The Lady Vols fell short Sunday against Mississippi State, 74-64, absorbing their first loss in the SEC and leaving just two of 16 teams undefeated in league play through just three games – an indicator of the grind to come over the next two months.
Tennessee (10-5, 2-1) couldn’t overcome the timely threes of Mississippi State (17-0, 3-0) and its own untimely turnovers, though the Lady Vols briefly held a one-point lead in the fourth quarter with three minutes left in the game.
“Obviously disappointed in the outcome but I’m really proud of our kids,” Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick said. “I thought we played hard, great effort, great energy. We just couldn’t finish the deal.”
The Lady Vols continue to harness the game to the starters because of a short roster – Mercedes Russell and Diamond DeShields both went the distance, and Meme Jackson logged 38 minutes – while the Bulldogs used 10 players and had all reserves in at one point in the second quarter.
“We’re probably one of the few teams in the country that has a lot of depth, we’re playing 10 kids double-figure minutes,” Mississippi State Coach Vic Schaefer said.
“It looks like they played a whole army, and we pretty much got everything out of our starters,” Warlick said.
Tennessee also was down one assistant coach for Sunday's game. Sharrona Reaves was recruiting in the New England area and got stranded at the Boston airport because of inclement weather over the weekend. Reaves was expected to get back to Knoxville some time late Sunday night.
Schaefer has the Bulldogs in rarefied air with a top four ranking, undefeated season and three consecutive wins over Tennessee.
“What I look at is how are they in every position – they are solid and strong inside, they have a point guard that directs their team, they can shoot the three or drive inside,” Warlick said. “It’s difficult to guard when people can do that.
“They get after it on the defensive end. We turned the ball over at crucial times on the top of the floor, and that is a layup for them. I think they are in the makings of a very good team when they are clicking on all cylinders.”
If Mississippi State is as good as its resume so far – and the Bulldogs appear to be – then that bodes well for the Lady Vols going forward. Tennessee will rue the missed opportunities and 17 turnovers – especially the timing of the miscues – in a game that was very winnable.
After Nared hit two free throws to pull Tennessee to within one, 61-60, and DeShields converted a layup at the 3:04 mark to give the Lady Vols a 62-61 lead, the crowd of 8,533, which made it to the arena despite some dicey roads in the region because of snow and ice, let loose with cheers.
Prior to that, the fans had spent the bulk of their time booing the officials – and primarily with good reason. The whistles blew for 43 total fouls without any discernible consistency in calls, and Russell and Mississippi State’s Breanna Richardson each were assessed technical fouls for basically holding their arms up and bumping each other. A no-call would have been best, as it didn’t impede play, or a warning at most.
Tennessee trailed at the break, 41-34, because it allowed a three-pointer at the buzzer – as it had at the end of the first quarter by Victoria Vivians, the second quarter one by Blair Schaefer and third quarter by Morgan William. All three shots kept momentum flowing for the Bulldogs.
But it was the three after DeShields gave Tennessee the lead that sunk the Lady Vols. Schaefer, who is the coach’s daughter, drained a long ball with 2:39 left, and Mississippi State never trailed again.
“It’s not very good awareness of who shoots three-point shots,” Warlick said. “I thought we didn’t contest a lot of shots, we had our hands down by our side and that’s the discipline aspect. You can’t allow someone to have a wide-open three.
“The game didn’t just boil down to that but those things add up. We gave them 12 points on open threes in the first half. That’s just the awareness that we have to get better at.”
Tennessee was hindered in the second quarter with Nared and Jordan Reynolds saddled on the bench with two fouls. Warlick considered bringing them back – and Nared was at the scorer’s table with two minutes to play before the break as were three Mississippi State substitutes but all four were summoned back to the bench with 30 seconds left because of no stoppage in play.
Reynolds picked up her third foul just 25 seconds into the third quarter – a replay showed no contact and that got the fans enraged again – so the hesitation to reinsert a player with two fouls in the first half, especially with blunders by the officiating crew, made sense.
“I just chose to sit her and take that chance,” Warlick said. “Lex has been playing really, really well. I have a lot of confidence in Alexa Middleton so I went with her. She just had a tough night tonight. She’s won us some basketball games, too. We have just got to be smarter as a team.”
That seemed to be the post-game theme from the head coach and the players. Tennessee recognized the slipups on both ends. The timing of the turnovers, especially in the fourth quarter, doomed the comeback, and players sometimes got shot happy too soon in the possession. Those misses fueled Mississippi State’s desire to run. When the Lady Vols were able to convert on their end, Mississippi State often went deep in the shot clock on its offensive possession.
“When we weren’t getting easy baskets, we weren’t getting stops on defense,” Nared said. “They had 18 transition points. We were turning the ball over. We weren’t taking care of the ball. We weren’t making shots, and we weren’t getting stops on defense.
“In a big game like this, it’s tough to win when you’re not doing those three things, especially because Mississippi State is a good transition team.”
The Lady Vols can, however, find plenty of highlights on the game film, especially the statement blocks of Nared and DeShields. Tennessee also battled throughout the game, something the Lady Vols didn’t do a year ago. A little bit more poise and a few better bounces, and the Lady Vols have a statement win.
Tennessee asserted itself early and held the lead for the first minutes, but Mississippi State’s three-pointer to end the first quarter – a shot that came after Russell was fouled on a drive with no whistle – was a harbinger of what was to come.
“We had to come out ready to play, I didn’t think we were quite ready to open but Lord we answered,” Schaefer said.
Schaefer noted after the game that Pat Summitt would be proud of how the Lady Vols rebound the basketball. The Bulldogs emphasized boxing out in practice this week, and Tennessee still prevailed on the glass, 48-39.
“Our biggest fear coming in was transition defense and rebounding,” Schaefer said. “You’ve just got to try to take some of that away, and they’re just so good at it. Coach Summitt would be awfully proud of how that group rebounds the ball. They go, they are fearless and that was really a focal point.
“It has not been fun if you did not block out. We still didn’t do a great job; we gave up 16 (offensive rebounds), but got 14 of our own.”
DeShields and Russell combined for 23 boards, and Jackson grabbed six. The Lady Vols also got to the line, where Nared was a perfect 8-8 and DeShields went 13-15.
“If you look at it, you get to the line 35 times, out-rebound them and get eight blocks, but you don’t win the game,” Warlick said. “It boils down to giving up 17 turnovers and six wide-open threes. That is the game for me. I don’t think they get out-rebounded very often. We just couldn’t finish.”
Mississippi State entered the game plus 10.7 on the boards overall and plus 12 in SEC games. The Bulldogs average 80 points per game, though that had fallen to 66.5 in its first two SEC games with a wipeout of LSU and close contest against Arkansas.
Mississippi State shot 37.1 percent (26-70) overall, 30 percent (6-20) from the arc and 76.2 percent (16-21) from the line. The Bulldogs had 10 assists, seven turnovers, 10 steals and four blocks.
William led Mississippi State with 21 points, four assists and no turnovers. Her ability to drive and dish to McCowan in the fourth quarter snuffed Tennessee’s rally. McCowan replaced the foul-plagued Chinwe Okorie, who averaged 10.2 points per game but logged just eight minutes, and tallied 14 points and nine boards.
“When your sophomore post player (McCowan) can go 7-9 against what I think is the best in the country in Mercedes Russell, get nine rebounds, 14 points and had two blocks and play 30 minutes, I’ll be preaching to her from now until her days are done in her career that she can do it against anybody,” Schaefer said. “We have the utmost respect for Mercedes and her game.”
Victoria Vivians notched 20 points, but it took 25 shots to do, and the junior guard was 1-7 from the arc. Vivians, however, made some timely baskets and tallied five steals, including back-to-back ones against DeShields in the open court in the fourth quarter, though the fans let it be known that they thought those came with contact.
“Vivians is a volume shooter so she is going to shoot 25,” Warlick said. “I thought we did a really solid job on her. The shots she made were just untimely for us.”
Tennessee-Mississippi State matchups tend to be brawls, and Sunday’s game was no different. While the 43 fouls were a lot, the whistles were swallowed quite a bit, too, thus a game with no discernible pattern by the officials.
“I was hoping it was going to be a dogfight; that’s just kind of our mentality; you’ve got to be tough, you’ve got to be physical in this league,” Schaefer said.
Tennessee shot 30.9 percent (17-55) overall, 0 percent (0-6) from the arc and 85.7 percent (30-35) from the line. The Lady Vols had six assists, 17 turnovers, eight blocks and two steals.
DeShields led the Lady Vols with 25 points and nine boards. Russell tallied another double-double with 17 points and 14 rebounds. Nared added 12 points and seven boards.
Tennessee goes back on the road in the SEC with a Thursday tip against Ole Miss in Oxford. The Lady Vols will host Notre Dame on the following Monday and then hit the road again for a game at Auburn.
Mississippi State and South Carolina are the only SEC schools without a loss yet in league play. The Bulldogs play at Columbia, South Carolina, on Jan. 23, so, at most, only one SEC team could be unblemished before the month is out.
“Absolutely, it’s a grind, we’ve got so many more games left,” Warlick said. “The thing about basketball, win or lose, you watch it and tomorrow you have to refocus. Now, we have to look to Ole Miss. As much as you want to celebrate a win or worry about a defeat, you can’t.
“You’ve got to figure out what you are going to do with the next opponent. It’s a tough league; it’s just a tough league. I don’t know if anyone can go through here undefeated.”
Coach Holly Warlick
Lady Vol players Jaime Nared and Mercedes Russell
Mississippi State Coach Vic Schaefer, Teaira McCowan and Morgan William