The Lady Vols won their sixth consecutive game – and second in the SEC – with a 70-57 win against Vanderbilt in a whistle-fest of 46 fouls at Memorial Gym in Nashville. Mercedes Russell led Tennessee on both ends with a double-double and six blocks.
Tennessee (10-4, 2-0) rode a dominant first quarter to seize the win over Vanderbilt (10-5, 0-2). The Lady Vols are one of three SEC teams still undefeated in the league just two games into conference play. The other two are South Carolina and Mississippi State, which comes to Knoxville on Sunday.
Coach Holly Warlick asked for Lady Vol fans to come out in force to Thompson-Boling Arena on Sunday. Tipoff is 2 p.m. Eastern.
Memorial Gym is always a tough venue with the wide space, arched basket supports and benches on the baselines. But it had no effect on Tennessee to start the game.
The Lady Vols led 36-26 at halftime after taking a 20-7 lead in the first quarter behind ball pressure defense and a flurry of offense from Mercedes Russell, Jordan Reynolds and Diamond DeShields. Russell and Reynolds accounted for Tennessee’s first 11 points.
The defense was anchored inside by Russell with DeShields being a pest on the perimeter. The Commodores had 12 turnovers in the game’s first 20 minutes, while Tennessee had just six, including two travel calls on DeShields who never moved her feet while ball-faking with her upper body. DeShields seemed to be, rightfully so, bewildered by the calls.
“I thought our defense was solid in the first quarter,” Warlick said. “We got after them. We didn’t give up anything easy.”
The Lady Vols misfired to start the second quarter with a 1-11 stat line from the field, which allowed Vanderbilt to pull to 25-20 midway through the quarter. The Commodores got to the line by attacking the basket.
“We’ve got to be smarter,” Warlick said at halftime. “They’re calling touch fouls, and we’re doing it.”
But the Lady Vol defense flipped the script in the final four minutes of the second quarter, and Tennessee took the double-digit lead into halftime, led by 11 points from DeShields.
The Lady Vols opened the third quarter the same way as the first and took a 47-32 lead after Jaime Nared made a perfect look-away pass to Russell. But Vanderbilt, led by LeaLea Carter, kept chipping away at the lead in a game that lost its rhythm for both teams with the persistent whistles.
The Commodores were within eight points in the fourth quarter, but the Lady Vols never lost the lead and secured the win with a timely three-pointer by Meme Jackson, baseline drive by Reynolds and free throws by Jackson, Russell and Alexa Middleton.
Russell led Tennessee with 15 points and 13 rebounds in 39 minutes of play.
“Double-double is a goal of mine every game because at the end of the day, it’s going to help my team,” Russell said.
The Commodores packed the paint so Russell had to move around – she set several screens for shooters – and still get in rebounding position. Russell did so despite being swarmed when her feet hit the paint.
“The SEC is physical,” Warlick said. “I thought she handled it.”
Russell’s six blocks set the tone – and allowed Tennessee’s perimeter players to extend their defense knowing the 6-6 center would erase any mistakes.
“I thought Mercedes had our back,” Warlick said.
Tennessee stayed in a man defense, minus the 2-2-1 full court zone press, which disrupted Vandy’s offensive flow. Warlick considered a half-court zone, but opted to stay in man because of the Commodores’ ability to shoot the three ball.
“Threes get them back in the game and get them pumped up,” Warlick said.
The Lady Vols were particularly effective in transition, especially with one series in the third quarter in which Russell grabbed a defensive board and fired an outlet to Reynolds, who found DeShields, who passed to Nared for a layup. The ball barely hit hardwood in the sequence.
“Easy buckets come in transition,” Russell said.
But the lulls came, too, and the game wasn’t fully secured until the final two minutes.
“We played in spurts,” Warlick said. “We didn’t play a 40-minute game. But we played well enough to win.”
Tennessee shot 35.5 percent (22-62) overall, 33.3 percent (5-15) from the arc and 77.8 percent (21-27) from the line. The Lady Vols had 12 assists, 14 turnovers and eight blocks. Tennessee nipped Vanderbilt on the glass, 42-41.
Four players joined Russell in double figures with DeShields adding 16 points; Nared, 12, who went the distance at 40 minutes; Reynolds, 11, who nearly went the distance at 38 minutes; and Jackson, 10.
Vanderbilt shot 34.5 percent (19-55) overall, 38.5 percent (5-13) from the arc and 63.6 percent (14-22) from the arc. The Commodores had eight assists and 21 turnovers.
Carter led Vanderbilt with 17 points. Cierra Walker added 10 points, and Rachell Bell notched nine. Marqu'es Webb had five points and 11 boards.
The Lady Vols had bus issues on Thursday when the bus wouldn’t start for shoot-around. The players used cab services, while the coaches walked to campus from the relatively nearby hotel on a bitterly cold day in Nashville.
Getting a win at Vandy – the Commodores come to Knoxville on Jan. 22 – in just the second SEC game of the season is never to be disregarded, and Warlick indicated as much on the post-game radio show.
“Tough place to play, different setup for us, proud of our team,” Warlick said.
Despite the inclement weather, the Lady Vols headed home by bus – presumably one that started – after the game, which took over two hours because of the incessant stoppage in play. The next two days of preparation on Friday and Saturday are needed as Tennessee gets ready for Mississippi State, which is 16-0 overall.
“We’ll take this win,” said Warlick, who joked she already had stocked milk and bread with the prediction of snow in Knoxville. “We’ll learn from it. We’ll continue to get better. But we’re 2-0 in the SEC.”
“Top five team, and we’re going to be at home,” Russell said. “It’s going to be a great opportunity for us.”