No. 10 Tennessee (17-3, 5-3 SEC) defeated Ole Miss 75-66 on Thursday night in what has become typical Lady Vol fashion. Holly Warlick’s squad jumped out to a big lead over the Rebels but allowed them to climb back in the game midway through and then tightened up on defense to close out the win.
The Lady Vols jumped on Ole Miss (11-9, 1-6 SEC) out of the gates, shooting 12-for-18 from the field in the first quarter to build a 30-20 lead. In the opening frame, freshman Rennia Davis paced the Lady Vols with nine points. Davis created havoc for the Ole Miss defense, getting to the free throw line six times.
“My teammates were able to find me,” Davis said of her performance. “In practice we have been going over going backdoor more when teams are over-playing us. My teammates were just able to find me on all of those backdoor cuts.”
The senior duo Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared helped Davis lead the way, as the two combined for 15 first quarter points. Russell finished with 13 points on 6-of-11 shooting to go along with six rebounds. Nared recorded yet another double-double, finishing with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Led by Madinah Muhammad, Ole Miss stormed back with 4:45 remaining in the second half to erase an 11-point Lady Vol lead. Muhammad scored 12 straight on four 3-pointers to spark a 14-0 run. The junior guard finished with 22 first half points on her way to a 31-point performance on 7-of-10 shooting from beyond-the-arc.
“She’s (Muhammad) a player that day in and day out works harder than the majority of players in this league,” Ole Miss head coach Matt Insell said. “Her success tonight is not a surprise.”
Despite the 30-point first quarter from the Lady Vols, Warlick’s squad led just 40-38 at halftime. Tennessee didn’t make a bucket over the final 6:10 of play.
“I thought we started off really strong,” Warlick said following the game. “We got into foul trouble. It was tough. Our two point guards sat on the bench the second quarter, and that hurt us.”
Both teams would go back-and-forth in the third quarter. Midway through the frame, the Lady Vols would go just over five minutes without scoring, allowing Ole Miss to tie the game at 49-all. The tie wouldn’t last long though, as Davis hit one of her many big shots to spark a 6-0 run. At the end of three, Tennessee led 57-51.
The Lady Vols defense sparked a big fourth quarter performance. Switching to a zone-defense, the Lady Vols forced Ole Miss into turnovers that led to easy buckets on the other end.
“We spread our zone out and communicated and talked and located shooters,” Warlick said. “We just extended our defense. When you’re all five talking and moving, we played great defense. At times we were good, and when we needed to, we were really good.”
Midway through the fourth, Tennessee went on an 11-0 run to put the game away and take a commanding 74-55 lead.
Davis wasn’t the only freshman to lead the way for the Lady Vols. Anastasia Hayes came up big in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 of her 16 points on the evening. She also assisted on two buckets, hauled in two rebounds and picked up a steal.
“I thought Rennia (Davis) and Annie (Hayes) were awesome in the fourth quarter,” Warlick said. “They didn’t play like freshmen. They were poised. They attacked. I’m really proud of them to step up to the challenge.”
In Wednesday’s media availability, Warlick mentioned she wanted to extend her bench. She did just that against the Rebels.
In the first half, Warlick called upon Cheridene Green, Kortney Dunbar and Kasiyahna Kushkituah to step up and provide some relief for Russell and Nared. The trio did just that, combing to shoot 4-of-9 from the field for eight points.
Warlick didn’t stick to her relief plan for long, though. She was forced to call on her veterans with just a two-point halftime lead.
“I felt like we didn’t have the opportunity to afford not to have our starting five in the second half,” Warlick said of the decision. “We got some good minutes. We got some good rest, and they had to step up because we were in foul trouble. I thought their (Green, Dunbar, and Kushkituah) play was huge for us.”
Tennessee now hits the road, where it’ll play three out of its next four games. The Lady Vols will take on LSU (12-6, 4-3 SEC) and former Lady Vol Nikki Fargas – an Oak Ridge native – to start the road trip on Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. ET.
“It’s always a battle,” Warlick said of LSU. “We are going to have to play defense for more than one shot. We are going to try to speed the game up. She may try to slow it down.”
Edited by Seth Raborn
Feature image courtesy of Tennessee Athletics