InsideTennessee analysis of UT-Baylor

WACO, Texas - The Lady Vols' shooting momentum came to a screeching halt in the Bears' lair Tuesday night as Tennessee fell to Baylor, 76-53. Go inside for game analysis from Inside Tennessee.

Tennessee (7-2) went into the game against Baylor (9-1) with eight available players and only one, Kamiko Williams, could find the basket with any consistency.

The result was the largest halftime deficit in program history at 25 points, and a somewhat bearable final score - the 23-point margin was still the eighth-worst in program history - because coach Kim Mulkey used all 13 players on her roster and didn't light up the scoreboard.

Tennessee knew it had to make shots to open the game against the Bears and instead missed it first 11 before Cierra Burdick hit a jumper at the 13:05 mark to finally put Tennessee on the board.

The orange section behind the Tennessee bench, made up mostly of parents and other fans, stood the entire time during live action waiting on the first basket, by tradition. They probably should have been given consideration for the team's new Hustle Award for their perseverance.

The first half was disastrous for Tennessee as Baylor started the game hitting over 50 percent from the field, and the Lady Vols were misfiring from every position on the floor.

As the misses piled up, the Tennessee players got either overeager - head coach Holly Warlick said they tried to make up the deficit in one possession - or tentative by passing up shots or anticipating Brittney Griner's arrival.

"It was frustrating because we almost always shoot the ball well," Warlick said. "I think we had open looks, but they were always rushed. We were quick-shooting the basketball and our game plan was not to quick-shoot the basketball.

"We were trying to make everything up in one possession."

Tennessee also got some excellent looks that didn't fall in the first half. The frustration mounted and the result was a 41-16 deficit at halftime.

It was the largest margin since the Lady Vols fell behind by 20 points to Rutgers, 33-13, on Jan. 3, 2009, a game Tennessee came back and won 55-51.

But Baylor, the defending national champion, is led by All-Americans Griner and Odyssey Sims, and an energetic crowd of 9,249 - being implored to stand and yell by Mulkey - wasn't about to allow an epic comeback.

Instead, Warlick's directive to her team at halftime was simple.

"I don't care about the score," Warlick told the Lady Vols. "I just want you to play hard."

Tennessee did that and actually outscored Baylor 37-35 in the second half. The Lady Vols also took care of the ball with 13 turnovers - and just five after the break - and hung tough on the boards despite the size difference with 47 rebounds to Baylor's 54.

But Tennessee couldn't recover from the way it started the game with nearly seven minutes passing before a number besides zero appeared on the Lady Vols' side of the scoreboard.

"We went up against a good Baylor team and didn't come ready to play in the first half," Warlick said. "That had a lot to do with Baylor's defense. I thought we did a good job in the second half, but you can't spot a team 20 points and expect to win."

Baylor's defense is stout because of the "Griner effect." When Baylor is in man defense, even if her player roams to the perimeter, she remains in the paint like a soccer goalie following the ball but never straying far from the net.

If a Lady Vol got around her defender, Griner was there to redirect the play. That allows Baylor's defenders to push the ball farther from the basket and apply tight coverage even beyond the arc.

The Lady Vols responded with motion and ball movement and got plenty of looks - Tennessee shot 75 times - but too few found the net at 22 for a shooting percentage of 29.3 percent.

Players who had been shooting well struggled from Taber Spani's 1-12 stat line to Meighan Simmons' 6-18 to Ariel Massengale's 3-12.

Simmons led Tennessee with 16 points but again struggled from the arc against Baylor at 2-9. The other player to reach double digits for the Lady Vols was Williams, who was 7-13 from the field for 15 points. She also got her first career double-double with 10 boards.

Add Williams' six assists, zero turnovers and a steal and her defense on Sims, and it was one of the best games of the senior's career.

With freshman guard Andraya Carter out for the season after shoulder surgery, Tennessee needs a guard to step into the void. Can Williams sustain this performance?

With Williams waiting in the back of the media room for the players' turn at the interview table, Warlick was asked about the senior going forward and gave an honest answer.

"I tell Kamiko she's the only one who's holding herself back," Warlick said. "I have all the confidence in her. With Andraya out, she's got to step up and play. I hope tonight was a sign of things to come."

Baylor may be the most athletic team in women's college basketball at all five spots, and that suits Williams' well. Williams has tight handles with the ball, a smooth offensive flow and the ability to keep a player in front of her on defense.

She repeatedly drove right at Baylor, got to the rim and finished. She also connected on a three and a sweet bank shot in transition.

Williams said her teammates and coaches were constantly in her ear and she didn't want to let them down. She said even Jenny Moshak and Heather Mason maintained chatter with her about playing well. She agreed with Warlick's assessment.

"My teammates know it. I know it," Williams said. "It has been a problem, but I'm trying to fix it. Hopefully I can build off these two games and be there for my team like I need to be."

She makes Tennessee a better team and is also the primary backup now to Massengale.

The Lady Vols are young at nearly every spot on the floor, and Williams is a senior with plenty of experience. The other senior, Spani, managed to log 24 minutes and spent the time off the court getting her lower back treated. She rarely sits when on the bench. She took what appeared to be a charge in the second half - she was whistled for the block - and very gingerly made it down court while Baylor shot the free throw.

Spani was not physically comfortable during the game - she logged 31 minutes at Texas because of foul trouble - but with just eight players available, she had to provide some minutes.

The majority of Tennessee's team was playing at Baylor for the first time, and the freshmen and sophomores had an eye-opening experience with the hostile environment and adversity to open the game.

Williams nodded during the post-game press conference when Burdick was asked if the young players had just been indoctrinated in big-time women's basketball.

"You can tell us," Burdick said. "(But until it is experienced), you really don't understand the type of environment you're playing in."

Burdick was visibly upset after the game but still able to outline what has to happen next for Tennessee.

"We need to play D and get boards," Burdick said. "Our shot is not going to fall every single night. That's when we need to fall back on our defense."

In one possession in the second half, Baylor got five offensive boards with the possession ending in a foul. Warlick looked exasperated on the sideline, as boxing out and board play remain tenets of Tennessee basketball.

Baylor had 18 offensive boards and converted those into 12 second-chance points. That is not a lot of points, but a team like Baylor needs no additional help from the defense.

"We gave up offensive boards," Warlick said. "It nullified everything you did on the defensive end."

Tennessee held its own on the offensive boards with 19 and 13 second-chance points. Freshman Nia Moore, who had to play 16 minutes because sophomore post Isabelle Harrison was out with a sprained ankle, grabbed four of those boards and got invaluable experience by trying to go against the best post player in the country and consensus No. 1 WNBA draft pick.

Warlick will find things to like when she watches the game film, but the start will be hard to overlook. She will, however, be proud that her team didn't fold and she said in the post-game press conference that she saw effort and resolve in the second half.

Lady Vol fans who were used to Pat Summitt's disciplined and medically ethical approach should appreciate that Warlick stayed with the eight available players. Harrison was close to being able to play, but the decision was made that the ankle, which she sprained Sunday against Texas, just wasn't quite ready.

Juco guard Jasmine Phillips was held out of these two games in Texas by coach's decision because she had fallen behind academically and needed December to catch up. Even though exams are now completed and the roster was getting depleted for the Baylor game, Warlick stuck to her decision to sit Phillips, who could have played in these road games in terms of eligibility. She also won't play against Stanford by Warlick's decision.

Warlick said Harrison was expected to be cleared for Saturday's matchup with the No. 1 team in the country.

It is also a compliment to Tennessee that Baylor players noted how "fired up," in Griner's words, they were to face the Lady Vols.

Warlick is a first-year head coach, and Tennessee's roster is full of new faces after the loss of five seniors, who all started to end last season. The Lady Vols began the season at No. 20 in the AP poll and climbed to No. 10 heading into this game.

"I think that we just came out prepared and on fire," Griner said. "Anytime that we play Tennessee it is always a high intensity game. Everybody was pumped up, and so was I. We just came out on fire."

Mulkey joked that "maybe it was the excitement of they're going home for Christmas."

Griner posted 17 points and 12 boards in 31 minutes of play, while Brooklyn Pope added 16 boards and 11 points. Sims, who had offensively lit up Tennessee in the past, tallied just eight points on 3-5 shooting but had eight assists in her 35 minutes.

"Odyssey didn't hardly shoot but probably played one of her best floor games at Baylor," Mulkey said.

Mulkey had been waiting for Kimetria Hayden to break out, and she did so against Tennessee by hitting four treys and tallying 16 points.

Tennessee's defensive game plan was to help on Griner and try to contain Sims. They basically accomplished that.

"We didn't want Odyssey Sims to go off," Warlick said. "You kind of pick your poison."

That meant someone else would have to beat the Lady Vols, and Hayden came through, along with 12 points from Jordan Madden.

"They made plays, and that's the sign of a great team," Warlick said.

"I've been in the gym more shooting because I know that they are going to double team Brittney and we have to create open shots," Hayden said.

Add the "Tennessee effect" to the lexicon of Baylor games. The Bears do seem to play their best at all spots on the floor when they see orange. The green of Baylor seems to have the same effect on Williams.

"Every time she plays us she has a good game," Mulkey said. "She seems to play her best against Baylor."

Tennessee didn't get a good game from anyone else on the roster and departed Waco with its second defeat of the season after seven consecutive wins.

"This is December, and it is a learning experience for us," Warlick said. "We are so far away from where we need to be, but we are climbing the ladder."

VIDEOS

Game highlights from utsportstv

Cierra Burdick, Kamiko Williams


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