Following their SEC Tournament second round win over LSU on Thursday, Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick said she saw ‘grit’ out of her team.
She cited the Lady Vols ability to face adversity early, but being able to respond with a run every time, eventually propelling them to a much-needed win.
On Friday, Tennessee found itself in a similar situation, falling behind early, struggling with turnovers early and getting into foul trouble early against the top-seeded and SEC regular season champion Mississippi State Bulldogs.
The Lady Vols once again showed that grit that Warlick talked about, fighting back to close out the first quarter with a seven-point lead and a world of momentum on their side.
While that fight remained throughout the contest, the Bulldogs (28-2), as they often do, proved to be too much for Tennessee (19-12) in the second half in a 83-68 decision in the SEC Tournament Quarterfinals.
The loss eliminated the Lady Vols from the SEC Tournament.
“A tough day for us today,” Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick said. “We played hard, we didn’t play smart at times. Mississippi State is a great basketball team, and you can’t make a lot of mistakes against them.
“We battled. We just didn’t have enough I’m proud of our kids for fighting.”
Mississippi State got to work quickly, taking a 4-0 lead within the first minute of the game. While the Tennessee defense was able to hold the Bulldogs off from extending that lead, the Lady Vols found themselves in foul trouble early while struggling to put points on the board.
Much like in its game against LSU just 24 hours earlier, Tennessee climbed back into the game thanks to the play from sophomore guard Evina Westbrook, who went on to score seven of the Lady Vols’ first nine points halfway through the first quarter.
For the second straight day, Westbrook led Tennessee in scoring with 19 points while going 8-of-15 from the floor and 2-of-4 from beyond the arc.
From the perimeter is where the Lady Vols found momentum in the first half. By the end of the first period, Tennessee had three different players score at least one three-pointer, going 5-of-8 in that span.
However, it was Mississippi State who was able to snatch it right back in the second quarter behind some strong defense of their own while jumping out to an 8-0 run early in the early goings of the frame to climb back in front.
Turnovers proved to a be big difference in the first half and were key to Mississippi State being able to take the lead back and stay there.
Tennessee committed 15 first half turnovers, while the Bulldogs managed 17 points off of them en route to a 11-point, 43-32 halftime lead.
For the game, the Lady Vols had 26 total turnovers while Mississippi State converted them into 30 points.
“Our main thing was our turnovers,” Westbrook said. “They had 30 points off of our turnovers, so that really just killed us. We’ve just got to do a better job of just executing and getting the ball out.”
Much like the last time that the two teams met in the regular season, Tennessee was able to keep things interesting in the third quarter, but could not overcome the deficit, trailing by ten for most of the quarter before Mississippi State pulled away in the fourth.
The Lady Vols were outscored in the second half, 36-40, while also being outscored in the paint, 24-48.
While Westbrook proved to once again be the difference in keeping Tennessee in the game for two and a half quarters, two other Lady Vols, senior guard Meme Jackson and sophomore Rennia Davis also tallied double-digit point performances with 13 and 16 points, respectively.
Despite the loss, the season does not appear to be over, according to the latest NCAA Tournament bracket projections.
According to ESPN Bracketologist Charlie Creme, the Lady Vols are an 11-seed facing Drake in the Chicago Region.
Warlick feels like Tennessee’s SEC Tournament showing, along with the regular season slate they faced, is enough to put them in for the 37th consecutive season.
“Do I think we deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament? Absolutely,” Warlick said. “We played a tough schedule, we’ve grinded it out. We had a six game losing streak, we stepped up. This is a young group, and they get continue to get better.
“We compete and we play hard. This team has a no-quit attitude and we showed that today.”