Saul Young/USA TODAY Sports

Lady Vols stumble at home

Tennessee surrendered an 11-point lead and lost by two to visiting Texas A&M on Sunday. Details and post-game press conference video are below.

Tennessee slipped at home 61-59 against Texas A&M on Sunday amid a flurry of quick shots in the fourth quarter, lack of rebounding and an erroneous call that allowed the game to be tied – and now need help to secure a bye in the SEC Tournament.

Tennessee (16-9, 7-5 Southeastern Conference) rued the outcome as soon as the game ended against Texas A&M (19-6, 9-3). The Lady Vols hit just two of 13 shots in the fourth quarter with Mercedes Russell’s layup at 8:46 the last field goal of the game for Tennessee.

With the Lady Vols clinging to a 56-56 lead with 2:44 to play, a ball out of bounds off Texas A&M erroneously was awarded to the Aggies, and Curtyce Knox, who was 3 of 15 from the field, drilled her one three attempt to tie the game at 59, much to the dismay – and anger – of the 10,032 fans in attendance.

Tennessee, meanwhile, misfired on its end with two seconds remaining, and a shot by Russell at the buzzer was on line but bounced off the rim.

“We got a good look,” Russell said. “It looked good after I released it, but I just missed.”

Texas A&M Coach Gary Blair won for the first time in Knoxville, but he spent several minutes of his press conference thanking the arena personnel and defending Holly Warlick’s tenure at Tennessee. He said what ardent followers of women’s basketball know – it’s a different era in the game, and when Geno Auriemma retires, Connecticut comes back to the pack, too.

“Do you know how hard it’s been to replace John Wooden?” Blair said. “It hadn’t been done. Holly is doing one hell of a job. If I had made, since my national championship, three Elite Eights and a Sweet Sixteen, they would have built a statue for me and my money would have been sky high. It’s time that y’all get off your wagon and realize you’re in a different era right now.

“Holly is doing as good as what she can with two kids that are out for the year and limited. I’ve got to do a better job. I’m bringing in the No. 9 recruiting class; y’all are bringing in the No. 1. I’m telling you right now, let’s just go to Connecticut in about seven years when Geno hangs it up and meets me on the golf course. I’ll kick his ass there. When Shea Ralph takes over that job, you talk about something that’s going to be hard? When you replace a legend, that’s the hardest job in America. Holly accepted that challenge.

“Her team always gets better at the end, which they will again, and I hope like hell I don’t have to play them in the SEC Tournament.”

The loss sent Tennessee from a three-way tie for third place to a tenuous hold on fifth place. The Lady Vols can still get a bye in the SEC tourney, but Tennessee needs help from South Carolina and Mississippi State. If Tennessee goes 3-1 – and there’s no guarantee starting with Alabama on the road – and Kentucky loses to both South Carolina and Mississippi State – the two finish 10-6 in the league and the Lady Vols’ Jan. 1 win over the Wildcats breaks the tie.

That is not, of course, the scenario the Lady Vols wanted in mid-February.

“This was a must-win for us, and this was a great opportunity for us,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “We let it slip away. We still have a lot of basketball to go, but this one obviously hurts a little bit.”

The Lady Vols opened the game by owning the offensive glass, but then A&M surged on the boards and won that battle, 45-34. The biggest board came off a baseline miss by Danni Williams that Khaalia Hillsman grabbed and converted.

“Down the stretch, it was grit,” Warlick said. “It’s rebounding. It’s not about the talent; it’s just grit. You’ve got to box out and get loose balls. Again, I’m not going to concede to we have six people, and we’re just tired. You got to suck it up and go get the ball and be as physical as (Texas A&M) was.”

Russell delivered for Tennessee with 17 points and 11 boards, and Alexa Middleton connected on two 3-pointers and an assortment of midrange jumpers for 14 points. But Jaime Nared and Diamond DeShields were held to single digits at nine and eight points, respectively.

Blair noted that DeShields was Tennessee’s best player, while Nared was its most valuable player. With Tennessee taking quick shots too often in the third and fourth quarters – DeShields didn’t attempt a shot in the third quarter – the Lady Vols lost an 11-point lead, 58-47, with 8:49 left in the game.

“We went away from what had gotten us the lead,” DeShields said. “We started to take jump shots. We were missing those shots, and they were able to rebound the ball and have opportunities on their end to score and cut the lead.”

Tennessee shot 38.1 percent (24-63) overall, 21.4 percent (3-14) from the arc and 88.9 percent (8-9) from the line. The Lady Vols had 18 assists, four blocks, four steals and just seven turnovers.

Texas A&M shot 37.5 percent (24-64) overall, 57.1 percent (4-7) from the arc and 90 percent (9-10) from the line. The Aggies had 17 assists, 10 turnovers and five steals.

Williams led Texas A&M with 18 points, while Hillsman and Knox added 10 points each. Hillsman completed the double-double with 15 rebounds. Anriel Howard grabbed 18 boards to go with eight points.

Both teams essentially use a rotation of six players with the starters carrying the load.

“Texas A&M battled and just had a little bit more of a will than we did down the stretch,” Warlick said.

The difference came on the offensive glass with 14 second-chance points for Texas A&M and eight for the Lady Vols.

“I think you could tell that we were letting fatigue get to us a little bit like on offensive rebounds,” Middleton said. “We didn’t score in the last three minutes. There were some shots that we normally hit and some shots that probably weren’t great. We just have to finish the game out and keep playing tough all the way through.”

The game plan was to attack Tennessee – Blair said that was apparent after watching Tennessee’s loss to Georgia. The Lady Vols will need to stiffen their defense – and consider using some zone – and reassert themselves on the glass. Both allow a team to withstand scoring droughts.

“I think it is more frustrating to me to give up second- and third-chance points,” Warlick said. “I just don’t think we were disciplined down the stretch. We shot the ball quick early in the clock. We’ll go back and watch it and see exactly what we did.”

The Aggies, like Kentucky, still have to play SEC leaders Mississippi State and South Carolina, but Texas A&M now holds the tiebreaker over Tennessee. The final two weeks of the regular season will be a battle for the byes.

Texas A&M has been in its share of battles this SEC season.

“That’s who we are,” Blair said. “We’re not a great team. We’ve played great in certain moments, playing bend-but-don’t-break defense because our depth problem. That’s what we have to do, and Holly is having to do a little bit of the same thing.”

Both teams essentially use a rotation of six players with the starters carrying the load.

“Texas A&M battled and just had a little bit more of a will than we did down the stretch,” Warlick said.

Game highlights

Coach Holly Warlick

Lady Vols Alexa Middleton, Mercedes Russell and Diamond DeShields

Texas A&M Coach Gary Blair and Danni Williams

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