Davis buries Tigers, No. 12 Lady Vols advance in SEC Tournament

Tennessee (24-6, 11-5 SEC) lost its star senior Jaime Nared to an apparent hip injury in the fourth quarter of its contest against Auburn (14-15, 5-11 SEC) in Nashville on Thursday. However, the Lady Vols advanced to the third round of the SEC Tournament when freshman forward Rennia Davis banked in a dagger 3-pointer with 0.5 seconds remaining in the game.

Although they lost the All-SEC forward, the No.12 ranked Tennessee finished off Auburn 64-61 and will advance to play the No. 2 seed Gamecocks on Friday at 7 p.m. ET.

Nared tried to return to the game with five minutes remaining, but she clocked out for the night with 4:36 left in the game. She led the team in scoring with with a total of 17 points. Davis, the hero of the game for the Volunteers, logged 16 points and five rebounds.

Janiah McKay led No. 10 seed Auburn on Thursday night with 24 points, while her teammate Daisa Alexander stayed  close behind with 16 points. Alexander knotted the game up at 61 with 11.2 seconds to go when she stole a Tennessee inbound pass and took it to the rack for a bucket.

While Tennessee chalked up a whopping 24 turnovers on the night, it still cashed in from the charity stripe. The Lady Vols were 20-of-24 from the free throw line on the night while the Tigers were shot just 4-of-5 from the line.

While Anastasia Hayes and Cheridene Green were the only players off the bench for the orange-and-white tonight, head coach Holly Warlick knew Hayes would the player to create the last shot.

“We wanted to get (Hayes) to the basket because she had been doing so well,” Warlick said. “She attacked and it closed in, she kicked out to (Davis) and she let it fly… I hope she called glass.”

Davis was a perfect 2-of-2 on the night from beyond-the-arc and was the anchor for Tennessee when Nared went out. She created shots all night long and when the big moment came, the freshman cashed in.

“I’m just happy the shot went in,” Davis said. “We had a lot of turnovers, as we did (the first matchup against Auburn), I’m just glad we were able to come out with the win.”

Davis knew when Nared went down that somebody had to step up for the Lady Vols, and when Warlick called her name, she was there to answer.

“I’m just glad I was able to beat that person for my teammates,” Davis said. “I understand that (Tennessee) lost last year in the first round, we didn’t want to do that again, so I’m just happy.”

Edited by Seth Raborn

Featured image courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

Takeaways from No. 7 Tennessee’s home win against Auburn

The No. 7 ranked Tennessee Lady Vols (14-0, 2-0 SEC) snapped the Auburn Tigers (10-4, 1-1 SEC) seven-game win streak by a score of 70-59 on Thursday night. The last time the Vols started 14-0 was the 2005-06 season when they finished with a 31-5 record and a trip to the NCAA Regional Final.

Freshman Evina Westbrook and senior Jaime Nared combined for 37 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists to lead Tennessee to a win in its second conference game of the season.

Here are the takeaways from the Lady Vols late rally win over the Tigers.

Turnovers still loom over the Lady Vols

The only thing separating this Tennessee team from being something truly special is its frequent turnovers. The Lady Vols had a season-high 28 turnovers and committed 12 of them in the final 12 minutes of the game. This is the second contest in a row that Tennessee has logged over 20 turnovers, and Westbrook has racked up 16 turnovers herself in the past two games.

It was anticipated that the Auburn defense would be a tough test for the Vols, but 28 turnovers is unprecedented. Warlick and Tennessee may truly have a special team this season, but the inability to play clean basketball could play out of its favor in conference games. Especially since the Lady Vols face four ranked opponents in their next five games, including No. 4 South Carolina and No. 2 Notre Dame.

Tennessee is resilient.

Auburn has proven to be one of the most dominant defenses in the SEC this season. After going on a 30-4 run in the fourth quarter to beat Florida last week, Auburn was able to tally 26 points off turnovers. However, the late basket by Westbrook with under two minutes left to break the tie was the game changer, as she finished with 11 of her 18 points in the fourth quarter.

The Lady Vols already showed their toughness in their last home win over No. 2 Texas. However, the ability to commit nearly 30 turnovers and still win the game shows how durable they really are. While the game was sloppy and gritty, it still is yet another reminder of how tough this Tennessee team is.

Westbrook has finally broke through.

Although she has had turnover problems in the past few games, Westbrook has proven why she was the No. 2 player in the nation last year. Westbrook finished with eight points in the final few minutes of the game, showing her capability to lead the Lady Vols in late-game situations.

Westbrook registered a career high in points against Auburn, and has scored over 15 points in five of her last six games. The young talent on this Tennessee team has continued to impress, but Westbrook is starting to set herself aside as a true superstar. The Lady Vols will certainly need her to keep her streak of solid play alive in the next handful of games against top-ranked teams.

Edited by Ben McKee 

Featured image courtesy of Tennessee Athletics 

Tennessee wins its fourth straight, rolls over Auburn on road

Tennessee (13-9, 5-4 SEC) led wire to wire on Tuesday night, defeating former head coach Bruce Pearl and the Auburn Tigers (14-8, 3-6 SEC) 87-77.

Led by sophomore forward Admiral Schofield’s 18 points, Tennessee rolled to their fourth consecutive victory. Grant Williams finished with 17 points and five rebounds, while Jordan Bowden had 15 points and six rebounds. Senior guard Robert Hubbs contributed 11 points, nine rebounds, and five assists.

When asked if this is the consistency he’s been looking for, Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said, “Yeah, it is, but like I told them, we’ve got to want more,” adding, “it’s a great win for us obviously, but we can get better, and we’ve got to get better.”

Williams and Schofield led the Vols to a 46-30 halftime lead, scoring 15 and 10 points before the break, respectively. Tennessee came out swinging early, as they out-rebounded the Tigers 24-14 in the first twenty minutes of play. The Vols began to pull away on a 15-0 run midway through the first half, pushing their lead to 31-14.

Battling back from 17 down, Auburn’s Jared Harper dropped in 18 points in the first half on 5-of-7 shooting from three, keeping the game much closer than what it seemed. Auburn finished the first half shooting 28 percent from the field.

The second half wasn’t as kind to Harper, as Tennessee held the Auburn guard to just three points over the final twenty minutes of play. In fact, he didn’t attempt a single shot over the last 16 minutes and 47 seconds of regulation.

Unfortunately for the Vols, things didn’t go as smoothly for them in the second half, either. Sloppiness on both sides of the floor led to multiple turnovers and defensive miscues. Though they led by as much as 22 at one point in the second half, Tennessee allowed the Tigers to climb all the way back and cut it to single digits within the final minutes. Auburn outscored the Vols 47-41 in the second half.

“Obviously we have to finish the game better than we did,” Barnes added postgame, addressing the second half frustrations.

After shooting 51.4 percent in the first half, Tennessee shot just 35.7 percent in the second half. Williams got into early foul trouble to start the half, leading to Tennessee’s struggles. He played just six minutes after halftime, disrupting the flow of both the Vols’ offense and defense.

Tennessee has now won three consecutive games against Auburn, while Pearl falls to 1-4 when coaching against his former school.

Up next for the Vols is a trip to Starkville on Saturday afternoon to face Mississippi State (13-8, 4-5 SEC). Tipoff is set for 3:30 ET on the SEC Network.

Edited by Quinn Pilkey

Featured image by Crag Bisacre, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

2016-2017 SEC basketball preview: Auburn Tigers

Auburn basketball has had a rough couple of years, and the most recent season was no exception. Expectations weren’t particularly high going into the campaign, with the media picking them to finish at No. 10 in the conference. The Tigers were unable to clear even that low bar, finishing 11-20 (5-13 SEC) and No. 13 in the conference, above only Missouri.

This year’s team was again picked to finish near the bottom of the conference, this time at No. 11. The Tigers will be hoping to shake off last year’s disastrous performance and turn heads with a much more competitive team.

Strengths

As Tennessee fans know all too well, the Tigers should be well-coached in 2016. Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl was a fan favorite during his time with the Volunteers in Knoxville. Unfortunately for the Tigers, however, that coaching talent hasn’t exactly been on display during his first two years in Auburn.

Under Pearl, the team has had back-to-back seasons with 20 losses, going a combined 26-40. Their 15 wins in 2014-15 was the lowest total Pearl had ever collected in a single year. That low-water mark didn’t last long, however — last year, the Tigers only managed 11 victories.

Those are some ugly numbers. Pearl’s track record before his time in Auburn has earned him the benefit of the doubt, though, and he deserves to be given some leeway. Besides, help is on the way for Pearl. He managed to pull in a top-10 recruiting class for this season, and 2017’s could be even better — it’s currently ranked at No. 4. Even the best coaches struggle to win games without great talent. It seems as if Auburn is building that talent for its star coach.

Players seem to love playing for Pearl, and his teams in Knoxville often seemed to overachieve or play at a higher level than expected. Though his team has been disappointing for several years now, it’s always possible for them to turn the corner and start winning games.

Weaknesses

Frankly, there’s not a lot to love about this Auburn team. Last year, they were No. 235 in the nation in points scored per game and No. 305 in points allowed. To make matters worse, the Tigers have lost a lot of talent. Tyler Harris and Cinmeon Bowers led the team in rebounding and were two of the top three scorers from last year’s team, and both graduated after last season.

In a year or two, the talent that Pearl is building in Auburn should be dynamic and hard to play against. For now, though, those talented players are freshmen and sophomores. Talent is important, but experience is incredibly valuable in college basketball, and that will be a major issue for Auburn.

Of the eight players from last year’s team that averaged over 15 minutes per game, only four return. Two of those will be sophomores. A year of experience in the NCAA is valuable, but it’s still not ideal for players that will be expected to step in as leaders of the team.

The roster is bolstered by a pair of talented graduate transfers in Ronnie Johnson and LaRon Smith. Johnson played at Purdue for two years before transferring to Houston to play last year, and he will likely start for the Tigers. Like Johnson, Smith also played for two schools before joining Auburn and figures to play a major role with the team this year. Both will be heavily relied upon early, but it’s possible that they have some growing pains while they try to fit in with the team.

Basically, Auburn is a team that was bad on both sides of the floor last year and lost some talented players. They have some incoming talent, but it’s in the form of raw young players and graduate transfers that may need time to adjust to the program. In other words, things aren’t looking great for the Tigers.

Players to Watch

G T.J. Dunans, Sr. — After point guard Kareem Canty left the program in the middle of last season, Dunans was forced to play a position that he wasn’t fully comfortable with, while still recovering from an injury that kept him out for most of the season. He’ll likely be able to shift back to his natural off-guard spot this year, and his 11.6 points per game last year represent the highest total for any returning player on the team. Watch for him to step into a major role this season.

G Mustapha Heron, Fr. — His positional overlap with Dunans may make for an awkward fit, but Pearl is a smart enough coach to make it work. Heron is a five-star recruit with talent and athleticism to spare, which should allow him to find a role on the team. If Kentucky’s superb recruiting class splits the vote, Heron could sneak in and win SEC Freshman of the Year.

F Horace Spencer, Soph. — The questions in the backcourt will be centered on how the talented pieces will fit together. The questions surrounding the team’s big men are more concerning. Spencer is the leading rebounder among returning players, but he only played 18 minutes per game during his freshman year. His improvement over the summer will go a long way towards deciding how competitive the team will be.

Matchups to Watch

Dec. 29 vs Georgia — Auburn hosts the Bulldogs in what will be both team’s SEC openers. Georgia was picked to finish as the No. 4 team in the conference, so the Tigers will likely be major underdogs. If Auburn wants to be competitive in the SEC this year, a statement win against an opponent like Georgia to kick off conference play would send a message to every other team in the conference.

Alabama — Their rivalry is fiercer on the gridiron, but there’s still no love lost between the two basketball programs. Alabama figures to be quite a bit better than the Tigers, but Auburn should be plenty motivated to hand their rivals a loss. If they can manage to win one, or both, against the Crimson Tide, the Tigers will be in good position to finish better than predicted. Auburn hosts Alabama on Jan. 21 and travels to Tuscaloosa on Feb. 4.

Jan. 31 vs Tennessee — A battle between two of the worst teams in the SEC normally wouldn’t get any attention, but it’s always fun when a coach leads his current team against his former employer. Besides, Auburn should be even more motivated to pick up a win after the Volunteers’ lopsided victory in last year’s SEC tournament.

Prediction

Auburn has a lot of young talent, but they are still likely a year away from being truly competitive. The Tigers should be better than last year and tally more than 11 wins, but Pearl’s boys will need more time to develop and grow in his system before they’ll be ready to make an appearance in the NCAA tournament.

The best-case scenario for Auburn this year is that they are better than expected and earn themselves an invitation to the NIT tournament. Realistically? The Tigers likely finish their season with a loss early in the conference tournament.

Edited by Adam Milliken

Featured image by Matthew S. DeMaria, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics