The Lady Vols’ goal is to win out the regular season. They took the first step with Thursday’s 57-51 defeat of Ole Miss thanks to a workhorse performance by Bashaara Graves and a timely three-pointer from Kortney Dunbar. Go inside for analysis and video coverage.
Tennessee (16-10, 7-6) closed out a tight game with Ole Miss (10-16, 2-11) and did so despite losing Mercedes Russell just 64 seconds into the game with a right ankle injury.
“It’s hard because Mercedes is 6-6 and she clogs up the paint entirely,” Tennessee forward Jaime Nared said. “When they dribble drive they don’t get easy layups or shots in the paint when she’s in the game. We had to adjust when she came out and it took a little bit for us to finally adjust because it’s so nice having her in there.”
Nia Moore provided valuable minutes and added a pair of fours in points and rebounds.
“Nia just goes about her business and it’s solid,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “So, I’m really excited for them to get the opportunity to contribute, and contribute in a big way.”
It was the three-pointer of Kortney Dunbar that foiled any chance of Ole Miss stealing a win on the road. She drained a three, assisted by Diamond DeShields to put Tennessee up, 55-51, after the Rebels had taken a 51-50 lead with 2:39 left. DeShields had told Dunbar to be ready because the ball was coming to her.
“When I saw it leave my hand I just knew it was good,” Dunbar said.
Graves emitted a scream of excitement as she headed down court.
“We all knew that she could hit that shot on any day and any time from even farther than she was,” Graves said. “We knew that was money all day. When she hit it, it was definitely needed; she helped us win.”
Dunbar got on the board first by running the floor. Te’a Cooper grabbed a defensive board and immediately headed down court. The freshman saw Dunbar ahead of her and got the sophomore the ball for a layup, and a 52-51 lead with 1:36 left.
Cooper and Dunbar made eye contact while the play unfolded – and it took just seven seconds end to end. The dagger from Dunbar came behind the arc.
“Dunbar made a big shot,” Ole Miss coach Matt Insell said. “We don’t execute offensively in one possession where two players were off what we’re trying to run. They go down, and Dunbar hits a three. That is a backbreaker. That is winning and losing games.”
Tennessee had felt the sting of those losses in the closing minutes of games. In that context, coupled with the loss of Russell, it was a big win, and the 10,548 fans in attendance were appreciative of the outcome.
“It speaks volumes of how far we’ve come,” Warlick said. “We could have folded, and we didn’t. We had kids step up and make plays, and get rebounds. We finished the deal. That’s what we needed to do, finish the job.”
The Lady Vols dominated the glass throughout the game and finished with a 44-28 margin. Graves led he way with 12 rebounds, while Nared and Jordan Reynolds added eight each. DeShields and Moore each grabbed four boards.
Graves completed the double-double with 15 points. The senior forward likely will need extended ice time after the physical contest.
“She’s playing like she’s on a mission,” Warlick said. “She’s a senior leading this basketball team. Her effort is unbelievable. I just can’t say enough about Bashaara.”
Tennessee needed every minute from Graves will Russell sidelined. The sophomore center had to be helped off the court and then got re-taped and changed from the pink shoes to her regular orange ones, but she didn’t retake the court. Russell did walk under her own power after the game.
“I asked her how she is, and she said OK, but that’s Mercedes,” Warlick said. “I don’t know; I haven’t talked to the doctor yet.”
Since Dunbar got in the game, Warlick was spared the post-game question of why she didn’t play.
“Thank God I got her in!” Warlick said. “Thank goodness, Kortney, Nia and Meme work so hard in practice. I had already decided before the game started that I was going to give them that opportunity. They did not disappoint.”
Meme Jackson made excellent use of her minutes – she also made a pinpoint pass to Graves in the third quarter to give the Lady Vols a 40-39 lead – and tallied four points, an assist and steal. She stuck a baseline shot and hit a nifty jumper off a steal to give the Lady Vols a 46-39 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
“She didn’t hesitate to hit those two shots, and I thought those two shots were crucial,” Warlick said. “To come off the bench cold, I thought both she and Kortney were huge for us, huge.”
Dunbar has maintained a great attitude all season and has been a positive presence on the bench – which is not easy to do when a player wants to be on the court.
“I just love going out there and doing what I can do to help my team win,” Dunbar said. “I know that Holly trusts me and I have complete confidence in her. I know that she’s going to play me in situations that I feel comfortable in.
“I know people say that I might not get a lot of playing time so coming into clutch situations like that might be kind of nerve-wracking; but even in practice I’m always the one shooting the last-second three so I knew I had a lot more time. I just came in comfortable with my feet set, even like Bashaara said, ‘that’s money’ because we always joke around and in practice I’ll say that.”
Of course, the media’s new question will be how can the staff find more minutes for Dunbar and Jackson?
“Yes, I’m going to try,” Warlick said. “Look, bottom line is I’ve got to do what I need to do to win. Those two young ladies helped us win today. I hope I can get them more playing time, absolutely.”
The three ball kept Ole Miss in the game, especially in the first half. The Lady Vols led 33-30 at the break despite going 1-2 from the arc while the Rebels connected on five of 10 from long range.
Shandricka Sessom went 3-5 from the arc and tallied 21 points for Ole Miss.
"It gave us a lot of confidence,” Sessom said. “In the second half, we just didn't knock down as many shots as we wanted to.”
Ole Miss shot 34.5 percent (20-58) overall and 35.7 percent (5-14) from the arc. The Rebels made all six of their three throws.
Tennessee shot 37.7 percent (20-53) and 40 percent (2-5) from long range. The Lady Vols were 15-20 (75 percent) from the line. Reynolds sank two from stripe late to seal the win.
Tennessee had 12 turnovers at halftime but just five over the final 20 minutes for a total of 17, including back-to-back shot clock violations in the fourth quarter, which sent Dunbar to the scorer’s table.
“Kortney just does what she does,” Warlick said. “She has ice water in veins.”
The Lady Vols also had 14 assists on 20 made baskets with five dished by Cooper. She tallied 10 points, as did Nared to join Graves in double digits.
The Lady Vols got 21 points off Ole Miss’ 14 turnovers and outscored the Rebels in fast break points, 10-2.
“I think we just buckled down and we got stops when we needed to and scored off transition when we needed to,” Graves said.
Ole Miss Coach Matt Insell, A'Queen Hayes, Shandricka Sessom