The Lady Vols got a much-needed 59-46 win at home against Arkansas – and regrouped with Diamond DeShields sidelined because of a head/neck injury – with Alexa Middleton taking a role as one of the big three for Tennessee.
Tennessee (17-10, 8-6) opened the second half with solid defense and found offensive punch in the fourth quarter to put away Arkansas (13-14, 2-12).
DeShields, who took a whiplash-like shot to the neck during a loose ball scramble on Thursday at Alabama, watched from the sidelines. She was alert and engaged with her teammates – a good sign going forward in terms of her playing again soon.
“Diamond was very positive on the bench,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “I think that helped. Our numbers were low and she is out, so someone has to step up, and I thought that we have found a way to do that. We will take the win. I would like to have her in the lineup, but it didn’t work out that way, so we had to just figure out how to get it done.”
DeShields remains day to day, and Warlick said she doesn’t expect DeShields’ absence to be long-term. Her availability for the regular season finale at home against Florida on Thursday hasn’t been determined. The decision will come from the medical staff.
With the absence of DeShields, one of the season-long big three with Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared, the Lady Vols needed more offense, and Middleton delivered. The junior guard tallied 17 points, including three 3-pointers, and five boards.
Middleton reentered the starting lineup on Feb. 9 to give the team a jolt of offense. During that time, she also has improved her defense, especially after hearing opponents single her out as the one to attack.
“I always hear teams when I’m in front of their bench playing defense saying “go at her,” and that fuels me,” Middleton said. “I know my defense isn’t perfect or anywhere near perfect, but I’m trying to focus on angles, staying in front and being determined.
“I think it has gotten better, and I will easily tell you that I am proud of that because people try to come at me. I’m trying to be better at that.”
The Lady Vols’ goal is to win out, but with Missouri’s upset of South Carolina, a bye is very unlikely in the SEC tourney. Tennessee is now a No. 6 seed, though winning out could provide a chance to move to No. 5. The benefit of No. 5 is playing the first game on Thursday in the tourney vs. the final one of the evening. But Tennessee knows it dug this hole and just has to line up for the next game.
“We started off slow,” Warlick said. “I thought we got some good looks early that didn’t go down. I am really proud of our effort, and we will take the win.”
Both teams misfired to start the game, and Arkansas claimed a 23-22 lead at halftime. Arkansas Coach Jimmy Dykes believed the Razorbacks would leave Knoxville with the win at that point.
“I thought we were winning the game at halftime,” Dykes said. “The whole staff did. Our whole team did. I felt like when we were in the fourth quarter, but we didn’t quite have enough offense. You can’t win ball games and only score 46 points.”
But the Lady Vols stiffened their defense – Russell opened the second half with a steal – and unleashed its offense in the fourth quarter to secure the win.
“It was huge to have discipline on defense,” Warlick said. “I thought our defense was solid, and for the most part, we held them in check, and we boxed out. We only gave them one look at the basket. We have been working more at our zone, and I didn’t think we were going to be playing it as much. We played some 2-3 and some 3-2, so that was huge for us.”
Tennessee opened the game with 11 points in the first quarter and finished it with 22 in the fourth quarter.
“At the end of the third quarter, and especially the fourth, I thought we started to get good looks and knocked shots down,” Warlick said. “That was probably the difference in the first two quarters than in the last. I am really proud of our effort, and we will take the win.”
Nared delivered back-to-back three-pointers three minutes into the fourth quarter – one assisted by Middleton, the other by Reynolds – to give the Lady Vols a nine-point lead, 49-40, with 6:26 left in the game.
“I think we just picked it up as a team collectively,” Nared said. “I think we finally got stops on defense. We finally decided we were not going to have low energy for the rest of the game. I think we had terrible energy the first three quarters. We weren’t playing hard, but we finally picked it up.”
The first three was launched well behind the arc and the second next to the Lady Vols’ bench. As Nared drifted out of bounds and turned up court, she ran into the official – who recovered to signal a three – and a coach, much to the amusement of DeShields, the rest of the bench and the crowd of 10,613.
In the first half, the crowd was incensed by an announcement that if a whistle was heard again from the crowd, a technical foul would be assessed against Tennessee. Dykes heard a whistle while a Razorback was shooting a free throw and complained to an official.
Whistles from the crowd are relatively common during a game – Vanderbilt used to have a fan that made bird and whistling noises throughout the game – so the announcement was odd and angered the crowd.
“He said they heard a whistle, but I didn’t hear it,” Warlick said. “I thought it caught his ear, and if he heard it, he did the right thing. There are a lot of officials in the stands, but they can’t have whistles up there.”
Tennessee shot 36.8 percent (21-57) overall, 31.6 percent (6-19) from the arc and 68.8 percent (11-16) from the line. The Lady Vols had 15 assists, 10 turnovers, eight steals and five blocks.
Nared led Tennessee with 19 points, while Middleton notched 17 points, and Russell added 13. Russell completed the double-double with 10 boards and Nared nearly did so with nine. Jordan Reynolds tallied seven assists.
Arkansas shot 33.3 percent (20-60) overall, 26.3 percent (5-19) from the arc and 33.3 percent (1-3) from the line. The Razorbacks had 11 assists, 14 turnovers, five steals and four blocks.
Jessica Jackson led Arkansas with 18 points, while Malica Monk added 11 points. Arkansas lost starting guard Bailey Zimmerman shortly before halftime after she dove for a loose ball and collided with Russell’s kneecap. Zimmerman took seven stitches under her right eye and returned to the bench later in the second half.
Tennessee prevailed on the glass, 43-36, and Arkansas grabbed just 10 offensive boards. The Lady Vols notched 15 second-chance points to five for the Razorbacks.
“The past couple of games we have been out-rebounded, and we obviously want to out-rebound our opponent,” Russell said. “It was a goal for each of us to do that.”
Warlick used seven players, and each got at least one board. Kortney Dunbar grabbed five rebounds, and Schaquilla Nunn notched a pair of fours in points and rebounds.
The final home game of the season is four days away, and the Lady Vols will finish the regular season at Mississippi State, which is now in the driver’s seat to win the SEC championship outright. Tennessee loosened up in the fourth quarter – a mindset the Lady Vols will need to finish the month and start March.
“They knew we had to win this game, and I think we were trying to play not to lose instead of playing to win,” Warlick said. “I think they had fun in the fourth quarter. In the first quarter, we had good looks, but they just weren’t going, so the goal kept getting smaller and smaller.
“They want to win as much as the coaching staff and every fan of the Lady Vols. I told them at halftime that I thought we practiced harder this week than we were playing. That is why I know they were playing not to make a mistake.
“At the end of the third quarter and into the fourth quarter, they came out of it and just played, and when we just play, it’s a beautiful thing. I thought that it clicked in for them at the end.”
Coach Holly Warlick
Jaime Nared, Mercedes Russell and Alexa Middleton
Arkansas Coach Jimmy Dykes