The Lady Vols got what they needed out of the exhibition matchup Monday – a 95-56 win over Carson-Newman, game film and no injuries.
Led by a double-double from Diamond DeShields with 24 points and 10 boards, Tennessee converted a 41-30 halftime lead into a runaway in the second half.
DeShields’ full game was on display as she got to rim, hit jumpers, nailed a three and elevated her defense. In the first quarter, DeShields had a steal and layup, three-pointer and an and-one play for a 24-16 lead in the game’s first 10 minutes. She had 16 points by the break.
Carson-Newman had wanted to force DeShields into being a jump shooter and keep her out of the paint, but the redshirt junior used every part of the court to get in the box score.
“I told our players that we don’t have an answer for her,” Carson-Newman Coach Mike Mincey said. “I’m happy she sat out for a portion of the fourth quarter.”
DeShields, who logged 25 minutes, was a spectator for most of the game’s final 10 minutes. With Kortney Dunbar sidelined by a foot injury, Coach Holly Warlick was trying keep down court time as best she could. That was complicated by the absence of Dunbar, though Warlick said the junior could have played if needed and will be available for the season opener against James Madison on Friday.
“It was my call, her foot is sore and I didn’t want to press the issue and so she’ll be available on Friday,” Warlick said. “I wanted her to stay off it a little bit more. She’ll help with our depth.”
Jordan Reynolds logged 37 minutes, a workload that the senior guard will have to sustain a lot this season. Mercedes Russell was the other player to exceed 30 minutes – she checked in at 33 – and most of those came after the break.
Russell started slow with six points and no boards but would finish with 20 points and seven rebounds. Graduate transfer Schaquilla Nunn was playing in a game for the first time in 18 months – she missed last season with a broken foot – and definitely was shaking off some rust. Nunn ended up with eight boards and three points.
Carson-Newman made Nunn and Russell chase them on defense by setting up on the perimeter, which forced the Lady Vol posts well away from the basket.
“They spread the floor and it’s tough,” Warlick said. “Schaquilla Nunn and Mercedes Russell have got to come outside the paint. We’re so used to kind of a traditional game where posts go to the paint.”
The ball pressure needed to be better – Meme Jackson got caught upright and beat to the basket twice in a row in the second half, leading to a timeout by Warlick – but the head coach also recognized the effect of a short roster and said she needed to use more timeouts. The Lady Vols are still working their way into condition as the length of practice has been adjusted to reflect the low numbers and the absence of Dunbar meant just eight players were available. Warlick used all of them before halftime.
DeShields said after the game that players who were not accustomed to logging a lot of minutes were going to have to adjust and the ones on the court have to realize there won’t be much relief on the bench.
“We’re not ill-equipped, we’ve got talent on this team,” DeShields said. “We’ve got the pieces to do something special. What’s going to happen is that we are going to have to find it within ourselves because it isn’t two or three people that will do it. It’s like what are the nine of us going to bring each and every night consistently to benefit this team?”
It was telling in a good way that DeShields and Jaime Nared focused post-game on what the team needed to do better. Nared delivered 17 points, eight boards and four assists. The coaches have praised her offseason commitment but when Nared was asked about the efforts paying off, she instead pointed out that Carson-Newman had scored too many points.
“I don’t think we were satisfied because we gave Carson-Newman 56 points, as a team we didn’t play as well,” Nared said. “It is the beginning of the season, but I think we have to get better.”
“We got lax on defense, but we see that we can’t afford to rest,” said DeShields, who noted the body’s natural reaction is to “stop doing what is making you tired.” That is the essence of what Pat Summitt preached when she told players to fight through fatigue.
The Lady Vols are wearing a patch on their jerseys – the signature P from The Pat Summitt Foundation – to honor Summitt, who passed away June 28, 2016, from Alzheimer’s disease. A video was shown pre-game of the patches being delivered and stitched onto the jerseys, and it silenced the crowd.
“We are showing our respect for Coach Summitt,” Warlick said. We thought the best way to honor her was with the 'P' on our jerseys to represent her and her foundation. She is still part of our program. It’s different that she’s not here, but I think the patch represents our love for her and everything she has done. We are going to wear it all season.”
DeShields is coming off a star-crossed season in which she struggled, put too much pressure on herself and dealt with chronic leg pain. None of that was in evidence Monday, as DeShields flowed seamlessly with her teammates, hit 10-20 shots – of all 20 attempts, only one seemed to be taken a tad too quickly – and delivered two assists.
“I feel better, physically and emotionally, and I think that will transcend my game to another level and hopefully allow me to elevate my teammates games as well,” DeShields said.
Nared and DeShields were a combined 17-30 from the field. They were joined in double figures by Russell with the aforementioned 20 points and Jackson and Alexa Middleton, who both tallied 10 points.
Jackson, who missed summer workouts because of knee surgery, was a tad out of sync at times as she shot 3-10 from the field, but her athleticism was on display. Middleton was noticeably quicker – she had surgery to remove an extra piece of floating bone from her ankle, which had caused pain all last season – and hit her long ball with catch-and-shoot execution, a welcome sight after last season when she hesitated too often on her shot. Middleton connected on 2-3 from long range.
Middleton and Jackson will have to provide relief at the point this season for Reynolds and play off the ball.
“Anybody running the point has to know what we are in, know the game and have to be able to relay that to our players,” Warlick said. “I think both Alexa and Meme are going to get better because they are going to get more playing time. This year, we are going to rely on them because we need their energy. I thought both of them came in and were a spark for us. I think the more playing time they get, the better they will get.
“Alexa will become a better leader just by putting in the time. There's a lot to be said about learning in practice, but game experience is huge. You have to think on your feet and make sure you see things and make a decision. They have to be the decision-makers on the floor. I think both Alexa and Jordan did that tonight.”
Reynolds connected on three of five shots for seven boards, grabbed 11 rebounds and tallied seven assists with zero turnovers. When Reynolds exited the court in the first half, the team wasn’t as organized, and Carson-Newman narrowed the lead before the break.
“She was the point guard tonight and got us into our offense and defense,” Warlick said. “She was very selective with when she shot, and I thought she took great shots. She didn’t force it. During one of the timeouts, she asked how many rebounds she had. She had eight and was determined to get at least 10.
“A lot of our success relies on what Jordan does on the floor. She has to be the one who makes sure the team runs what we ask them to run. I think she was very focused tonight. She is a senior and gets it.”
True freshman Kamera Harris logged 13 minutes and made both of her shot attempts in the second half. Harris has the steepest adjustment, but, like Nunn, she plays hard. Nunn took a shot to the face when a Carson-Newman player swung high with the basketball. Nunn had to exit the game in the fourth quarter but was OK. The Lady Eagles were assessed a technical foul and while the contact appeared unintentional, it was unfortunate.
The Lady Vols can’t afford any hits to the roster this season. They did prove to be effective in the open floor, but Tennessee will run and press selectively this season.
The Lady Vols shot 55.2 percent (37-67) overall and 42.9 percent (6-14) from the arc. The overall free throw shooting checked in at 65.2 percent (15-23), though DeShields, Jackson and Middleton combined to go 7-7. Tennessee had 23 assists on the 37 made baskets and 15 turnovers. Tennessee out-rebounded Carson-Newman, 54-25, but Warlick didn’t like the 16 offensive rebounds grabbed by the Lady Eagles.
“We gave them 16 offensive rebounds and that’s ridiculous,” Warlick said. “Those are things we’re going to continue to work on, but I thought at times our defense was really, really good.”
Carson-Newman shot 25.7 percent (19-74 overall) and 35.3 percent (6-17) from the arc. The Lady Eagles were stellar from the line at 85.7 percent (12-14).
“I felt like we didn’t play particularly well tonight to be honest with you,” Mincey said. “After our performance we had at (North) Carolina the other night I thought our offense was a lot crisper at Carolina. So, I give Tennessee a lot of credit for disrupting what we were trying to do.”
Carson-Newman forward Katie Stubblefield, who is from nearby Alcoa – where Summitt lived – tallied 15 points to lead the Lady Eagles.
“Of course every little girl growing up around here loves this program and wants to be a part of this program, so I think having the opportunity to play here is awesome and a blessing to be honest because everyone wants to do it,” Stubblefield. “I’m really glad to be able to play here.”
Tennessee stayed in its man defense throughout the game and kept the offensive execution limited and simple. Warlick said after the game that the strategy was intentional. The Lady Vols didn’t want to show their opponents much in an exhibition game.
The Lady Vols open the season on the road against James Madison, host Navy this Sunday and then head back on the road against East Tennessee State, Penn State and Virginia Tech. After the Navy game, Tennessee won’t be home again until Nov. 30 against Tennessee State. An announced crowd of 8,481 was in attendance – that reflects season ticket sales – with actual attendance Monday at about 6,000, a nice turnout for the exhibition game.
“I think we are excited to get on the road this season, it’s always fun to go to new places,” Nared said. “Of course we love playing here and having this home crowd, but we like playing basketball, I think that is the biggest thing.”
INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE
Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick
Lady Vol players Jaime Nared, Schaquilla Nunn, Diamond DeShields
Carson-Newman Coach Mike Mincey, Katie Stubblefield