Knoxville, TN— For the University of Tennessee Lady Vols, the New Year seemed to bring a brand new sense of resilience, perseverance, and power. On their Jan. 1 game against the Kentucky Wildcats, the Lady Vols’ New Year Resolution was clear -- dominate the court and bring home the win.
In both team’s first SEC game of the season, Tennessee conquered No. 17 Kentucky with a 72-65 win.
A team that has been the subject of criticism for the first half of their season, the Lady Vols stepped out on the court with something to prove.
“We are at the top of the conference right now. A lot of people have a lot of negative things to say about our team right now, but we’re not going away. Tennessee isn’t going anywhere. We’ve got the players. We’re not scared of anybody, and we are going to take (that to) conference, (and) play with that attitude,” stated Diamond DeShields.
It was, indeed, that approach – and attitude -- that led the Lady Vols to their victory. DeShields, specifically, was on fire in her first game back after injury. She scored a total of 21 points, making her the second highest scorer tonight. Even though she had 5 turnovers, an area that she has stated she needs to improve upon, Tennessee only had 9 turnovers as a team — a drastic decrease from their numbers earlier in the season.
DeShields’ energy and enthusiasm to be back on the court was matched by two other players- Jaime Nared and most impressively, Mercedes Russell. The three collectively scored 51 of the Lady Vols’ 72 points.
They proved a trio to be reckoned with. Yet, the highest scorer, Russell, caught the eyes of everyone in the arena with her newfound star power. She was truly unstoppable, offensively and defensively, scoring 22 points and 9 total rebounds.
By the end of the first 20 minutes of play, Tennessee seemed to have a successful system in place: Pass to Russell. Score. Repeat.
Head Coach Holly Warlick praised her effort and work ethic in the post-game interview, saying, “She understands the game, and she worked very, very hard this summer. She’s got great endurance, and we’re going to her. A post-player is the hardest position to play, and you’ve got to take a pounding.
“I just can’t say enough about her and where her game is, but that’s just her commitment to get better. I’m really, really proud of her.”
As dominant as the dream trio of Russell, DeShields, and Nared were, there stood one Kentucky player who proved brave enough to take them on. Sophomore Taylor Murray refused to let the Lady Vols simply run away with a win without a fight. In doing so, she scored 23 points, marking her new career-high.
Smaller in stature, Murray used her speed and agility to undercut the height of players like Russell and cut Tennessee’s lead to just four points in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, Murray’s hustle was not enough against the Lady Vols’ drive, teamwork, and flat out spark.
Wildcats’ Head Coach Matthew Mitchell attributed the team’s inability to stand up to Tennessee as a lack of mental sharpness, and was quick to praise Murray’s undeniable contribution to the team: “I thought we really battled and fought, but we are mentally not where we need to be right now. Taylor is the player for us who is most in tune mentally.
“She plays both ends of the floor. She really doesn’t let her offense dictate her defense. She is really solid right now, and has been working hard to mature as a leader, but it has a lot to do with her attitude. Murray comes and works hard and is interested in improvement. I’m really proud of her.”
For the Lady Vols, 2017 looks promising as they take the confidence from their first SEC win into their games against Vanderbilt and the undefeated Mississippi State later this week.
Could their motto be ‘a new year, a new team?’ With a trio like Russell, Nared, and DeShields, fans very well may be trading in “Auld Lang Syne” for “Good, Ole’ Rocky Top” to ring in this New Year.
Next week Kentucky will play Missouri and Texas A&M on Thursday and Sunday, respectively.