The “Big Three” keep delivering for Tennessee, and the Lady Vols avoided a letdown after a big win with Thursday’s 77-58 win over LSU for the “Live Pink, Bleed Orange” game in Knoxville.
Tennessee (15-7, 6-3) adjusted at halftime, especially on the glass, to secure the win over LSU (15-7, 4-5) and get back among the leaders in the SEC. If the Lady Vols can win on the road Sunday against Georgia, they also should be back in the AP Top 25.
The Lady Vols, led by Jaime Nared, Mercedes Russell and Diamond DeShields, have now won four consecutive games. Senior point guard Jordan Reynolds has managed the team well – she had five assists to just one turnover against LSU – and Alexa Middleton and Schaquilla Nunn have been solid off the bench.
“I knew, coming off the South Carolina game, we may have a little bit of a letdown, but I thought we stayed solid,” Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick said. “They stayed focused, and we got the job done. I’m proud of the win and excited for our young ladies, but now, we’re getting ready for Georgia.”
Nared followed up 40 minutes and a career-high 27 points against South Carolina with 40 minutes and 26 points against LSU. Nared and Russell accounted for all of Tennessee’s 23 points to start the game, while DeShields erupted in the second half with two back-to-back baskets in the third quarter that gave the Lady Vols a 53-40 lead and forced an LSU timeout.
DeShields snared a defensive rebound by out-leaping everyone, weaved down court, including a behind-the-back dribble, attacked the rim, switched hands and hit the layup. That was followed by another jaunt and a floater in the paint.
“I’m not ever going to stop shooting,” DeShields said. “Going into halftime, I knew I was working towards a triple-double. I knew in the second half I could score more than 10 points, so at that point, it really was not much about my shot; it was more so getting the ball to Jaime Nared and Mercedes Russell. They had the hot hands tonight. It was not my night, and I am completely fine with that.”
DeShields, who ended up two assists shy of a triple-double, was scoreless in the first half, but she had five assists and six boards in the first 20 minutes. At halftime, Warlick said DeShields and her teammates were talking about defensive stops.
“I think she trusts her teammates. She trusts herself now,” Warlick said. “I think she understands that we are going to get her some good looks. Our players come in and talk when they go into the locker room. When we came in from our room and listened to them, she was talking about getting stops, getting defensive rebounds.”
The scouting report on Tennessee for the past two seasons has been to play zone and prevent the Lady Vols from executing on offense. But the Lady Vols, especially the past month, are executing in transition and the half court. LSU allows an average of 58.1 points per game, and the Lady Vols scored 77.
“After watching Tennessee’s game against South Carolina, they really have made a huge transition from where they were, probably about a month ago,” LSU Coach Nikki Caldwell Fargas said. “They’re getting better, and they’re getting better in a lot of different areas. They’re getting consistency from their big three, and they’re doing what they need to do.”
LSU plays a tough 3-2 matchup zone that will extend to pick up the ball-handler and pressure the wings, but Tennessee had just 11 turnovers and repeatedly got the ball inside with 44 points tallied in the paint.
“We definitely work on it a lot in practice,” Russell said. With LSU’s (lack of) size, it was key for us to get paint points and get to the free throw line. I think we did a pretty good job of that tonight.”
Tennessee got the ball inside to Russell early so she could work against LSU’s smaller post players.
“It’s nothing that we haven’t been up against, playing South Carolina, or playing Texas A&M,” LSU’s Ayana Mitchell said of handling the Lady Vols’ interior size. “It’s really just us continuing to battle. Mercedes Russell is a great player. She got deep on us a lot, and put me in foul trouble.”
Nared led all scorers with 26 points and was joined in double figures by Russell with 18 points; DeShields, 15; and Nunn, 13.
“The significance for us is that it is a test of our growth as a team because we have had big wins,” DeShields said. “That was not anything new for us. Although we started slow, we showed our growth tonight and that is what is most important. South Carolina is over; it is not our job to talk about it anymore. We were focused on LSU tonight and I think that it showed.”
Nunn has become a player who knows what she can do – and does it well for Tennessee. The graduate transfer from Winthrop also went over 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in her career. Nunn nearly tallied a double-double with nine boards.
“She keeps the game simple,” Warlick said. “She gets position for the rebound, and she shoots underneath the basket, draws a foul and gets an and-one. She understands her role. We presented her with a basketball. I was really happy for her. She didn’t realize it either.”
Nared added 10 boards to her points, while DeShields notched 11, and Russell grabbed eight.
“Qui’s efficiency is extremely impressive,” DeShields said. “She’ll come off the bench and play like what seems like two minutes, and she has seven boards. I’m playing 40 minutes, and I’ve got like five. I’m like, ‘Dude.’ It’s just amazing. And we need that from her. We can always count on her to come in and rebound.”
The Lady Vols initially were being out-rebounded by LSU but finished with a 42-28 advantage on the glass.
Tennessee shot 52.9 percent (27-51) overall, 36.4 percent (4-11) from the arc and 79.2 percent (19-24) from the line. The Lady Vols had 18 assists – Meme Jackson tallied four – and three blocks.
“We wanted to have movement. LSU wants you to stand,” Warlick said. “Their zone sometimes looks like a man-to-man. I think you have a tendency to stand. Our biggest thing was ball movement, player movement, getting in the gaps. I think you saw us get in the gaps, and we would kick out.”
Nared shot 9-10 from the field and was 7-8 from the line. She had 11 points in the first quarter.
“Jamie read gaps and got in them,” Warlick said. “She worked the backside of the zone because Mercedes draws a lot of attention. I just think our kids understood what our game plan was, and they stuck to it. I wanted the game to be a little bit faster, but it proved we didn’t need to.”
LSU shot 34.8 percent (23-66) overall, 0-4 (0 percent) from the arc and 85.7 percent (12-14) from the line. The Lady Tigers had 11 assists, three turnovers, seven steals and a block.
“It can’t be just one-on-one play for us,” Fargas said. “It’s got to be all five people in sync with guarding the basketball. I thought we got overextended at times. I thought our inability to rebound, some of those offensive putbacks were key. Those are things we can correct. Those are definitely correctable mistakes on our part.”
Raigyne Moncrief led LSU with 20 points, while Mitchell added 14. Rina Hill notched nine points, and Jasmine Rhodes chipped in with eight.
LSU stayed within striking distance for the first 30 minutes – the Lady Tigers trailed 34-27 at halftime – but Tennessee put the game away in the fourth quarter.
“We weren’t playing any defense,” Moncrief said. “We settled in the fourth quarter. Tennessee is a talented team, so we can’t settle. I think when we settled defensively, they started hitting buckets. That’s when the score started spreading. We just can’t stay away from our scouting report defense, and that’s what we did. We allowed them to go on a run.”
Warlick and Fargas presented a check of $15,000 before the game from their foundation, Champions for a Cause, which raises money for breast cancer awareness and research. The funds will be used for a new mobile unit for mammography screening.
“It’s something that she and I are extremely passionate about and for her to come in and get to share that with me was really special,” Warlick said.
The Lady Vols return to the road for Sunday’s game against Georgia. With a 4 p.m. tip and the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl, DeShields doesn’t expect many family and friends at the game in her home state. In fact, she only knew for sure that her mother, Tisha DeShields, would be in Athens.
“Not too many of my people from Atlanta are going to be at the game,” DeShields said. “And I understand that, but my mom will be there, and that’s all that really matters. It’s always good to play in the state of Georgia.”
Coach Holly Warlick
Mercedes Russell, Jaime Nared and Diamond DeShields
LSU Coach Nikki Fargas, Ayana Mitchell and Raigyne Moncrief