Knoxville, TN — Not one spectator sat quietly in Thompson Boling Arena today as fans packed the stands to support Tennessee in one of the most anticipated games of the season. Enthusiasm, excitement, and hope filled the air — not only from the fans, but from the Lady Vols themselves.
After starting the season slowly and experiencing an embarrassing home-court loss from Baylor, Tennessee has been working overtime and with undeniable determination to prove themselves, and regain the clout that their name used to hold.
With that work ethic, the Lady Vols have been on a winning streak, even defeating Kentucky on Jan. 1. You could cut the tension with the knife in the arena, as fans wondered whether or not, the unstoppable Tennessee team they know and love, have returned for good.
Unfortunately, the team that fans were looking for to withstand Mississippi State’s defensive power did not show up, and the Lady Vols fell short by a score of 74-64.
Tennessee started off the first quarter with the same dynamic hype, that they have shown at the beginning of every one of the last contest in their six-game winning streak: full of energy and ready to go.
Just like the rest of the Lady Vols’ recent opponents, the Lady Bulldogs’ defense could not hold up to the unbridled offensive force of Tennessee. Even though Mississippi State prides themselves on their defense, they could not find a way to fight the consistent scoring of Jordan Reynolds and Mercedes Russell — that is, until the second period.
Starting the next stanza down by one with the score of 20-19 was all the No. 4 Lady Bulldogs needed to motivate them to bring the heat. Unluckily for the Lady Vols, two of their strongest offensive players sat on the bench with two fouls each.
Jaime Nared, whose offensive rebounds are imperative to Tennessee’s success, and Reynolds, who commands the Lady Vols offense, could only sit and watch as Mississippi State took full advantage of their absences.
The Lady Bulldogs impressively went on a 13-2 run with no starters on the court as Tennessee began falling short. By the end of the 10 minutes of play, Mississippi State also forced nine turnovers. To add insult to injury, Lady Bulldogs’ Blair Schaefer ended the quarter with a three-point shot right at the buzzer, and Mississippi State left for the locker room with a seven-point lead, 41-34.
After the half, Tennessee came back reenergized, ready to push Mississippi State and get more stops against a team that proved, at least in the second period to be unstoppable. In the locker room, Head Coach Holly Warlick told the team that they all ‘needed to start rebounding like Jaime Nared, who had four rebounds in the first half.
Lady Vols’ powerhouse, Diamond DeShields, as well as Reynolds, took her advice, starting the third period strong. Both were in a hurry to bring their team back, and five minutes in, they had shortened the Lady Bulldogs’ lead to just five points.
Even though they seemed to reestablish their offensive fire, Tennessee would have to solidify their defense to stand any kind of chance against 16-0 Mississippi State. At the end of the period, spectators and players experienced déjà vu as the Lady Bulldogs ended the quarter the same way they ended the half — with a three-pointer at the buzzer, this time by their fearless leader, Morgan William.
The final 10 minutes of the game started with a score of 54-48 as Mississippi State stayed determined to not only win their third victory over the Lady Vols, but to bring their winning streak to 17-0 for the season.
However, Tennessee would not go down without a fight. DeShields epitomized excellent defensive skills, blocking shots left and right while Russell did her thing and went coast to coast offensively. The two worked together to rally from down nine to reduce the Lady Bulldogs’ lead to just one point with 6:42 left on the clock, and the crowd went wild!
With five minutes left, it was time for big-time players to make clutch plays for both teams as fans watched the one-point game anxiously. It was a Mississippi State player to answer that call. Schaefer, once again, drilled a triple, bringing her team to a four-point lead at 66-62 with one minute left. A fourth foul on Meme Jackson brought Lady Bulldogs’ Breanna Richardson to the line and their score to 70-62.
Yet, an aggressive DeShields answered with two free-throws, only to find Victoria Vivians who would make 1-of-2 free throws. Not long after Russell found Morgan William who sank two free-throws with a few seconds left on the clock. Only seconds later, a foul on Alexa Middleton brought William to the line once again, and with her two points, the Lady Bulldogs claimed their 17 consecutive win with a score of 74-64.
Fans expected a great game this afternoon in Knoxville, and it is exactly what they got. The Lady Vols played their hearts out until the very last second of the game. It was clear that they were bound and determined to make their coach, their fans, and their fellow teammates proud.
However, even with DeShields and Russell scoring 25 and 17 points, respectively (Russell, even with a double-double at 14 rebounds) their team’s foul trouble in the last quarter and Mississippi State’s dynamite defense caused them to fall short of another win.
Even though Tennessee did not secure the win, they demonstrated the heart, teamwork, and an attack mentality of a team that any fan would be proud to claim. Regardless of what the scoreboard said at the end of the game, fans could see that the Lady Vols are back in action.