Holly Warlick got the Christmas present she wanted Wednesday with a fast start, and the Lady Vols got what they wanted with no practice Thursday morning. It wasn’t easy after a coal-filled stocking in the second quarter, but Tennessee emerged with a 110-84 victory over Troy.
Tennessee (7-4) enters the Christmas break with a three-game winning streak and much-needed momentum after the victory over Troy (6-4), an up-tempo team that entered Thompson-Boling Arena averaging 86.6 points per game, which is seventh-best among NCAA teams.
The Trojans leave Knoxville with the Tennessee opponent record of 99 attempted shots, besting the 96 lofted by Kentucky in 1978 when Pat Summitt was on the sideline and Holly Warlick was the Lady Vol point guard.
“We practice with a seven-second shot clock every day,” Troy Coach Chanda Rigby said.” Our first and last drill at practice is scoring 15 points in five minutes. We figured that if we can get to where we can score 15 points every five minutes in the game, we’ll average 120 points in a game, and that’s what we’re striving for.”
It took a threat by Warlick to hold practice at 5 a.m. Thursday to undo Troy’s offensive damage in the second quarter. Tennessee led 35-15 after the first quarter, but Troy outscored Tennessee in the second quarter, 27-12, and the Lady Vols led by just five points, 47-42, at the break.
“I got my Christmas wish,” Warlick said. “We won the first quarter, but something happened and the Grinch came in and grabbed it right back.”
When senior point guard Jordan Reynolds exited midway through the second quarter with two fouls, the Lady Vols led by 21 points with 4:22 to play before halftime. The Trojans pounced, went on a 20-4 run and turned over Tennessee eight times. Two of those were erroneous charge calls against Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared that incensed the crowd of 7,827.
But the majority of the miscues were the result of poor decisions with the ball, especially as Troy brought pressure. An added factor was the lack of box-outs, as the Trojans dominated the offensive glass.
“I saw a little bit of doubt in a couple of their ball handlers’ eyes,” Rigby said. “That was our goal, too, to try and attack that. We wanted to plant a seed of doubt in a ball handler’s eyes. It doesn’t matter how many All-Americans you have, if you can create that doubt, you can do a lot with it.”
The Lady Vols regrouped at halftime – Nared said the threat of practice worked – and won the third quarter, 25-15.
“It had to be about five, that’s the legal time,” Warlick said about NCAA rules as far as how early practice can start. “I told them before the game that we wouldn’t practice, but by halftime it was looking like we would.”
With the message delivered, the Lady Vols also matched the offensive flurry of Troy with 110 total points and six players in double figures, including career highs from Alexa Middleton with 29 points and Meme Jackson with 18.
“The second quarter was not very good, but we had some individuals step up and do some great things so, I’m really proud,” Warlick said. “When you play a big game like we played against Stanford, then you play a game and go home right before Christmas, it’s difficult. I was worried about this game.”
Assistant coach Dean Lockwood has always referenced the syndrome as “hearing Jingle Bells,” since players are ready to go home for the holidays and visit family members they often haven’t seen in months.
Warlick was upbeat and smiling at the post-game press conference, a stark contrast to the locker room at halftime.
“We actually got out to a good start, and we’ve struggled with that this season, as you guys have seen,” Nared said. “So, we finally get out to a good start, and then our second quarter is horrible. They were saying, ‘Pick it up, this isn’t you guys.’ And to basically start out the second half with a bang or else we’re going to have practice tomorrow morning.”
Nared was as happy as Warlick after the game. When Nared stood up after the press conference, she raised her arms and told everyone, “Merry Christmas!” Her left arm hit Jordan Reynolds in the side of the face, and both players doubled over and let loose with peals of laughter – which got even louder when they realized the broadcast was live. Both players could be heard screaming as they ran down the back hallway to the locker room.
“As long as she didn’t give Jordan a concussion,” Warlick said.
Tennessee already was without Diamond DeShields for the game, and the redshirt junior guard is likely to miss the Dec. 29 game against UNC Wilmington. Warlick said DeShields, who has a partially torn right thumb ligament, could have played if necessary, but she made the decision to rest her.
DeShields, who played against Stanford with the thumb splinted and immobilized, wore a small cast on her hand Wednesday.
“She could’ve played 40 minutes if I wanted her to,” Warlick said. “She was in practice and did everything but shoot the basketball. I’m just looking at it long-term, so if she can rest, then that’s great. I’ll be honest with you, at halftime I almost sent her up to get her cast cut off, but we were OK.”
Jackson was a big reason the Lady Vols were able to rebound from the second quarter. The sophomore guard reached double figures for the first time in her career – Jackson’s previous career high was eight points against Texas earlier this season – and added seven rebounds and five assists.
“Meme, I’m lost for words for her,” Reynolds said. “I’m so proud of her. This year she’s come a long way. She’s helped us a lot, and this was her coming-out game I think. She shot the ball very well. She had great offensive rebounds. Her defense was solid, so I think this was just a great game for her. Hopefully she builds off it and continues to do this for us for the rest of the season.”
A couple of Jackson’s offensive rebounds were highlight reel-worthy and drew audible gasps from the crowd. She also was on the receiving end of two highlight assists from Reynolds – one a bounce pass in the open floor for a layup and another a cross-court pass for a three-pointer.
Jackson got the Lady Vols to 100 points with a defensive rebound and end-to-end sprint for the and-one play with 1:49 left in the game.
“She is very capable of helping this basketball team,” Warlick said. “She is going to continue to get better and better. She has practiced hard. She is over being a freshman. She is in great shape, which she wasn’t most of the time as a freshman. She can be one of our best defenders. I love her, and what she brings and what she will continue to do.”
Reynolds tallied a career-high 13 assists – her previous high was eight against Lipscomb in 2013 – and added 12 points. She was two rebounds shy of a triple double with eight boards. Reynolds helped to restore order in the third quarter and remained in the game after picking up her third foul midway through the quarter.
“With Jordan back in, she is a senior and should be poised,” Warlick said. “I think we took better shots and weren’t quickly shooting the basketball.”
The Lady Vols shot 51.3 percent (40-78) overall, 47.8 percent (11-23) from the arc and 73.1 percent (19-26) from the line. Tennessee had 27 assists, 24 turnovers, six steals and five blocks with Russell and Schaquilla Nunn swatting two each.
Troy doubled and tripled team Russell – thus the launching of 23 three-pointers, the majority of which were uncontested as the Trojans focused on the paint.
“We are a good three-point shooting team if we are wide open and that is what we got tonight,” Warlick said.
Middleton was 7-10 from long range, while Jackson was 3-8. Nared also connected from the arc.
“Just staying consistent on getting in the gym and getting up extra shots,” said Middleton, who connected on her first five three-pointers. “That’s what I’ve been doing, so shooters just have to keep shooting whether you miss or you’re not shooting well. So, that’s all I think it is.”
Middleton’s 29 points led all scorers. She was joined in double figures by Nared with 21 points; Jackson, 18; Russell, 18; Jordan, 12; and Nunn, 10.
Despite being the focus of Troy’s defense, Russell was 8-11 from the field and completed the double-double with 11 rebounds. An athletic defensive board by Jackson late in the third quarter was followed by a quick pass thrown ahead of the 6-6 Russell, and she went right to the rim challenged by Troy’s 5-3 Amanda Mendoza. Both players smiled after the basket.
“When I saw Amanda Mendoza play at her junior college, I knew I had to have her,” Rigby said. “No other Division I offered her. In fact, everywhere she wanted to go, told her she was too small. That is the type of mentality I want on my team. I want everybody else to have told them, maybe, that they couldn’t do it, and I want them to have the guts to prove them wrong.”
Troy shot 34.3 percent (34-99) overall, 22.9 percent (8-35) from the arc and 72.7 percent (8-11) from the line. The Trojans had 20 assists, 14 turnovers, 11 steals and two blocks. The Lady Vols prevailed on the glass, 59-50, but Troy snared 27 offensive rebounds to 21 for Tennessee.
Troy was led by Claresa Banks with 19 points. Jayla Chills added 17 points, while Caitlyn Ramirez notched 14. The Trojans used 13 players, while the Lady Vols played the available eight.
“We didn’t let them go home for Christmas easily,” Rigby said. “One of our goals at Troy in basketball is to be a proper reflection of the institution we represent. This is what Troy University is about. It’s about taking average people and equipping them to do great things, and never quit. A lot of times, in the history of our athletic department, we upset people. We cause trouble with bigger teams a lot of times. Not so much in women’s basketball yet, because this is a program that’s growing and getting on our feet, but it’s coming. I can see it’s coming.
“Holly Warlick and her staff did a great job putting together a game plan. I think they did a great job, when we got that momentum, to keep their head and talk to their team. Because, on the other hand, a lot of other teams would have folded in that situation, because of how much we outscored them in the second quarter. They kept their composure.”
Warlick added, “They challenged us, hung tough, and didn’t quit. On the other side, we didn’t as well so I’m really proud of our kids.”
Coach Holly Warlick
Lady Vols Alexa Middleton, Jaime Nared and Jordan Reynolds
Troy Coach Chanda Rigby