The Lady Vols got back in the win column Thursday – and now control their own destiny in terms of a bye in the early rounds of the SEC tourney – by shutting down Missouri’s three-point attack and hitting nine long balls of their own in a 77-66 victory.
Tennessee (16-8, 7-4) defeated Missouri (16-9, 6-5) before a crowd of 8,041 that was as appreciative of the win as they were angry at the officiating crew, which called – and then rescinded – a double technical call in the fourth quarter.
The Tigers are a prolific three-point shooting team, but the Lady Vols stiffened their defense, especially in the first and fourth quarters, to secure the win.
Missouri was 2-13 from the arc, and Tiger sharpshooter Sophie Cunningham was 1-6. The Tigers arrived in Knoxville averaging 6.5 made threes a game on 19.7 attempts, and the two treys were a season low. Tennessee, meanwhile, shot 9-17 from the arc with Diamond DeShields connecting on four and Jordan Reynolds drilling two.
“I’ve been working on shooting the three-pointer,” DeShields said. “It’s been a struggle point for me all year, and it was a huge relief to see a few go in. They felt good and had a good rhythm. I appreciate my teammates for getting me the ball and trusting me to come through.”
Tennessee opened the game with tight man-to-man defense, forced Missouri to shoot from well behind the arc and induced two shot clock violations. But when DeShields went to the bench with two fouls at the 1:30 mark of the first quarter, the defense faltered, and the Tigers got to the rim relatively unimpeded.
“We took away the three, holding them to the least amount of threes (made this season),” Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick said. “They probably have a record for the most dribble-drives to the basket.”
Missouri claimed a 21-17 lead, and DeShields reentered in the second quarter at the 5:56 mark despite the two fouls.
“I thought her presence on the floor we needed to have it,” Warlick said. “Even with two fouls, we needed her ability to rebound and make people shoot over her. Diamond wanted to go in earlier. We took a chance, and she has to be disciplined enough to not get in foul trouble from then on. I thought she did a great job.”
DeShields got scoring help from Reynolds, Jaime Nared and Alexa Middleton, and the Lady Vols, after falling behind 25-17, trailed by just five at halftime, 35-30. By the end of the third quarter, the game was knotted at 54 with Nared and DeShields combining for 17 of Tennessee’s 24 points in the third quarter.
“The first two initial fouls could have been avoided, so I knew getting the third one was going to be totally up to me,” DeShields said. “I really appreciate Holly trusting me in that situation to have me in there knowing that it was going to be a hard-fought game. I have a lot of thanks to my coaches for trusting me, and really my thought in that moment when I got in was just not to foul and still contribute.”
When DeShields picked up a third foul late in the third quarter, the Lady Vols showed some zone in the fourth quarter – a risky move against Missouri – that worked.
“We ran a bit of our 3-2 zone, and we rebounded out of it,” Warlick said.
The Lady Vols’ defense reawakened in the fourth quarter – Missouri scored just 11 and 12 points to open and close the game – Reynolds opened the fourth quarter with a three, and the Lady Vols never trailed again.
“We were switching but still allowing people to turn the corner on us,” Warlick said. “Mercedes would step out on the ball screen, and if she stayed too long, they were throwing it to Cierra Porter. If she didn’t stay long enough, they were turning the corner, so we had to come together and figure out how we were going to guard that ball screen. I thought we did well with it.”
DeShields energized the crowd with back-to-back threes, both assisted by Reynolds, who had an SEC-high eight helpers and has now tallied 15 total assists in the past two games.
“I am extremely proud of Jordan,” Warlick said. “I think she ran her basketball team. She got everyone where they needed to go, there was not any confusion, and I thought she took shots when she was open.
“I think it was a great night for Jordan Reynolds, and she was a great leader for us. We need that all of the time.”
Tennessee shot 52 percent (26-50) for the game, 52.9 percent (9-17) from the arc and 84.2 percent (16-19) from the line. The Lady Vols had 18 assists, four steals, two blocks and just nine turnovers.
Four Lady Vols tallied double figures, led by DeShields with 22 points.
“She is just a great player,” Missouri Coach Robin Pingeton said. “One of the best players in the league. One of the best players in the country. Just an elite level kid that can hit big shots in big moments. She is tough to guard, can shoot the three, can get to the rim, great basketball IQ, great passer and just does a little bit of everything. She is certainly an elite level player.”
Nared notched 18 points for Tennessee with Mercedes Russell and Reynolds adding 12 each. Tennessee nipped Missouri on the glass, 28-27.
Middleton, who tallied six points and four assists, moved into the starting lineup. Meme Jackson added five points and a steal in a relief role.
“I thought we needed a little punch from Alexa,” Warlick said. “I thought Meme Jackson came in and did some great things and Alexa came in and got things started.”
Missouri shot 49.1 percent (28-57) overall, 15.4 percent (2-13) from the arc and 88.9 percent (8-9) from the line. The Tigers had 18 assists, eight steals and just nine turnovers.
Porter led Missouri with 19 points and completed the double-double with 10 rebounds. Cunningham notched 16 points, while Sierra Michaelis added 17 points with five assists.
Nared and DeShields were the primary defenders on Cunningham – her one made three wasn’t against either of them – and never let her catch and shoot comfortably.
“I think in the fourth quarter we really hunkered down on defense,” Nared said. “I think in the first three quarters they were just getting easy layups, and it’s hard for teams to shoot 56 percent if they’re not around the basket. They were just getting a lot of easy buckets, and we knew we had to make them shoot from the outside and make it tougher for them to score.”
Reynolds’ offense was timely for Tennessee, as DeShields, Nared and Russell have carried the load, especially in the SEC.
“I have been working on my shot lately, just trying to help these guys as much as I can and give the team some relief,” Reynolds said.
Tennessee will finally play back-to-back home games in the SEC with Texas A&M in town Sunday.
“It’s nice to be home,” Nared said. “It’s nice to see our fans come to the games. They’ll support us, even with the highs and the lows of our season, it seems like it’s just been a rollercoaster. It’s just nice to be at home, it’s nice to sleep in your own bed, it’s nice to see your family or friends, and it’s nice to play at home.”
Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick
Lady Vols Jordan Reynolds, Jaime Nared and Diamond DeShields
Missouri Coach Robin Pingeton