JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Lady Vols made their way safely to the semifinals of the SEC tourney with a bruising 70-60 win over Texas A&M. Go inside for game analysis and video coverage.
Tennessee (19-12) survived a physical matchup with Texas A&M (21-9) - Jordan Reynolds missed the second half but vowed to play Saturday against Mississippi State - and the Lady Vols got effort and output throughout the game from Bashaara Graves and Diamond DeShields.
Graves had to log 33 minutes, while DeShields played 36, and the Lady Vols needed all of them. DeShields led all scorers with 21 points, while Graves tallied 19.
“When your two best players show up, both Bashaara and Diamond, great things happen,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “Really, really proud of these two, along with our team.”
Graves also grabbed seven rebounds, giving her 999 for her career. DeShields tallied six boards and added four assists.
Graves and DeShields set the tone on defense - which allowed the Lady Vols to hold off Texas A&M. The game wasn’t secure for Tennessee until the final minute.
“I think a lot of it has to do with people finally settling into their roles,” DeShields said. “A lot of this season has been us trying to establish chemistry, I know I was part of that equation, trying to do too much.”
Tennessee needs exactly what DeShields is doing now - diving on the floor for loose balls, taking over the top of the press and putting so much pressure on the defense with her ability to score in a multitude of ways.
DeShields also is finding the post players inside with pinpoint passes. She had a perfect feed to Mercedes Russell after she had sealed off her player.
“It finally clicked,” Warlick said. “We understood our roles. I knew we had it in us, because I see it every day."
The Lady Vols held a slim lead at halftime, 30-27, with Graves going 4-4 from the field for nine points. DeShields added seven points and five boards before the break.
But seven Lady Vol turnovers and being on the wrong end of a 24-17 margin on the board - Texas A&M had 11 offensive rebounds - kept Tennessee from seizing the momentum before halftime after initially trailing by six to open the game.
It was a physical game - Jordan Jones undercut Andraya Carter at center court, a similar play to the one that was called a charge on Jaime Nared in College Station a month ago. Carter made both free throws for a 30-25 lead, but then DeShields got hooked - and was called inexplicably for the foul - and A&M took two points back from the line.
Texas A&M would win the board battle overall, 42-31, but the Lady Vols held off the Aggies with timely offense - Alexa Middleton got wide open at the rim after the Aggies extended pressure - and sealed the game at the line.
The Lady Vols shot 91.7 percent (22-24) from the stripe, with DeShields connecting on six straight in the fourth quarter.
Tennessee shot just 10 threes - and made two, one by Carter, another by DeShields - and instead attacked the paint. Of the Lady Vols’ 70 points, 54 came from a combination of the paint and the stripe.
“Bashaara was making some great and-one plays. Diamond was attacking the basket,” Warlick said. “When Bashaara gets it on the block or near the high post, I have a lot of confidence in her. When Diamond gets it within 10 feet, I just think every shot is going in.”
The Lady Vols shot 42.6 percent (23-54) overall with Graves and DeShields both shooting 7-11 from the field. Tennessee had just 12 turnovers and added five blocks and five steals.
The Aggies were led by Courtney Williams with 20 points and Courtney Walker with 12. Texas A&M shot 35.8 percent (24-67) overall and 100 percent (12-12) from the line.
“We missed a lot of shots that we normally hit,” Coach Gary Blair said. “But that just comes with pressure, that comes from defense, and that comes from the length that they had. Sometimes it’s hard to make those shots.
“I thought Graves was the difference in the ballgame. She had her way inside. When we beat them at our place, she was coming off of injury and didn’t play as much as she normally does. She’s the best doggone post player they’ve had in a while there. They need to just keep feeding her the ball.”
Jaime Nared, before she arrived in Knoxville, had heard Graves referred to as a beast. The sophomore now sees exactly what that means. When the best player is also the hardest worker, that sets the tone for the team. DeShields has added herself to that category, and the difference for Tennessee is a team that can match up with anyone in the country.
“Remember, there’s noting wrong with Tennessee,” Blair said. “They’ve corrected it themselves.”
DeShields is clearly in a much better place.
“Granted it took forever, forever and ever, but we always knew we were capable,” DeShields said. That’s what motivated us to stay together. We knew we were going to peak.”
The Lady Vols have exacted a measure of revenge in Jacksonville with the convincing win over Arkansas and defeat of A&M. But the path gets tougher with Mississippi State on Saturday - and it will be the Lady Vols’ third straight game.
Reynolds said she intended to play Saturday - she took a knee to the leg on a screen in the second quarter and limped to the timeout huddles after halftime. The Lady Vols headed for ice baths as soon as the media exited the locker room.
Warlick has been greeted in Jacksonville with shouts of encouragement and “We Back Holly” signs.
“We haven’t really focused on any of the negatives,” Warlick said. “We’ve just understood that we’re going in a positive direction.”
The Lady Vols will need to stay the course Saturday. The difference in the last three games, starting with the home win over Georgia, has been the output of effort. Mistakes don’t torpedo the team.
“I think we’re getting to that point where we keep encouraging each other, we keep going hard every time we get on the court.”
It was a long time coming, but the mindset arrived just in time.
“We’ve had so much energy, so much grit,” Graves said. “I just love how our team has played these last three games.”
Kortney Dunbar and Nia Moore
Mercedes Russell and Meme Jackson