KNOXVILLE, TENN.— It was a battle of unbeatens on Sunday afternoon as the No. 2 Texas Longhorns traveled to Knoxville to take on the No. 11 Tennesse Lady Vols.
In the end, it was Tennessee that got to keep the unbeaten title as they topped Texas, 82-75. It is the biggest win the program has had since the departure of Pat Summitt.
The game was incredibly chippy, and got even more so down the stretch. That in itself was surprising, considering these are two top 25 teams who thrive on being able to score the basketball.
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Coming into Sunday’s game, Texas was second in the nation in scoring, averaging 93 points per game. In their first seven games of the 2017-18 season, their lowest-scoring half was 41 points. The Lady Vols have also been running up scores, averaging 89.4 points per contest, good for seventh place nationally.
You wouldn’t know any of that just by watching this singular game, however.
Texas began the game shooting just 1-of-13 from the field. Despite the Lady Vols going up by 10, though, the Longhorns fought their way back and were down by just five after the first stanza, 16-11. After scoring two free throws near the end of the first half, Texas was down by just two heading into the break.
During the second half, the Longhorns were helped by the resurgence of Ariel Atkins. Despite having just two points in the first half due to foul trouble, Atkins scored 19 second-half points leading the charge for Texas down the stretch. At times, their full court pressure seemed to suffocate the Tennessee guards as well.
But no matter how close the Longhorns got, they were unable to wrestle the lead away from the Lady Vols.
A large part of the reason Tennessee was able to hold on to grind out the win were the performances of two of their seniors and playmakers, Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared.
Both ended the game with double-doubles, as Russell recorded 15 points and 12 rebounds, while Nared had 23 points and 13 rebounds, both game-highs. Eleven of her points came in the fourth quarter alone.
Both were absolutely dominant on the glass, each grabbing four offensive rebounds apiece, including three that came during the most crucial stretch of the game.
In the final three minutes, the Lady Vols had three critical offensive rebounds off of missed free throws, two from Nared and one from Russell. These rebounds led to four extra points for Tennessee, especially huge considering with a minute to go the Lady Vols had just a one-point lead, 74-73.
During that final minute, however, the Lady Vols would ice the game by going 8-of-10 from the line.
Along with the seniors, freshman guard Evina Westbrook also had a huge game with 15 points of her own for Tennessee.
Despite the magnitude of the win for Tennessee, Sunday’s game will undoubtedly serve as a good learning experience for both programs. It was the first time either played another top 25 team, and it showed. Regardless, it was still a hard-fought battle between two well-respected programs.