Tennessee went big game hunting – to borrow assistant coach Dean Lockwood’s analogy – and emerged with a 59-51 win Sunday over No. 10 Stanford.
“Coach Lockwood put it into perspective for us before the game,” Diamond DeShields said. “He drew an analogy and compared this game to hunting season. If you’re a family, you know Dean and his language and his lingo, he said this Stanford team is a big buck, and we need to eat for the winter. If we don’t kill this buck, we might starve. Our family might starve, and it’s going to be a long winter. He said let’s get us a big buck.
“That was kind of our mentality going into the game. I love coach Lockwood. I think it was really good for us. It really put things in perspective. You can’t just go out and buy meat. You’ve got to go get it. That’s what we did tonight. Moving forward, hopefully we hang a couple more up on the wall heading into SEC play.
“That’s Dean. He is an unusual man.”
Tennessee (6-4) will hunt wins over Troy and UNC Wilmington to close 2016, but DeShields is likely to be a spectator for those two games. She played against Stanford (8-2) with a partially torn ligament in her thumb – the hand was wrapped in such a way as to stabilize and nearly immobilize it – and should return for the start of SEC play on Jan. 1 against Kentucky.
DeShields went the distance against Stanford, as did Jordan Reynolds and Jaime Nared.
“These are the type of games you want to play in,” DeShields said. “I wasn’t going to talk about how bad it hurt because then they would have sat me. There’s no point in that and miss out on all the fun. It’s just a finger. It’s not that big of a deal. I was able to stay out there.”
While it’s unusual to label a game in December a must-win due to the long basketball season, the Lady Vols needed this victory to prove something to themselves.
“Absolutely,” Reynolds said. “A top 10 team came into our house, and we were very vulnerable. We had a couple bad losses early. As you said, this was a must-needed win for us, for our confidence, for our program, for the tradition, for everything.”
Reynolds played a significant role in the Lady Vols defending their home court. The senior guard started out the game by attacking the basket and hunting shots. Reynolds, who had 11 points by halftime, led the early comeback after the Lady Vols went down 15-4 in the game’s first five minutes.
“We got them down, and we didn’t keep them down,” Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer said. “We had a nice run in the first five minutes of the game. I think that maybe our team intellectually knew that it’s a game of spurts, and that they could come back. We just made too many mistakes. We started turning the ball over. We didn’t get good shots. We weren’t getting to the rim.”
Tennessee didn’t flinch – unlike two weeks ago against Baylor – and kept attacking the paint and finding open midrange jumpers.
“We knew we had to come into this game being very aggressive,” Reynolds said. “I think that we started the game off doing that and we kept it throughout the entire game. I think we worked on it a lot in practice. The coaches kept telling us to attack the rim, attack the basket and get paint points. We did that early and continued throughout the game.”
Stanford connected on seven of its first eight shots, but the Lady Vols shifted into zone defenses and started getting stops. The Lady Vols faced a manageable deficit, 17-11, after the end of the first quarter. Tennessee won each quarter after that. DeShields used a soft touch on the glass to pull Tennessee to 25-23, which was followed by a Reynolds’ steal and dish to DeShields for the 25-25 tie.
The crowd of 9,137 erupted, and the Lady Vols fed off of the energy.
“The atmosphere helped,” DeShields said.
The game was knotted at 29-29 at the break, which seemed to come right when Tennessee needed it. Nared, DeShields and Reynolds needed a brief respite in what was a physical game. Stanford also worked deep into the shot clock, forcing the Lady Vols to defend for long stretches in a possession.
“We were a lot more aggressive on defense in the second quarter,” Nared said. “We were able to get stops and played really together on defense. If somebody got beat, somebody was there to help. We really just played together and it showed.”
The defense also worked because the Lady Vols communicated throughout the possession and fought for rebounds and loose balls. It was a level of effort heretofore unseen for sustained periods this season.
“We’ve seen glimpses of it, but that should be normal,” DeShields said. “We’re talking about it like it is some anomaly within our defense so far. It’s really sad that we’re sitting here talking about, but that should be normal. Moving forward, we’re trying to take that and implement it in our defense and into our hearts and in our guts so that’s something that we can come out and do on a day-to-day and night-to-night basis and be the team and the players that we know we can be.”
It was indeed the line of questioning from the media – the emergence of defensive intensity – because it’s been absent for most of the season.
“Our defense and our hustle were essential tonight,” DeShields said. “It’s going to be essential throughout the rest of the season.”
Stanford started the game with its signature crisp cutting and ball movement. The Lady Vols offered little resistance for the first five minutes. But the zone disrupted the Cardinal’s flow, and Tennessee kept showing different looks.
“We went man-to-man. We went 3-2 zone. We went 2-3 zone. We went man-to-man switching. We went man-to-man switching one through four. We pressed; we pressed up; we pressed back,” Warlick said. “We did a lot of stuff. Stanford is a very methodical team that is very well coached on the offensive end. You make one slip-up and they’re going to take advantage of it.”
The Lady Vols executed each call from the sideline and while there were a few breakdowns, including a shooter left open the corner, Tennessee overall committed to the schemes.
“Basically, just whatever Holly called and everybody was willing to change out defense and be aggressive in it,” Nared said. “I think being able to be in tune to what Holly says and being on the same page on our defense was a big deal this game.”
Stanford stood too often when it had the ball, which is uncharacteristic of the Cardinal offense.
“I think the number one thing for me, looking at the game, was that we didn’t pass the ball,” VanDerveer said. “We held the ball. We didn’t move the ball. We only had six assists. I think we had some people that need to play better team basketball. We need to move the ball. We need to get better shots.
“We just didn’t give ourselves a chance. I thought Tennessee played very inspired. They’re a very talented team. I think their record is very deceptive, but they’re very talented. Mercedes Russell is an anchor in the middle for them.”
The zone was effective for Tennessee because the Lady Vols rarely missed an assignment and also rebounded well out of it, especially Russell who grabbed 13 boards and completed the double-double with 11 points.
Russell logged 36 minutes – Schaquilla Nunn provided a very effective four minutes of rest for Russell – and shot 5-9 from the field. When Erica McCall reentered the game with four fouls, Russell went right at her for a 53-41 lead with 6:24 left.
“I didn’t want to foul out,” McCall said. “I wanted to continue to help my team. Especially when they have their guards, and their bigs started to attack, and that really started to change their game plan. I think I was really stagnant overall, and the foul trouble didn’t help that.”
Stanford, which beat Texas in mid-November, didn’t exit quietly from Knoxville, but the Lady Vols never lost the lead. A three by Alexa Middleton allowed the Lady Vols to claim a 45-38 lead after three quarters.
Middleton’s three was set up by a DeShields’ block. Middleton’s defense early in the fourth quarter set up another basket. She hustled for a loose ball, secured it and threw it off Briana Roberson for the steal and turnover. Middleton connected on a jumper for the 47-38 lead with 8:07 left.
“When Lex hit the ball off the kid out of bounds, that’s a possession that Stanford didn’t get to shoot the basketball,” Warlick said. “Hustle plays are just energy. They just give you confidence. I thought the rebounding we had, the rotation we had on defense, just all of that was huge.”
Tennessee is now 5-0 this season in games in which it has seven or more steals. Stanford had 18 turnovers with nine of those from Lady Vol thefts.
A DeShields’ three with 3:20 left in the game created a little breathing room with a 56-47 lead. Another layup by Russell, with the assist from DeShields, gave Tennessee a 58-49 lead with 61 seconds left, and the crowd let loose a roar.
“I thought it was a must-win just for us to come out and compete and say that we’re a really good basketball team,” Warlick said.
Tennessee shot 38.6 percent (22-57) overall, 41.7 percent (5-12) from the arc and 66.7 percent (10-15) from the line. The Lady Vols had eight assists, 14 turnovers (with just five in the second half), nine steals and five blocks.
Four players posted double figures with DeShields at 15 points; Reynolds, 14; Russell, 11; and Nared, 10. Meme Jackson added three points, which were noteworthy because she answered Stanford’s three to start the third quarter. After Stanford’s Nadia Fingall hit a jumper to give Stanford a 38-37 lead with 2:46 left in the third quarter, Nared drained a three for the 40-38 lead at 2:28, and Tennessee never trailed again.
Stanford shot 35.5 percent (22-62) overall, 20 percent (4-20) from the arc and 50 percent (3-6) from the line. The Cardinal had six assists, 18 turnovers, two blocks and six steals. Stanford prevailed on the glass, 39-38.
McCall and Karlie Samuelson led Stanford with 13 points each, and Brittany McPhee added 11 points.
Stanford had several chances from the arc in the final minute, but Russell and DeShields shadowed the long ball shooters to secure the win. That pulled those two Lady Vols away from rebounding position – and Stanford got several offensive boards – but the Cardinal didn’t get good looks, and it chewed up valuable seconds.
Warlick now has 1,000 total wins in her coaching career, counting her time as an associate head coach and assistant coach.
“I know our kids were going nuts, and I was like, ‘What?’ ” Warlick said. “I liked the one; I’m not worried about 1,000. I just needed this one today. When you talk about wins it’s about your players. I sat beside Pat Summitt for twenty-something years and all the other coaches with her and the players.
“Our kids thought I had 1,000 wins. We were jumping up and celebrating. I just let them do it. I didn’t want to tell them any differently. Because I was like ‘1,000 wins? I don’t have 1,000 wins.’ But Eric (Trainer of Lady Vols media relations) politely told me it was since I’ve been coaching, so I’ll take it.”
The Lady Vols will get an off day Monday to rest and recuperate. Warlick and her staff have pushed them hard in practice for the last week, and the players – especially four of the starters – need to recover. DeShields will get two weeks to rest her hand.
“Diamond is just sore, and we’re being very protective of it,” Warlick said. “It’s not anything that she has to have surgery on or anything. We’re just going to watch it, but right now, I know it’s not hurting her.”
DeShields gave Reynolds a high five – with her left hand – as Reynolds left the post-game press conference for a radio interview. Reynolds and DeShields combined for 29 points. DeShields kept attacking the paint – Stanford couldn’t stop her forays to the rim – and Reynolds never eased up on either end, punctuating made baskets and standout defense with screams of “let’s go!!” to her teammates.
Warlick and Reynolds held a film session Sunday with clips of the senior guard from every season.
“I just told Jordan, ‘Do what you do,’ ” Warlick said. “I just showed her, she gets the rebound, she attacks. She just saw it. She didn’t just have to listen to me or believe me. It was in living color on my computer screen.”
The Lady Vols host Troy, which is averaging 86.6 points per game, on Wednesday before the team breaks for Christmas. Lady Vols assistant coach Sharrona Reaves got her career started at Troy in 1995. Tennessee should be motivated to make sure the coaches have a merry Christmas.
“They’ve put in a ton of work over the last two weeks, I will promise you that,” Warlick said, “and it’s been mostly on the defensive end. It’s been a grind, and it’s going to continue to be a grind. But credit to them – we’ve thrown a lot at them, and they’ve done what we’ve asked them to do.”
Coach Holly Warlick
Jaime Nared, Diamond DeShields and Jordan Reynolds
Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer and Erica McCall