In a duel between two teams vying for a top-three seed the upcoming SEC Tournament, the Lady Vols did what they needed to do to beat Texas A&M at home — for three quarters.
Tennessee spread Texas A&M’s offense out on defense. On offense, the Lady Vols forced their way inside time and time again.
However, the Lady Vols ventured away from their strength in the fourth quarter and were outworked on the offensive glass in a 61-59 loss on Sunday.
“This was a must-win for us, in my opinion,” Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick said after the game. “It was a great opportunity and we let it slip away.”
Tennessee (16-9, 7-5 SEC) bulldozed its way through the first three quarters, never trailing Texas A&M (19-6, 9-3 SEC). As a result, the Lady Vols entered the final frame up 54-47 and in prime position to vault up to the No. 3 spot in the conference standings. At one point in the second quarter, Tennessee held a 32-21 lead, but allowed the Aggies to crawl back before halftime. The orange and white eventually lead by 11 again in the fourth quarter, but again allowed Texas A&M to sneak back into the game.
Once the final buzzer sounded, Tennessee failed to crack 60 points after shooting 15 percent (2 of 13) in the fourth quarter, including an 0-for-11 stretch over the game’s final eight minutes.
“We just got away from what had got us there,” Lady Vol guard Diamond DeShields said following the loss. “We started jump shooting … we were missing those shots.”
The Lady Vols shot 38 percent from the field, primarily due to a wide array of missed layups and other open looks. Normally, when opposing teams make a fourth-quarter run at Thompson-Boling Arena, DeShields or sophomore Jaime Nared can convert shots like Tennessee missed against the Aggies. It happened in the final seconds against Notre Dame. It happened throughout the fourth quarter against Missouri a few days earlier.
On Sunday, those shots simply didn’t fall.
As a result, the Aggies grinded their way back into the game by grabbing 14 fourth-quarter rebounds to Tennessee’s seven. Of the 14 rebounds, four came on the offensive end — all during crucial moments.
Down 59-56 with under three minutes remaining in the game, Texas A&M’s Jasmine Lumpkin pulled in a timely offensive rebound, then whipped a pass to Curtyce Knox for a game-tying 3-pointer. Later, with just four seconds remaining, Khaalia Hillsman grabbed Texas A&M’s fourth offensive rebound in a three-minute span and sunk a jumper to give the Aggies the 61-59 lead.
Tennessee designed a play for Mercedes Russell inside the post on the game’s final shot, but her good look barely missed.
For the Lady Vols, the game felt like deja vu after they blew a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead to the same team just over a year ago.
“It’s frustrating,” junior guard Alexa Middleton said. “There were a couple of shots I wish I could’ve hit … and then they were getting offensive rebounds. That’s what ultimately lost us the game, an offensive rebound.
Russell led the team in scoring with 17 points, while Middleton added 14 of her own after earning her second straight start. DeShields and Nared combined to score 17 points on a 31.5 shooting percentage. In what seems like a game-by-game occurrence, four players for the orange and white played at least 37 minutes, but Warlick refused to use fatigue as an excuse.
“How can you be tired … I’m not buying fatigue,” Warlick said. “You’ve gotta suck it up. It didn’t hurt Texas A&M.”
Although the loss delivers a blow to the Lady Vols’ SEC standings, they still have a chance to earn a first-round bye during conference tournament play.
Tennessee travels to Tuscaloosa this Thursday to take on the Alabama Crimson Tide with a chance to get back on track. Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET, and the game will be televised on SEC+.
Edited by Nathan Odom
Featured image by Donald Page, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics