The Lady Vols stymied, yet again, a vaunted three-point shooting team and started SEC play with a 71-55 win over Missouri on Monday. Go inside with InsideTennessee for game analysis.
Tennessee (10-3, 1-0) ended the perfect start of Missouri (13-1, 0-1) with stout defense and balanced offense to claim the SEC opener on the road at Mizzou Arena.
It marked the third time the Lady Vols had halted a three-point shooting team in its tracks this season. The first two were Stanford and Oregon State, also on the road, making the feat even more impressive since teams, especially shooters, are more comfortable on their home court.
Missouri shot 2-21 (9.5 percent) from the arc, and the Lady Vols held the Tigers’ leading scorer, Sophia Cunningham, to eight points. Cunningham entered the game averaging 15.7 points and had connected on 22-45 (48.9 percent) from long range. She was 0-3 behind the arc against Tennessee.
“We put in a game plan, and they stuck to it,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “Our goal was to not let them get comfortable in their offense.”
Mission accomplished. A crowd of 7,989 in Columbia, Missouri, was poised to see the Tigers stake a win in the SEC opener after the 13-0 start.
But the Lady Vols set the tone from the beginning with full court pressure that forced Missouri to work with a shorter shot clock as they needed nearly 10 seconds to get past half court. Tennessee dropped back in its half-court defense, and the guards swarmed the ball and stayed with the shooters. The Tigers had to get in hurry-up mode and it affected their offensive execution.
“Our guards did a great job of speeding them up,” Mercedes Russell said.
Warlick and her staff adjusted the defense by having the guards not help inside when the ball went to the paint, a deviation from Tennessee’s usual style of play. Instead, the Lady Vols stayed with the shooters, a situation that sometimes forced Bashaara Graves and Mercedes Russell to guard on the perimeter, and they held their own.
“Everyone on our team knows defense is key,” Russell said. “And when you’re playing good on defense, the offense comes easier.”
The Lady Vols took Missouri out of its offense for the game’s first 15 minutes and staked a 13-point lead, 30-17, with 5:06 before halftime. But a turnover and a defensive breakdown – Graves had gone to the bench with two fouls – allowed the Tigers to make a run, and Missouri trailed by just seven points at the break, 33-26.
DeShields started 1-9 from the field – though she had a sweet feed inside to Andraya Carter – while Jaime Nared led the Lady Vols with eight points, followed by Russell with seven and Carter with six, including a three-pointer, at halftime. The Lady Vols were just 12-21 from the line (57.1 percent), a big factor in Mizzou’s first-half surge.
However, the Tigers went 1-10 from the line before halftime. The tough defense allowed Tennessee to claim and then keep its lead, despite the sloppy end to the second quarter. A multi-guard lineup got shot happy, though the defense remained solid, minus losing a Tiger sharpshooter in transition for the lone made three by Missouri in the first 20 minutes.
Tennessee opened the third quarter with a designed play for DeShields, and she got to the rim for a 35-26 lead.
“They ran it to perfection,” said Warlick, who noted the play was set up to send the message that the Lady Vols would attack in the second half.
“For the most part, we were very disciplined in what we needed to do offensively,” Warlick said.
The Lady Vols were led by Nared with 13 points. Russell and DeShields added 11 points each, while Graves notched 10 points and Carter tallied nine.
Russell was effective on both ends and showed some strong moves to the basket. She and Graves knew the extra defenders were coming with Graves tallying four of Tennessee’s eight assists.
“We started inside-out early and it helped us out a lot,” Russell said. “We were expecting double and triple teams. We worked on it in practice.”
Carter connected on a pair of threes in the game and once again steadied the team on both ends. Carter was ill Monday and threw up at halftime. She got some rest on the bench, but the team takes a noticeable dip when the redshirt junior is not on the court.
“She leads this basketball team,” Warlick said. “She is a heck of a point guard, and I trust her. We rely on her so much.”
Warlick also trusted her bench as she went 10 deep. Alexa Middleton had some nifty moves to the basket and added seven points. Jordan Reynolds tallied five points with Kortney Dunbar connecting on a long three and Te’a Cooper getting two points on a hard drive to the basket.
Middleton also was one-half of a double technical after exchanging some words with Missouri’s Juanita Robinson. Warlick likely didn’t mind the show of spunk from the sophomore.
“We were in their space, and we kind of wore them down,” Warlick said. “We affected what they wanted to do offensively.”
The head coach was referring to the three-point defense and seeing some snarl from her team was a welcome sight after some tepid defense in earlier games.
Missouri was led by Jordan Frericks with 11 points, Sierra Michaelis with 10 and Cunningham with eight. The Tigers shot 33 percent (21-64) overall, though they did tally 36 points in the paint to 26 for the Lady Vols.
The Lady Vols shot 41 percent (22-54) overall and 33 percent (5-15) from the arc. They cleaned up the free throw shooting and finished at 68.8 percent (22-32), after going 10-11 in the second half. Tennessee prevailed on the glass, 43-40, with DeShields grabbing nine boards; Graves, eight; Russell, seven; and Reynolds, five.
Tennessee also beat its fifth undefeated team this season and held its 10th opponent in 13 games to under 60 points.
“They’ve bought in,” Warlick said. Unbelievable crowd. Place was packed. Incredibly proud of our kids. They were mentally tough.”
Lady Vol players