Tennessee dropped an SEC road game to Ole Miss in a matchup that underscored the Lady Vols’ need for a reliable fifth starter, bench help and a team commitment to defense.
“We can’t afford to have these games,” Diamond DeShields said after the 67-62 loss in Oxford, Mississippi.
Tennessee (10-6, 2-2) squandered a chance to take momentum into its Monday matchup with Notre Dame, and Ole Miss (13-4, 2-2) seized the opening to even its record in SEC play.
The Lady Vols trailed by 10 after the first 10 minutes, 21-10, after losing the ball five times and shooting 4-16 from the field. Jaime Nared accounted for half of Tennessee’s points. Ole Miss stretched the lead to 12 points after the Rebels hit a jumper to start the second quarter, but the Lady Vols, led by Nared, went on a 12-0 run to close the deficit to one point, 23-22. Nared tied the game at 25 with a three-pointer and tallied 17 points by halftime.
Tennessee led at the break, 32-27, and won the glass battle, 25-18. Assistant coach Dean Lockwood said before the game that Tennessee had to keep Ole Miss off the offensive glass, and the Rebels had just two offensive boards in the first half.
“We have to collect a lot of one-and-dones in our bag tonight,” Lockwood said.
Tennessee kept Ole Miss contained on the offensive glass with just nine offensive boards for the game but couldn’t overcome its own decision-making, especially midway through the third quarter and into the fourth.
The Lady Vols opened the third quarter on an 10-2 run and seized a 42-29 lead within the first three minutes. However, Ole Miss battled back to tie the game at 45 with 2:03 left in the third quarter. Tennessee took a two-point lead into the fourth quarter but lost it amid poor shot selection and a couple of untimely turnovers.
“We have to learn how to put teams away,” DeShields said. “We allowed them to sneak back in.”
The Lady Vols have little margin for error, and a game’s outcome can hinge on a couple of bad possessions. It happened against Mississippi State, which was understandable against the No. 4 team in the country, but it also can happen against Ole Miss.
“Ole Miss is not a better team, but they were tonight,” said DeShields, who added that the Lady Vols need to keep their game elevated for all opponents.
But therein lies the question? Will the Lady Vols correct that? And are the Lady Vols really the better team? As of now, Tennessee relies on DeShields, Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared to play an almost perfect game on both ends. That is not sustainable, especially with the excessive minutes they play. Nared and DeShields both went the distance against Ole Miss, as they have often done this season.
“We can play with the best of the best,” DeShields said. “We can’t play down to our competition.”
Tennessee is capable of beating any team – and losing to anyone. That was apparent in Oxford with the lack of energy and any sense of urgency until the second quarter.
Coach Holly Warlick sounded frustrated with the officiating during her post-game radio remarks.
“It was physical inside, yet again, and it’s something we’ve got to adjust to,” Warlick said.
Russell was held, bumped and hacked throughout the game with rarely a whistle. But that is how the SEC is played inside, and it’s not changing. It may also be time for Warlick to get a technical – maybe kick Pat Summitt’s orange stool across the court – to make a point for Russell.
Warlick also sounded frustrated with her team.
“We had no interest in defending,” Warlick said. “It was ridiculous. You can’t come out and not be ready to play.”
That is a good point, because while fatigue is a factor for the players logging a lot of minutes, it doesn’t explain the start of the first quarter as a team.
Jaime Nared led Tennessee with 23 points on 9-18 shooting and 4-4 from the line. But Tennessee shot 34.8 percent (23-66) overall and 11.1 percent (1-9) from the arc. The usually steady Russell misfired inside, and DeShields, Meme Jackson and Alexa Middelton all struggled to connect. Russell and DeShields were a combined 8-29; Jackson and Middleton, 2-12. That kind of shooting can sink a team – especially in the SEC and on the road.
Nared was joined in double figures by Russell with 12 points and Jordan Reynolds with 10. DeShields completed the double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds.
Tennessee had a manageable 13 turnovers, but it was the timing of the miscues – especially when the Lady Vols played from behind in the fourth quarter – and quick shots in critical possessions that caused the game to unravel.
Madinah Muhammad led Ole Miss with 21 points, while Shandricka Sessom tallied a double-double with 14 points and 11 boards.
Notre Dame will be in Knoxville on Monday for Tennessee’s “We Back Pat” game. If ever there was a time for the Lady Vols to rediscover their grit and resolve, that would be the game.