An emotional weekend for the head coach ended with a dominant 79-52 win over Auburn and got the Lady Vols back on track in the SEC. Go inside with InsideTennessee for game analysis and video coverage.
Tennessee (11-4, 2-1) shot nearly 60 percent for the game and won all four quarters in the Sunday defeat over Auburn (11-5, 1-2).
A very brief press conference by Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy noted the Tigers lack of defense. An emotional one by coach Holly Warlick saluted the team and the support of the former Lady Vols who were on campus for alumni weekend.
“Fun,” Warlick said, a one-word explanation of the game. Warlick fielded the typical post-game questions, but when one was asked about the boost given by the former Lady Vols, her voice started to shake and then the tears fell.
“It was special; I'll be honest with you. It was special,” Warlick said. “When you struggle, you’re around people who are positive. They’re incredible. They’re why we do what we do. They’re why I'm here. They’re why I've had this opportunity. Coach Summitt was there.
“I'm sorry, I'm emotional. I understand it's a privilege and an honor for me to coach this team. I think our kids understand it's privilege to wear that uniform. There was an extreme amount of love and positivity with them. There wasn't, ‘What are you all doing? What aren't you all doing? Why aren't you doing this?’
“They were like, 'Just keep plugging along and plowing away.' So, for them to do that and give us the energy and strength we need as a staff, me personally, and as a team, you can't put a price on it. It spoke volumes to me.”
Diamond DeShields, who had been handling a radio interview, waited behind a curtain for her turn to take the dais. Thus, she heard Warlick’s words.
“I kind of got a little emotional,” DeShields said. “We know how much she wants to win. We understand the value she places on us and the belief she has in us to play our best. We get extremely beat up about it when we know we don't give her our best. We know day in and day out that she gives us her best.
“I feel like she was able to exhale a little bit and see what we were really capable of. That was the first time we won all four quarters all year. That is the first time we held a team to zero transition points. It was a lot of firsts for us.”
Head Coach Emeritus Pat Summitt also was in attendance, and DeShields noted she still had a profound impact on the program.
“There is no way for her presence to be diminished,” DeShields said. “It’s going to last forever even when she’s gone. This is the house that Pat Summitt built. And still having Holly, there are bits and pieces of Pat all around us.
“Her presence is imminent. It’s everywhere. And it’s very uplifting.”
More than two dozen players from multiple eras spent the weekend in Knoxville with Candace Parker, Glory Johnson and Izzy Harrison practicing with the team on Saturday.
“While we were doing some things, they would say some things that we need to work on, how we can help when we are doing stuff in practice,” Bashaara Graves said. “That is always great for the alumni to come back and practice and get their input. It was encouraging. They are always going to be Lady Vols, so they want us to do well and encourage us to do better.”
Graves definitely did better. One game after struggling at the rim, she tallied 18 points on 8-9 shooting and grabbed five boards. The early misses against Florida rattled Graves.
“I hit shots today,” Graves said. “I was not stressed out during the game. That helped a lot during the flow of the game. I think I was just taking good, open shots. I had easy looks, so I just took them.”
Mercedes Russell had a double-double by halftime and finished with 10 points and 13 boards in 26 minutes. Graves got her work done in 24 minutes. Both post players have logged a lot of minutes this season, and the return of Nia Moore will provide needed relief.
Moore, who was sidelined by a rib injury, last played Nov. 23, 2015. She was 2-2 against Auburn for four points in four minutes and added an assist.
“I'm glad she's back,” Warlick said. “If we needed to redshirt her, we were going to redshirt her. But our goal was to just get her back and get her healthy. She's back and running. You count on Nia because she's going to play hard. She's going to run the floor.
“We're going to need Nia down the road and she's going to give us some big minutes.”
Warlick was able to use 11 players against Auburn as only Jasmine Jones remains unavailable under the concussion protocol. Warlick has said she expects Jones to be able to play again, but her overall health will take priority before she retakes the court.
The Lady Vols as a team bounced back in a big way Sunday. After shooting 29.3 percent in Thursday’s loss to Florida, the Lady Vols shot 59.6 percent (34-57) overall with these connection percentages across the four quarters: 50, 68.8, 54.5 and 64.3.
“We knew Auburn was going to throw a bunch of different defenses at us, and we were really prepared for that,” Russell said. “I think, offensively, we moved the ball really well, were looking for each other and getting great shots.”
Auburn beat Kentucky a week ago with its full court zone press that forced 26 Wildcat turnovers and 27 points off of those miscues. The Lady Vols basically handled the full court pressure; most of their 19 turnovers came in the half-court offense. Tennessee got 18 points from Auburn’s 13 turnovers; the Tigers got 13 points from the Lady Vols’ mistakes.
The biggest differences were points in the paint and in transition. Tennessee won those battles, 48-26 and 22-0.
Williams-Flournoy didn’t have much to say at the post-game press conference – the requested player, Tra’Cee Tanner, was not brought to the media – and noted her team didn’t defend Tennessee and beat Kentucky by scoring points.
“It's a very competitive league,” Williams-Flournoy said. “You have to win games on the road and you have to take care of your home court. It's just a very competitive league every night.”
Tennessee took care of its home court behind 26 points, six boards, seven assists, two blocks and two steals by DeShields.
“She's hard to defend,” Williams-Flournoy said. “She’s going to score in a variety of ways.”
DeShields was especially motivated after a desultory performance against Florida. She was 9-14 from the field, including 2-4 from the arc. She connected on midrange shots and drives.
“I have been lax the past few games,” DeShields said. “I know it. The team knows it. Everybody knows it. I'm tired of hearing it. I want to give my best every night.”
The Lady Vols led at the break, 41-26, with a flurry of baskets in the final 90 seconds. Russell connected off an offensive board, Jordan Reynolds got to the rim on an assist from Alexa Middleton, DeShields got a steal and layup and then Middleton grabbed a defensive board and went end to end, hitting the contested layup at the buzzer.
The crowd of 11,539, already excited, let loose with a roar as the players ran to the locker room.
Warlick went over the shot chart at halftime and noted where the attempts were coming from for the Lady Vols.
“Every shot was in the paint in the first quarter except maybe one or two. The same went for the second quarter,” Warlick said. “There is a strong correlation between taking good shots and having a higher percentage chance to make them.
“We moved and cut and got inside the zone. We did a lot of things that we have been talking about. We have been working on our half court zone offense the last couple of days, and I think it carried over to the game.”
Warlick also had the players watch the Florida game tape and critique themselves as individuals and as a team in groups of three. To their credit, the players identified what went wrong and what they did right and delivered an accurate report to the head coach.
“If they play bad, then they say it,” Warlick said. “This team doesn't make a lot of excuses. They were really happy in the locker room because they stayed focused and on task.”
The Lady Vols launched just 11 three-pointers with DeShields connecting twice and Kortney Dunbar finding the net for the third. The long ball, while a part of the Lady Vols’ offense, is not their strong point – and DeShields said the players finally realize it.
“We have accepted that that’s not what we’re good at,” said DeShields, who added that playing through Russell and Graves opens up the floor for everyone.
Auburn’s full court pressure, while so effective against Kentucky, was knifed through by the Lady Vols, who took advantage by getting to the rim. Jaime Nared found Graves cutting to the rim for a 52-38 lead in the third quarter and a timeout by Auburn.
Warlick also was pleased overall with the Lady Vols’ defense. Andraya Carter and DeShields induced a shot clock violation in the third quarter, which was followed by a baseline jumper from Graves for a 50-33 lead.
“Brandy Montgomery is a heck of a player, and Jaime Nared started on her and did a great job,” Warlick said. “If we can hold her under her average, we have done something because she can play and score. Tra'Cee Tanner as well. She is a beast inside. I thought we kept those two in check for the most part.”
Montgomery, who averages 17.7 points per game, tallied 11 against the Lady Vols. Tanner led Auburn with 12 points and 10 boards.
The Lady Vols also won the glass battle, 42-30. The guards helped the posts with six boards by DeShields, five from Te’a Cooper and four each by Carter and Middleton.
The Lady Vols will hit the road again with a Thursday game at Arkansas, followed by a Jan. 18 matchup at Notre Dame.
“I’m hoping we can keep that momentum going and transition it over to Arkansas, then I'll think we will be in business,” DeShields said.
Bashaara Graves, Mercedes Russell
Auburn Coach Terri Williams-Flournoy