Holly Warlick sat down, and the Lady Vols stood up with an 85-49 win over East Tennessee State University. Go inside for game analysis and video coverage.
Midway through the second quarter, Holly Warlick had seen enough. Her jacket had been tossed over the bench with record distance. Warlick could clearly be heard across Thompson-Boling Arena, partly because she was so loud and also because the floor had been nearly emptied and the band was silent while ETSU’s Mendy McNeese was helped to the bench with what turned out to be a broken ankle.
As Warlick’s voice echoed among the 9,328 in attendance Wednesday, her ire was apparent. When McNeese was up and nearly to the ETSU bench, the band started playing, and Warlick’s words were no longer audible.
“I was just glad I didn't have a mic on me,” Warlick said. “I will say this. I am not going to coach effort. I’m not going to do it. I am here to teach and make them better as basketball players and young women.”
Tennessee (6-1) went on to play its best 20 minutes of basket in the third and fourth quarters. ETSU (3-5), which had gamely trailed just 33-24 at halftime – and briefly led 19-18 in the second quarter – was swarmed by the Lady Vols’ press and offensive eruption of Diamond DeShields and Te’a Cooper.
Pat Summitt had done something similar in a post-Christmas practice after a loss. She never said a word at a nearly three-hour practice and instead observed the players and took notes. It rattled the team – and had its intended effect. Warlick’s gambit came during a game.
"If mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy," DeShields said.
“I think this is the first time I've ever really seen her like that,” said Mercedes Russell, who notched13 points and 10 boards. “I think it was just how we were playing that made her so mad. We were pretty stagnant on defense, and then we picked it up. But yeah, I’ve never really seen her like that before.”
Tennessee shot 57.9 percent in the third quarter and 62.5 percent in the fourth, both by making threes and getting to the rim via drives and post feeds.
DeShields set the tone to open the third quarter with a steal and behind-the-back pass to Andraya Carter for a layup and 35-24 lead. Within four minutes, Tennessee led by 20 points, 47-27, after Russell scored on a post feed from DeShields.
DeShields, who is still getting in game shape and back to form after an 18-month layoff and leg injury, filled the box score with 31 points on 12-20 shooting, including 3-6 from long range, eight rebounds, five assists and seven steals. Warlick’s words resonated with the redshirt sophomore.
“She always is like, ‘This team is so talented. We’re so talented. We’re this, we’re that. I don't know what it’s going to take. What’s it going to take?’ ” DeShields said. “I think that’s what it took. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“Seeing her get that upset really changed us, especially in the second half. She said it was like night and day. We all felt that way, too. We’re sorry it had to go that far, but maybe that’s what it took.”
ETSU Coach Brittney Ezell, who played at Alabama and knows the SEC well, said an opposing coach can get caught up fixating on DeShields.
“She’s been a game-changer since she was probably a 10th grader in high school,” Ezell said. “You have to catch yourself as an opposing coach not being involved in what she can do and trying to find ways that would bother her, but she seems unbothered.
“The better she gets, the more healthy she becomes, the Lady Vols will be much, much more difficult down the stretch. When they get back full strength, they will be fun to watch. It will be an honor to say we shared the floor with them.”
Warlick was watching DeShields – and the rest of the team. Warlick hung back during timeouts and somehow maintained her silence, something she said wasn’t easy to do. By the fourth quarter, she was hovering closer to the bench during stoppages, but let Kyra Elzy, Jolette Law and Dean Lockwood address the team.
Warlick did speak to the team after the game and reiterated that she would not coach effort – a familiar Summitt refrain. She told the players that they had taken off most games this season, and the fans and program deserved better.
It was a risky move, but it worked – at least on Wednesday.
“It's not risky for me,” Warlick said. “We are going to play hard. That is the foundation that this program has been built on. Playing hard and playing relentless. That is the only way I know. That is the only way I played it, I have coached it.
“Like I said, it was hard for me to sit there, and I’m sure a lot of people won’t understand it. But, I was trying to get my point across.”
A truer test will come Sunday against Virginia Tech and the subsequent road games starting with Wichita State. However, she sent a message about the Lady Vol Way, and it got delivered.
“I don't know if I want to take credit for it, but something bothered them,” Warlick said. “I think they got my message."
The game opened in sluggish fashion with shots not falling, although most of them were good to decent looks. The defense was energetic, and the Buccaneers had 21 turnovers in the game’s first 20 minutes. But the performance was uneven – the Lady Vols shot 38.5 percent overall and were 0-7 from the arc before the break – and the fans were restless. Warlick, meanwhile, was livid.
“Our fans deserves more. Our former Lady Vols deserve more,” Warlick said. “We have to play like the house is on fire.”
While the opponent must be taken under consideration, and the Buccaneers, like Tennessee, are dealing with injury issues, including the absence of the starting point guard, the Lady Vols flipped a switch over the final 20 minutes.
Tennessee was able to use all eight available players, and nobody exceeded 27 minutes. The four who remain sidelined are: Jaime Nared (hand); Nia Moore (sore ribs); Kortney Dunbar (ankle, though she shed her boot); and Jasmine Jones, who was upbeat and smiling, a marked contrast to last season after she took a blow to the head.
“She's way ahead of where she was,” Warlick said. “The doctors have been very reassuring, and our medical staff is not going to put her out there where she’s going to jeopardize her long-term health. They assured me that she’s good, and I think Jasmine and her mom are cautious and don’t want to jump back in. I told her she could take all of the time she needs.”
The Lady Vols shot 48.6 percent overall (36-74) with 21 assists on 36 made baskets. After missing on every three attempt for the first 30 minutes, Tennessee splashed in 6-9 in the fourth quarter. The Lady Vols forced 22 steals, as the Buccaneers tossed the ball away, committed 10-second violations and were stripped clean in the open floor.
Tennessee tallied 44 points off turnovers, won the board battle, 37-26, and kept turnovers to a manageable 16 with just six after halftime.
“They’ve got a tremendous amount of size at the guard position and athleticism,” Ezell said.
One bright spot for ETSU was the play of Shamauria Bridges, who was nursing an ankle injury and also sick to her stomach. Bridges, who is from Miramar, Florida, tallied 21 points and sank some threes from the vicinity of Johnson City. Ezell said the junior guard’s range is about 27 feet.
“If you ask her, her range starts when the doors open,” Ezell said.
Bridges could not make the media appearance because she was ill, but she asked for her screeners to be credited.
Sadasia Tipps, a 6-1 freshman from Hickory, N.C., managed to get to the line 10 times and sank eight. She also grabbed five boards.
“We already knew they were big, so we practiced head fakes,” Tipps said. “You just have to go out and play hard. You have to do it for your team. I wasn’t intimidated by size, because you’re doing it for your team, you want to win for the team.”
Tennessee, meanwhile, may have found its identity. The Lady Vols have lacked discipline at times, as evidenced by turnovers and shot selection. Warlick channeled her inner Summitt – the iconic coach also could go relatively silent for stretches and tell the team to figure it out, though not for half of a game – and somehow maintained it for two full quarters.
“We felt like we disappointed her and we just wanted to get out there and show her that we’re capable of doing what she wanted us to do,” Cooper said.
Cooper, who tallied 23 points and connected on 9-18 shots, including 3-5 from the arc, had an even better stat entry on one column of the box score – just one foul, and it came with a little over two minutes left to play.
With Cooper and DeShields draining shots, the inside finally opened for Russell.
“I love it because they’ve been triple-teaming, double-teaming me lately,” Russell said. “When the guards hit shots, they've got to go out and guard them, so that relieves a lot of pressure from me on the inside.”
Bashaara Graves also had some room to maneuver and added eight points and seven rebounds. Graves tallied two steals and played a free safety-type position in the press. DeShields handled the top of the press and swarmed ETSU’s ball-handlers, along with Carter, Cooper, Alexa Middleton, Jordan Reynolds and Meme Jackson.
It ended up being a feel-good game for the players and staff.
“I thought in the third and fourth quarter, it was a totally different team,” Warlick said. “It was the Tennessee team that I want to see, you all want to see, people in the stands want to see across the country.
“That is what we have to be all the time.”
Coach Holly Warlick
ETSU Coach Brittney Ezell and Sadasia Tipps