Tennessee defeated Mississippi State – its fourth win this season over a top 10 team – to close the regular season with an 82-64 victory and claim the No. 5 seed in the SEC tourney.
Tennessee (19-10, 10-6) denied Mississippi State (27-3, 13-3) a share of the SEC regular season title – South Carolina claimed it outright with the Bulldog loss – and a win in front of 10,500 fans at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville.
“I am disappointed in the effort today," Mississippi State Coach Vic Schaefer said. “Credit Tennessee because they have been playing well as of late. We were beaten in all the toughness categories. We were out-rebounded, out-hustled, out-toughed. That is not what our program is about.
“I wish I could shake the hands of all 10,500 people who were here today. They did their part and deserved better.”
The Lady Vols were able to move from the No. 6 seed to the No. 5 seed after Ole Miss upset Texas A&M in Oxford. Had Alabama held onto to a 10-point lead in the second half against Missouri, the Lady Vols would have claimed the No. 4 seed in a series of tiebreakers. The final day of the regular season was SEC play writ large – unpredictable until the very end.
Tennessee will next play Thursday afternoon in Greenville, S.C., against the winner of Wednesday’s game between Vanderbilt and Alabama. It was the Lady Vols’ loss to Alabama nearly two weeks ago that torpedoed a top four seed.
“It’s a huge win for us,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “I am really proud of our kids for accepting the game plan and sticking with it.”
Jaime Nared notched a career-high 30 points, Jordan Reynolds resurrected her offense with 17 points, and Diamond DeShields delivered 20 points and six assists.
“Their pressure forces teams to take bad shots,” Nared said. “Despite the pressure, we were able to take good shots. We didn’t rush shots.”
Tennessee built a 16-point lead in the first half behind 12 points by Nared and 10 by Reynolds, including two three-pointers. Nared was around the ball throughout the game and, after getting batted about like a pinball in the paint, got the ball to DeShields for a three-pointer and a 23-9 lead in the second quarter. The Lady Vols led 36-20 at the break.
Mississippi State, which opened the game with Senior Day salutes and a capacity crowd, seemed out of sorts on both ends. The Bulldogs started the game by dominating the offensive glass but went 2-11 from the field while the Lady Vols were 3-6. By halftime, Tennessee had shot 45 percent (13-29) while Mississippi State connected at 24 percent (8-34). The Lady Vols also nipped the Bulldogs on the glass, 22-21 and had nine assists and five steals in the first 20 minutes.
Nared scored the first bucket of the third quarter, and while the Bulldogs would climb to within 10 points, 61-51, with 8:24 left, Deshields found Nared for a basket and Reynolds got to the line for a 65-51 lead to snuff the rally.
“I think we finally figured out how to play hard every second on the court,” Nared said.
“Don’t blow this lead,” DeShields said of the discussion among teammates.
Meme Jackson put Tennessee up 67-51 on a jumper after she was assessed a technical foul, along with Mississippi State’s Victoria Vivians. Nared had grabbed an offensive rebound and ended up spun to the floor on a tied-up possession. Jackson came over to get Vivians away from Nared, and both players were assessed a technical in a play that probably should have been a no-call. Jackson responded with the basket.
Tennessee beat South Carolina, Mississippi State, Missouri and Kentucky – the top four seeds in the SEC tourney – though the Lady Vols fell to Mississippi State in Knoxville in the third SEC game of the season. Tennessee lost a fourth quarter lead in Starkville last season, and Warlick had indicated Saturday that the Lady Vols were ready to flip that script.
When DeShields completed an and-on play for a 72-53 lead, the only issue left was final margin of defeat.
“It’s a momentum game, establishing who we are,” DeShields said. “We aren’t afraid of anybody, and we’re going to keep on going.”
Mississippi State entered the game ranked number one in the SEC in offense at 76.3 points per game, while allowing just 53.5, also tops in the league. The Lady Vols ran when they could and were patient offensively when setting up half court.
“When they got tired, we kept pushing,” Nared said. “Our offense was very fluid. We kept moving.”
Tennessee shot 54.7 percent (29-53) overall, 55.6 percent (5-9) from the arc and 82.6 percent (19-23) from the line. The Lady Vols had 14 assists, 13 turnovers and five steals.
Tennessee also dominated the glass, 39-26, and allowed just 10 offensive boards by the Bulldogs. Russell had 10 boards and came just short of a double-double with nine points.
Reynolds tallied 17 points and eight rebounds in a flurry of offense for the senior guard that likely took Mississippi State by surprise.
“It was a relief for me to finally get that momentum going,” Reynolds said.
While the Lady Vols were clicking offensively, they also got plenty of stops.
Mississippi State shot 36.7 percent (22-60) overall, 40 percent (4-10) from the arc and 72.7 percent (16-22) from the line. The Bulldogs had six assists, nine turnovers and seven steals.
Vivians would finish with 18 points, but the Bulldogs struggled to find a sustainable rhythm offensively. Roshunda Johnson added 16 points off the bench.
“We played together and got stops when we needed to,” Nared said.
Tennessee also used timely steals and defensive rebounds to score 14 points in transition to just four in the open court for Mississippi State.
“We are a very good team in transition,” Reynolds said. “It was great to keep that momentum going for us.”
Reynolds, DeShields and Nared repeatedly used the word “momentum” in the post-game press conference. That level of play will be needed in postseason. Warlick noted that to beat the top four seeds in the regular season, “you’ve got to almost be flawless.”
“They bought into our game plan. They executed extremely well,” Warlick said. “If I could bottle it, I’d bottle it.”