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Punishing defense keeps No. 4 Mississippi State unbeaten

In a defensive battle, the Bulldogs overpowered the Tennessee Lady Vols down the stretch proving that every win doesn’t need to be a fast-paced shootout.

NCAA Womens Basketball: SEC Basketball Tournament - Tennessee vs Mississippi State Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Knoxville, Tennessee--“Offense sells tickets but defense wins games” may be a cliché, but just because it’s overused doesn’t mean that it’s false.

This adage was on full display at the University of Tennessee Sunday afternoon as the Mississippi State Bulldogs edged out the Lady Vols 74-64. The Bulldogs remain undefeated on the year as they improve their record to 17-0.

Tennessee came out of the gate strong and held the lead for most of the first half. Diamond DeShields and Mercedes Russell played offensive minded basketball for four quarters, attacking the basket and using ball screens to their advantage to throw Mississippi State off their game.

As soon as the Bulldogs made certain defensive adjustments, however, Tennessee’s offense began to falter and their defensive shortcomings were more prevalent.

Mississippi State is a team with a lot of experience, (they have eight upperclassmen on their 13-woman roster) and as the game wore on they grew more comfortable and patient running their half-court sets. This would force Tennessee to start running their full-court press, but it was arguably an adjustment made too late as the Bulldogs increased their lead.

The Lady Vol’s ball pressure wore off and that was when Mississippi State’s Morgan William and Victoria Vivians really began to dominate.

William finished the night with 21 points. Without her instincts in the first half, The Bulldogs likely would have been down at halftime instead of up by seven. Vivians added 20 points of her own, but perhaps most influential and impressing were her five steals.

In fact, Mississippi State notched 10 steals, compared to Tennessee’s two. They also forced the Lady Vols to turn the ball over 17 times, and only turned it over seven times themselves. In the end, this consistent team defense allowed the Bulldogs to hang on and preserve their unbeaten season.

Their defense was clearly better than the Lady Vols, but still far from perfect. Foul trouble for Mississippi State’s starters would lead to a comeback for the Lady Vols in the fourth. By the end of the game, the Bulldogs had four players each playing with four fouls, while Dominique Dillingham fouled out.

Due to the fact that the Bulldogs couldn’t play defense as aggressively, Tennessee regained the lead in the fourth, 62-61 with three minutes remaining. However, a jumper on the next possession from Blair Schaefer would give the Bulldogs a definitive lead for the rest of the game.

Both Tennessee coach Holly Warlick and Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer put a premium on defense heading into Sunday afternoon’s contest, and ultimately defense did decide the game.

“I was hoping it was going to be a dog fight that's just kind of our mentality; you've got to be tough, you've got to be physical in this league,” Schaefer said following the win.

“I didn't think we were quite ready to open but Lord we answered”

The offense may have gotten people into the arena. But sometimes overused platitudes? They ring true.