The Lady Vols got back in the win column Thursday with a 58-49 defeat of in-state rival Vanderbilt. Go inside with InsideTennessee for analysis and video coverage.
Tennessee (12-6, 3-2) found enough offense – thanks to Te’a Cooper – and hunkered down on defense to secure the win over Vanderbilt (13-5, 2-3) on the Lady Vols’ “We Back Pat” game at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Cooper led the Lady Vols with 13 points, including connecting on four consecutive shots in the third quarter to push the Lady Vols ahead, 39-30, and delivered her pressure defense with just two fouls in 24 minutes of play.
“Te’a’s defense was outstanding,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “I mean, outstanding.”
Cooper hugged her father on the baseline after the game, and the announced crowd of 11,159 gave Cooper another round of applause before she dashed to the locker room. Actual attendance was a tad lower thanks to ice lingering on the roadways and the threat of more snow on the way, but the fans in the arena enjoyed watching a win.
The Lady Vols made matters a tad dicey before the final buzzer as a 13-point lead, 43-30, in the third quarter dwindled to just three, 52-49, with 1:42 remaining, but Andraya Carter, Diamond DeShields and Bashaara Graves iced the win at the free throw line with six consecutive makes.
DeShields’ tosses came by way of a technical foul against Marqu’es Webb after Cooper swooped in and forced a tie-up. Carter also had forced a tie-up with Webb, a 6-1 post, as the smaller guards battled the Commodores’ most-physical post player with a track record of skirmishes with Lady Vols.
While Carter and Webb clapped hands after their entanglement, Webb took exception to Cooper, who acknowledged she may have sold the contact a tad.
“She had no idea I was coming because I came from the backside,” Cooper said. “You usually swing and try to get the ball so I don’t think that it was intentional; she didn’t mean any harm.”
Cooper was smiling while she spoke. The freshman guard had a reason to be happy. She has struggled with turnovers and missed shots but went 6-12 from the field and 1-1 from the line. After knocking down four shots in a row, she got back on defense and absorbed a big collision with Webb to draw a charge.
“They were huge for us obviously,” DeShields said. “We were struggling at that particular moment in time and for her to be able to step up and hit that many shots back-to-back it was just huge.”
Cooper misfired to start the game but hit a jumper at the buzzer to end the first quarter and seemed to get on track. She went 1-3 in in the first 20 minutes and 5-9 from the field after the break. While the shooting slump chipped away at Cooper’s confidence, she never lost faith in herself.
“It was frustrating, and I think being mentally strong was very important,” Cooper said. “I had great support around me. I didn’t think that was the kind of player I was, so I was just determined to do better.”
If Cooper can maintain a degree of consistency, Tennessee becomes much better with its guard rotation. Cooper will push tempo and handle duties with the ball. That allows Jordan Reynolds and Carter to play off the ball. Reynolds was solid with three points and two assists, while Carter tallied eight points – primarily by cutting to the basket – and added three assists. Alexa Middleton also made use of her minutes with two rebounds and is one of Tennessee’s best passers into the post.
DeShields had nine points at halftime and added just two more in the fourth quarter with the free throws. The redshirt sophomore will welcome the offensive boost from Cooper.
“I’m just happy for her because being in the slump that she was in, I was really proud that she was able to step up,” DeShields said. “It showed that she still is that player and she’s still capable.”
Graves added a pair of sixes in points and rebounds, while Russell had eight points and five boards. Jaime Nared tallied seven points and four rebounds. Russell was in foul trouble in the first 20 minutes – neither foul call appeared to be correct – and Nia Moore provided relief with two points and three boards.
The fans were peeved for most of the game with the foul calls – and the Lady Vols appeared annoyed, as well. But the players struck the right note in the post-game press conference, and Carter noted that officials were human, too.
Warlick emphasized that the Lady Vols needed to make better decisions on defense, especially in the fourth quarter. Both teams were 12-17 from the line with Tennessee whistled 20 times and Vanderbilt, 19. However, the Commodores were fouling on purpose in the final minute and the Lady Vols absorbed a lot of contact at times without benefit of a whistle
“To Tennessee and all of us, it may not look like a foul, but officials call it,” Warlick said. “You've got to live with it. You don't even give the officials the opportunity to get near somebody to call a foul.
“We weren't very disciplined. You've got to be mindful of how they're calling the game down the stretch.”
That was about the only aspect of the game that Warlick wasn’t happy about afterwards. The head coach was especially pleased that Tennessee limited its turnovers to 20, as were the players.
DeShields had a manageable four turnovers, but she still needs to tighten up passes. She also didn’t take a clear lane to the basket in the first half on a break-away and instead threw the ball out of bounds trying to hit Cooper on the other side.
“If you look at the games that we’ve lost we’ve had 20-plus turnovers,” Carter said. “That’s in almost all of our losses but in particular our last three losses. Turnovers have been very troubling for us all across the board with all of our players. It was really a focus in our practices this week; we were running sprints for turnovers in practice.”
Warlick will back off the sprints at times during game preparation, especially with a short turnaround after Monday’s game in South Bend, but the players lined up to run this week.
“Our coaches really had to stress how important it is to take care of the basketball,” Carter said. “Every time you turn it over that’s an opportunity that you’ve missed to put points on the board. It puts pressure on your defense, which in turn puts pressure on your offense, and you get into a cycle.”
It is a cycle Tennessee needed to break. The Lady Vols also didn’t panic when Vandy pulled to within three, a situation that led to home losses against Florida and Texas.
“We matched their intensity throughout the entire game,” DeShields said. “When they went on their runs, we went on ours and in the past it hasn’t been that way. The other teams that we’ve lost to or even beaten; when they go on their runs we kind of deflate.
“Tonight I really believed that we had that fight in us to keep going and we were determined to win the game.”
Warlick opened the press conference with a smile and noted she was happy that Tennessee didn’t set a record with three losses in a row.
“Any win is a great win,” Warlick said. “Especially when we stick to the game plan, and our kids play hard. I didn’t have to coach effort, energy or heart. We aren’t going to play a perfect game; we will make mistakes.
“We played as hard as we could on the defensive end. I am excited about that, and this game correlates our last two practices.”
Vandy, meanwhile, lost the ball 23 times, and Tennessee converted those into 25 points.
“That was really the difference in the game; points off turnovers,” Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. “Everything else was pretty equal.”
Tennessee shot 40.7 percent (22-54) overall and connected on 2-8 (25.0 percent) from the arc. Vanderbilt shot 37 percent (17-46) overall and connected on 3-11 (27.3 percent) from the arc. The Lady Vols had 15 assists with four each by DeShields and Graves, while Vandy had eight helpers. The Commodores prevailed on the glass, 36-29.
Tennessee set the tone in the first quarter with its full court pressure and traps and switched into zone presses.
“That gives us the energy and gets us going,” Warlick said. “We want to turn you over and play fast.”
Vandy, which works the shot clock down to single digits – the Lady Vols induced two shot clock violations – deployed pressure in the fourth quarter to wipe out the double-digit lead. Balcomb also went with a smaller lineup since points were tough to find inside as Russell altered all sorts of shots, and DeShields delivered three blocks.
“One of the things that we decided to do when we weren't getting in the paint, was just to go small and try to get points off of defense, which has been our go-to all season,” Balcomb said. “We are highly ranked defensively, and we've created a lot of energy and been able to make runs from our defense. It loosens up our offense a little bit.”
Rebekah Dahlman led Vandy with 17 points and was 3-5 from the arc. When Vandy pulled within three points late, Tennessee’s defense made sure Dahlman didn’t get a good look from long range. She also was a focal point in the other three quarters.
“They came off pretty aggressively, but in the third quarter our whole team struggled,” Dahlman said. “We had maybe a couple of points in the third quarter (seven). That's what killed us.”
Dahlman, who was recruited by Tennessee, played 36 minutes and attempted nine shots. She was 4-4 from the line.
“It says a lot to her that she was able to get 17 points off of nine shots,” Carter said. “Hats off to her but we did a pretty good job. I think some of the shots she hit were really tough and the fact that she only got nine shots says something about our perimeter defense.”
Cooper provided Tennessee’s firepower from the perimeter, much to Balcomb’s dismay.
“She hit big shots,” Balcomb said. “That's one of the things we need to do a better job of mentally. When we know somebody is hot and they hit two in a row we can't give them three and four. We were there and we contested the shot, but we had talked about not giving her that shot.
“It's a set shot and it takes her a while. We shouldn't have let her get those shots off when she was hot. Just like they were not allowing Bekah to get the shot off, and force her to drive."
The Lady Vols will take the win at home and get ready to go back on the road.
“Vanderbilt is a hard team to play, and hard to beat, so it is a great win,” Warlick said. “Now that gives us a little bit of momentum to go to Kentucky and to go to Mississippi State, and it’s always a dogfight there.
“We are going to have to be solid, and make sure our defense isn’t the fourth quarter defense from tonight. It has to be the first three quarters defense. I like how we feel right now, and this is a tough stretch for us. We have to stay solid.”
Coach Holly Warlick
Coach Melanie Balcomb, Rachel Bell and Rebekah Dahlman