Coach Holly Warlick notched her 100th win as a head coach – it came complete with a player escort to center court and a celebratory cake from Coach Rick Barnes – as the Lady Vols avenged an earlier loss to Arkansas with a 75-57 win.
Tennessee (14-8, 5-4) got a double-double from Mercedes Russell and evened the score against Arkansas (9-14, 4-6).
The Lady Vols also got a controlled game from Diamond DeShields, whose father, Delino DeShields, came to Knoxville before spring practice started – he is manager of the Louisville Bats, a minor league affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds – to talk with his daughter.
“He basically gave me a piece of reality,” DeShields said. “He said that right now I have to kind of play an old man's game. He said, 'I know your body is not feeling great, but you've got to understand that you can't go very fast right now, as fast as you'd like.'
“That's a lot of the reason I felt like I was turning the ball over, and having problems over the last couple of games. I was trying to go too fast. Tonight, I really took my time and found my spots. I was really able to slow myself down and in turn make good plays for everyone around me.”
DeShields was 5-10 from the field for 15 points and added seven boards, two assists, two blocks, two steals and zero turnovers – though she saluted her teammates for bailing on her on a couple of loose passes.
Russell tallied 15 points and 11 boards, while Te’a Cooper also reached double figures with 13 points, and Andraya Carter added 10. Jordan Reynolds nearly joined them with eight points and added six assists.
“I am just excited for our kids,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “I want to first thank (Athletics Director) Dave Hart for taking a chance on me. He hired an assistant coach in a big time women’s basketball program and he has done nothing but support me. I want to really say thank you to him. I understand how you get your wins, it is from your coaches down to everybody and the players.
“It is a great honor and I appreciate it, but it boils down to surrounding yourself with great people. If I learned anything from Coach (Pat) Summitt I did learn that. I’m excited we got the win tonight.”
Hart was in the locker room – and had earlier asked Barnes to be present and roll in the cake – after Thursday’s win. Warlick asked Barnes to help blow out the candles – she noted the Vols’ big win over Kentucky on Tuesday as another reason to celebrate – and when it was apparent they were trick candles that re-lit, Warlick put them out by hand.
Warlick apologized at the post-game press conference in case she still had cake and icing on her neck because Carter, a redshirt junior, decided to celebrate a tad boisterously.
Carter and Reynolds – “two that do not have a lot of sense,” Warlick joked – with an assist from Alexa Middleton carried Warlick to center court, where she was presented with roses.
“It wasn’t planned,” Cooper said. “I found out that this could be her 100th win before the game. I think everyone found out after the game. We all just ran over to her and celebrated. She deserves it.”
Arkansas Coach Jimmy Dykes offered some unsolicited remarks in his post-game press conference about the criticism that Warlick has faced this season, a reaction he lambasted.
“She can flat out coach; Tennessee’s program is in great shape, that’s how I feel about her,” Dykes said. “She is as good as a coach as anybody in this league. Tennessee is lucky to have her.”
Arkansas had won the first matchup, 64-59, in Little Rock after the Lady Vols struggled after halftime. The third quarter got a little too close for the comfort of the 9,414 fans in attendance after a 41-27 halftime lead dwindled to 51-46, but a jumper by Reynolds, free throw from Russell and jumper by DeShields gave the Lady Vols a 10-point lead, 56-46, to end the third quarter.
“Tennessee is good,” Dykes said. “They’re five and four and we’re hoping to tie them in the conference standings. We’re hoping Arkansas walks out of here five and five and they’re five and five. That would be one heck of deal for the Razorbacks considering it’s February and we’re tied with Tennessee in the standings, but it didn’t happen for us tonight.”
The SEC has been utterly unpredictable this season – South Carolina remains undefeated, though not unchallenged – a situation Arkansas guard Devin Cosper noted made it a fun league. Cosper notched 17 points for the Razorbacks, just one below the 18 points tallied by Jessica Jackson.
The Lady Vols won every quarter expect the third – Arkansas prevailed 19-15 – but attacked the zone after getting shot happy from the arc and went 17-26 from the free throw line.
“We ended up shooting nine free throws and they shot twenty-six; you can’t guard a free throw shooter,” Dykes said. “That was a big part of it because they got seventeen points off of free throws.”
The Lady Vols also dominated in points off turnovers with 21 to Arkansas’ eight. Tennessee tallied just 12 turnovers while compiling 20 assists on 25 made baskets. Cooper accounted for four of Tennessee’s eight steals.
Cooper opened the game with two made threes. Carter also connected on two before halftime. Those were shots that didn’t fall at Arkansas.
“They’re much better at attacking the zone than they were a few weeks ago,” Dykes said.
The Lady Vols misfired from the arc to end the second quarter and into the third quarter – Cooper noted she launched without getting her feet set properly – but Middleton drained a pair in the fourth quarter to stake to a 64-50 lead with 3:39 left in the game and end any suspense about Warlick’s career win No. 100.
“We were all just so happy for her,” Russell said. “I mean, 100 wins in four years, that's a great accomplishment for her. We were just proud that we were a part of that. I think it was just a lot of emotions for everyone.”
Tennessee shot 44.6 percent (25-56) overall and 38.1 percent (8-21) from the arc.
“I am fine with us shooting threes because we have kids that can make them, but it’s time and possession and when you shoot three, four or five threes in a row and you don’t hit them, then you have to have the basketball sense to not shoot threes anymore,” Warlick said. “Let’s shot fake and get the ball closer to the basket or in the paint.”
The Lady Vols nipped Arkansas on the boards, 40-34, and allowed the Razorbacks just eight second-chance points. Jaime Nared collected eight boards, while Cooper grabbed five.
The Lady Vols survived the dip in the third quarter and ratcheted up the defense in the fourth quarter.
“We started playing defense, and we starting coming down on fast breaks and getting easy points,” Warlick said. “It all boils down to if you can get stops and you can push the ball, you have a great chance of getting easy buckets. It starts with our defense.
“They were quick. That is a very quick basketball team. And when you have big kid like Jackson that can screen and pick-and-pop, it’s a hard thing to guard.”
The contributions of DeShields were welcome after a rough January for the redshirt sophomore. DeShields is dealing with a painful leg condition that will require off-season rest. In the meantime, Warlick and assistant coach Dean Lockwood pointed out what she could do now in a lengthy office visit.
“All I asked her to do was to go out and play hard; just play to the best of your ability,” Warlick said. “Bring the passion and the energy that I know you have. I’m not surprised the way she played because she set the tone totally in practice.
“When you practice hard it carries over to the games. I think you saw the result of Diamond committing to practicing hard, and that’s the Diamond DeShields that we need to see all the time.”
The Lady Vols go back on the road with back-to-back games at Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. First up is the Aggies in the College Station on Sunday.
“It's a very important game for us,” Russell said. “I know their guards are very talented and they have some size inside. We’re really going to have to control the paint, and just keep the high energy that we have been having the past few games and hopefully we can get a great win.”
Bashaara Graves warmed up before the game, but Warlick opted for some additional rest for the senior post after she tweaked her ankle last Saturday in practice.
“She could have played,” Warlick said. “I wanted to hold her out because I think that we are going to need her in games we have down the road. I had her on injured reserve, and I was going to play her if we needed her. She wanted to play, but I didn’t want to take any chances.”
Arkansas Coach Jimmy Dykes, Devin Cosper and Jessica Jackson