UT Athletics

Lady Vols get in gear against App State

Mountaineers Coach Angel Elderkin inspires from sideline

All Holly Warlick wants for Christmas is a fast start to a Tennessee game. The Lady Vols have two more chances to wrap that present for the head coach, but, in the meantime, Tennessee got in the win column with a 92-66 victory over App State.

The moments immediately before and after the game were more meaningful than the start. Appalachian State Head Coach Angel Elderkin took her old walk to the court, past the Lady Vols locker room to get to the visitor’s bench.

“Before the game, I went my old path,” Elderkin said. “I didn’t walk by Tennessee’s bench. I walked where Tennessee comes out. Holly came over and she said, ‘You went the wrong way.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know, but is it bad luck?’ Then, she just gave me a really big hug. I saw the same security guards and the same people. I just needed to take that walk one more time.”

Elderkin, who was a former graduate assistant and video coordinator for Tennessee from 2005-07, was presented with a bouquet or orange flowers before the game. After the game, Warlick and Elderkin, who is battling endometrial cancer, embraced at center court.

“It takes a lot of courage and will to battle cancer and take care of your basketball team,” Warlick said. “That’s the kind of person that Angel is. She’s a great example of when you think you’re having a rough day, you just have to talk to her, and you’ll understand that she values every day of her life.”

Tennessee (5-4) sputtered to start the game, and the Mountaineers, who shot 73.3 percent in the first 10 minutes, led 24-20 after the first quarter. Alexa Middleton did much of the offensive heavy lifting for the Lady Vols by getting to the paint.

“I’ve told Alexa a lot of times, ‘Just play within yourself,’ ” Warlick said. “I just try to tell her to let the game come to her, and I thought tonight she did. She drove to the basket when she needed to. I thought she was a solid leader.”

As far as the other side of the ball, the emphasis in practice had been one-on-defense and ball pressure, yet Tennessee dropped back when Appalachian State (4-6) initiated their offense.

Warlick called a three-quarter court press, which the Lady Vols had not practiced in three weeks, and the Lady Vols responded.

“We’re like, ‘Alright, let's run it,’ ” Diamond DeShields said. “We were able to get a couple deflections, get them out of rhythm, slow their offense down because they had been penetrating the heck out of us all game to that point.”

Tennessee won the second quarter, 25-10, and led at the break, 45-34. Middleton had 12 points at halftime and would finish with 20 points.

It is perhaps one of the most maddening aspects of the team’s play so far this season – the switch from passive to energized. Tennessee emerged in the third quarter against Texas last Sunday looking like a different – and very effective team. On Wednesday, the Lady Vols didn’t engage until the second quarter.

That approach won’t work against Stanford this Sunday or a solid Troy team next week.

“It’s been pretty trendy for us this season – not in a positive direction, it’s definitely had a negative impact on our team and the way we start games,” said DeShields, who jammed her thumb in the third quarter, had the right hand wrapped and returned to the game. “That’s what we need to focus on in warm-ups, when we come out, how are we going to generate some energy so that we cannot have those slow, lagging starts. That’s definitely going to be the focal point going into Sunday.”

Warlick said sophomore guard Meme Jackson asked her what she wanted for Christmas. Warlick’s response: “Win the first quarter. That’s all I want.”

The Lady Vols didn’t take their first lead of the game, 28-26, until the 7:19 mark of the second quarter with a layup by Mercedes Russell on a nifty assist by Jaime Nared, so that present remains undelivered.

“Instead of getting introduced down the stairs, maybe we need to run up the stairs a little bit,” Warlick said. “I’m watching them and we’re back three feet off the ball handler, and I’m telling them to get up and I’m acting like I’m crazy. We didn’t practice getting back off of them.”

The crowd of 7,826, which included former Lady Vol Bashaara Graves in a courtside seat, enjoyed the second quarter much more than the first one.

“Instead of getting introduced down the stairs, maybe we need to run up the stairs a little bit,” Warlick said. “I’m watching them and we’re back three feet off the ball handler, and I’m telling them to get up and I’m acting like I’m crazy. We didn’t practice getting back off of them.”

Elderkin noted, “When they went to the press defense, it slowed us down a little bit. We didn’t get a chance to set up our offense. So, we were taking quick shots off the press. That was one adjustment I thought they made that disrupted us a little bit. Anytime we were able to get the ball set, we had really good shots.”

The Lady Vols took care of the ball with just six turnovers and notched 16 assists and seven steals. Tennessee also abandoned the three ball early – after starting 0-4 from long range – and got the ball inside to Russell, who was 4-7 for eight points before halftime.

The instructions were clear from Warlick: “Get the ball inside. Attack the paint. I guarantee if you poll the majority of the people in the stands, they would say the same thing. The degree of difficulty shots for us in the first quarter were like six to eight. It needs to be a one through three. It needs to be a layup. It needs to be an uncontested shot and that requires moving the basketball.”

Russell finished with 15 points and eight boards, while Nared posted a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds. DeShields tallied 16 points, with Schaquilla Nunn adding 12 points and five boards.

“I think it’s just getting more comfortable, especially with the team,” Nunn said of her stat line. “Just getting back into the swing of things. We have the opportunity to just focus on basketball since we’re out of school.”

With Middleton’s 20 points – one off her career high of 21 earlier this season against Navy – the Lady Vols put five players in double figures. The 92 points also were a season-high for Tennessee.

Tennessee shot 48.6 percent (35-72) overall, 50 percent (6-12) from the arc and 80 percent (16-20) from the line. The Lady Vols prevailed on the glass, 44-35.

Appalachian State cooled off considerably after the scorching start and shot 38.1 percent (24-63) overall, 44.4 percent (4-9) from the arc and 77.8 percent (14-18) from the stripe. The Mountaineers had 10 assists, 15 turnovers and three steals.

“I really like the way that our team started the game,” Elderkin said. “That has been one of the things we have really been working on. I thought we came out and really battled in that first quarter. In the second quarter, the shots that we were making in the first didn’t go down. It led to some transition baskets.

“We know as a group, we have to take some of the moments in this game that were very good and build on them. We need to go back and look at our transition defense and our rebounding. We need to improve as we move forward.”

Madi Story led the Mountaineers with 21 points. Joi Jones added 15 points. Story, a junior guard from Maiden, North Carolina, and Jones, a senior guard from Duluth, Georgia, played with poise on a big stage.

“The biggest thing was having the opportunity to play against Tennessee,” Story said. “It was huge. We talked about it before the game; it’s not our house to defend, but while we’re on the court, we need to respect it.

“There is so much history here. There have been so many great coaches and players here. I think the biggest thing was that we didn’t want to pass up our opportunity.”

The Mountaineers’ jerseys are adorned with The Pat Summitt Foundation patches. Inspiration also comes from their head coach, who is willing to battle stage three cancer in the public spotlight.

“Coach Angel is inspiration. Pat Summitt is inspiration,” Jones said. “To follow under Coach Angel’s lead, and know how legendary Pat Summitt was here, we had a lot to play for. We played for more than just ourselves. It meant a lot to us.”

Coach Holly Warlick

Lady Vols Diamond DeShields, Schaquilla Nunn and Alexa Middleton

App State Coach Angel Elderkin, Madi Story and Joi Jones

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