The Lady Vols wiped out a 15-point deficit against Texas, but the Longhorns found just enough separation in the fourth quarter to seal a 72-67 win over Tennessee in Austin.
Jaime Nared had a breakout game for Tennessee (4-4) in the matchup with No. 17 Texas (3-4) and tallied a career-high 22 points.
The Lady Vols dug a deep hole in the first half, trailing by 15 points midway through the second quarter.
“If we could cut that out … ,” Coach Holly Warlick said.
But a flurry by Nared pulled Tennessee within five points, 37-32, at halftime. Nared hit back-to-back threes to end the first half and had 14 points by the break.
“She is determined and really becoming the heart and soul of our basketball team,” Warlick said.
“When we are aggressive and playing hard, great things happen for us,” Warlick said. “We took a big step forward. I loved how hard we played.”
Diamond DeShields got on track to start the third quarter – especially on defense – and the Lady Vols tied the game at 37-37 and again at 52-52. But the size and offensive rebounding of Texas kept coming, and the Longhorns took a slim lead in the fourth quarter and held it. DeShields drained a three-pointer to pull the Lady Vols to 70-67 with 7.3 seconds to play, but Texas sealed the game at the free throw line.
The trio from Oregon – Nared, Jordan Reynolds and Mercedes Russell – were key during the comeback. Tennessee, as a team, also put pressure on the ball.
“We are going to build on this, and we are going to get better,” Warlick said.
Tennessee showed several things against Texas that had been missing – the Lady Vols can keep players in front of them on defense, they can execute offensive sets, and they can play with energy and effectiveness on both ends.
Nared said the team showed “spurts” of playing hard – she cited getting on the floor for loose balls and the shot clock violations – but the players need to be ready from the opening tip.
“We need to figure out a way,” Nared said. “We can’t come out and then be down by 10. We’ve got to start the game off better than we do.”
Warlick shortened her rotation considerably and played the starters together for long stretches with Nared, Reynolds, Russell, DeShields and Meme Jackson. Alexa Middleton and Schaquilla Nunn provided relief off the bench. Warlick said she empowered the players to call timeout if they needed a break.
Nared was joined in double figures by DeShields, who notched 19 points. Russell added eight points after getting the ball in the second half. Tennessee started the game taking and missing jump shots before getting to the paint. Nared had two back-to-back drives – one to the left and another to the right to knot the game at 52 in the fourth quarter. Meme Jackson also chipped in with eight points.
The Lady Vols shot 41.8 percent (28-67) overall, 31.6 percent (6-19) from the arc and 55.6 percent (5-9) from the line. Tennessee had nine assists, seven blocks and 12 turnovers. The Lady Vols were out-rebounded, 40-32, a respectable margin after getting beat on the glass, 26-16, in the first 20 minutes. The Lady Vols won the battle of the boards, 16-14, in the second half and showed better pursuit of the ball.
But the Longhorns had 20 second-chance points to nine for Tennessee. The Lady Vols at times had position but didn’t always go after the ball, allowing Texas to snare it without an over-the-back whistle.
“It’s not the first shot that beat us,” Warlick said. “It’s the second and third shot.”
Texas had five players in double figures with Brooke McCarty and Jada Underwood notching 13 points each. Kelsey Lang, LaShann Higgs and Joyner Holmes added 12 points each. Texas shot 45.2 percent (28-62) overall, 37.5 percent (3-7) from the arc and 76.5 percent (13-17) from the line.
The Lady Vols were especially effective in transition. A few breakdowns at the end on both ends – a missed layup and a mixed defensive boxout – were the difference in the game.
“I was satisfied with the heart we played with,” Nared said. “But we can clean up some things during the game. I wish we had come out with the win.”
Tennessee will play three games at home against Appalachian State, Stanford and Troy before the Christmas break. While the loss certainly wasn’t the desired outcome in Austin, the Lady Vols recovered from the slow start and adjusted at halftime. A winning streak at home would do wonders for the team’s confidence.
“When we are aggressive and playing hard, great things happen for us,” Warlick said. “We took a big step forward. I loved how hard we played. We competed. We are going to turn this corner. We are going to go home and get our fans into it. They deserve it, because we are so appreciative of them.”
Tennessee has little depth and a small margin for error. Every win will be earned with a premium on “heart and passion,” as the head coach has noted.
“We had it today,” Warlick said. “We battled. I am proud of our kids.”