After another up-and-down regular season under head coach Holly Warlick, the No. 5 seed Tennessee Lady Vols square off against the No. 12 seed Alabama Crimson Tide during the second round of the SEC Tournament.
The Lady Vols have dominated the series between the two programs, owning a 49-2 advantage from 1977-2015, but the Crimson Tide carry back-to-back wins into the tournament matchup, including a 65-57 win over the orange and white on Feb. 16.
During that mid-February loss, the Lady Vols were shorthanded after losing star guard Diamond DeShields to a neck injury only five minutes into the game. Luckily for Tennessee, the injury hasn’t slowed DeShields down — she nearly recorded a triple-double against Florida (15 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists) and scored 20 points in 38 minutes against Mississippi State.
Alabama doesn’t have a defensive answer for a player as talented as DeShields, but the redshirt junior’s modest 43 percent shooting season is at the mercy of forced shots. Tennessee has played toe-to-toe with the country’s elite teams when DeShields plays within the flow of the game. This is especially important against the Crimson Tide, who finished second in the conference in rebounds per game.
The team who finished ahead of them? The Lady Vols.
Tennessee’s dominance on the boards is largely attributed to the yin and yang of Mercedes Russell and Schaquilla Nunn. Russell, a second-team All-SEC selection, was a double-double machine throughout the regular season, recording 16. Although the redshirt junior isn’t afraid to attack the rim and bang the boards, her ball-handling skills and shooting range allow her to venture out into the perimeter. Meanwhile, Nunn, a graduate transfer from Winthrop, is strictly an inside bruiser and gains more confidence within the Lady Vols’ system with each passing game.
While DeShields is arguably the team’s most talented player and Russell is the team’s most consistent, the piece that sets Tennessee’s wheels in motion is Jaime Nared. Opposing coaches often key on Nared to disrupt the flow of the Lady Vols’ offense, a tactic Alabama head coach Kristy Curry will likely implement on Thursday afternoon.
Of Tennessee’s “big three,” Nared is the easiest to key on. Russell’s 6-foot-6 frame makes her a matchup nightmare and DeShields is too athletically gifted to completely eliminate. Nared, on the other hand, doesn’t feature the same athletic gifts. She’s lanky and is one of the team’s more balanced players on both ends of the floor, but her 1-of-12 shooting performance against the Crimson Tide back in February validates that strategy. Alabama is a bottom-tier SEC team, but it doesn’t slouch over and accept defeat. After an impressive win over Vanderbilt, the Crimson Tide also have momentum heading into this contest.
If Alabama manages to slow down Nared, then it’s up to Tennessee’s bench to save the day. However, if the orange and white’s bench was in the saving-the-day business, the Lady Vols would be bankrupt.
Tennessee lacks a consistent fourth option. The Lady Vols can’t lean on Nunn because she isn’t much of a scoring option. She attacks the glass well, but mainly on the defensive end. Starting point guard Jordan Reynolds was asked to increase her scoring role before the season, but that wish hasn’t come to fruition. Alexa Middleton is a flash in the pan. Meme Jackson hesitates to shoot, and when she does, it’s almost always a corner three. Kortney Dunbar is still searching to find her stroke from beyond the arc. Kamera Harris is a freshman who hasn’t received a lot of playing time.
For the Crimson Tide to come away with their third straight victory over Tennessee, they’ll need to lure Nared into early foul trouble and force a less reliable player to beat them.
Tipoff is at 2:30 p.m. ET.
It’s hard to trust the Lady Vols. After defeating Notre Dame, they immediately lost to Auburn. After defeating South Carolina in Columbia, they lost three of their next five games. There’s reason for optimism after an 18-point road victory over Mississippi State, but it’s too soon to fall completely in love with Tennessee.
Regardless of the inconsistent play throughout the regular season, the talent gap between the Lady Vols and the Crimson Tide is massive. Alabama’s attempt at taking Nared out of the gameplan might give Tennessee fits in the early going, but the Lady Vols will eventually prevail, 70-56.
Featured image by Hayley Pennesi, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics
Edited by Nathan Odom