Coach Holly Warlick assumed the role of a drill sergeant at halftime of the Lady Vols matchup against Navy for Veterans Day weekend, and Tennessee responded with an 85-55 win Sunday.
Tennessee (2-0) opened the game with low energy – the Lady Vols were quiet in warmups, which is usually a harbinger of what’s to come – against Navy (0-2) so Warlick brought the thunder at halftime.
A clearly more inspired Tennessee put the game out of reach midway through the third quarter against the Mids after leading just 43-35 at the half, which ended with a Jordan Reynolds’ signature shot at the buzzer. Navy managed just five points in the fourth quarter.
Warlick, while pleased with the outcome, didn’t mince words after the game.
“Loved the second half,” Warlick said. “The first half I don’t know if I would have stayed to watch.”
The head coach unloaded on her team at halftime.
“Coach Warlick definitely got into us,” junior guard Alexa Middleton said. “It was night and day. We were saying we can’t start like that. We came together and talked saying ‘This is what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to be determined, take care of yourself, and help each other out,’ and that’s what we did.”
“I’m just not going to tolerate no effort,” Warlick said. “If I have to threaten them, if I have to do whatever I need to do, they just underachieved. Navy is a good basketball team. They made our four come out, they made our five come out and play away from the basket. It’s hard, it’s difficult, it’s things we don’t see.
“That doesn’t have anything to do with how hard you play. I thought we just settled, we started feeling sorry for ourselves as well. I was trying to do whatever I needed to do to get this team up.”
While Navy’s bench was enthusiastic, Tennessee’s players mostly sat still and watched the game. When Diamond DeShields got a brief break in the second quarter, she managed to get the bench engaged. It was a stark contrast to a season ago when DeShields was likely to retreat within herself. Instead, she was the one imploring her teammates to pick up intensity.
“I think last year you all saw the not healthy Diamond DeShields until February,” Warlick said. “As a player of Diamond’s magnitude, it’s hard when you can no longer do what you’re used to being able to do and Diamond is a great kid; she is a very sensitive kid, she loves this team.”
Middleton brought the team much-needed success from the arc as she scored a career high 21 points and connected on 6-7 from long range.
“I think it comes from getting in extra reps outside of practice,” said Middleton, who had off-season surgery to remove an extra piece of bone from her ankle and is now pain-free. “There’s been a lot of us getting in the gym – I know Jordan was in there last night before the game – and I just think that has a lot to do with it. We trust each other. I think it comes from trust and confidence in each other and in ourselves.”
Middleton is 10-11 from the arc in Tennessee’s first two games for an eye-popping 90.9 percent. She could move into the starting lineup in place of Schaquilla Nunn, perhaps against East Tennessee State on Tuesday, but opponent personnel also will drive that decision. Tennessee hasn’t seen a traditional post setup yet, but the bigs are coming.
James Madison and Navy both used small lineups and spread the floor.
“She’s having to pull away from the basket and guard a 5-8 kid, and she’s never had to do that,” Warlick said. “Penn State, they got big kids. Qui’s success will be determined on the style of play we’re playing against, and these last two games have not been really conducive to show what she what Qui can do.”
A year ago, Mercedes Russell would not have been able to defend that style of play, either. But she did so against James Madison and especially against Navy, where the 6-6 center guarded far from the basket, handled switches and tracked the ball. Navy’s lanes to the basket closed quickly when Russell was on the court.
“Sometimes I’m going to be in that position, so just working on it in practice and getting down in that stance, and trying to keep the player in front of me,” Russell said. “I think a lot of reps in practice has helped.”
Russell tallied 18 points and 10 rebounds in 28 minutes of play. She was hammered on nearly every possession and made 8-10 from the line, a marked improvement from last season at the stripe.
“Her free throw shooting has gotten a lot better, she worked on that as well, but she’s rebounding, I think she is solid on the defensive end, she’s just more physical, she has more confidence, and when she does that, I mean we are going to try to get her the ball, she’s 6’6” and she’s a big frame and she’s a big target, great hands and one of the smartest players on our team,” Warlick said.
“If she could, I think she would be a great point guard because she knows everything about the game, where we should be and what we should do. She’s taking the physical part of the game and it is not affecting her. Last year, she got bumped around a lot, she’s not getting bumped around this year because she is physically strong and mentally tough.”
The point guard duties are being handled by Reynolds and Middleton. Reynolds, who played 37 minutes, was steady again at the helm with 12 points, eight boards, seven assists, two turnovers and two steals. She finished through contact on one drive to the basket and swished a three launched from somewhere in her home state of Oregon. The senior guard has nine assists in Tennessee’s first two games.
Middleton leads the team with five steals and 70.6 percent overall shooting over the first two games. Warlick also is letting Middleton play through mistakes – such as getting too deep with the ball – an indication that the head coach trusts the junior guard.
“I always thought Alexa Middleton could be a difference-maker for us, and I’ve told her that and she knows how I feel about her, so hopefully she is seeing the result of my confidence in her,” Warlick said. “I’m going to put her in situations, I’m not going to jerk her in and out, I’m going to let her play through a turnover and she knows when ‘I’ve gone too far,’ yeah you did so let’s fix it, so it’s not a revolving door for Alexa.”
The Lady Vols outscored Navy, 42-20, in the second half, allowing Warlick a chance to get freshman Kamera Harris some minutes, and the freshman post blocked a shot. Nunn started the second half, but was quickly pulled for Middleton after a reach foul on the perimeter. Nunn returned later and hit a nifty shot inside. She finished with five boards and four points. Kortney Dunbar, who remains limited by foot pain, had a block in the fourth quarter, grabbed the ball in the air and drained a three-pointer on the other end.
Navy executed its game plan very well in the first 20 minutes and connected on 5-11 three-pointers. The Mids made the Lady Vols defend deep into the shot clock, and Coach Stefanie Pemper kept a fresh five on the floor by going 10 deep in the first half with wholesale substitutions at times. After the Navy players were introduced, they gathered in a circle and let loose with cheers. It was apparent the stage wasn’t going to be too big for them.
“I thought that we came out with a great attitude and good confidence,” Pemper said. “We hit some shots, and I thought we got some stops. Rebounding wasn’t a concern in the first half. I thought we really needed to keep scoring with them, and that’s what we weren’t able to do.
“I think we need to give credit to Tennessee for picking up their pressure in the second half and getting into passing lanes and forcing us into some turnovers. They really got hot from the three-point line. I think that was the difference in the game. I’m proud of our team and we're going to build on this.”
When asked about what might have surprised Navy about Tennessee, Pemper smiled and noted that Middleton didn’t play a lot last season – a nod to the junior’s performance from the arc.
Middleton and Meme Jackson have much bigger roles this season. When Navy settled into a zone, Jackson immediately drove to the soft spot of it – the middle – and hit a soft jumper. Middleton followed with back-to-back threes to give Tennessee a 39-31 lead in the second quarter.
The 30-point gap in the final score wasn’t indicative of how Navy played the first 25 minutes. The Mids played tough and hit some tough shots, but most of those stopped falling as the third quarter unfolded.
“I think we had some really nice moments of that, where players made really smart plays,” Pemper said. “We struggled against Tennessee switching everything. They had length and athleticism in those situations.”
Navy shot 36.4 percent (24-66) overall after connecting at 46.9 percent (15-32) in the first half. The Mids shot 30 percent (6-20) from the arc – making just one long ball after halftime – and 25 percent (1-4) from the line. Navy had 11 assists, 16 turnovers and 14 steals.
Ashanti Kennedy led Navy with 16 points, while Taylor Dunham added 14.
“Playing Tennessee, everyone is really excited,” Dunham said. “We had a lot of energy, and we were hitting shots. Everyone was making plays. I wouldn’t say that our energy was that much different in the second half, but Tennessee definitely picked theirs up.”
Tennessee shot 51.7 percent (30-58) overall, 85.7 percent (12-14) from the arc and 59.1 percent (13-22) from the line. The Lady Vols had 20 assists, 18 turnovers – plenty were self-induced with ill-advised and flat passes – and 10 steals. The Lady Vols dominated the glass, 47-29.
Middleton and Russell led the way with the aforementioned 21 and 18 points, respectively. DeShields (14) and Reynolds (12) also were in double digits. Jaime Nared added six points and seven boards.
DeShields logged 29 minutes and connected on 5-9 shots overall and 2-2 from the arc.
“She’s not selfish and I think you see the result of this team pulling together, understanding each other’s role, and I will say this Diamond wants nothing more than to see this team succeed whether it is through her, whether it’s through Mercedes, Jaime, any of them, I think she’s just wants to see us succeed as a team,” Warlick said.
As the schedule gets tougher – and especially with three straight road games ahead and Baylor, Texas and Stanford looming in December – Tennessee will need more than nine shots from DeShields. But the Lady Vols are settling into expanded roles, and DeShields is playing within the team and not forcing any shots.
On Sunday before a crowd of 8,212, Tennessee wore warmup shirts that showed appreciation for the military. The Lady Vol players presented Navy with miniature basketballs that thanked all branches of the armed forces.
“It’s what we want our team to be,” Warlick said. “We want to have that dedication, that honor, that passion, that purpose of what you do, and I think the military does that, and so we’re trying to get our kids to do that as well. Total respect for any military personnel, any vets. That’s why we’ve got the freedom we do. Great thing in their honoring Pat, and we’re honoring them, and that’s how it should be.”
Navy wore warmup shirts that showed appreciation for Pat Summitt and said: We Back Pat.
“Growing up as a kid I used to always watch Tennessee and just like Coach Pemper said, it was an honor to be here and play against then and wear those shirts,” said Kennedy, a senior from Virginia Beach, Virginia. “What it embodies is so special to us."
“It’s a woman that we all have a lot of respect for and admire,” Pemper said. “It’s a cause that’s really important, and I think it’s only going to continue to get more important in our society. We want to show support for that and the respect we have for the program, for her and the foundation.”
Warlick added, “I just think it’s very fitting that we had Navy here playing during the Veterans’ weekend. Really glad we got to honor them.”