Following a huge win over then-ranked No. 2 Texas on Dec. 10, the Lady Vols traveled out west for a week-long trip in California.
No. 7 Tennessee started the trip off in southern California with a 90-61 win over Long Beach State before heading to northern California to face No. 18 Stanford. The Lady Vols hadn’t won in Maples Pavilion since 2005, but snapped their five-game losing streak to the Cardinal with an 83-71 win.
Now at 12-0 on the season, the Lady Vols are off to their best start since 2005-06. As Tennessee now takes a week off for Christmas break before beginning SEC play next weekend, we take a look back at what we learned about the Lady Vols on their West Coast trip.
The freshmen are no longer freshmen.
Yes, technically the Lady Vols new core are still freshmen, but they don’t play like freshmen. The grace period is over.
At the beginning of the year, we knew Evina Westbrook, Rennia Davis and Anastasia Hayes were very talented, but they weren’t battle-tested. After wins over Texas, Stanford and Marquette, they’ve been put to the test. To this point in the season, they’ve passed.
Through 12 games, Davis and Westbrook have started every single game while Hayes comes off the bench, but averages 25.0 minutes per game.
The trio are in their first year of college basketball, but they’re playing and contributing as if they were veterans. All three are the third, fourth and fifth leading scorers on the team behind senior duo Jaime Nared and Mercedes Russell. Hayes averages 12.3 points per game while Davis averages 12.0 points. Westbrook – the former No. 2 overall player in the country – averages 9.3 points, but leads the team in assists, averaging 4.8 per game.
Lady Vols can win the big game.
First it was the Cancun challenge in Mexico where the Lady Vols won three games in three days. They beat Marquette 101-99, Oklahoma State 79-69 and South Dakota 69-49. Tennessee got stronger as the tournament went on despite concerns surrounding the team’s depth. Nared was named MVP of the tournament, averaging 19.3 points per game to go along with 11.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists.
Then it was mighty Texas, the second ranked team in the country. The Longhorns walked into Knoxville expecting to rattle the young freshmen. That didn’t work though, as the freshmen shined and Nared once again led the Vols to a big win.
Next up, it was No. 18 Stanford, who the Lady Vols led 62-47 at one point. In its win in Palo Alto for the first time in 12 years, Tennessee sealed the game at the free throw line as Westbrook scored a career-high 17 points.
The Lady Vols have the key ingredients to be successful. They’re led by a pair of dynamic veterans mixed with an injection of youthfulness that was much needed. Whether it be at home, on the road or on a neutral site, Holly Warlick has her team playing exceptional basketball.
Meme Jackson is proving to be the X-Factor.
The junior guard out of Middle Tennessee is off to the best start of her career. Through 12 games, Jackson is averaging 8.5 points per game, double her production from a season ago.
Jackson’s newfound success is in large part because of her ability to knock down three’s. She’s shooting a team-high 43 percent from distance, sixth-best in the SEC. Her ability to knock down open three’s this season has created more space for her teammates to be successful within the offense and open up things for Nared and Russell in the paint.
Against Long Beach State last Sunday, Jackson knocked down a career-high five 3-pointers. If Jackson can continue to knock down three’s going forward, it brings yet another dynamic to an already explosive Lady Vol offense.
Tennessee will begin SEC play next Sunday, Dec. 31 as they travel to Lexington to take on Kentucky. Tipoff is set for 12 p.m. ET.
Edited by Seth Raborn
Feature image courtesy of Tennessee athletics