February 28, 2024

Lady Vols regain confidence heading into showdown at Mississippi State

The Lady Vols beat Florida 74-70 on Wednesday after struggling to finish games during the month of February. Can they ride this momentum into Saturday’s matchup with Mississippi State and into the postseason?

#33 Alexa Middleton high-fives Lady Vols teammates #31 Jaime Nared and #11 Diamond DeShields. Photo by Craig Bisacre, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics. No changes made.

It didn’t come easy, but Tennessee (18-10, 9-6 SEC) managed to beat Florida (13-15, 4-11 SEC) 74-70 on Thursday. Despite leading for less than 10 minutes in the game, the Lady Vols used a game-ending 13-2 run to avoid a loss that, according to Diamond DeShields, “would have shot ourselves in the foot.”

Following a stretch of close losses which has led to a 2-3 record over the last five games, Wednesday’s victory resurged the Lady Vols’ confidence in their ability to close out games.

Tennessee suffered from a poor start, which included an 8-0 run by Florida to begin the game and a 22-13 deficit at the first quarter’s end, which was Florida’s largest lead. After that, the Lady Vols controlled the second quarter and took a 35-32 lead into half.

Heading into the fourth quarter, Tennessee led 56-54. Then, a seven minute field goal drought put Florida ahead 68-61 before an Alexa Middleton layup with 2:57 left cut the lead to five and ignited the game-ending run.

There’s a certain level of concern that Holly Warlick should take from the slow start to the game and final quarter, but that’s the type of nitpicking stuff coaches must take away from victories in order to ensure this program remains at an elite level.

Regardless, the encouraging signs from the final three minutes outweigh the negative takeaways from the game. This was exactly the type of performance Tennessee needed as they head into the final weekend and postseason play.

Some may be wondering what’s promising about taking the 11th-place team in the conference down to the wire at home, but according to Holly Warlick, “Florida is a more talented team than the record shows.” Plus, Ronni Williams is arguably the best scorer in the conference.

During the conference season, even the bottom tier teams can show up on some nights, and Tennessee’s ability to hold off Florida’s runs to begin the first and fourth quarters proves its worth. Good teams mend off runs from inferior opponents. Bad teams allow it to rattle them for the remainder of the game.

The Lady Vols enjoyed having Diamond DeShields back. Their leading scorer returned to action after being sidelined since being carted off due to an ankle injury a week ago. DeShields was an assist shy from a triple double, finishing with 15 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. In addition, Mercedes Russell recorded her 16th double-double of the season, totaling 17 points and 10 rebounds. Yet, it was the contributions from the remainder of the supporting cast that ultimately led to the victory.

Alexa Middleton finished with 15 points and her contributions on both ends played a big part in Wednesday’s outcome. In the second quarter, Alexa Middleton recorded seven straight points and turned a 25-20 deficit into a 28-27 lead, the Lady Vols’ first of the game. Not only was she a force on the offensive end, but her impact on defense played a big role as well. In the final seconds of the game, Middleton played tremendous on-ball defense on Florida’s Delicia Washington which led to a forced 3-point attempt and helped secure Tennessee’s victory.

Jaime Nared finished with 11 points and shot only 2 of 10 from the field. However, a crucial offensive rebound off of a missed free throw attempt late in the game led to more free throws and a two-possession lead during the final seconds of the game.

Senior Schaquilla Nunn earned the start because of Senior Night and took advantage of the 16 minutes she logged. Following a nice pass from Deshields, Nunn’s go-ahead layup with 30 seconds left gave the Lady Vols a 69-68 lead and they never trailed again. Holly Warlick said “we wouldn’t have won this game without Nunn.” She totaled seven points and seven rebounds on the night.

Wednesday night’s victory, while more difficult than preferred, proved the type of team Tennessee can be when everyone is rolling and contributing. As DeShields continues to get back in the flow, she will only become more dangerous out on the floor. By proving the ability to close out a game with a victory and with several players in the rotation providing positive contributions, this team has the talent to make a run in the postseason. Don’t be surprised if Wednesday’s win catapults the Lady Vols to a deep tournament run. “This team is farther along than last year’s team,” Holly Warlick says. Just a reminder, last year’s team made the Elite Eight.

Edited by Robert Hughes

Featured image by Craig Bisacre, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

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