Nashville, TN — It may have been a cold and snowy night in Nashville on Thursday, but inside the Vanderbilt University Memorial Gym, the court was on fire as the Lady Vols took on the Commodores in both teams’ second SEC game of the season.
Coming off of an incredible win against the University of Kentucky last week, the confident and energized ladies in orange were determined to keep their newfound winning streak alive as they went head-to-head against their SEC rivals.
That headstrong determination — and their disdain for their in-state rival — is what sparked the Lady Vols to bring the heat to the court and the win with a final score of 70-57.
“Any win for us is a great win. But, this is a tough place to play. Vanderbilt never gives up. They battle, and battle, and battle. I am proud of our kids for keeping up,” stated head coach Holly Warlick on her team’s relentless effort Thursday evening.
Tennessee did not waste any time claiming Vanderbilt’s court as their own as they completely controlled the first quarter of the game. Jordan Reynolds began the period by showing the Commodores that the Lady Vols did not come to play games, as she, assisted by Diamond DeShields, scored Tennessee’s first two points within only 15 seconds of the tip.
Mercedes Russell quickly followed suit, as she, DeShields and Reynolds combined for 17 of the team’s 20 points in the opening 10 minutes. The other Tennessee player to score was Jaime Nared. And with that, the power trio of DeShields, Russell, and Nared was already back in action as they led the Lady Vols to a 13-point advantage heading into the second period.
With Tennessee out to a good start, Vanderbilt needed to respond to the Lady Vols controlling their home turf, and they did that like any proud Commodore would: by stepping up their game with a new found hunger and energy. In the second period, Vanderbilt would more than double their points from seven to 19, cutting Tennessee’s lead to 10 points.
Senior Marqu’es Webb, specifically, was ready to show Tennessee that Vanderbilt was not going to go down without a fight, as she led the Commodores offensively with seven total rebounds by the end of the first half.
Webb’s drive and determination proved to be the spark that lit a flame of competition under the rest of her team. Offensively, Vanderbilt played the second half of the game as an entirely new team. Even though their fight was more evident in the third and fourth quarters, the Commodores still consistently trailed the Lady Vols by about 10 points.
Yet, how could Vanderbilt remain so close but so far away from stealing the lead from Tennessee?
The answer was easy: Tennessee’s on-point defense.
“Our offense wasn’t flowing. It wasn’t working the way that we wanted it to [in the second half],” stated DeShields, “but we couldn’t let that affect our defense. So, we just sort of had to up the ante on our defense, and give ourselves a few more opportunities to score on the offensive end. You know, it does always help when you can do that and keep your defensive intensity.”
DeSheilds alone forced six turnovers, while she and Nared contributed to six of the team’s eight total steals. Not to be outdone, Russell achieved a new defensive career-high with six blocks, the most of any player in the game.
“I was just trying to help my guards out, and play straight up,” stated Russell. “Then, I got six blocks, I guess!” she joked humbly in the post-game interview.
With the final score of 70-57, the Commodores comeback attempt was simply not enough against the Lady Vols, as they left the Vanderbilt Memorial Gymnasium not pleased with the end game score.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed,” said Head Coach Stephanie White. “We can’t dig ourselves in a hole the entire first quarter the way that we did.”
However, she is optimistic about the future of the team: “It's just growth. Rome wasn’t built in a day. We’re trying to get better each and every day.”
And just like Vanderbilt is continuing to build, the same goes for Tennessee — especially defensively. Because, if they keep this up, they might become the dangerous force, that their talent suggests they should be.