JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Lady Vols’ journey in the SEC tourney ended Saturday night at Veterans Memorial Arena with a loss to Mississippi State. Go inside for game analysis and video coverage.
Tennessee (19-13) looked like a team playing its third game in three days, and the result was a 58-48 defeat by Mississippi State (26-6).
The Lady Vols misfired on good looks, couldn’t convert enough times at the line and let Victorian Vivians get loose with 30 points in a physically bruising graves.
Bashaara Graves, meanwhile, couldn’t seem to get a foul called inside despite a lot of contact and when the whistle finally blew, she struggled at the line, shooting a very uncharacteristic 1-7 from the stripe.
“I think our effort was there,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “We played hard. We missed a lot of shots around the basket. We missed some free throws we needed to make.”
As a downcast Graves left the Lady Vols’ locker room, assistant coach Dean Lockwood stopped the senior forward to congratulate her on joining the elite company of the 1,000/1,000 club in points and rebounds.
The 1,000th board came 88 seconds into the game on an and-one tip-in play to give the Lady Vols a 3-0 lead. Graves joined Glory Johnson, Tamika Catchings, Chamique Holdsclaw and Sheila Frost as the only Lady Vols to reach the double 1,000.
Lockwood was in the hallway of the arena talking to two Knoxville sportswriters. He lamented the missed free throws and the lack of transition defense. But Lockwood also noted that the Lady Vols got excellent looks at the basket; they just couldn’t get enough shots to fall.
That is an indication of a tired team, and a physical matchup with Texas A&M on Friday took a toll on the Lady Vols.
“I think maybe the three games for us in a row, it kind of wore us out a little bit,” Warlick said.
The Lady Vols struggled to score in the first 20 minutes, while Mississippi State connected on five three-pointers. Tennessee shot 31 percent (9-29) before the break and trailed 25-22 at halftime.
However, the Bulldogs were 3-18 when not shooting from the arc - and managed just four points in the paint despite their considerable size - and the Lady Vols’ defense forced a five-second violation to end the second quarter.
Tennessee would end up outscoring Mississippi State in the paint 22-10 but got nipped on the boards, 45-42. The Lady Vols shot 28.1 percent (18-64) from the field, but Diamond DeShields disagreed when asked at the post-game press if missed shots were the season’s storyline.
“No, that hasn’t been the story of this team this season,” DeShields said. “We played a heck of a game, in my opinion. The story of this team so far has been a lack of effort, which we had tonight. Really proud of the way we played.”
DeShields has led the resurgence for the Lady Vols and led Tennessee with 22 points. But it’s not just DeShields’ offense that has boosted the team.
The redshirt sophomore played throughout the SEC tourney with intensity and energy on both ends. She had her injured left leg crumpled beneath her while fighting for a rebound and while DeShields needed assistance leaving the court, she got treated, tested the leg and returned to the game.
Jaime Nared joined DeShields in double digits with 12 points, but the pair needed some help from another spot in the lineup.
Jordan Reynolds, who typically comes through in postseason, was hindered by a bruised thigh. The Bulldogs also extended their defense and put pressure on the guards; the frontline lurked in the paint for any Lady Vol who got past the first line of defense.
“We couldn’t hit a shot tonight,” Nared said. “We missed a lot of easy layups. We gave someone 30 points. It’s something we can fix. It’s hard to win basketball games when you can’t hit a shot or give someone that many points.”
If a team can win for losing, Tennessee may have done that Saturday night. A win over Mississippi State would not have moved the needle on the Lady Vols’ NCAA seeding, which is likely to be a seven seed.
A fourth game in four days would have been brutal for a Lady Vol team that already is battered. Because of TV, the tip time for Sunday’s final is 2:30 p.m. At 10:30 p.m. Saturday, both Tennessee and Mississippi State were still in the arena after wrapping up post-game media duties. The Bulldogs will have about 12 hours of rest before squaring off against South Carolina.
The Lady Vols will head home on Sunday. They need to recuperate for a few days before getting back on the court. They found their identity in Jacksonville - and got their superstar aligned with the team. That’s a win-win for a team that looked adrift a week ago.
“We’re just going to stay together and keep moving forward,” DeShields said.