KNOXVILLE, TN -- A state-wide rivalry took place tonight at Thompson-Boling Arena as the Vanderbilt Commodores challenged the Tennessee Lady Vols on their home court with the Lady Vols holding the win and the bragging rights after the first match-up between the teams on Jan. 5 (70-57).
Vanderbilt Head Coach Stephanie White had a few pieces of pre-game advice for her Commodores: “The greatness of Tennessee is not a burden. You’ve got to embrace it. It should bring our your very best.”
Although Tennessee has shown inconsistency in their season, they entered the game against Vandy having already won three games against Top 25 teams, while the Commodores were only looking for their first conference game win. That being said, the Lady Vols were not only the more skilled and experienced team going into the rivalry game, but they also had the power of intimidation.
Although Vanderbilt’s young team showed promise, urgency, and drive- they were simply overmatched by Tennessee’s height, quickness, and experience as they fell 91-63 to the Lady Vols, bringing their losing streak at Thompson-Boling Arena to 33 games.
Tennessee started off strong, making sure to let everyone know that the ball was literally ‘in their court’ tonight. A team that has proved to be much more successful at home than on the road, Tennessee was ready to bounce back after their 79-61 loss at Auburn on Thursday.
However, three minutes into the game, Diamond DeShields, Tennessee’s brightest star, averaging 16 points per game, fell to injury and was benched. Yet, the Lady Vols would not allow this to shake their confidence.
Alexa Middleton came off of the bench and took matters into her owns hands. She ran the court offensively, not missing a single shot until after 7 minutes of play. In fact, after the first half, she scored 13 points (a team high for her), had five assists, and one steal. By the end of the game, she had 19 points and 7 assists.
"It's great when she comes in and hits shots for us. I think she's a great shooter. I think everybody knows that. She just opens up the floor for us. It's nice when she's in," raved Jamie Nared on the production of her teammate Middleton tonight.
Head Coach Holly Warlick agreed. "I thought she played a pretty smart game. Just getting out of her head, just shoot the ball well. I thought she took great looks. She forced the ball, and we talked about that. I asked her to just run the basketball team and don't worry about anything else, and so I thought she did a really great job of getting seven assists. We needed that from her.”
More impressive were the team’s three-point shots in the first quarter, as the Lady Vols couldn’t miss.
“We’re not a 3-point shooting team,” Coach Warlick has claimed in the past. However, at the end of the first 10 minutes of play, Tennessee -- specifically Middleton, were shooting perfectly from downtown.
Middleton wasn’t the only offensive production for the Lady Vols as she teamed up with the 6’6” tower Mercedes Russell, who simply could not be blocked out by even the tallest Vanderbilt player. Her height allowed her to get defensive rebound after defensive rebound against the Commodores.
While Tennessee’s offense was clicking, their defense was in sync as well, forcing Vanderbilt to have 10 turnovers, on which the Lady Vols scored a whopping 19 points from. With Middleton feeding Russell, the Lady Vols closed the half on a 12-0 run and a score of 56-29 -- the most points in the first half of a SEC game since 2011.
Unfortunately for the Commodores, the second half of the game was just like the first two-quarters. Tennessee continued to shine offensively as players like Nared showed their stuff and scored six straight points for the Lady Vols with just four minutes left in the third. In fact, in the final two periods, Nared and DeShields, who returned to the game, had both scored in double digits.
Yet, Vanderbilt would prove to give fan’s a glimmer of hope as they chipped away their deficit to only 20 points in the third stanza. However, Coach Warlick would be quick to stop that as she told her team, “We’re going to get smarter and stay on our men.”
And that they did.
The Lady Vols closed the third period with an 18-5 run and ended the game with a score of 91-63. Four of Tennessee’s players scored in the double digits: Russell with 15, Nared with 17, Middleton with 19, and the dazzling Diamond DeShields with 23.
Although the Lady Vols still have work to do in order to combat their inconsistencies, they gave their home fans a show tonight and were able to bounce back from their loss against Auburn.
Coach White, for one, was not surprised by the end game result.
"Tennessee did exactly what you would expect a great team to do. They came back off of a disappointing loss, and set the tone for the first five minutes of the ball game. They did exactly that. They came out, and played at a high level. They executed very well on both ends of the floor.
“They knocked down shots. They dictated and dominated the game from the opening tip. That's what great teams do. They're a great team.”
If Tennessee, and more importantly, their new star Alexa Middleton, can continue scoring like they did tonight and cutting back on their turnovers, they stand a good chance of giving the Florida Gators a run for their money as they travel to Gainesville on Thursday.