JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Lady Vols got the start they needed in the SEC tourney with a convincing win over Arkansas - and no player exceeding 27 minutes on the court. Go inside for game analysis and video coverage.
Tennessee (18-12) opened the second round Thursday with a 68-51 win over Arkansas (12-18) and likely sealed its NCAA tourney bid. However, the Lady Vols are in Jacksonville to make a statement about renewed effort - and it showed against the Razorbacks.
“Just a great effort,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “Really proud of our team. I think we kind of proved that Georgia game (to end the regular season) wasn’t a fluke for us.”
Perhaps the player whose resurgence has made one of the biggest differences is Diamond DeShields. She sat in the locker room Thursday night at Veterans Memorial Arena and smiled. The always candid DeShields said she finally stopped blaming others for her struggles this season and reminded herself how much she loved the game.
DeShields led Tennessee with 15 points, but it was her active defense and board effort that stood out after she started the game 2-8 from the field. DeShields’ demeanor didn’t change and she combined with Andraya Carter for some sticky defense that fueled easy offense.
The Lady Vols got the defense they needed to open the game - minus losing Jessica Jackson once behind the arc - and put together sufficient offense to start and end the quarter and claim a 17-7 lead.
“I just love our energy and effort,” Warlick said. “When we do that, great things happen.”
The first quarter was punctuated by a three by Jordan Reynolds with the shot clock at two seconds; reverse layup by Jaime Nared on a feed from Mercedes Russell; three from Te’a Cooper after the offense had stalled with missed shots; and a steal and assist from Carter while falling down to Cooper.
The Lady Vols led 37-22 at halftime with 11 assists on 14 made baskets. Tennessee shot 41.2 percent in the first 20 minutes and won the glass battle, 22-15. The difference was, by and large, effort - on the boards, in the passing lanes, on the press and to loose balls.
That allowed the team to overcome early misfires from the field.
“I wasn’t concerned about it because I thought our defense was solid,” Warlick said. “When our defense is solid, and we rebound the basketball - I thought we were all over the boards early - I think we’ve got a great chance to win the basketball game.”
The Lady Vols played together on both ends and were energized by a crowd of 3,094 heavily tilted to an orange tint. Because of the distance from Knoxville to Jacksonville and the earlier debut than fans are accustomed to in the SEC tourney, the players weren’t sure how many fans would make it to the arena.
A loud chant of “Lady Vols” started as soon as they took the court, bringing smiles to the faces of the players, especially the freshmen Cooper and Meme Jackson.
“At one point I turned around and counted, we had 14 here,” Arkansas coach Jimmy Dykes said. “You saw what they had.”
Reynolds steadied the team on both ends - her voice was audible on both ends as she called offenses and set defenses - and displayed the game that has earned her the nickname of Postseason Jordan.
“I introduced her to the team after the game,” Warlick joked.
Reynolds tallied 10 points, eight boards, four assists, two steals and just one turnover.
“We really want to give our seniors a good run in this postseason,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds got help from her Oregon teammates, Russell and Nared. Russell added six points and four boards, while Nared notched 11 points, three assists and three rebounds.
“It’s a new season,” Nared said. “ We just have to refocus. We haven’t had our ideal season, but we still have games left.”
Tennessee had split the series with Arkansas, losing in Fayetteville and holding on in Knoxville.
“It’s about what they did on the floor and what we didn’t do on the floor,” Dykes said.
Tennessee kept Jackson in check in the third game, after she filled the box score with 18 and 25 points in the first two games. Jackson was 5-18 in the tourney game and finished with 12 points.
“If she’s not scoring, it’s kind of hard for us to get to 60,” Dykes said. “We get to 60, we’re in most ballgames because our defense is normally pretty good.”
Devin Cosper paced Arkansas with 20 points. The Razorbacks shot 31.3 percent (20-64) overall and 25 percent (3-12) from the arc.
Tennessee used several defenders on Jackson, including DeShields, Nared and Bashaara Graves.
“I just thought our awareness of where she was, what we needed to do was solid,” Warlick said. “It was a whole team effort to make sure she didn’t go off on us.”
The Lady Vols shot 37.9 percent (25-66) overall, 19 percent (4-21) from the arc 82.4 percent (14-17) from the arc. They nipped the Razorbacks on the board, 43-41, and took care of the ball with just 10 turnovers. Nine players scored, and 11 logged time with 10 players reaching double-digit minutes.
That is an ideal scenario for a team that plays Thursday as the quarterfinal matchup will feature a team with an early round bye. In Tennessee’s case, it will be Texas A&M. The Lady Vols lost in overtime to the Aggies a month ago after leading late in the fourth quarter.
“I think these young ladies, the team as well, we haven’t had a season up to our standard,” Warlick said. “But they have stayed focused and came in every day and worked hard.
“I was really proud of them throughout the year. We had a lot of losses, but they stayed focused and came in every day and worked hard. You just think something’s going to click.
“It’s clicked towards the end of the season. They could have folded, and they didn’t.”
Alexa Middleton and Mercedes Russell
Te'a Cooper and Meme Jackson