The Lady Vols closed 2015 with a 90-56 win over Stetson and will now turn their attention to the start of SEC play in 2016. Go inside with InsideTennessee for analysis and video coverage.
Tennessee (9-3) was able to unleash Diamond DeShields against Stetson (8-5), and the redshirt sophomore responded with 30 points, including scoring the Lady Vols’ first 10 points.
DeShields, who has been easing her way back this season after a painful leg injury, returned to the starting lineup Wednesday and responded with an offensive flurry from layups, midrange jumpers, three-pointers and a spectacular offensive rebound in the second quarter that got the crowd of 10,705 roaring in Thompson-Boling Arena.
“The air is a lot different up there,” DeShields said of the stick-back. “It brings back memories.”
The performance left an impression on Stetson coach Lynn Bria – and an accurate observation.
“I’ve watched a lot of film on them,” Bria said. “From an outsider looking in, this is probably something that the coaching staff has been waiting for her to do. She has the talent. She is one of the best players in the country.
“She could do this to about any team she wants to play, not just to us. She is just that good.”
It was a game the fans needed – Tennessee never trailed and put the game out of reach in the third quarter after leading 41-31 at the break – after a December of two losses and two narrow wins.
The Lady Vols apparently had to travel to the West Coast to find themselves after an erratic start to the 2015-16 season.
“I keep saying I think the Oregon State game was a great turnaround game for us,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “We identified what we thought our weaknesses were. We’ve really worked on them. The players have bought into what we want, what we need. When your players buy into a system or game plan, it’s powerful.”
The question for the Lady Vols was would they sustain it for the next game at home or revert back to bad habits? While some defensive breakdowns and turnovers will have to be addressed, the overall answer was yes, and the effort and execution left the head coach feeling energized going into league play, despite the challenging start of an undefeated Missouri team at home on Monday.
“Missouri is a tough opponent,” Warlick said. “They spread the floor. They have three-point shooters. They penetrate. They’re hard to guard. They’ve got a freshman right now who’s been phenomenal. I like our chances because of how we’re playing and how together we’re playing.”
Such was the upbeat state of the post-game press conference that Warlick joked about the media mostly being in Tampa for the Outback Bowl, and DeShields discussed the Christmas gifts of orange cookware by her mother – she made it a point to point out the color – and a white Mercedes SUV by her brother, Delino DeShields Jr., a standout this past season for the Texas Rangers.
Warlick was able to use all 10 available players – Jasmine Jones (concussion) and Nia Moore (ribs) remain sidelined – and Jaime Nared and Alexa Middleton made use of their minutes with 12 and eight points, respectively.
Middleton was adept at getting the ball inside and had two sweet feeds to Nared and Mercedes Russell. She also drilled two three-pointers.
“I thought Alexa came in and got some good minutes,” Warlick said. “I thought she had some great passes. I think the last person that I know who stepped out of bounds and hit a three was Cindy Brogdon and that was before the three-point line. She got called for stepping out. That’s pretty good range and she made it. That’s even better.
Kortney Dunbar entered the starting lineup, a move Warlick indicated was a reward for her efforts in practice, and added five points and seven boards.
“I preach a lot of ‘if you practice hard, you’re going to get the opportunity,’ ” Warlick said. “I just thought she deserved to start. Last year, she was learning to play defense, and this year she has not been a liability for us. She’s rebounding, and we know what she can do on the three-point shot.”
Te’a Cooper logged the most minutes at 29 and tallied 13 points, seven rebounds, six assists, four steals and six turnovers.
“Take away the turnovers and she was being aggressive … There are some we need to take back, but some were just attacking,” Warlick said. “Te’a likes to attack. What gets her in trouble is when she attacks and gets up in the air and decides not to shoot, so she’s looking around for someone to throw to.”
Warlick wants Cooper to take those midrange shots, rather than limit her game to two options – shoot from the arc or get to the rim.
“She either goes to the basket or she’s going to take a three,” Warlick said. “She’s really, really good at the midrange jumper. She’s just got to trust it and take it.”
A couple of Cooper’s miscues were misreads with Nared, but they hooked up in the fourth quarter on a baseline cut for a 78-46 lead.
“We’re all getting used to playing with each other with all the injuries we’ve had, but I think we’ve done a better job of playing with each other,” Cooper said.
The practice time after the Christmas break and return of some injured players was a needed antidote to the Lady Vols’ offensive struggles, as they have been able to work on more combinations in practice. Tennessee shot 53.0 percent (36-66) for the game and 64.3 percent (9-14) in the fourth quarter.
DeShields’ box score stands out not just for the 30-point total, but the fact she did so in 23 minutes of playing time. She exited at the 7:39 mark of the fourth quarter with the Lady Vols leading 72-46 following Middleton’s pinpoint pass to Russell.
“It’s definitely a huge confidence booster for me,” DeShields said. “Personally, I’ve been pretty up and down this season, I’ll have a great game and then a not so great game. Hopefully, I can carry it on to the rest of the season, not just next game. My teammates will continue to get me the ball and trust me to knock down the shots.”
The Lady Vols got solid play from Andraya Carter – media row pundits noted how much better the team flows on both ends when she is on the court – in her 14 minutes, and the lack of suspense allowed the redshirt junior some time to rest. Jordan Reynolds added three boards, and Meme Jackson had a nifty reverse to get in the box score.
Stetson shot 35 percent (21-60) and turned loose of the ball 20 times, though the Hatters did tally four blocks and seven steals.
“I thought we did a good job in the first half with handling their pressure,” Bria said. “It is hard to simulate how good they are in practice. In the second half, that wore us down a little bit. In the first half, we didn’t want to come down and take a quick shot, but in the second half, we got really rushed and took a lot of quick shots. We gave them a lot of run outs.
“I thought the pressure in the second half really bothered us.”
The Hatters were led by Brianti Saunders, who tallied 15 points. She used her speed to get to the rim and wasn’t rattled by the big stage.
“It was a great atmosphere,” Saunders said. “I knew I had to stay aggressive and stay with our game plan.”
The Lady Vols will have plenty to watch on film, especially one-on-one defense, decision-making and post feeds.
Tennessee shot a dismal 23.8 percent (5-21) from the arc, but at least none of the attempts were forced. Dunbar was 1-6 and should get back on track. DeShields was 2-7, and Cooper was 0-3. None of the long range lofts could be readily identified as a bad shot. DeShields was 11-17 (64.7 percent) overall, while Cooper was 5-10 (50 percent) from the field.
Still, Bashaara Graves was 2-3 for five points – she got two of them by grabbing the defensive board, weaving through Hatters and getting to the rim – while Russell was 5-6 for 11 points. Warlick noted both players need more shot attempts.
Graves had seven boards, while Russell notched eight to help the Lady Vols win the glass battle, 45-30. The Lady Vols had 17 turnovers with nine coming from two players in Cooper and DeShields.
“We’ve got to quit turning over the ball,” Warlick said. “There’s a fine line. We turned the ball over tonight attacking. I’m telling them to push, so I’ve got to live with some of those turnovers. I think we’ve got to be a little more careful with our decisions.”
Nared also reached double digits with 12 points and was especially active around the rim in the fourth quarter.
“The nice thing about this team is that we keep getting better,” Nared said. “So this isn’t the best that we’re going to be, but it’s progress from the beginning of the season. We will get better going into SEC play. It’s way more competitive, and we’ll bring it.”
Coach Holly Warlick
Stetson Coach Lynn Bria, Brianti Saunders