The Lady Vols fell 88-66 to Baylor on a rain-soaked Sunday that brought welcome relief to the region after the Gatlinburg wildfires but no comfort to the Tennessee fans inside Thompson-Boling Arena.
Tennessee (4-3) was left looking for answers after Baylor (9-1) led from tip to horn – and head coach Holly Warlick vowed to find them.
“It’s up to me to figure out how we’re going to get this ship headed in the right direction,” Warlick said. “I promise you, I will figure it out.”
Towards that end, the only two players identified as starters for next Sunday’s game against Texas are Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared. The other three spots are up for grabs this week at practice.
“I know my choices are limited, but I think that’ll be determined this week in practice,” Warlick said.
Baylor brought size and depth to Knoxville and while the Lady Bears missed a mind-boggling number of shots at the rim – Coach Kim Mulkey said that was fixable – Baylor got stellar play from 5-11 forward Nina Davis, who is from Memphis, and 5-9 guard Alexis Jones, a transfer from Duke.
Davis was quiet in the first half with four points but erupted after halftime and finished with 20 points and nine boards. Jones had an eye-popping stat line of 30 points, 10 assists and nine boards.
Russell was the best paint player on the court with 22 points and 12 boards and was particularly effective on defense against the big frontline of Baylor, which brought 6-7 sophomore Kalani Brown and 6-4 freshman Lauren Cox off the bench.
“Defensively, I did pretty good,” Russell said. “I held their posts players to 1-for-9 and 3-for-12, so I thought my defense was pretty good. It doesn’t just come down to me. If we all are not on the same page on defense, then it’s going to end up being a bad possession.”
Tennessee recruited Brown and Cox, but the young posts didn’t give the Lady Vols any reason in this particular game to be upset about missing out on them. However, Davis, who wasn’t offered by Tennessee – Warlick said Saturday that Tennessee should have recruited her more – had a state homecoming to remember.
“Feels great coming back, just to be able to play in front of my family and friends is always an honor,” Davis said.
Russell has brought effort and energy to every game, even while logging a lot of minutes. She played 35 minutes against Baylor and dominated against one of the largest frontlines in the country with four blocks, including an emphatic one to end the third quarter. Mulkey noted that Russell affected a lot of shots inside.
“She got healthy, she got stronger, she got committed,” Warlick said. “You’re seeing the result of her just making a commitment to getting better. And that’s what a kid has got to do. She’s a great example for young kids to follow.
“She’s, I think, one of the best post players in the country and that’s why we’re going to continue to give her the basketball.”
Russell has certainly earned the basketball – she went 8-16 against Baylor – while the starting Tennessee guards combined to shoot 6-23.
The Lady Vols aren’t deep and don’t have a ball stopper. While the defense can get somewhat better and a rotation of seven isn’t an impediment at all – in fact, most title teams only go seven to eight deep – Tennessee will be in shootouts this season. And the Lady Vols’ shooting percentage has been dropping since the first three games.
Tennessee shot 31.3 percent (20-64) overall, 27.3 percent (3-11) from the arc and 69.7 percent (23-33) from the line.
“We definitely need to get in the gym because we weren’t making shots and easy baskets,” Nared said.
Baylor didn’t get to the line until the third quarter, as the Lady Bears tossed shot after shot at the rim – while also grabbing 24 offensive rebounds. Russell was the first line of defense and needed help with the box-outs. That didn’t happen, and Baylor feasted on the boards, winning that overall margin, 56-48.
“We never shot a free throw until the middle of the third quarter and were winning by 35 or 40 points,” Mulkey said. “They shot three or four times more free throws than we did, so I just thought that has to speak volumes about how well we did play.”
Nared posted a double-double with 19 points and 11 rebounds. Diamond DeShields also posted 13 points and six rebounds. The Lady Vols had a manageable 15 turnovers but just 12 assists. Jordan Reynolds had four helpers with Nared, DeShields and Alexa Middleton tallying two each.
Baylor shot 39.4 percent (37-94) overall, 38.9 percent (7-18) from the arc and 77.8 percent (7-9) from the line. The Lady Bears had 22 assists and just eight turnovers. The scoring came from Davis and Jones, who combined for 50 points. Khadijiah Cave added 10 points on 5-5 shooting.
The Lady Bears attempted 30 more shots than Tennessee did, a staggering disparity, and the primary reason that the Lady Vols were never in the game. Baylor got a 4-0 lead with offensive rebounds, and the Lady Vols misfired repeatedly. Tennessee trailed 24-10 after the first quarter and 48-28 at halftime.
“They outworked us,” Warlick said. “They have more talent. They played harder. They have more heart. They’re a team that’s on a mission. They’re focused. Obviously, we didn’t have an answer for them today.”
The Lady Vols will be off Monday, as final exams are underway at Tennessee. Warlick said she would watch the game film multiple times. But she indicated post-game that she would be seeking something beyond execution and game plans.
“Talented or not, you have to play hard,” Warlick said. “It’s respecting the game and right now, we are not respecting the game. It’s not about Lady Vol basketball; it’s about the game. This game is meant to be played as hard as you can.
“You have to respect this game. I should know. I was not even close to being as talented as these kids here. It’s about heart. It’s about thinking that you’re better than you are. So, these kids have to pick up my personality. They have to go down swinging. They have to carry a big stick. We’re carrying a little twig right now. And it ain’t working.
“I’m not going to give up on this team, I love this team. I’m just obviously disappointed in how they played. But we’ll go back to work. It’s a new day; the sun’s going to come up. We’re going to be off. I get to watch the film five or six times and continue to get madder and madder.”
The players don’t lack self-awareness and that is important going forward.
“This game had to do with heart and effort, and I think those were the two categories that we were lacking,” Nared said. “There were times when it felt like Mercedes was giving effort, but the other four weren't.”
Tennessee has a week to get ready for Texas, a game that will be played in Austin in a series that dates to 1978.
“That’s the one thing great about basketball; it’s not a do-or-die game,” Warlick said. “This was a game about pride. I’m just extremely disappointed. I just didn’t think we competed, and I’m all about competing and playing hard.”
Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick
Lady Vols Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared
Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey, Nina Davis and Alexis Jones