NASHVILLE, Tenn. – No. 18 Tennessee’s (23-8, 12-6 SEC) SEC Tournament run came to an end on Saturday as they fell 83-74 to Kentucky (18-11, 11-8 SEC) in the semifinals.
The Lady Vols never looked comfortable in the game as they found themselves in an early hole against the Wildcats. This came by the hands of an early barrage of three-pointers from Kentucky. They opened the game 4-for-4 from deep to jump out to a 12-3 lead.
This quickly became the night’s theme as the Wildcats stretched their lead with three-pointers anytime Tennessee made a run. The Lady Vols struggled to contest Kentucky’s shooters leading to the Wildcats finishing the night on a blistering hot 12-for-24 shooting from three.
“I thought we had some breakdowns defensively,” said Tennessee coach Kellie Harper. “It’s one thing to make contested threes. It’s another to make open threes. I thought we gave up too many open threes.”
Leading the attack for Kentucky was highly-rated WNBA prospect, Rhyne Howard. Howard finished the night with 24 points on 7-for-12 shooting. She also filled up the stat sheet with nine rebounds and seven assists.
She was not without help, though. Both Jada Walker and Robyn Benton totaled 16 points, as well. This came on a combined 6-for-12 shooting from deep. Treasure Hunt also added 11 points on three made three-pointers.
This multifaceted attack proved to be too much for the Lady Vols to overcome. Tennessee was able to pull within a basket multiple times throughout the second half but they could never get over the hump to retake a lead.
The closest mark was a one-point deficit early in the third quarter. However, instead of taking advantage of the momentum, Tennessee gave up an and-one on the other end to begin a 10-2 Kentucky run.
“We had our chances,” said Harper. “I’ll tell you, we had it. We had a breakaway, we didn’t convert. I think we could have cut it to one or tied it at that point, I think, or maybe even gone ahead, and we gave up an and-one on the other end. I thought that was a huge play.”
Although Tennessee never claimed a lead, it was not due to a lack of effort by Alexus Dye. Dye finished with a game and season-high 26 points along with 10 rebounds and two blocks in her double-double performance. She also recorded a double-double with 16 points and 14 rebounds against Alabama on Friday.
This scoring prowess from Dye seemed unlikely heading into the tournament. Dye averaged just 9.1 points per game through 30 games as a Lady Vol.
“Winning,” said Dye on what has caused her to become a different player in the postseason. “I wanted to help my team win a ring. I’m all about winning. It just turns me up even more because I know I have to be there for my teammates, I have to give, I have to push myself extra in order to help my team succeed.”
Although Tennessee came up short in the SEC Tournament, this bodes well for its NCAA Tournament hopes. With Jordan Horston still sidelined due to an injury, this extra scoring is critical for the success of the Lady Vols.
Helping make up for the missing scoring is Rae Burrell. Burrell scored 16 points against Kentucky and 21 against Alabama. After going down with an injury in the season opener, it took Burrell time to get back into her pre-injury form. This performance in the SEC Tournament is a positive sign going forward.
Now, the Lady Vols will return to Knoxville as they await their seeding in the NCAA Tournament. If they are awarded a top-16 overall seed, they will host their opening two rounds of the tournament at Thompson-Boling Arena. If not, they will lose the homecourt advantage that they’ve used to put up a 14-2 home record on the season.
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