Tennessee got back in the win column in a big way Wednesday with an 86-36 victory over Tennessee State. The Lady Vols wore Gatlinburg warmup shirts in a show of support for those affected by the Sevier County wildfires, including former Lady Vol Lisa McGill Reagan, whose home was destroyed.
Head Coach Holly Warlick opened her post-game press conference by expressing her dismay at the devastation of the wildfires. Reagan, who was born and raised in Gatlinburg, played basketball for Tennessee from 1976-79.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Gatlinburg,” Warlick said. “I have lived here pretty much all of my life, and I have never seen anything so devastating that is close to home – and when you see it out west it doesn’t really hit home. When I talk to a former Lady Vol and her house burned down, it hit close to home.
“It has really affected our team and the only way we know how to honor them is to wear shirts that had Gatlinburg on them and make sure everyone knows we are thinking about them.”
Tennessee (4-2) made sure the 7,845 Lady Vol fans in attendance had something to smile about after days of despair in East Tennessee. Two Lady Vols posted double-doubles with Jaime Nared tallying 16 points and 10 boards and Diamond DeShields notching 15 and 10.
Schaquilla Nunn nearly joined them with eight points and 15 rebounds, as did Kortney Dunbar with 13 points and nine boards. Alexa Middleton hit double figures in assists with 11.
After back-to-back road losses to Penn State and Virginia Tech and a desultory showing in both games, the Lady Vols needed to reassert themselves.
While Tennessee State (1-5) was overmatched inside and shot poorly – the Lady Tigers are better shooters than they showed Wednesday and managed 70 points against Wisconsin on Nov. 27 – the Lady Vols established an early lead and led 48-18 at halftime.
Warlick did, however, call at timeout 116 seconds into the game after Tiana Parker tied the game at 5-5 with an easy layup.
“We did not sprint back, and we did not talk and that has been our emphasis in the last couple of practices, so I was not going to tolerate not talking,” Warlick said. “Basketball is a team sport and when you are on defense you have to communicate, and when we don’t talk on the defensive end, we are not very good.”
With that issue corrected, the Lady Vols built a double-digit lead in the first quarter and unloaded in the second.
“When you go against big schools, you can’t let the deficit get too large,” said Tennessee State’s Jayda Johnson, who played for Fulton High School in Knoxville. “When it gets really large, they stomp on you.”
Warlick used all eight available players in the first half. Jordan Reynolds, whose voice was often heard on the bench, missed the game with a hamstring injury sustained late in the fourth quarter last Sunday. Warlick expects Reynolds to be cleared for Sunday’s matchup against No. 4 Baylor.
“She could have gone today, but we chose to keep her out,” Warlick said. “She worked hard and went through shooting practice (Wednesday) and did some things and moved. (Thursday) we are off so I think she will get some time to rehab and she will be better.
“I think it’s been good for Jordan, because I have been hearing her talk while she is getting rehab and in practice and on the bench. She is trying to direct and get our players where they need to go … and that can be a positive thing for Jordan to sit back and watch and see how she could be a bit better.”
With Reynolds sidelined, Meme Jackson moved into the starting lineup. She logged just 10 minutes before the break because of two fouls, but Jackson pushes tempo and pressures the ball.
“Her priority is the defensive end,” Warlick said. “We need to set that tone, and I think Meme sets the tone for that.”
DeShields and Mercedes Russell combined for seven of Tennessee’s 10 blocks with DeShields wowing the crowd with two swats. Nunn also blocked a pair, including a perimeter attempt. DeShields had one of the game’s offensive highlights, too, with an offensive rebound, catch and convert in one motion for a 42-18 lead.
“I felt like I played with a purpose tonight,” DeShields said. “I didn’t feel like I was just out there taking up space. I felt like I was crashing the boards hard, going after loose balls and blocking shots. I felt like I was maneuvering around the court better. I felt like I was serving my teammates, and I was not as worried about me. I was focused on us, them and trying to improve.”
DeShields also set up at the point guard position at times and seemed more comfortable there as a playmaker. Granted, the Lady Tigers didn’t bring ball pressure, but it certainly provides Tennessee with another option at the top of the floor.
The Lady Vols, on the other hand, made it nearly impossible for Tennessee State to get around them and get a good look at the basket.
“I talked to a couple kids and said, ‘Look, 5-6 doesn’t mix well with 6-6. So, be smart when you take your shots,’ ” Tennessee State coach Larry Joe Inman said. “You can’t play amongst the trees at times. We had to make recognitions as well as adjustments on what we need to do. Jayda can dominate inside when she wants to. Tonight, she was in the forest trying to dominate and it’s tough to do that.”
Tennessee State shot 20 percent (13-65) overall, 22.7 percent (5-22) from the arc and 50 percent (5-10) from the line. The Lady Tigers had 21 turnovers, which the Lady Vols converted into 22 points.
Tennessee shot 43.0 percent (34-79) overall, 23.8 percent (5-21) from the arc and 72.2 percent (13-18) from the line. The Lady Vols had 14 turnovers with just five coming in the second half. Tennessee had 21 assists and 14 steals and dominated the boards, 61-38.
Russell was 7-8 from the floor – she said her focus has been on finishing – and she handled some tough passes to get to 16 points.
“I think everybody played well,” Russell said. “It was definitely a good confidence booster. Which is good, because Baylor is a good team and we’re going to need everybody.”
Despite having just eight players, Warlick was able to spread out minutes. Nunn logged the most at 31 minutes. Dunbar, Nunn, Middleton, Jackson and Kamera Harris logged nearly the entire fourth quarter. Dunbar connected on three 3-pointers, and Harris tallied four points and her first bucket as a Lady Vol. Harris logged 19 minutes and, while she fouled out, the freshman held her own with the pace.
“We were focused on playing together,” Nared said. “We really haven’t been playing hard or together to the best of our ability. I think that this is a good game for us as far as everyone playing hard, playing focused and doing the little things right.”
Warlick indicated that she was ready to turn the team loose. Tennessee is more comfortable at a faster pace, and Warlick said she was going to stop worrying about fatigue – and be more mindful of timeouts.
“This group is an athletic, running up and down team, and my feeling has been we have to conserve energy – and it’s not working,” Warlick said. “We cannot do that so this team is going to run. We are going to push, and we are going to press.”
The Lady Vols showed some pressure against Tennessee State but pulled back as the lead swelled.
“I thought Holly was nice to us at one point and pulled the pressure off of us and I was very thankful,” Inman said. “I started to run down and shake her hand to say thank you, but I didn’t.”
The schedule gets difficult in a hurry with games in December against Baylor, Texas and Stanford.
“Our starting five is going to have to play big minutes, and they know it,” Warlick said.
While Warlick was happy with the win and her team’s better overall energy and effort, her mind remained on Reagan and the havoc of the wildfires.
“She left the house with just the clothes on her back,” Warlick said. “She said she is fortunate because she owns a cabin up there as well so she had somewhere to go to. Her main concern was people who didn’t have that ability to go to a different home so she was very fortunate.
“We have a lot of boosters up there and they lost homes, so it’s just a tough thing and it’s around here and it hits close to home. When it does, you hurt for them because you talk about Lady Vols for life so when she is devastated, you are devastated. That’s how I felt, and I still feel that way. It’s going to be a long time of healing and I am sure they will recover. They are strong people up there, but it’s still tough.”
Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick
Lady Vols Jaime Nared, Mercedes Russell and Diamond DeShields
Tennessee State Coach Larry Joe Inman, Jayda Johnson