Early on in the season, junior guard Alexa Middleton found a spot in the starting lineup for the Lady Vols, then lost it almost immediately.
Middleton’s role increased drastically to begin the 2016 campaign after Tennessee’s limited backcourt suffered season-ending injuries to guards Andraya Carter and Te’a Cooper. With Middleton’s increased presence on the court, she scored 18 points against James Madison and 21 against Navy.
Head coach Holly Warlick awarded Middleton a starting role against East Tennessee State because of her high-scoring performances, but the Murfreesboro native lost her luster with the starters, recording just seven points in 28 minutes of play.
Middleton was relegated back to the bench after the ETSU game, and she remained there until the team’s contest versus Missouri, where she replaced Meme Jackson in the starting five. Middleton got the start again for the team’s 61-59 loss to Texas A&M and performed well despite the team’s heartbreaking last second defeat.
Middleton played a total of 39 minutes against Texas A&M, scoring 14 points, recording four assists and notching two steals. She shot 6-for-13 from the field.
The junior is now averaging 7.8 points per contest with an average playing time of 24.5 minutes. She has 195 total points and 55 assists on the year.
But Middleton opted not to praise herself for her performance. Instead, during the postgame press conference, she focused on what the team needed to work on as a whole.
“It’s frustrating because it’s the same exact thing that happened last year,” Middleton said. “There were a few more shots that I wish I could have hit. Like Diamond (DeShields) said, we were missing the outside shots we were shooting.
“We were giving up offensive boards to them, and ultimately, an offensive rebound was what lost us the game.”
Middleton pressed the idea that allowing offensive rebounds hurt Tennessee against the Aggies and the lack of making shots doomed the Lady Vols.
“I think you could tell that we were letting fatigue get to us a little bit, like on offensive rebounds,” Middleton said. “We didn’t score in the last three minutes. There were some shots that we normally hit (that we missed) and some shots that probably weren’t great.
“We just have to finish the game and keep playing tough all the way through.”
Jackson Off the Bench: With Middleton one of the starting five for Tennessee, sophomore guard Meme Jackson has had to settle into a reserve role after starting for much of the season.
She scored five points in 14 minutes against Missouri and six points in 12 minutes against Texas A&M, coming off the bench in both games.
Warlick praised the combination of Jackson and Middleton after the Missouri contest.
“I thought Meme Jackson came in and did some great things and Alexa came in and got things started,” Warlick said. “We need both of those kids to perform.”
Jackson is averaging 3.4 points per game and 16.4 minutes per game on the season. She has started 18 of the 25 games she has played in.
Shaky Standings: Tennessee’s spot in the SEC standings took a hit after the loss on Sunday.
The Lady Vols were sitting at fifth place in the conference before Sunday’s contest. Now with a 7-5 conference record, the team has fallen to sixth place out of the 14 total teams in the conference.
Texas A&M now boasts an impressive 9-3 SEC record, good for third place in the conference. The Aggies, however, were already in third place before besting Tennessee.
Mississippi State sits at the top of the conference with an 11-1 record. South Carolina, who Tennessee bested 76-74 in Columbia, are in second place.
Tennessee will look to improve on their SEC rank through the last four games of the regular season as the Lady Vols take on Alabama Thursday at Tuscaloosa, then host Arkansas and Florida before traveling to Mississippi State to conclude the regular season slate.