The Lady Vols secured the first win of the season Friday with an 81-69 road victory over James Madison, a game assistant coach Dean Lockwood said beforehand would be a “buzz saw” because “this is a team that’s used to winning and plays very well at home.”
Tennessee (1-0) showed against James Madison (0-1) what it will likely have to do all season – win with different players stepping up throughout the course of the game.
The first 20 minutes at the Convocation Center in Harrisonburg, Virginia, certainly underscored that as the Lady Vols went down by 10 points and then built a 10-point lead. Both teams surrendered their advantage with Tennessee claiming a 46-39 halftime lead.
Jaime Nared carried Tennessee in the first half with 19 points on 5-9 shooting and 6-7 from the stripe. Mercedes Russell added nine points, while Alexa Middleton chipped in with eight. Diamond DeShields, who had four assists and three points before the break, was planted for most of the second quarter on the bench with two very questionable fouls.
“Jaime was huge for us in the first half,” Coach Holly Warlick said.
Lockwood said before the game that Tennessee needed to apply its “core values – rebounding, rebounding, rebounding.” He would not have liked the halftime box score with the Dukes taking a 20-19 edge on the glass.
The final tally was 44-39 in the favor of a considerably smaller James Madison team, though Warlick did opt for the guard combo of Middleton and Meme Jackson over post Schaquilla Nunn, because the Dukes spread the floor and pulled Nunn away from the basket.
“I had to go with a different lineup,” Warlick said.
The Lady Vols shot 56.3 percent in the second quarter to wipe out James Madison’s early lead, but the Dukes – led by Precious Hall, who took 19 of the Dukes’ 36 shots before halftime – countered with sharpshooting of their own and Hall draining a midcourt shot right before the buzzer. Hall tallied 23 points in the first 20 minutes.
Nared opened the third quarter face-guarding Hall, but it wasn’t planned. Nared went into a man defense, while her teammates set up in a 3-2 zone. The coaches liked what they saw and despite not having practiced a box and one, they left the scheme in place.
Nared, however, would not score again after the break and spent much of the second half in foul trouble, mostly from offensive forays into the paint.
The defensive change did manage to slow down Hall a little bit – she scored 16 points in the second half – and the Lady Vols, despite abysmal shooting in the third quarter, still managed to lead 58-56 at the end of the third quarter.
A nip-and-tuck fourth quarter ended with a surge for Tennessee led by Middleton, Jackson, DeShields and Russell.
DeShields crafted a stat line of 10 points, five assists, four rebounds and three blocks with a critical steal and layup in the third quarter and an and-one play in the fourth quarter. While DeShields struggled to get in sync, her defense stayed stout, and she played the entire second half.
“She played within our team and played solid defense,” Warlick said.
Russell, who logged 36 minutes and absorbed a lot of contact in the paint, finished with 17 points and 11 boards. She was 9-13 from the line, as the Dukes had no answer for Russell’s size inside and repeatedly fouled the 6-6 center.
Russell’s minutes, along with the 26 logged by Middleton and 22 by Jackson, are a marked departure from what they were asked to do a season ago. Kortney Dunbar provided some relief with 12 minutes, but couldn’t get on track offensively and went 0-5 from the arc. Dunbar missed the exhibition game because of a sore foot, so she has plenty of time to reverse that stat line and find her rhythm.
Meanwhile, Jackson and Middleton were steady, though both will see on film where better decisions were needed with the ball. Those improvements will come with more court time.
“She and Meme Jackson were really solid,” Warlick said.
Middleton tallied 16 points with a perfect 4-4 stroke from the arc.
“I’ve been working so much on my shot,” Middleton said. “I feel really confident in it right now.”
Jackson, who took a shoulder to the torso in the second half and had to recover on the bench before returning to the game, added eight points. Her on-ball defense also was effective.
“You’re seeing a more mature Meme,” Warlick said.
Jordan Reynolds also dealt with foul trouble – she would end the game with four – and added a pair of fives in points and rebounds.
Tennessee shot 41 percent (23-56) overall, 40 percent (10-25) from the arc and 76 percent (25-33) from the line. The Lady Vols had 13 assists, 12 steals and four blocks with five thefts by Middleton. The 18 team turnovers were often of the self-induced variety – double dribble, stepping on baseline or an errant pass – so that is fixable.
“We did some good things, but there’s so much more we can improve on,” Warlick said.
James Madison shot 40 percent (27-67) overall, 38 percent (9-24) from the arc and 38 percent (6-16) from the line. While erasing Tennessee’s lead in the third quarter, the Dukes repeatedly misfired from the line, squandering chances to go ahead in the game. James Madison had 20 turnovers, seven assists and seven steals.
The offense runs through Hall, who tallied 39 points on 15-35 shots, accounting for more than half of the team’s attempts. Hall was 2-8 from the line, however, including missing three from the stripe when DeShields was called for a foul on a three-point attempt. Hall connected on 7-14 from the arc, including a half-court shot to end the second quarter.
“She is one of the best players we’ll face all year,” Warlick said. “Our best defense was to foul her.”
Tennessee won the 1,300th game in program history and is ranked No. 1 in NCAA Division I women’s basketball history for wins.
“Was it our best game?” Warlick asked. “No, but we finished it.”
The Lady Vols will play Sunday at home at 2 p.m. against Navy. The next home game won’t come until Nov. 30. Tennessee knew it faced a tough test on the road to start the season and putting players in expanded roles will evolve, especially over the month of November.
“It was our first game of the season, and you have to get credit to Precious Hall,” Middleton said. “But I don’t think there was ever a time we thought it would slip away.”