GREENVILLE, S.C. – The Tennessee Lady Vols made it a short trip in the SEC tournament with a 72-64 bow-out to Alabama in their first game, the earliest exit for Tennessee since 1993.
Tennessee (19-11) fell for the third consecutive time to Alabama (19-12), just four days after defeating a top three team on the road to end the regular season. The inconsistency has bedeviled the Lady Vols, and the frustration of players and coaches was apparent Thursday in the locker room.
Former Lady Vol Tamika Catchings spoke to the team immediately after the loss and delivered the message that the Lady Vols had to get ready for the NCAA tourney.
“We’re going to have to keep our heads high and move forward,” said Mercedes Russell, who was surprised Thursday by a visit from her mother from Oregon. “We still have the tournament to look forward to.”
Tennessee is not a bubble team, but the loss likely sent the Lady Vols to a six or seven seed, which means they will get scattered somewhere across the country.
For Tennessee, that’s a long wait as brackets won’t be announced until March 13 with play starting four days later. That means Tennessee has two weeks between games and plenty of time to stew – and practice. While on-court execution can be addressed on offense and defense, the biggest issue for Tennessee remains its mental approach.
“I think we were just overlooking this team,” senior guard Jordan Reynolds said. “We didn’t think we had to come out here and play to the best of our ability because we came off a very good win.”
The result was an Alabama team that out-rebounded the Lady Vols by an eye-popping 44-31 margin and shot 58.3 percent in the fourth quarter to hold off any Tennessee comeback.
“Credit to Alabama,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “They were tougher than us today. They had a little bit of a stronger will. They just outworked us and outplayed us.”
Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood noted that the team’s inconsistent play is maddening to players and staff.
Tennessee’s loss to Alabama in the regular season came with DeShields sidelined early in the first quarter after a shot to the neck. While the Lady Vols never attributed the loss to DeShields’ absence, Alabama used the rematch as motivation.
“Everyone kept saying Diamond didn’t play, Diamond didn’t play, Diamond didn’t play,” Alabama Coach Kristy Curry said. “At the end of the day, it was more about what we could control, that’s our energy and effort.”
Tennessee took a 34-24 lead to open the third quarter, but Alabama regrouped and led 43-39 by the end of the third quarter. The Crimson Tide shot 9-17 in the third quarter, while the Lady Vols went 3-14 from the field.
Tennessee closed to within two points, 62-60, late in the fourth quarter, but DeShields fouled out with 59 seconds to play, and Jordan Lewis sealed the game at the line for Alabama.
“I wasn’t very happy that she got three or four fouls,” Warlick said. “We needed her on the floor. She can’t put herself in that position.”
Tennessee got the shots it wanted – and repeatedly misfired.
“I thought we got great looks,” Warlick said. “We didn’t rebound the basketball. Our effort just wasn’t there on that aspect of the game.”
Tennessee shot 35.8 percent (24-67) overall, 33.3 percent (3-9) from the arc and 68.4 percent (13-19) from the line. The Lady Vols had 15 assists, eight turnovers, six steals and three blocks.
Russell led Tennessee with 16 points and 12 rebounds, while DeShields notched 15 points, Reynolds tallied 14, and Jaime Nared added 11.
Alabama shot 42.4 percent (25-59) overall, 37.5 percent (6-16) from the arc and 72.7 percent (16-22) from the line. The Crimson Tide had 16 assists, 16 turnovers, eight blocks and two steals.
Meoshonti Knight led Alabama with 16 points, while Ashley Knight, Ashley Williams and Jordan Lewis added 10 points each.
“Our game plan was to do everything we needed to do to beat Alabama,” Warlick said. “We weren’t saving ourselves. We weren’t thinking about the next game as a staff. I don’t know if Jordan was speaking for everyone.
“We presented this game to where we needed to play our best to win. If that’s the case, we’ve got to change that mindset.”
A lack of effort – and taking any opponent seriously – in postseason was rather baffling, especially since Tennessee reengaged as a team this time a year ago.
“We’ve been high and low,” Russell said. “We can’t play like that.”