Perhaps leaving Knoxville will be a good thing for the Lady Vols after back-to-back losses on Sundays. Tennessee fell for the second this season, dropping a 57-43 matchup with Virginia Tech. Go inside for game analysis and video coverage.
Tennessee (6-2) got off to a good start on both ends, faltered in the third quarter and fell apart in the fourth to Virginia Tech (7-1).
The Hokies tallied 21 points in the fourth quarter to six for Tennessee, a situation exacerbated by foul trouble and Diamond DeShields going scoreless after halftime.
The Lady Vols led at halftime, 25-22, despite going 1-9 from the arc, thanks to 15 points from DeShields and eight from Mercedes Russell.
Russell would finish with 14 points and 15 boards, but DeShields went 0-7 after the break. Bashaara Graves added a pair of sevens in boards and points, but Te’a Cooper (1-7), Jordan Reynolds (0-5), Meme Jackson (0-4) and Andraya Carter (1-4) could not connect from the field.
Five players were sidelined: Alexa Middleton (bruised foot, issue all season, not getting better, needs rest); Kortney Dunbar (severe ankle sprain); Nia Moore (ribs); Jasmine Jones (head injury protocol); and Jaime Nared (broken hand).
To make matters worse, DeShields got hit in the face in the third quarter and blinked her eyes, as if adjusting her vision, throughout the game. She shot two very errant three balls in the fourth quarter.
Add the sidelined players to the mounting foul calls, and the result was a ragged and choppy game, which was well-suited for Virginia Tech.
Tennessee had 21 fouls called to 12 for the Hokies. The Lady Vols were 8-10 from the line, while Virginia Tech was 10-20. Four Tennessee players ended the game with four fouls, while Carter fouled out. Cooper was whistled four times in 21 minutes of play. Russell had zero fouls in 37 minutes.
“You always have to be a little more cautious when you are in foul trouble,” said DeShields, who ended the game with four. “We had a limited roster. We didn’t have any space to be relaxed. There was nobody coming in.
“We had to continue to be aggressive. We just had to get in a better stance and stay there and try to do the best we could to not pick up any more early fouls.”
Still, Tennessee is expected to prevail on its home court. The second home loss of the season – Tennessee defended its home court all of last season with three seniors on the roster – had the 9,431 fans in attendance agitated in the fourth quarter as shot after shot missed its mark, whether at the rim or from the arc.
“We weren’t very good,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “We are not a very good basketball team right now. We just have to get better.”
The Lady Vols started with effort and energy and took a 13-4 lead on a three-pointer by DeShields in the first quarter. In the last game against ETSU, Warlick had to go silent to get the team’s attention after a lackluster start. On Sunday, the issues arrived after the break.
“It's definitely disappointing,” Carter said. “Any loss is disappointing. We just have to be consistent. Even in the game on Wednesday, our energy was up, but it was in the second half. It wasn’t in the first half. We have to be able to put together an entire game, and then we have to be able to put a string of games together.
“That’s what the great teams do. We’re just not there yet. It is disappointing. We’re underachieving right now, but we just have to pull together and get better from here.”
When the Lady Vols get in sync offensively, they can light up a scoreboard. When they stop moving and cutting and instead play one-on-one or in a scramble, Sunday’s game is the result.
“We’ve seen glimpses of us being on the same page, and it’s a beautiful thing when it happens,” DeShields said. “Right now, a lot of people are hesitant. We are still trying to figure out shot selection – what’s a good shot and what’s not a good shot.
“In the second half, we missed a lot of shots, but we also took a lot of bad shots. Guards have to be smart on both ends of the floor.”
As DeShields spoke, Carter nodded. The redshirt junior is a demon on the defensive end of the floor. Virginia Tech’s Vanessa Panousis tallied 21 points – and just two when Carter was on her. When Carter went to the bench with her fourth foul at the end of the third quarter, the Lady Vols had a 37-36 lead. Cooper checked in, lost Panousis in five seconds, and she drained a three for a 39-37 Virginia Tech lead.
That was followed by a layup by Graves and a pinpoint pass from Reynolds to Russell in transition for a 41-39 Tennessee lead. A missed three-pointer by DeShields was followed by a made three by Hannah Young to give the Hokies a 42-41 lead. Virginia Tech never trailed again.
In defense of DeShields, she has to be a volume shooter (6-18 in this game), because of the hesitation of others to shoot. However, after two consecutive baskets inside, the ball needs to keep finding the paint – or at least go through the posts and then come back to the perimeter.
Carter has to become an offensive contributor by drive and dish – not stop and turn – drive and score and launching a few shots from the perimeter.
Cooper has to get in the flow of the offense – she is sometimes trying too hard to score. Jackson needs to let the game come to her and focus on her strengths – tough defense and board play. Jackson was 0-3 from the arc; she needs to diversify her offense and get to the paint.
Tennessee had 10 assists on 17 baskets, so the Lady Vols are willing to play together, but the shooting percentage (30.9 percent) was wretched. That is often a reflection of shot selection.
“We are not living, we are dying by the three-point shot,” Warlick said. “We went 1-for-19. Come on, use your basketball sense. Get a two-point shot.”
To make matters worse, the defense sputtered in the fourth quarter, as the missed shots took a toll on that end – which is a cardinal sin to the basketball gods.
“I think it does, but I don’t think it should,” Carter said when asked if missed shots deflate a team on defense. “Missing shots should be something that we know we can't control. My high school coach (told me) there were controllable factors, and I think that’s what we need to hang our hat on – things like defense, hustle, rebounding – even when our shots aren’t going in.
“Diamond has a great form. She can shoot a wide open shot, and it just might not fall. That might be how the night’s going. I know a lot of us are in the gym extra, and our shots are just not falling right now. That’s something that you can’t control. You can put in the work, and you can shoot your shot. It’s going to fall sometimes, sometimes it’s not.
“We can’t let the uncontrollable factors affect the things that we can control. When we miss a shot, we have to go down and just get in our stance. We have to hustle. We have to play hard.”
A two-point lead in the fourth quarter became a seven-point deficit within seven minutes because of missed shots and defensive lapses, though Virginia Tech also hit a couple of tough shots – which is what happens when an underdog team realizes it can win the game. Tennessee, on the other hand, got uptight on offense.
“When you’re in the position that they are in we got a little separation,” Virginia Tech coach Dennis Wolff said. “The basket becomes a little smaller, and they got a little tighter and I think that played to our advantage.”
Virginia Tech also took a page out of Tennessee’s playbook. The Hokies didn’t shoot well but stiffened their defense.
“We already said at the beginning of the game that we needed to get stops to win the game; we made that a really big point,” Panousis said. “Obviously in the first half when we weren’t making a lot of shots we still had an emphasis on defense.”
DeShields was a significant focus of the defense after halftime, as she seemed on the way to a 30-point game.
“I thought we did a very good job of trading off of cutters in their zone,” Wolff said. “They were trying to find different ways to get her the ball on the baseline and the middle of the zone, and they weren’t able to, which was really to our advantage.”
The road trip may be well-timed. Exams end later this week, and the focus will be on basketball. Also, the players and coaches will be together for extended periods of time. The next three games are at Wichita State, Stanford and Oregon State.
“Now we go on the road, which will help us get more focused,” Warlick said. “I’m not giving up on this basketball team, but we need to get a lot more disciplined, and maybe going on the road will help with that.”
Warlick had noted in the off-season that leadership among the players was a primary concern going into this season. That certainly has borne out so far, as the upperclassmen don’t have forceful personalities, and the youngsters are callow. But it’s also something that can evolve going forward. Warlick also knows she ultimately is responsible for what happens on the team.
“We have to get some kind of discipline in our game and in our heads,” Warlick said. “It is my job to figure it out.”
DeShields is blessed with a player’s ability to forget a bad game and anticipate a good one.
“When we can get on the same page consistently, the sky’s the limit for us, but we’re not there yet,” DeShields said. “We’re just going to continue to make progress. This game’s over with. It doesn’t have anything to do with the ultimate goal, and that’s how we see it.”
Coach Holly Warlick
Virginia Tech Coach Dennis Wolff, Regan Magarity and Vanessa Panousis