The Lady Vols got back in the winning column with a 70-42 takedown of Alabama and a breakout game from Jaime Nared. Go inside with InsideTennessee for analysis and video coverage.
Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick opened her press conference with a salute to the fans – and a subtle message.
“We had 12,000 people here in the crowd, and they were unbelievable,” Warlick said. “So, if you have any doubt that people are not supporting the Lady Vols, just come to a game. It was incredible. They were into it.”
Alabama Coach Kristy Curry’s first remarks to the media saluted the effort of Tennessee.
“On a day like today you credit Tennessee,” Curry said. "Obviously, they had a tough week last week, and I thought they bounced back with an exclamation point. That speaks of their character and the coaching staff.”
It was a game Tennessee (13-8, 4-4) and its fans needed after two road losses. Alabama (13-9, 2-7), which took Texas A&M to the wire in Tuscaloosa, is still seeking its first win on the road in the SEC play.
The 12,613 fans in attendance – head coach emeritus Pat Summitt was among them – were upbeat throughout the game, especially when the Lady Vols started ablaze in the third quarter thanks to Te’a Cooper’s aggressive offensive play. Tennessee outscored Alabama in the fourth quarter, 19-7, allowing the fans to finally relax at home on the way to a 70-42 win.
Sunday’s win was a breakout game for Jaime Nared, who tallied her first career double-double with 17 points and 10 boards. Nared told Warlick before the game started to get on her if she wasn’t performing. Warlick didn’t need to do so.
“Jaime told me today, ‘Stay on me because I want to play like Jaime Nared,’ ” Nared said. “I didn't have to get on her. She talked to herself or her dad (Greg Nared) talked to her. I thought Jaime was aggressive and did exactly what we wanted and needed Jaime Nared to do."
Nared smothered the glass – she was responsible for Tennessee’s first five offensive rebounds – and took shots under control and squared to the basket.
Curry already admired Nared after watching her effort on film. She was more impressed in person.
“I was telling my husband the other day that I love watching her on film,” Curry said. “She has a nose for the ball.”
Nared was joined in double-digit scoring by Cooper, who tallied 17 points. Cooper committed the cardinal sin of fouling jump shooters early in the game and logged just seven minutes before the break. Cooper opened the third quarter with 12 consecutive points that came from long range and forays to the rim.
“Well I had those two quick fouls and I felt as if those were punishment,” Cooper said. “And once you get back in you have all of this energy, and you have been sitting out and you finally get back in the game, so I was ready for it.”
Mercedes Russell notched 12 points and grabbed 13 boards. The Lady Vols out-rebounded Alabama, 47-26, and allowed just five offensive boards for the Crimson Tide after giving up 20 offensive rebounds against Mississippi State.
“I was concerned about their lack of offensive rebounds against Mississippi State, and I figured they had a chat about that the past couple days,” Curry said.
Bashaara Graves was sidelined with a boot on her left foot after turning her ankle on the last practice play Saturday.
“Bashaara is a lot to step up for so I think we all had to step up,” Russell said. “We miss her presence, but we knew what we all had to do because she was out of the game.”
Warlick said that Graves was held out as a precaution because of some pain and was expected to be available for Thursday’s rematch with Arkansas.
Graves’ absence meant the performance of Nared was even more critical, especially on the glass. That Nared also buried jumpers and a long ball was a bonus.
Nared was poised for a breakout season and then she broke her hand in practice and didn’t play until December. She had been forcing off-balance shots, but on Sunday, Nared was 7-12 from the field and attempted just one shot (a miss) where she didn’t square up.
Nared deflected any praise in the post-game press conference – she talked instead about the team’s effort – so Russell supplied the superlatives.
“I think she brought a lot,” Russell said. “In the first quarter we had five offensive rebounds and she had all of them. So she did a good job on crushing the boards on both ends of the floor.”
The Lady Vols led 34-22 at halftime thanks to 12 points from Nared, nine from Russell six from Kortney Dunbar – the crowd roared when her shots from the arc ripped the nets – and a 23-13 margin on the glass.
The Lady Vols also set the tone on defense with ball pressure from Jordan Reynolds and Andraya Carter. Nared got a steal in the paint that started with Carter’s pressure on the ball and ended with Russell at the rim on an assist by Alexa Middleton for a 10-7 lead with 3:31 left in the first quarter.
The defensive intensity continued after the break with a punctuation mark by Carter and Cooper. Carter’s swatted the ball away from Nikki Hegstetter, sprinted to the back court, controlled the ball and got it ahead to Cooper, who returned it to Carter for the layup and 61-38 lead in the fourth quarter.
It was the third assist of the game for Cooper. Her fourth came on a feed to Nia Moore for a 68-39 lead that was preceded by a three-pointer and jumper from Middleton. When Middleton connected, Cooper celebrated with her.
It was a display of unselfish basketball – the Lady Vols had 22 assists on 27 baskets – and a game that brought smiles to the faces of the Tennessee players.
“We weren’t standing as much on offense,” Nared said. “I think we did that a little bit towards the end of the Mississippi State game so what we are good at is penetrating and kicking and finding open players. We have a lot of smart players on our team, and we did that a lot this game and we needed to do that in order to win games.”
Alabama was led by Meoshonti Knight with 11 points. The Crimson Tide were missing Shaquera Wade, so both teams were down a key player.
“I don’t feel like we played well, we were not aggressive,” Curry said. “Tennessee’s kids really stepped up today. Every day is a new day in this league, it’s how you bounce back and get better. You have to have short term memory in this league.”
It’s been an SEC season in which Alabama can take Texas A&M to the last possession and then lose by double digits to Tennessee three days later.
“On any given night, any team can win,” Knight said. “Who has the most heart will decide the game.”
It also was a physical brawl inside and out with Lady Vol and Crimson Tide players spending a lot of time picking themselves up off the court.
“During the game you just have to adjust to the game and the way it is being called,” Alabama’s Karyla Middlebrook said. “I am going to feel it tomorrow.”
A first-half collision between Diamond DeShields and Hannah Cook left both players in a heap. DeShields grabbed her knee but got up and remained on the floor. Cook was helped to the bench with a shoulder injury but would return.
Tennessee had 21 turnovers, so that stat remains a concern for the staff.
“If we’re attacking the basket, we can be OK with the turnovers because you’re being aggressive,” Warlick said. “I almost caught a pass today … those are not good turnovers. We really have got to continue to get that under control.”
Russell and DeShields combined for 11 of them with two of Russell’s five miscues coming from rarely called three-second violations.
DeShields was 1-10 from the field with six turnovers, one of which occurred when she dribbled the ball off her leg. DeShields dropped her head, and spent the final eight minutes on the bench. DeShields did have five boards and three assists, but the national freshman of the year is a shell of herself physically and mentally. DeShields clearly is not moving well and is misfiring at the rim and from long range.
“She is just pressing,” Warlick said. “I think the way to do it is to get her in practice, put up shots and keep putting her in situations where she can be successful.”
That plan likely includes fewer minutes – she didn’t start and logged 18 minutes total – as DeShields is struggling on defense, too, because of mobility issues. Tennessee needs effective minutes from DeShields and it is apparent the lack of an off-season – DeShields didn’t even practice until November because of an ongoing leg issue – has hindered her play. She also has dealt with ankle and shoulder issues in addition to the leg pain.
Cooper entered the starting lineup in Graves’ absence.
"We have three guards right now playing well, and they are Te'a, Jordan and Andraya,” Warlick said. “They are all three putting up great numbers. It wasn't too difficult (of a decision) that when Bashaara was out, I would play those three.”
The question now is who comes off the bench when Graves returns? Reynolds tallied five assists and five boards. She is the team’s vocal leader and that voice, to be effective, has to come from a starter. Carter remains the heart and soul of the team; she tallied seven points and three steals. Cooper is very effective off the bench – and Warlick never seems to wait long to get her in – and Nared likely cemented a starting spot with her play.
Warlick has made it clear that starters are plucked from effort in practice, and the Lady Vols will have two sessions Tuesday and Wednesday to sort out the lineup for Arkansas.
Count Curry as being among those who were impressed Sunday.
“If Tennessee keeps playing like they did today, they will get a good result,” Curry said.
The Lady Vols get a shot at a revenge match Thursday with Arkansas coming to Knoxville.
“We just have to take all of the energy we had today and carry it to Thursday,” Russell said. “They are going to give us their best shot, and we have to give them the same intensity they give us.”
Coach Holly Warlick
Alabama Coach Kristy Curry, Meoshonti Knight, Karyla Middlebrook