It was an odd Sunday afternoon in Thompson-Boling Arena from the onset.
The opening tip off between the Tennessee Lady Vols and Arkansas Razorbacks was misplayed, and once the second attempt went in Tennessee’s favor, the clock operators failed to start the game clock.
The crowd was even given a warning after a few Lady Vol fans allegedly simulated an official’s whistle from the stands when a Razorback player was at the free throw line.
Despite the setbacks and the absence of the team’s leading scorer, Diamond DeShields, the Lady Vols overcame a sluggish first three quarters with a fourth-quarter surge and won, 59-46.
“(Playing without her) does give you an appreciation for Diamond,” Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick said after the win. “But it also gives me a great appreciation for our team. We played different combinations, the kids had to step up … Diamond was very positive from the bench and into every play. I think that really helped our players.”
After the game’s start was bobbled, both teams bobbled one offensive possession after another in the game’s opening minutes. It wasn’t until Mercedes Russell’s layup at the 7:10 mark of the first quarter that points finally made an appearance on the scoreboard. Russell finished the game with 13 points and 10 rebounds, her 15th double-double of the season.
The offensive struggles became the theme of the ensuing two quarters. Part of it was self-inflicted for the Lady Vols, as they either missed open looks or forced errant passes that resulted in turnovers. The other part was Arkansas’ defensive strategy, which largely leaned on double-teaming Russell in the paint and forcing the orange and white to be a jump-shooting team.
It worked wonders in the first half for the Razorbacks, who held the Lady Vols to 1-of-11 shooting from beyond the arc in the game’s first two quarters.
However, the struggles from 3-point range didn’t deter Tennessee.
“In the first half, when they weren’t falling, Holly stressed to use your one-dribble pulls-ups,” Alexa Middleton said. “… don’t just settle for the 3-point shots … if you move the ball around the perimeter and take that shot, that’s not your best look. But if you’re penetrating the defense and driving and kicking, then that’s a good look.”
Middleton, who earned her fourth start in a row, had one of her strongest performances of the season on Sunday. The sophomore finished with 17 points, 12 of which came at various key points in the second half. Middleton also recorded a trio 3-pointers and was pivotal to the Lady Vols’ 5-of-8 performance from behind the arc in the second half.
In addition, Middleton also became a presence on the defensive end, an area she has struggled with all season long.
“I always hear teams when I’m on the defensive end in front of their bench saying, ‘Go at her, go at her,'” Middleton said. “That fuels me and I know my defense still isn’t perfect, nowhere near it, but I’ve really just been trying to focus on angles and staying in front (of offensive players), being determined. I think it has gotten better.”
While Middleton’s performance was somewhat of a surprise, Jaime Nared’s performance (19 points and nine rebounds) was a welcome return to form for the junior out of Oregon.
Over the previous four games, Nared averaged nine points per game on 25 percent shooting from the floor — the Lady Vols went 1-3 in those games. Despite getting into early foul trouble yet again on Sunday, Nared came alive in the fourth quarter, even scoring 10 straight points for Tennessee at one point.
“I think what I’ve struggled with is getting into foul trouble … after that, your just start playing tentative,” Nared said.
Tennessee entered the final quarter only up 37-35, but outscored the Razorbacks 22-11 over the final ten minutes. During Nared’s 10-point stretch, the Lady Vols’ lead ballooned from 39-35 to 49-40. From that point on, Tennessee seized control and ended its two-game skid.
The Lady Vols’ last home game of the season is Thursday against the Florida Gators. Tipoff is slated for 7 p.m. ET, and the game will be televised on the SEC Network.
Edited by Nathan Odom
Featured image by Donald Page, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics