Lady Vol analysis, videos from Duluth

Taber Spani

DULUTH, Ga. - The Lady Vols arrived in Georgia looking for the double-double but stumbled in the semifinals against Texas A&M. Go inside with InsideTennessee for complete coverage from The Arena at Gwinnett Center.

Taber Spani uncorked a senior performance as she led the team in points and rebounds, but she didn't get much help on the offensive end and the Lady Vols board play went AWOL.

The result was a 66-62 loss to Texas A&M, which denied Tennessee the chance to defend its three consecutive tourney titles and pull off the feat of 2013 regular and postseason champions.

Tennessee (24-7) now has two weeks between basketball games - the NCAA Tournament begins for the Lady Vols in Knoxville on March 23 - and head coach Holly Warlick said one of the priorities will be some rest for her team.

It is a wise decision because the Lady Vols limped into March with nagging injuries to key starters - Spani among them - and depleted depth with post Isabelle Harrison sidelined with a right knee injury.

Still, Warlick was somewhat perturbed after the game because of defensive woes - the Lady Vols had a 10-point lead, 50-40 with 12:24 left - and shortcomings on the glass. And she had good reason to be.

"You can't go 11 possessions and give them nine (baskets)," Warlick said, referring to how the Aggies closed the game.

Texas A&M took a 64-62 lead with 35 seconds left and Kamiko Williams' driving bank shot attempt rolled off the front iron with 11 seconds left. Tennessee had to foul and the Aggies secured the 66-62 win at the line.

"They just went to work, and we got comfortable with the 10-point lead," Warlick said. "We've done that in the past. We've gotten up and we've just decided, ‘Oh, we can exhale.'

"You've got to keep the hammer down, and we didn't. We'll go back and learn. We're a young team. We continue to learn."

Tennessee is indeed a young team - and it has benefited from having seniors Spani and Williams in the starting lineup - and it also is an ailing one.

Williams sprained both ankles six days ago. Spani landed hard on her already sore hip in Friday's game. Ariel Massengale injured her knee nine days ago. Harrison was out for the tourney. Cierra Burdick broke her hand this season and continues to get treated. Bashaara Graves was in high school a year ago and has battled all season in the post and has done so for most of the past six weeks without Harrison.

Harrison, who sustained an injury to the MCL and a bone bruise in her right knee against Texas A&M on Feb. 28 was set to be cleared for Duluth, but her knee was hit in practice Thursday and she re-aggravated the injury.

"We can't catch a break," Warlick said. "I thought she would be ready to go."

Spani was certainly ready to go in a performance that assistant coach Dean Lockwood called "heroic."

Her 33 points on 11-13 shooting were a career high, besting the 24 points she scored against Vanderbilt on Jan. 24 this season. Spani was 5-6 from long range, also a career high since tallying four treys against Auburn on Feb. 21.

She didn't get the ball down the stretch - granted the Aggies were rotating fresh defenders on her - but Spani needed to get it as her hand was the hottest on the team.

"I wanted to get the ball in Taber's hands, but they were keying in on her," Warlick said.

Usually that would have been OK, as the Lady Vols have had balanced scoring this season.

But guards Massengale, Williams and Meighan Simmons combined to shoot 8-30 from the field overall and 0-6 from long range. They also combined for nine of Tennessee's 15 turnovers.

"From early on we turned the ball over too many times," Simmons said. "We couldn't take care of the ball. We weren't getting into our offenses like we should have."

Texas A&M, meanwhile, had four players in double figures led by 18 points from Courtney Walker, 15 each for Adrienne Pratcher and Kelsey Bone and 12 points from Kristi Bellock. The Aggies also had just nine turnovers.

"Hats off to Texas A&M," Warlick said. "They could have given up. They didn't. They kept battling. A credit to them, as well."

Warlick credited her team for its fight - Graves hit a tying shot late that was waved off after a questionable travel call, especially the way the game had been called inside, and Williams' offering looked good when it left her hand - but the rebounding numbers were atrocious for Tennessee.

The Lady Vols were wiped out on the boards, 42-31, and the Aggies had 18 on the offensive end.

Tennessee, despite the poor shooting by everyone outside of Spani and Jasmine Jones, who went 3-5 for 10 points and also grabbed four boards, got just six caroms off the offensive glass.

"That's not a sign of a Tennessee team," Warlick said. "We've just really got to learn the importance of playing defense and rebounding."

The exception was the 6-1 Spani, who led the team with eight rebounds and also had to guard the 6-4 Bone inside at times because of foul trouble for Burdick and Graves.

"She played a great game," Warlick said. "I don't know how much more she could have done for us. She played 40 minutes for us."

Some 6,630 fans watched the semifinal game and about 6,000 of them were pulling for Tennessee.

"We came Thursday to watch South Carolina and Alabama play, and we said, ‘Gosh, all the orange everywhere,' " Bone said.

Aggies Coach Gary Blair made a post-game plea to the Lady Vol fans and at the time didn't know if Texas A&M would play Kentucky or Georgia in the title game. It will be Kentucky, which wiped out the Lady Bulldogs, 60-38, in the second semifinal.

"If I am not mistaken Kentucky borders Tennessee. Georgia borders Tennessee," Blair said. "You're not supposed to like someone you're bordering. I want to see that Tennessee orange there pull us through, and I hope they'll stay."

Blair also had some words of praise for Spani in the post-game handshake line.

"She's going to lead them deep into the playoffs," Blair said. "The kid's just a winner. I just appreciate what she's brought to the game."

Blair also admired Spani's shooting - not just the fact the ball went in the basket but how she does it.

"She catches it, she goes up," he said. "How many girls catch, release and go up? All post players have got to bring it down. Most guards have got to bring it down, check the description on the ball or something.

"She catches it, she goes up. She knows the game."

When Tennessee went down seven in the first half, 29-22, Spani hit a three to trim the lead. She nailed a trey at the buzzer to cut the halftime lead to 35-33 and then scored the first seven points of the second half for the Lady Vols to give her team a 41-35 lead.

But it wasn't enough for Tennessee. The Lady Vols shot 42.9 percent (24-56) overall and 38.5 percent (5-13) from long range. Take out Spani's 11-13 and 5-6, and those numbers fall to 32.3 percent (13-43) and 0.0 percent (0-7).

Williams was in tears in the locker room, as were Burdick and Spani, among others. That is an expected reaction from seniors, who know the clock is ticking on their careers, but the team overall took the loss hard. That is a good sign, as it matters to this group of players to do well for themselves and for the staff, especially their first-year head coach.

"I hate this feeling man … There's nothing worse … ," Burdick said via Twitter on Saturday evening.

Tennessee is likely a three seed in the NCAA tourney - the brackets won't be announced until March 18 - and will host the opening rounds in Knoxville. The Lady Vols have the resume of a two seed in the rugged SEC, especially as the regular season champs, but a three seed won't surprise anyone.

"We're going to bounce back," Warlick said. "We're going to go back to work. We've got two weeks to get better, to improve.

"I'm confident that our staff will go to work, and we'll get these young ladies prepared."

VIDEO LINKS

Game highlights from utsportstv

Holly Warlick, Taber Spani, Meighan Simmons via SEC

INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE

Kamiko Williams

Taber Spani

Cierra Burdick

Ariel Massengale

Nia Moore

Meighan Simmons

Bashaara Graves

Dean Lockwood

Holly Warlick

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