The Lady Vols got 2017 started with a win over Kentucky in the SEC opener for both teams. Diamond DeShields returned after a two-game absence to help heal her thumb and joined Mercedes Russell and Jamie Nared in double figures to lead Tennessee to the 72-65 victory over the Wildcats.
Tennessee (9-4, 1-0) got the SEC start it needed over Kentucky (9-5, 0-1), took the lead at the 7:48 mark of the first quarter and never trailed – though the game stayed too close for comfort for the 9,709 fans in attendance at Thompson-Boling Arena.
However, last season, the Lady Vols often found ways to lose those tight conference games. On Sunday, Tennessee stayed together, hit big shots – from the field and free throw line – and secured the win.
“I think it’s awesome,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “Give credit to this team that we are a lot more together. I look at all the points we had, the assists – with everybody. Schaquilla Nunn, if she doesn't do the things that she did when she came in, we don’t win the basketball game.
“I think this year a lot of our players don’t care who gets the credit. They want the end result. I think that’s so important with this group.”
Nunn provided valuable relief minutes and assistance inside for Mercedes Russell, who had the play of the game late in the fourth quarter when she caught a pass thrown near the back of her head and converted the left-handed layup for a 66-58 lead with 2:31 left in the game.
“I was just thinking I have got to catch it,” Russell said That’s something that Dean always tells me, ‘No matter where the pass is, always go and get it.’ ”
Assistant coach Dean Lockwood also told the players afterwards that the food supply continues; he has used a hunting theme with this team to fuel their fight.
“It’s another big buck,” Diamond DeShields said. “We’re going to eat some more. It’s just really good for us. A lot of people have a lot of negative things to say about our team. But we’re not going away. Tennessee is not going anywhere. We’ve got players. We’re not scared of anybody. We’re going to take the conference play with that attitude.”
The SEC is a rugged conference – Russell will need an ice bath after 38 minutes – and the Lady Vols must keep their starters are on the court for long stretches of time because of low numbers.
“The women's game, or any game, I think, the post is the hardest position to play because you are running the full length of the floor, so you have to be in shape,” Warlick said. “You’re getting beat up, it’s physical inside. You’ve got to really take a pounding.
“I just can’t say enough about her and where her game is. That’s just her commitment to getting better. I’m really proud of her.”
The bench play also was critical against Kentucky. Nunn came up with key offensive rebounds and added six points and seven boards in nine minutes. Alexa Middleton didn’t shoot well, but she notched three timely assists and had just one turnover in 16 minutes.
“That doesn’t show up on the stat sheet but I thought her (Middleton) and Jordan Reynolds were great leaders,” Warlick said. “I just can't say enough. Jaime Nared has been solid. Meme Jackson played 36 minutes, and she just keeps getting better and better. It’s a great team effort.”
Tennessee seems to have turned a significant corner in December after the loss to Baylor. The Lady Vols have noticeably played better together, didn’t miss a beat when DeShields sat two games with a partially torn thumb ligament and seamlessly incorporated her back into the starting lineup.
“It was a great effort, a great team effort,” Warlick said.
DeShields’ right thumb is still heavily taped and secured, but she tallied 21 points on 8-16 shooting.
“I thought Diamond had a solid game except for the first shot she took,” said Warlick, who had said Saturday that she wanted to engage DeShields early on offense. “She took shots that I wanted her to take. I think Diamond’s presence causes havoc for other teams and that opens up Jaime and Meme.
“I thought Diamond was pretty solid coming back. I chose to sit her out those last two games, and I think we got a good result from doing that.”
DeShields misfired on a three-pointer four seconds into the game. But on the Lady Vols’ second possession, DeShields worked the ball inside to Russell, shifted, got the ball back and drained the jumper.
“We threw it in to her, and they were digging down on the ball, but she kicked it out and we got a good shot,” Warlick said. “I think Mercedes Russell is just an intelligent basketball player.”
Russell finished with 22 points, nine rebounds and three assists. She did a lot of her work before the ball arrived inside.
“Their posts play pretty tough defense and try to shove you off the block,” Russell said. “Working to get my seal was really key in this game.”
Russell had zero turnovers despite drawing the full attention of the Wildcat defense with posts and guards dropping into the paint.
“A lot of the time she’ll hold the basketball and the crowd kind of doesn’t understand that, but she’s holding the basketball and looking to decide what she wants to do,” Warlick said. “I think sometimes when we play smaller teams they sometimes get under her, and it’s difficult for her to move around.
“I think she’s learned that posting wide and demanding the basketball has done nothing but help her so yes, I would be concerned with her (as an opponent). I think she puts herself in a position to get really good looks and that’s doing your work before the basketball gets there.”
Nared also reached double figures with 18 points, including draining two three-pointers after halftime. Nared added five rebounds and two assists to her stat line.
The Lady Vols led 36-29 at the break and while Tennessee built double-digit leads – the highest was 12 points, 62-50 early in the fourth quarter – the Wildcats kept chipping away to stay in striking distance.
After two free throws by Taylor Murray, a steal by Maci Morris and layup by Alyssa Rice, Kentucky trailed by just four points, 68-64, with 1:27 left. But four made free throws by Nared sealed the win down the stretch for Tennessee.
“It was frustrating, but we have to learn from this because we know we’re going to be in that situation down the road,” Morris said. We have to learn from, like coach said, the mental things, and instead of hanging around, take the lead in those situations.”
The Lady Vols got their transition offense in gear early in the game – a pace that Tennessee wants – and Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell had to call an early timeout after back-to-back layups by Nared and Russell that staked Tennessee to an 11-6 lead.
“You have to keep them out of transition and then you have to run and get some in transition,” said Mitchell, whose bench is full of former Lady Vols in Kyra Elzy and Niya Butts, both of whom are Wildcat assistant coaches. “Both teams are strong in transition offense, so whoever does a better job of slowing the other down can have a chance to come out on top. I thought we just didn’t start the game well in transition, we looked confused.
“I think practice can help that, but it hurt us early on. I thought the players adjusted and did a better job, but the second-chance points hurt us and then some of those uncontested threes were really, I thought, the difference in the game.”
Kentucky’s Makayla Epps had an uncontested three with 41 seconds left and Tennessee clinging to that four-point lead. Jackson had been left alone to defend two shooters – a mix-up not of Jackson’s making – and she tried to stay with Morris, who can connect from long range, and Epps.
Epps, who has torched Tennessee in the past, misfired, as she had for most of the game. The senior guard was 3-13 from the field overall and 0-4 from the arc. Epps didn’t move well in the game – Mitchell said she wasn’t injured – and while Tennessee stayed in her grill, Epps also didn’t make herself too hard to guard at times. Nared, Jackson and DeShields took turns making sure Epps never got in rhythm.
“We were keying in on Makayla Epps and Maci Morris because I thought that those two kids had to have great games for them to win,” Warlick said. “We just keyed in on that. She’s scorched us for the last couple of years so we really keyed in on her and Morris, but then you had Taylor Murray step up and have a great game.
“But that was our focal point. Our focal point was don’t let those kids go off, and don’t give up a lot of offensive rebounds and second-chance points.”
Murray led all scorers with 23 points as she gashed the Lady Vols’ defense, whether zone or man, and got to the rim.
“Taylor is the player for us right now that’s the most in-tune mentally,” Mitchell said. “And Taylor plays both ends of the floor. She really doesn’t let her offense dictate her defense. She’s just really solid right now on both ends of the floor, she’s been working hard to mature as a leader, and she’s just having a fantastic sophomore year.”
Kentucky shot 39.7 percent (25-63) overall, 12.5 percent (2-16) from the arc and 86.7 percent (13-15) from the line. The Wildcats had seven assists, five turnovers and six steals.
Morris notched 15 points on 5-21 shooting, while post Evelyn Akhator added 11 on 5-5 shooting and finished the double-double with 10 rebounds. Epps, who entered the game averaging 17.5 points and put up 30 against Oklahoma a month ago, finished with eight points.
Tennessee shot 45 percent (27-60) overall, 31.3 percent (5-16) from the arc and 81.3 percent (13-16) from the line. The Lady Vols had 18 assists, nine turnovers, two blocks and two steals. Tennessee prevailed on the glass, 39-34.
While the Lady Vols had just nine turnovers, several were forced, especially the fastball passes when a lob or softer touch would do. Also, Tennessee helped the Wildcats stay close at times by taking early shots in the offense. Those are two areas that can be cleaned up going forward in the league, especially when every possession matters so much.
Tennessee got the SEC home opener outcome that it wanted. The Lady Vols will be on the road right away with a game at Vanderbilt on Thursday. The Commodores open SEC play on Monday against Texas A&M.
“It is always great to get a win in the SEC because it is such a tough conference, so any win you get is going to be a great win,” Nared said. “I think we played well as a team, and we are going to keep improving. I was excited. We played well.”
Coach Holly Warlick
Mercedes Russell, Diamond DeShields and Jaime Nared
Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell, Taylor Murray and Maci Morris