The Lady Vols fell short in a comeback over Kentucky and left Lexington with a 64-63 defeat. Go inside with InsideTennessee for game analysis.
Tennessee (12-7, 3-3) dropped a key road game against Kentucky (14-3, 4-3) with a familiar script – strong start, too many turnovers and a tepid third quarter.
“We lost that quarter,” freshman guard Te’a Cooper said. “We have to get on the same page.”
Cooper started the third quarter after playing an effective first half, but the Lady Vols stopped moving without the ball, and the offense that had flowed efficiently in the first 20 minutes ground to a halt.
Tennessee was able to overcome 12 turnovers in the first half – to just three for Kentucky – by shooting 54 percent (13-24) overall with eight assists before the break. Kentucky connected at just 30 percent (12-40) overall thanks to stiff defense from the Lady Vols.
The Lady Vols also connected on three three-pointers on five attempts with one each from Cooper, Diamond DeShields and Jordan Reynolds before heading to the locker room for halftime.
But Makayla Epps got loose in the third quarter and led the Wildcats to a 49-44 lead at the end of the third quarter. Tennessee got the turnovers under control with just three – though two unforced ones to start the third quarter – but the offense went cold, and Kentucky seized the opening.
“The third quarter was the kiss of death for us,” Coach Holly Warlick said.
The Lady Vols trailed by 10 points, 57-47 midway through the fourth quarter, but pulled within two points in the final minute behind the offense of Cooper, DeShields, Russell and Bashaara Graves.
The Lady Vols used full court pressure to wipe out Kentucky’s lead but came up short after Andraya Carter and Cooper missed free throws that would have tied the game. Carter rebounded Cooper’s second missed throw but couldn’t hit the layup; Graves got the offensive board but got blocked.
The ball went out of bounds and was awarded to Kentucky – without benefit of a review, which falls in the voluntary review category, meaning it’s not mandatory for the officials to review it in at the end of a game, as opposed to whether or not a shot went in or a shot clock violation occurred. However, in a tightly contested game with a scramble for the ball, the play should have been reviewed by the officials.
Tennessee fouled immediately before the ball was even in-bounded and still had a chance with 4.5 seconds left and trailing by just one, 64-63, after Kentucky made one free throw. But Cooper didn’t release a shot before the buzzer sounded.
During the comeback in the fourth quarter, DeShields twice tried to make a tight interior pass rather than taking the shot. That is a shot the redshirt sophomore has to take for Tennessee.
“She had good looks,” Warlick said. “She felt the need to pass. I am not going to fault her for that. It is what it is.”
Warlick wasn’t going to criticize DeShields on the post-game radio show, but she has told DeShields to take shots rather than over-pass. DeShields, who doesn’t shield any of her emotions, looked visibly upset after the late turnovers.
But thanks to the full court defense – which needed to arrive in the third quarter – the Lady Vols still had a chance to tie the game in the final minute.
“I love to press,” Cooper said. “We get a sense of urgency.”
Carter got to the line after a steal and foul, and Cooper was fouled on a baseline drive. Both players hit all net on the first free throw. Carter’s second went in and out, while Cooper’s second bounced off the rim.
“I am thinking about the whole game,” Cooper said on the post-game radio show, not just the missed free throw.
Cooper tallied 18 points for Tennessee with Russell tallying a double-double with 12 points and 10 boards and DeShields adding 13 points.
Tennessee won the glass battle, 41-38, thanks to 12 boards from Graves, who also added five points and two assists.
Kentucky was led by Epps, who finished with 23 points and Janee Thompson, who added 15 points.
The Lady Vols shot 41.8 percent (23-55) for the game and were doomed by the third quarter. Tennessee can play tantalizingly well for one quarter and get out of sync in the next one, a perplexing issue that has bedeviled the team all season.
The turnovers would reach 21 – to just 10 for Kentucky – and the Wildcats converted them to 18 points. Tennessee negated most of the impact by getting 10 points off of the Wildcats’ miscues, but if the Lady Vols could get the turnovers under control, they would build double-digit leads instead of have to overcome deficits.
The emergence of Cooper is a big plus for Tennessee – though she dribbled repeatedly in the third quarter when the Lady Vols needed to run their offense again. However, Cooper can figure that out, and her defense has been stout. Her offense also has arrived.
“I got out of my own head,” Cooper said. “I am being myself out there. I think I’ve got it now.”
There is still time, but February is around the corner, and the month of January still has a road trip to Mississippi State on Thursday.
“We’ve got to stop being relaxed,” Cooper said. “It starts in practice.”
Warlick was proud of her team for its fight throughout the game, but noted the weak starts to the third quarter and abundance of turnovers have to be corrected.
“We competed, Warlick said. “We just didn’t finish the deal.”
Te'a Cooper and Mercedes Russell