Lady Vols roll to an 82-64 victory against No. 3 Mississippi State

Tennessee’s uneven season took another positive turn on Sunday night with an 82-64 victory against No. 3 Mississippi State.

Jaime Nared led the Lady Vols (19-10, 10-6 SEC) with 30 points. Diamond DeShields contributed 20 points, five rebounds and six assists, while Jordan Reynolds contributed 17 points and eight boards. For the Bulldogs (27-3, 13-3 SEC), Victoria Vivians led the way with 18 points. The win marked the program’s first victory against a top-3 team since 2010, and the first on the road since 2004. In a season full of big wins and disappointing losses, this one stands out as an incredible way to finish up regular season play.

“It’s a huge win for us,” head coach Holly Warlick said in her postgame press conference. “To say this is a big win for us would be an understatement… I’m really proud of our kids for accepting the game plan and sticking with it. It was obviously a huge win for us.”

Tennessee used suffocating defense in the first quarter to jump out to an 18-8 lead after 10 minutes. After hitting just one 3-pointer in the first quarter, the Lady Vols nailed four shots from deep in the second to extend their lead to 36-20 at halftime. Those 3-pointers helped Tennessee pull away, but the team wouldn’t need any more to secure the big win. Nared’s 3-pointer with 1:28 left in the first half was the last time the Lady Vols would hit a shot from downtown.

After a relatively slow-paced first half, the game broke open after halftime. The Bulldogs scored 26 points in a high-flying third quarter after managing just 20 in the first two. Tennessee managed to mostly keep pace with 24 points of its own, entering the fourth quarter with a double-digit lead. An early five-point Mississippi State run in the final quarter made the Lady Vols sweat a bit by shrinking the lead to 10, but a six-point run of their own put the visitors back ahead by a comfortable margin. From then on, Tennessee managed rolled the rest of the game to finish with an 18-point road victory against one of the nation’s best teams.

The Lady Vols’ lack of depth has been an issue all season, but they managed to overcome it on Sunday against a much deeper team. Five Bulldogs got time off the bench and outscored Tennessee’s two bench players 22-4. Mercedes Russell, Reynolds and Nared played all 40 minutes, while DeShields only got two minutes of rest.

The win means that the Lady Vols finish No. 5 in the conference, just missing out on a double-bye in the conference tournament. Instead, they will open their SEC tournament play by taking on the winner of Alabama and Vanderbilt on March 2.

Edited by Robert Hughes

Featured image by Donald Page, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

Lady Vols regain confidence heading into showdown at Mississippi State

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

Lady Vols MVP of the week: Mercedes Russell

The Lady Vols continued their disappointing season with a 0-2 record over the last week. On Sunday, the team suffered a 61-59 loss to Texas A&M after Aggie center Khaalia Hillsman scored on a game-winning putback with just four seconds left. Tennessee followed that dispiriting loss with another disappointment performance, losing 65-57 to an Alabama team that had struggled to a 3-9 SEC record before hosting the Lady Vols.

It’s hard to pick out an MVP for such a bad week, especially with some of the usual stars putting in such disappointing performances. Diamond DeShields followed an eight-point outing on Sunday by scoring nothing against the Crimson Tide, although in fairness, wasn’t unable to play most of the game due to a scary fall. Jaime Nared had nine points and seven rebounds against A&M before scoring four points on 1-of-12 shooting on Thursday night. Schaquilla Nunn isn’t normally a big name, but she had a monster outing against Alabama with 15 points and 15 boards after only playing two minutes against Texas A&M.

Only two players were consistently good in both of the team’s games on the week: Alexa Middleton and Mercedes Russell. Russell was especially good and for that, she earns the MVP of the week.

Against the Aggies, Russell put up 17 points and 11 rebounds, as well as a pair of assists while playing all but two minutes. She kept the team competitive throughout the game, but was unable to bring life an anemic fourth-quarter offense that saw the Lady Vols score only five points in the final frame.

Against Alabama, she was one of the only bright spots. With the two other members of Tennessee’s “big three” either struggling or off the court, Russell was forced to carry the load. The 6-foot-6 center scored 17 on 7-of-12 shooting, but fell just short of her second-straight double-double after grabbing nine rebounds.

If the Lady Vols want to get back to their winning ways, she’ll need her teammates to help her out more consistently.

Edited by David Bradford

Featured image by Donald Page, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

Lady Vols upset No. 4 South Carolina, 76-74

The Lady Vols (14-7, 5-3 SEC) earned a road win over an AP top-five opponent with a 76-74 victory over No. 4 South Carolina (18-2, 8-1 SEC) on Monday night. Tennessee’s last road win over a top-five team came on Jan. 6, 2007, when the Lady Vols defeated No. 5 Connecticut.

“For us, it was just a battle of will,” Lady Vols head coach Holly Warlick said after the game. Tennessee battled all game long, forcing the Gamecocks into 13 turnovers.

Led by junior guard Jaime Nared, who had a career-high 27 points, the Lady Vols snapped the Gamecocks’ 29-game home conference winning streak. With the game tied at 74-74 in the waning seconds of the game, Nared knocked down two go-ahead free throws to give Tennessee the lead, and eventually the win.

Nared was 11-of-12 from the free throw line in the second half, including her two late makes. When asked what was going through her mind in those pressure situations, she credited the emphasis put on free throws at practice.

“Just taking your time,” Nared said, “… and focusing, and knowing that all of the reps that you put in, in practice, and all of the games before, are going to pay off.”

Down by 11 points at one point in the fourth quarter, the Gamecocks crawled back to tie the game at 74-74 after a big 3-pointer from South Carolina guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore with 14.7 seconds remaining. Tyasha Harris was then called for a controversial blocking foul on Nared, which led to Nared’s go-ahead free throws. After Cuevas-Moore clanked a three off of the rim as time expired, Tennessee was celebrating its third top-10 win of the season.

In the first half, the Lady Vols and South Carolina went back-and-forth before Tennessee took a 39-36 lead into halftime. Junior guard Diamond DeShields led the way at intermission with 12 points and five rebounds.

To add to Nared’s career-high 27 points, DeShields dropped in 21 points, while center Mercedes Russell had a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds.

Entering the game, South Carolina post players A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates were averaging a combined 30 points and 18 rebounds. The two star players were limited to just 21 points and 13 rebounds on Monday night, as the Lady Vols defense created havoc for the Gamecock offense early and often. Wilson and Coates also got into early foul trouble, preventing either one from getting into any sort of rhythm on offense.

After back-to-back road wins, the Lady Vols return home on Thursday night to face LSU (15-6, 4-4 SEC). Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. ET and will be streamed live on SEC Network+.

Edited by Robert Hughes

Featured image by Donald Page, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

SEC top women’s basketball performers

Diamond DeShields, Guard, Tennessee

This season hasn’t been perfect for the Lady Vols, but it certainly hasn’t been the fault of Diamond DeShields. This was as clear as ever this week when Tennessee lost big to Auburn despite a spectacular game from DeShields. She followed up her heroics on Sunday in a win over Vanderbilt. Against the Tigers, the redshirt junior did a bit of everything, putting up 17 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and four steals.

For the week as a whole, DeShields averaged 20 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.5 steals. That play isn’t out of the ordinary for the Norcross, Ga. native, either: she’s been an absolute diamond in the rough all year long. If Tennessee ever starts playing up to its reputation, it will be thanks in part to her.

Mercedes Russell, Center, Tennessee

The other star of the Lady Vols’ rollercoaster of a season has been Mercedes Russell, who has averaged 16.6 points and 9.4 rebounds on the season. And, like her teammate, Russell had a great week: she put up a team-high 26 points in the losing effort at Auburn and pulled down 11 rebounds.

Despite being limited by foul trouble against Vanderbilt, she nearly had another double-double with 15 points and nine boards. The 6-foot-6 center also made her presence felt in the paint with three blocks across the week’s two games.

Katie Frerking, Guard, Auburn

Like DeShields, Frerking led her team to a 1-1 record this week and filled up the stat sheet while doing so. Against the Lady Vols, Frerking was second on the team with 22 points. She also added seven rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals. She didn’t score as effectively in the team’s second game, a home loss to Kentucky, but she still managed 16 points.

On the week, the Tigers’ leading scorer averaged 19 points, five rebounds, three assists, 1.5 steals and two blocks per game.

Sophie Cunningham, Guard, Missouri

Cunningham led her Tigers to an overtime victory against No. 25 Texas A&M on Thursday night by scoring an absurd 36 points, eight of which came in the extra period. In addition to her scoring output, she had seven rebounds and four assists. It was a dominant performance in an important game, and Cunningham handled the spotlight well.

Her next game wasn’t nearly as impressive – five points on one-for-six shooting is an abysmal showing, especially coming off of such a dominant performance. Still, Mizzou beat Arkansas by 14 and the sophomore guard added seven rebounds and five assists to her week-long totals. Cunningham’s dominant performance in the week’s first game is enough to get her a nod here.

Edited by David Bradford

Featured image by Donald Page, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

Lady Vols find needed spark, cruise past Alabama

Lady Vols

[title_box title=”Lady Vols find needed spark, cruise past Alabama”]

Tennessee surfed the Crimson Tide to a massive victory in Sunday’s SEC matchup at Thompson-Boling Arena. In a game that found the Lady Vols in a rare must-win SEC matchup with Alabama, they put together one of their most complete games of the season.

The Lady Vols were led by Jamie Nared and Te’a Cooper, who each scored 17 points to lead all scorers. Mercedes Russell also put up 12 points, giving Tennessee three players in double digits. Nared also recorded 10 rebounds for the first double-double of her career.

“Jaime told me today, ‘stay on me because I want to play like Jaime Nared.’ I didn’t have to get on her,” said head coach Holly Warlick.

“We wanted to win. We lost the past two games and we just needed to get back to the fundamentals and doing what we all know how to do,” Nared said.

Tennessee has been struggling all season to find rhythm on offense, but on Sunday everyone played their role to near championship level. The team is yet to round the corner and completely right the ship, but it took a crucial step in the 70-42 victory over Alabama.

In Sunday’s game, Tennessee was without senior forward Bashaara Graves, which meant Warlick had to make a change to the normal lineup. Normally, Tennessee plays with two bigs, but Sunday the Lady Vols spent most of the game with Russell and four guards on the floor.

Graves was injured on one of the last plays of practice on Saturday. She suffered a sprained ankle and was seen wearing a walking boot during the game.

Whether it was due to the lineup change or just a struggling Alabama defense, Tennessee found a way to move the ball better than normal.

One of Tennessee’s main issues this season has been turnovers. Averaging close to 20 per game, the Lady Vols have also been struggling to come up with assists.

Despite turning the ball over 21 times against the Tide, Tennessee found a way to move the ball around and put up 22 assists. Sunday was one of few games this season where Tennessee had more assists then turnovers.

“That’s awesome. When you do that, it erases your 21 turnovers,” said Warlick.

Jordan Reynolds led Tennessee with five assists. While Reynolds may have led the team in that category, all but three Lady Vols that saw action failed to record an assist.

Tennessee got off to a slow start, before Nared took over and helped the team outscore the Tide 19-10 in the second quarter. The Lady Vols took a 34-22 lead to the locker room.

Cooper helped to put the Crimson Tide away with a hot start to the second half, recording 14 of her 17 points in the second half. She also recorded three 3-pointers in root to her fourth straight game recording double digits.

Tennessee opened the game up in the second half pushing the lead to 31 points.

“It’s a good sign that I didn’t have to take off my jacket,” said Warlick.

“We had 12,000 people here in the crowd and they were unbelievable. It was incredible.”

Sunday’s victory marked the 99th win for Warlick as the Lady Vols’ head coach. She is one game away from 100 wins in less than four full seasons.

“Oh am I? No, I didn’t know. That is good. That means we are winning,” said Warlick, when asked if she knew it was her 99th win.

Tennessee will host Arkansas on Thursday, Feb. 4 at Thompson-Boling Arena. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. ET and will be televised on the SEC Network’s alternate channel.

The Lady Vols will be looking to avenge a 64-59 loss to the Razorbacks in Fayetteville on Jan. 14. Warlick said she thought Graves would be able to go against the Hogs, but went on to say,

“That’s me talking, not our team physician.”

Featured image by Wade Rackley

Edited by Cody McClure