Lady Vols seize another Tiger win

Meighan Simmons

Tennessee dispatched its second set of Tigers this week with a 56-50 win over Missouri thanks to stout three-ball defense – you read that right – the staying power of its senior and freshman guards and defense from a junior forward. Go inside for analysis.

Tennessee (22-5, 11-3) held off Missouri (16-11, 5-9) with a short roster, foul trouble for Isabelle Harrison and stellar defense against a barrage of long balls.

"We played solid," Coach Holly Warlick said. "They are a difficult team. They are never, never, never out of a game."

That is because the Tigers bombard an opponent with three-pointers, and they launched 32 against Tennessee. However, they connected on just seven for 21.9 percent accuracy.

The ones that found the net mostly came off scramble plays with one from an in-bounds set.

It was a stark contrast to last season when Tennessee lost to Missouri, 80-63, because of its inability to find shooters. Missouri was 11-24 from the arc a year ago.

"We talked about it," Andraya Carter said. "This is such a tough place to play. Last year, we were in a funk and couldn't get it going."

Carter, who was out because of shoulder surgery, watched from the bench a year ago. On Sunday, she played 38 minutes and chased shooters and eluded screens all over the court.

One first-half play encapsulated the effect the redshirt freshman had on this game. Carter fought through a screen, contested what otherwise would have been an open look from the arc, spun around to grab the long defensive board near the free throw line and hit the layup on the other end despite being chased by three Tigers for a 15-10 early lead.

"I thought Andraya was huge for us," Warlick said.

While basketball is played on a 94-foot court, Carter and senior guard Meighan Simmons, who logged 37 minutes, covered significantly more ground because they had to stick to shooters throughout the game.

Cierra Burdick, who also logged 37 minutes, often joined them in the track meet, because Missouri spreads out its five players and forces forwards and posts to come out to the perimeter.

Tennessee led just 25-22 at halftime because Missouri had been effective at dribble penetration, but the Lady Vols couldn't set up in a zone because of the Tigers' ability to hit threes in bunches.

The Lady Vols struggled offensively – they shot just 35.5 percent in the first half and had 10 turnovers with one series of seven possessions resulting in 0-3 from the field and four miscues – but they never let their struggles affect their defense.

That was especially the case for Burdick, who was 2-10 from the field, but sticky on defense. She also retrieved a ball on the sideline in the closing seconds to keep the ball – and ultimately the game – in Tennessee's possession.

That is tremendous progress for Burdick, who in the past would get in a funk on offense and then get distracted on defense.

Carter and Simmons carried the game at the guard position because Jordan Reynolds, who has been a critical contributor off the bench, twisted her ankle in the last play of practice on Saturday when she came down on a teammate's foot.

Warlick said the freshman had hoped to be able to go Sunday but had to be held out. Reynolds was on the bench and up and cheering so it is likely she will be OK going forward.

Ariel Massengale also was on the bench – her first time to travel since the Jan. 23 blow to the face – but didn't play. That meant Carter and Simmons had to log a lot of minutes, and both were effective.

Simmons tallied 20 points and three boards. She also had a sweet assist to Bashaara Graves that doesn't show up in the box score. Carter added eight points with six boards and just one turnover. The freshman guard also got a huge compliment from Warlick.

"She kept her composure," Warlick said. "She ran her team."

It can take point guards two years to get on the same page with their head coach, and Carter has done it within her first SEC season after being thrust into a starting role because of injury.

Another freshman played a critical role Sunday in Mercedes Russell. She grabbed 11 rebounds and added six points in 20 minutes of play. The box score credits her with two blocks but she actually had three.

With junior Isabelle Harrison held to just 18 minutes because of foul trouble, Russell and sophomore Jasmine Jones, who also had to chase shooters on the perimeter and dodge screens, logged much-needed and effective minutes.

The Lady Vols essentially had seven players with one very limited by fouls and managed to build a 16-point lead in the second half, hold off Missouri when the Tigers finally starting hitting some threes, seize an SEC win in February and remain in position for excellent seeding in the league and NCAA tourneys.

The Lady Vols shot 40.9 percent in the second half, limited the turnovers after halftime to six and never lost their composure despite the Tigers pulling to within three, 50-47, with 1:22 left to play.

"We just kept telling ourselves to stay composed," Carter said. "We knew that we had to get stops and stay composed. I don't think there was a feeling of panic at all."

Simmons noted, "We didn't get down on ourselves when they did start hitting threes. We knew that we needed to help the helper. We got a lot of one-and-dones on the defensive end with rebounding."

Harrison, who had been erratic at the line of late, sank the front end of one-and-ones twice in the final 34 seconds to boost the lead to five and then seven points. Her second trip to the line came off an offensive board on a missed free throw, and she sealed the game from the stripe.

"Izzy had a great rebound," Warlick said.

Tennessee shot 37.7 percent for the game, and Bashaara Graves joined Simmons in double figures with 11 points on 4-6 shooting. She also grabbed four boards with two on offense.

"We didn't get frustrated when our offense isn't going well," Graves said. "Our shooting percentage was not that good, but we still played to win."

Missouri capitalized on Tennessee's 16 turnovers with 18 points, while Tennessee got just four points off Missouri's 11 miscues. Tennessee got eight points off the bench, while Missouri got none.

Missouri was led by Bri Kulas with 22 points, but she was 2-10 from the arc, where the Lady Vol defenders had to focus their attention. Kulas, the second-leading scorer in the SEC at 18.4 points per game, was 9-25 and capitalized mostly by driving to the basket.

Tennessee held a slender 25-21 lead on the boards at halftime and boosted that to 48-35 for the game, out-rebounding the Tigers 23-14 in the second half. The Lady Vols stepped up their defense, got on the glass and made enough shots to win in what was a very physical game, especially inside.

"It was clean but physical," Warlick said.

The Lady Vols will now get ready for another set of Tigers with the last road game of the regular season against LSU on Thursday.

"I'm just glad for the win," Warlick said. "It's a good win for us on the road."

VIDEO COVERAGE

Game highlights via utsportstv

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