The Lady Vols limped into their matchup against Mississippi State with four key rotational players unable to play.
Marta Suarez was ruled out for the season before it even began due to a foot injury. Then came Keyen Green’s season-ending ACL tear just 19 games into the season. Leading scorer Jordan Horston suffered a fractured dislocation of her left elbow causing her to miss several weeks. Lastly, it was announced just before tip-off that Brooklynn Miles would miss the game due to disciplinary reasons.
Despite these setbacks, No. 16 Tennessee took down the Bulldogs 86-64 on Thursday. A top-to-bottom performance from the Lady Vols led to the dismantling.
Tamari Key was at the helm of this team effort with 23 points on 11-for-14 shooting. Along with this scoring output, she also recorded 15 rebounds to notch her 10th double-double of the season.
On top of her double-double performance, Key continued to be an elite rim protector with six blocks on the night. This lands her season total at 105. This is the second most single-season blocks by a Lady Vol, trailing Kelly Cain for the record by just eight. She is also just 12 blocks behind Candace Parker for most career blocks by a Lady Vol with 263.
This ability to block shots caused havoc on the Bulldog’s offense. With limited post depth, many of Mississippi State’s shots came from smaller guards who were not able to elevate shots over Key’s out-stretched arms. This was a large factor in Mississippi State’s abysmal 36.1% shooting.
“Tamari (Key) is a beast down there inside the paint,” said Tennessee wing Tess Darby. “If you come in (the paint with Key) it ain’t going in, in my opinion.”
To go along with Key’s impressive night, Darby had an offensive explosion of her own. The sharpshooter connected on a career-high five three-pointers for 17 points. This came on 5-for-6 shooting from deep and 6-for-7 shooting from the field. Her hot hand came at valuable times as she was able to stretch Tennessee’s lead when Mississippi State attempted to claw back.
On top of this scorching hot shooting performance, she played feisty and improved defense throughout the game. Her shooting has always been a valuable asset, but when she is locking down on defense she is a dominant piece in the Lady Vols’ rotation.
“Tess (Darby) was fantastic and I thought that was on both ends of the court,” said Tennessee coach Kellie Harper. “I thought she did a great job defensively. She didn’t have an awful lot of mistakes on the defensive end.”
The absence of Horston and Miles also gave Tennessee limited point guard depth. This placed Jordan Walker in a position where she had to carry the weight of commanding the offense for the majority of the game.
Walker excelled in this spot, nearly finishing with a triple-double. She recorded nine points, eight rebounds and seven assists with just two turnovers. As the only experienced point guard available, this production could not have come at a better time.
Other key contributions came from Alexus Dye, Rae Burrell and the three available freshmen. Dye finished the game with 13 points, eight rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block. Burrell started slowly but finished her night with 11 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals. Sara Puckett, Kaiya Wynn and Karoline Striplin did not show their young age, combining for 11 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and three steals.
This production from the entire roster kept the Bulldogs at bay for the entire second half. When the Lady Vols are playing as a complete team like this, they have the potential to play with any team in the country.
“I think everybody contributed and made a positive impact on the game and on their teammates,” said Harper. “I think that keeps us all excited and keeps us all confident, not just in themselves, but in each other.”
Tennessee’s final regular season test comes against No. 8 LSU on Sunday at 2 p.m. This will also be Senior Day where Burrell, Dye and Green will be honored.
Ryan Sylvia is the Sports Editor at TNJN. He is a senior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville majoring in journalism and electronic media. Although he spent most of his life being raised outside of Philadelphia, he was born in Knoxville, and he is happy to be back home. Ryan has had a love for sports from an early age, and he found his love for writing in high school while taking journalism classes. He hopes to find a job involving both his passions as a sports journalist after graduation. To reach Ryan, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org