Tennessee reversed course in the SEC and dominated in-state rival Vanderbilt on Sunday by a final score of 91-63. The Lady Vols got balanced scoring, including 29 points from the bench, and no player had to go the distance.
Tennessee (12-7, 3-3) put on an offensive clinic over Vanderbilt (10-10, 0-7), much to the delight of the 10,106 in attendance who made it to the arena despite a later-than-usual Sunday tip and soggy weather.
The Lady Vols also emerged unscathed despite the tough tumbles of Diamond DeShields when pursuing a steal and Meme Jackson and Schaquilla Nunn while getting on the glass. Tennessee won’t get accustomed to being at home – the next two games are at Florida and South Carolina.
After a comeback win at home Monday, the Lady Vols fell at Auburn on Thursday to drop their league record to 2-3. Tennessee evened it in the second win of the season over Vanderbilt.
“Now, we’ve got 10 conference games to play, and we’re playing for our lives,” DeShields said. "We want to be playing in March, so we can’t dwell on that Auburn game. We’ve got to move forward, and now, we’ve got two tough road games coming up. Every game is important, so just having a short-term memory and letting it go was the big message from our coaches.”
The Lady Vols, once again, scorched the nets in the first quarter, ending the first 10 minutes with a 30-12 lead. Tennessee maintained its level of play on both ends and took a 56-29 lead into the locker room. Near the end of the first half, Jackson leapt for a rebound and landed hard. The sophomore stayed down for a few minutes but then was able to walk to the locker room with 1:13 left in the second quarter.
Alexa Middleton checked in for Jackson and calmly fixed Jackson’s hair while she was still down on the court and being attended to by medical staff, Coach Holly Warlick and Jordan Reynolds.
Former Lady Vol Ashley Robinson took to social media with this post: “Teamwork at its finest!!! Cover your teammates edges while on national television! Yasssss Miss Middleton!!! We applaud you boo!!”
The Instagram post drew a response from former Vanderbilt player Chantelle Anderson: “For real!!!”
“I was just trying to fix her headband to cover up some things,” Middleton said. “It fell off a little bit, so I was making sure it was where it needed to be.”
“That’s teamwork right there,” DeShields said. “That’s a true teammate.”
Tennessee played the first 20 minutes in tune with each other and then got a tad out of sync in the third quarter, allowing the Commodores to outscore the Lady Vols, 22-10.
“The obvious things would be fatigue and the mental aspect of it all, but that’s an area we need to improve,” DeShields said when asked about the lulls. “That’s an area that we can improve. We’re very aware that we tend to do that, sometimes, and it doesn’t go unnoticed. We know we can’t afford to keep having that happen in these games, so it will be addressed. It’s just a mental thing.
“We allowed ourselves to get tired, and they came down on the other end and capitalized. They were a very well-coached team. They’ve got players, and they wanted to generate some energy, and come back and win. Nobody is going to just roll over, and let us beat them. They tried to fight their way back into it, but we were able to turn it back on.”
Vandy Coach Stephanie White said as much about the Lady Vols in her post-game press conference – that their struggles would seem to be more mental and physical.
“I just think that sometimes they hold themselves back,” White said. “I think that there’s always this thing when you have a really good, talented team. Sometimes you think that you can flip the switch on and off.
“As coaches, we fight this battle a lot when you have great teams and great players. I think that when they play hard all the time, when they share the ball, especially like they played in the first half tonight, and in the fourth quarter, you can line them up against Connecticut. They could beat one of the best teams in the country.
“It’s not mental toughness necessarily, but just mentality to dominate. I think that’s what you see in a lot of special players, and a lot of special players that you guys have seen around here for a long time.”
White, who was a WNBA teammate of former Lady Vol Tamika Catchings and then her head coach with the Indiana Fever, is in her first season at Vanderbilt. She noticed Catchings’ jersey banner hanging in the rafters.
“In fact I brought my 5-year-old son with me and he looked up there and said, ‘That’s Mika's number,’ ” White said. “Tamika is just special. Not just a special player, but a special person. When she was a rookie, I was her roommate. To be able to coach her, to be able to watch her grow to see the woman she has developed into and to be able to come back and see her jersey, it makes me proud, so proud of her.
“She was the epitome of Pat’s legacy. There are a lot of players walking around here that played for Pat that have an opportunity to impact the lives of others, and Tamika is one of them.”
White, who was wearing a Pat Summitt Foundation pin, also saluted Tennessee’s bounce-back game after the disappointing loss at Auburn that, combined with the Ole Miss loss, has put the Lady Vols in a dogfight in the SEC.
“Tennessee did exactly what you would expect a great team to do,” White said. “They came out, and played at a high level. They executed very well on both ends of the floor. They knocked down shots. They dictated and dominated the game from the opening tip. That’s what great teams do.
“They’re a great team. We weren’t able to answer. I felt like, mentally, we were a little defeated early. I was proud of the group that came in the second half, and really started to fight and compete. You can’t dig yourselves a hole like that against a great team.”
Vanderbilt managed to trim the 27-point halftime deficit to 15 points by the end of the third quarter, 66-51, but Tennessee asserted itself again the fourth quarter and boosted the lead to 23 points, 78-55, with 5:02 left in the game.
“Great win, great effort,” Warlick said. “Our bench played well. I’m just happy for our kids and happy to get the win.”
Middleton tallied 19 points and smiled and nodded at the post-game press conference when asked if relief washed over her when she hit the first shot. Middleton had been in a shooting slump since SEC play started and finished 9-18 against Vanderbilt. The junior guard also added seven assists to just one turnover.
“She freed her mind up a little bit and focused on this team and where we needed to get people and what we needed to do,” Warlick said. “So, when you do that you aren’t constantly thinking about, ‘I’ve got to hit a shot, I’ve got to hit a shot.’ I just thought she played relaxed and played within our team, and when she does that, I think tonight was a great example of her just running a basketball team and great things happened for her.”
Tennessee was playing Vanderbilt for the second time in the month of January.
“I think we knew what Vanderbilt did, and we took advantage of spots where we knew that we could attack them,” Jaime Nared said. “I think we did a great job of feeding Mercedes Russell, Diamond attacking in transition, and just doing the things we normally do in our games, that we haven’t been doing consistently.”
The Lady Vols had just one day of practice to prepare, so it helped that the scouting report remained relatively fresh.
“We wanted them to play basketball and attack,” Warlick said. “Just kept it simple on the defensive end as well. We started off pressing and then we backed off, but we didn’t change a whole lot of things. We moved our press up a little bit more, attacked the paint more.”
DeShields led all scorers with 23 points. Nared notched 17 points, while Russell finished with 15. The bench contributions also allowed Warlick to trim the starters’ minutes, which has been in the 38- to 40-minute range. Dunbar hit two three-pointers – leading to a well-deserved fist pump – while Schaquilla Nunn logged 16 minutes with seven rebounds and four points. Kamera Harris grabbed two rebounds in her three minutes of action.
“These kids playing 40 minutes need some relief,” Warlick said. “They’re not going to be able to sustain 40 minutes and us continue to go through the SEC. It’s a physical game. It’s fast. We’re successful when we play up and down and fast and press and turn people over, and that’s hard to do for 40 minutes (without relief).”
Tennessee spaced the floor well on offense, and DeShields delivered pinpoint passes to Russell. The Lady Vols also were energized on defense and set the tone from the opening tip.
“We had to make sure that everyone was going to bring that same energy and effort into the second half,” DeShields said. “We did have a lapse there in the third quarter, but we were able to pick ourselves up, and I think that turned things around.”
Vanderbilt also was able to regroup at halftime and ratcheted up its defensive pressure and offensive intensity.
“I didn’t feel like we played very hard in the first half,” White said. “That group really came out and established a tone in the third quarter by getting on the floor after loose balls, by pushing the tempo, by being active and aggressive on the defensive end of the floor, by boxing out and getting out of area rebounds, and by just competing at a high level. We talk all the time as a team about controlling our `controllables'. Everything that is related to effort is a 'controllable.’ ”
Marqu’es Webb and Erin Whalen tallied 13 points each for the Commodores. Kayla Overbeck added 12 points.
“Even though on the surface, it might not look like it’s going as well as we hoped it was going, we’re still getting better,” Overbeck said. “We’re still growing. We’re setting the foundation for years to come on our team. We’re going back to our keys of putting our team first. I think that even with all of the losses, we’ve kept our identity as a team.”
Vanderbilt shot 40.3 percent (25-62) overall, 35.7 percent (5-14) from the arc and 72.7 percent (8-11) from the line. The Commodores had 15 assists, 17 turnovers and six steals.
Tennessee shot 53.7 percent (36-67) overall, 40 percent (6-15) from the arc and 81.3 percent (13-16) from the line. The Lady Vols had 17 assists, 10 steals, four blocks and just 10 turnovers. Tennessee won the glass battle, 38-32, and scored 48 points in the paint and 29 points off Vandy turnovers.
The next step is to keep momentum that has been established at home churning on the road. The Lady Vols are 3-5 this season when away from Knoxville. Tennessee is at Florida on Thursday and then at South Carolina the following Monday on Jan. 30.
“We just talk about taking this on the road and, for us, it’s just about staying a bit more focused and having a lot of confidence in your teammates,” Warlick said.
Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick
Lady Vols Alexa Middleton, Jaime Nared and Diamond DeShields
Vanderbilt Coach Stephanie White
Vanderbilt players Erin Whalen and Kayla Overbeck