is one of the top players in the country. I know that any WNBA team that takes her and gives her an opportunity she is going to go in there and end up starting and playing for a long time.”

Richards smiled through her coach’s assessment. The senior went the distance and added three assists and four steals.

She got a steal and layup to cut Tennessee’s lead to just two points, 57-55, with 55 seconds left to play. That was followed by yet another Lady Vol turnover on the perimeter – the guards combined for 17 of the 21 turnovers, which were spread around six players, though Carter had none in 24 minutes of play – and a chance to tie the game.

Richards missed the jumper and Graves grabbed the board and was fouled. Graves made both for a 59-55 lead with 17 seconds left to play. After Zakiya Saunders missed a three-pointer, Russell grabbed the board with 3.1 seconds left and fouled by Richards, while Saunders was assessed a technical foul, which meant two shots and the ball for the Lady Vols. The scorer's table was told it was a deadball, contact technical.

Tennessee finished the game from an empty free throw line, where Graves shot the technical fouls and made both, followed by Russell connecting on two from the foul for the final 63-55 score.

“It was a great win. Great finish,” Warlick said. “We get out ahead, and we give up the lead. I thought at the end we needed defensive stops and we got them. I’m really proud of our kids down the stretch for understanding that defense is a priority.”

Te’a Cooper will have better games. She played just 17 minutes because of four fouls and had five turnovers to no assists. That will be an aberration for the freshman point guard.

“First of all you don’t foul a jump-shooter. She’s done that the last two games,” Warlick said. “You just don’t foul a jump-shooter. She’s just got to get disciplined. It’s just discipline and understanding.

“She’s a great defender. She’s one of our best defenders on the ball, but she’s got to do it all of the time. I think she understands that. I think she had some fouls that she didn’t need to get. She has to sit and then she loses the flow of the game.”

The Lady Vols scored just 20 points in the paint to 28 for Albany. Russell managed 12 points and five boards, while Graves added nine points and seven rebounds. The posts were bottlenecked by Albany’s zone and while Tennessee connected on 7-21 (33.3 percent) from the arc, it wasn’t enough to loosen the paint.

“They really packed it in this game, especially on the post,” Reynolds said. “I think our post only got 10 to 12 touches the entire game. I thought they just did a good job really packing it in. They focused a lot on making us shoot outside jumpers.”

Tennessee shot 42.6 percent (20-47) overall and 80 percent (16-20) from the line. DeShields notched 11 points, while Cooper and Middleton added seven, and Reynolds and Jones tallied six apiece.

“It's better to work through these things now than in April,” DeShields said. “We’re definitely getting better. I do feel like we got better. Albany did a great job defending us, but that’s what we need. They helped us get better. We’re just going to move on and look forward to Texas.”

It may be getting close to time to insert DeShields in the starting lineup. The charge she took Friday with the game in the balance indicates a player willing to perform on both ends.

“She’s going to do what she needs to do to get a win,” Warlick said. “I love it. I love when our kids draw a charge, and I love when they think that defense is important."

DeShields noted, “I wouldn’t have taken a charge in my first game. I’m getting a lot more comfortable doing things that my body is used to doing – jumping, sprinting.”

The Longhorns arrive for a 2:30 p.m. tip Sunday on ESPN.

“They are kind of like a mirror image of us,” Warlick said. “They’re an athletic team. They want to get the ball in and score quickly. They rely on their defense. They’re aggressive. I would be surprised if it was a slow, controlled-tempo kind of game.”

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