The Lady Vols closed the regular season with a dominating win over Georgia on Senior Day and now have to find a way to sustain the effort in postseason. Go inside with InsideTennessee for videos and game analysis.
Tennessee (17-12, 8-8) got the Senior Day ending it needed Sunday with an 80-60 win over Georgia (21-8, 9-7) that was never in doubt. It was in stark contrast to the losses to LSU and Alabama and threw into sharp relief how well the Lady Vols can play when they are energetic and engaged as a team.
“I think we all just needed to wake up and get back to playing basketball, just having fun, just playing hard and enjoying the game,” Te’a Cooper said.
Cooper was 10-14 from the field and tallied 21 points. Diamond DeShields was 9-18 and led all scorers with 22 points. It was reminiscent of the opening game when the two were unstoppable, before the regular season got buried in poor team chemistry and a pile of losses.
None of that was on display Sunday. Bashaara Graves, the steady senior, and DeShields accounted for the game’s first 10 points. When Cooper found Nia Moore inside, the Lady Vols led 16-4. Andraya Carter subbed in, got back-to-back steals and found DeShields both times for layups and a 22-4 lead at the end of the first quarter.
“It was a great effort,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “We just had great effort. We stayed focused. We didn’t let up. I’m just really proud of all of these kids. They played really well together.”
Georgia is a much better basketball team than what was on display in the first quarter when the Lady Bulldogs shot 13.3 percent.
“Tennessee is so talented, and we can’t come out in the first quarter and play like we did,” Georgia coach Joni Taylor said. “We gave up 22 points; we credit them with continuing to play. We can’t give a team as talented as Tennessee that many opportunities.”
“We let them come out and punch us first, we didn’t do anything to stop it,” said Georgia’s Tiaria Griffin, who would finish with 12 points.
Tennessee does have tremendous talent, but the Lady Vols have struggled throughout the season with poor shooting and lack of cohesion.
Instead, the Lady Vols shot 46.1 percent (35-76) overall and had 21 assists on 35 made baskets, with five helpers from Jordan Reynolds and three each from Cooper and Jaime Nared. Tennessee had 12 inconsequential turnovers scattered throughout the game.
“We were fully prepared for the way they looked today, because Tennessee is extremely talented,” Taylor said. “Our team knew that they could come out and put up those types of numbers, and that was the team we prepared for. Tennessee is an extremely talented team.”
Georgia fixed its shooting woes over the first 30 minutes and shot 50 percent, 46.2 percent and 66.7 percent, respectively, over the second, third and fourth quarters. But the Lady Bulldogs had dug too deep of a hole, and the Lady Vols were determined to send Graves, Moore and Jasmine Jones off “The Summitt” with a win in their final home game. Jones and Graves were in Pat Summitt’s final signing class, and the head coach emeritus was in attendance.
“I think that was a little bit of a factor, the last home game, seniors here, haven’t played good in that last two games, but I think the last two practices we really broke down our defense and looked at where we had to get better,” Warlick said. “We broke down our offense to see how we could get better looks and better shots.”
With the outcome well in hand, Warlick called a timeout with 15 seconds left to get Jones in the game. Jones had dashed to the locker room with a little over a minute left to put on her uniform, and Carter assisted Jones with getting on her shoes and getting them tied so Jones could get to the scorer’s table in time.
The medical staff tried to overrule Warlick, but she wanted Jones to end her career on the court – with instructions not to get near anyone. Jones launched a 35-footer that was well short, and Georgia in-bounded with seven seconds left and let the clock expire. Jones’ final two seasons were truncated by concussions, and she had to stop playing basketball.
“Yeah, I'm probably going to get in big trouble,” Warlick said. “The doctors don’t want me to play her and I just wanted her to get a chance to be on that floor one last time. Jas has been a great part of this program, she's helped us win some basketball games, she's set the tone for us defensively.
“I hate that her career is ending, but I know how much this program means to her and I know how much she’s meant to this program and I just wanted her to have that opportunity for people to clap for her and wear that uniform one last time.”
Whatever the fallout is for Warlick, it was worth it. Fans who were leaving the arena stopped along the edges of the court to watch Jones enter the game. She was greeted with a standing ovation.
“I was definitely happy,” Graves said. “I didn’t think they were going to get to do it, just because of the caution with her concussion. It was nice to just get her on the court for one more time in front of all these fans.”
The game drew 12,446 in what will be the last game at the arena this season. The Lady Vols likely completed their NCAA resume, but they won’t be a four seed or higher, which is needed to host the early rounds.
“I think we’ve done enough to have an NCAA bid,” Warlick said. “Strength of schedule would be number one. I don’t think anybody has come close to playing the schedule we played. Our focus is going to be the SEC Tournament and it’ll be whoever we play on Thursday.”
The Lady Vols started Sunday as the nine seed in Jacksonville, Fla., and ended it as the seven seed after Auburn and Missouri lost. All three teams finished 8-8 in league play, and the Lady Vols beat both head-to-head to vault them to the seventh spot. It matters because the 8-9 seed winner must face South Carolina, which went 16-0 in the league, on Friday.
When Warlick spoke with the media, the bracket remained a work in progress with ongoing games. Tennessee will face Arkansas, the No. 10 seed, at 6 p.m. Eastern on Thursday in Jacksonville, with Texas A&M awaiting the winner Friday. Of course, the Lady Vols have to first win Thursday to get to Friday, and this season has shown nothing will be a given for them.
“If we take the energy that we played with and bring that into the tournament, I think we can make things happen,” Graves said.
Graves notched another double-double with 12 points and 10 boards. Her effort this season has never been in question.
“I can’t say enough about Bashaara's career here,” Warlick said. “You're talking about an undersized post player who has a big heart and she’s just an example of what a Lady Vol should be. She just works hard, goes about her business, plays solid defense, is a great rebounder, and I just can't say enough about her and how far her game has come throughout her four years here at Tennessee.
“She was the Bashaara that we know how she can play, and we need that from her here on out.”
Tennessee also made layups Sunday, as simple as that sounds. Missed shots right at the rim have plagued the Lady Vols all season, but they connected against Georgia.
Cooper got to the rim, something she is adept at, and finished. DeShields squared up her shots and drained three 3-pointers, along with getting to the rim. When DeShields is on, the Lady Vols can play with anyone in the country. DeShields was coming off an 0-7 performance against Alabama. She was quiet in warmups Sunday – and draining nearly every shot she took.
“Well, I think she took it personal and I think she wanted to make sure this team has the opportunity to play the way they should be playing,” Warlick said. “You look at Diamond and she took shots that are makeable for Diamond. I think that most of the games in the past she was pressing. She was taking shots that were not going to go in.”
Warlick inserted DeShields into the starting lineup, and the redshirt sophomore responded.
“I thought we just needed change,” Warlick said. “I wanted to give her that opportunity. So, I just wanted to change it up a little bit. She’s not the only one that had an awful game against Alabama. We all had an awful game against Alabama. She’s had two solid practices, so I talk a lot about playing people who practice hard, and she practiced hard the last two days.
“I thought she need that opportunity. I think starting helped her get going early.”
The Lady Vols won the glass battle, 44-31, and outscored Georgia in the paint, 34-20. Tennessee also used its defense to jump-start the team’s energy.
“I think we played great defense today and I think that set the tone for us offensively,” Warlick said. “We pressed for 40 minutes, and we haven't done that all year. We pushed the ball on transition, so we scored off their turnovers. I just think our defense was just solid, it was just solid. I haven't been able to say that, especially for the last couple of games.”
The Lady Vols will need that same defense in Jacksonville – though pressing for an entire game will be difficult in the SEC tourney format with no rest day between games – and especially having to open on Thursday. However, Tennessee seems to enjoy bringing pressure so it will be in the arsenal.
“We were just out there attacking, playing defense,” Graves said. “When we were pressing, we were just getting after it, getting steals, getting easy buckets. We were just out there having fun, and you could tell that we were getting energy from the fans.
“It was awesome.”
Jasmine Jones senior day ceremony
Nia Moore senior day ceremony
Bashaara Graves senior day ceremony
Georgia coach Joni Taylor, Tiaria Griffin, Marjorie Butler