The results on the court weren’t as sweet as the festivities off the court for the Lady Vols on Sunday afternoon. In the seventh annual “We Back Pat” game in honor of legendary head coach Pat Summitt, No. 3 Mississippi State (20-0, 6-0 SEC) defeated No. 6 Tennessee 71-52.
“It meant a lot. I feel bad because we didn’t get the win for Pat,” Lady Vols freshman Evina Westbrook said on playing in her first “We Back Pat” game. “We try to play for her every day, so it means a lot to me and everyone on the team because of how she impacted people.”
Mercedes Russell led the Lady Vols to start the game, as Tennessee (16-3, 4-2 SEC) jumped out to an early 8-6 lead behind six points from the senior center. The lead wouldn’t last long though, as Mississippi State would go on a 7-0 run following the media timeout on its way to building a 21-14 lead to end the first quarter.
Russell found her groove to start the second quarter as well. Within the first two and a half minutes of the frame, Russell scored six points. That would be all Russell could muster in the first half though, as Mississippi State’s defense played as well as it has all season.
“We just didn’t have it today,” Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick said following the game. “We have to clean up some things. We have to value the basketball.”
While the Bulldog defense started to assert itself, the offense built a 39-26 halftime lead behind 13 points from Victoria Vivians. Roshunda Johnson chipped in nine points.
The Lady Vols didn’t play with their usual toughness on Sunday. In the first half alone, Mississippi State hauled in nine offensive rebounds that led to 14 second chance points. On the afternoon, the Bulldogs out-rebounded Tennessee 44-33 behind 18 rebounds from Teaira McCowan – 10 of which were on the offensive glass.
“I’m disappointed our kids weren’t more tough,” Warlick said. “I thought we gave up too many loose balls. We didn’t get on the floor as much. We have done that, it just didn’t appear that we had that today.”
Toughness is something that Warlick knows starts with her, and it’s going to take getting back in the gym to continue to instill it.
“This is still a learning process for us,” Warlick said. “We are going to get better. It starts with me and getting back on the practice floor and correcting things we need to get better at, and toughness is one of them.”
Tennessee fought back in the third quarter, out-scoring Mississippi State 18-14, but it couldn’t land the fatal punch. Every time it appeared Warlick’s team was on the cusp of cutting the lead to single-digits, the Bulldogs would hit a big three or haul in an offensive rebound.
With 7:19 remaining in the game, Tennessee cut the Mississippi State lead to 57-50, but that’s as close as it would good. The Bulldogs would go on a 14-2 run to close out the game, as the Lady Vols didn’t score over the final 7:54 of play. Tennessee scored a season-low eight points in the fourth quarter on just 2-of-14 shooting from the floor.
Russell finished with 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting from the field, but the Oregon native didn’t receive much help on the afternoon. Fellow senior Jaime Nared was just 3-of-14 for 12 points while the talented freshmen trio of Evina Westbrook, Rennia Davis and Anastasia Hayes combined for just 15 points on 8-of-20 shooting. Junior guard Meme Jackson was 1-for-10 from the field.
Led by Vivians’ 24 points, four different Bulldogs finished in double-figures. Johnson finished with 16 points on 2-of-3 shooting from beyond-the-arc, while Blair Schaefer was 4-of-8 from three for 12 points. Along with her 18 rebounds, McCowan finished with 12 points.
The Lady Vols lone bright spot on the afternoon was in the turnover department. After turning it over 28 times on Thursday night against No. 5 Notre Dame, Tennessee committed just 13 turnovers against Mississippi State.
Tennessee now turns its attention to Ole Miss (11-8, 1-5 SEC). The Lady Vols and the Rebels will square off in Thompson-Boling Arena on Thursday night at 7 p.m. ET.
Edited by Seth Raborn
Feature image courtesy of Tennessee Athletics