Knoxville, TN — Those who don’t know head coach Holly Warlick’s team, might be surprised to see her unranked Tennessee Volunteers, had led the No. 4 Mississippi State Bulldogs for most of the first half.
And even the statistics would agree with their state of shock.
At the end of the third quarter, the Tennessee Volunteers had racked up 11 turnovers. They had just one steal, and hadn’t made a single one of their four 3-point attempts.
Their field goal percentage? 33.3%, deciphered from a dismal 14/42 showing.
But everything began to change in the fourth.
The Vols trailed by a mere six points, and had for the entirety of the half. A quick, heads-up pass by Meme Jackson sailed inside to Mercedes Russell who went up for two. Russell comes down with the and-1.
Down by three.
With seven minutes remaining, the Vols recorded their fourth block of the game on a magnificent one by Diamond DeShields, grabbed the deflection and took it down the floor by way of Jordan Reynolds for two points.
Down by one.
Mississippi State’s Teaira McCowan nabbed the offensive rebound, and pushed the lead back up to three. Victoria Vivians then made her first free throw, but missed her second. DeShields nabbed the rebound and drove furiously down the court, pulling in a block foul on Dominique Dillingham, her fifth and final.
DeShields made her free shots, leaving the Volunteers down just two with 5:30 remaining. Mississippi State throws the ball away, giving Tennessee their chance to even it out for the first time since 4 minutes before the half.
A Morgan William steal tried to threaten the Vols’ chance, but Jaime Nared puts up a spectacular block to save Tennessee’s hopes for a lead. Immediately, Morgan William fouls and DeShields makes one of her two free throws.
Down by one, again.
MeMe Jackson snagged a missed shot, followed by two consecutive Victoria Vivians steals resulting in two points for the Bulldogs before a DeShields block stops the momentum. Nared was then fouled and made both free throws en route to the Vols pulling back up to a one-point deficit.
Now, Diamond DeShields drove to give the Lady Vols their first lead since before the half at 62-61 with just over three minutes remaining.
However, before Tennessee knows it, their momentum is shattered by Blair Schaefer who sinks a long three-pointer to spoil the fun.
Three consecutive fouls by DeShields, Nared and Jordan Reynolds, send Tennessee into a downward spiral, and just like that, the tables turn for a 13-2 Mississippi State run to end the contest at 74-64.
“We knew it was going to be like this,” said Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer. “That was one heck of a basketball game. We were hoping for a dogfight because that is our mentality. You have to be tough, physical in this league. We had to come out ready to play. We weren't quite ready to open but boy, did we answer.”
Coupled with poise and drive, the Bulldogs pulled off two tremendous feats in the team’s history. One, recording their first win in Knoxville, and two, staying undefeated on the season and in the SEC.
William led the team with 21 points, scoring 11 of them in the first quarter.
“Couldn't be prouder of my point guard,” Schaefer said. “She goes to the press room when you win and she goes and wears the responsibility when you lose. She had four assists, no turnovers, 21 points, 6 for-12, 2 for 3 from three.”
Vivians added 20 points and 5 steals, while McCowan added 14 points and 2 blocks on the night going against Russell.
Tennessee would fall into the same old trap of disappointment that seems to shroud a great team’s season, as the Warlick-led squad drops to 10-5.
“Obviously disappointed in the outcome but I'm really proud of our kids,” Warlick said. “I thought we played hard, great effort, great energy. We just couldn't finish the deal.”
After it was all said and done, the Lady Vols still hadn’t made a shot beyond the arc. They had 48 rebounds, nine more than the Bulldogs, and recorded 8 blocks to Mississippi State’s 4.
But the stat that mattered the most? Turnovers. Tennessee had 17 compared to Mississippi State’s 7.
It didn’t matter that Jaime Nared recorded her 12th straight game in double figures on the season. It didn’t matter that Mercedes Russell carded her tenth double-double this year, tying her for the lead in the SEC. And it didn’t matter that Diamond DeShields put up a 25-point performance.
The Lady Volunteers had questions they came close to answering, but fell short yet again. And in a deep conference like the SEC, many more questions are bound to rise.
“The thing about basketball, win or lose, you watch it and tomorrow you have to refocus,” Warlick said. “Now we have to look to Ole Miss. As much as you want to celebrate a win or worry about a defeat, you can't. You got to figure out what you are going to do with the next opponent. It's a tough league, it's just a tough league. I don't know if anyone can go through here undefeated."
Mississippi State looks next toward Florida, in the hopes of proving Warlick wrong.