On Thursday night, the No. 23 Lady Vols held their own for the first quarter and a half against the No. 8 Bulldogs but could not keep up with Mississippi State’s high-powered offense as they fell 72-55.
Here are three takeaways from the loss:
Burrell Was Outstanding
Lady Vols star player Rennia Davis was sidelined with the flu, but sophomore Rae Burrell stepped up and did her best to carry the Tennessee offense.The sophomore has only been averaging 21 minutes and 10.5 points per game which are solid numbers for a sixth man, but when the announcement came that Davis would not play today, many wondered if Burrell could fill her shoes.
“Rae gave us Rae. She had really good practices leading up to the game that got her into the lineup,” Lady Vols coach Kellie Harper said. “She played with confidence and played downhill. She played hard and she got a double double as a result of her efforts. I liked her energy and hopefully this game will give her some confidence moving forward.”
Burrell came out of the gates explosive; she looked as though she had been in the starting lineup for all 23 games this year. In the first half, she had 11 points and four rebounds on 5-11 shooting, which is quite good, but should have been much higher as she was taking very high-percentage looks but got unlucky on some balls rolling out of the rim.
Burrell was attacking the basket and proving that she deserves more minutes with every play. In the second half she had nine points on 3-9 shooting to finish the game with one point under her career high with 20 points in 34 minutes. She also brought down 10 rebounds to make her third career double-double. Her explosiveness and aggressiveness were very impressive and something Harper must be excited about moving forward.
Tennessee had one stat that stands out in the box score from Thursday night: 23 turnovers. The Lady Vols gave the ball to Mississippi State 23 times, with 11 of those being steals, but only forced 9 turnovers from the Bulldogs. That large of a turnover differential will always be a factor in large losses.
“Some of our turnovers are execution errors and some are [poor] decision making turnovers,” Harper said “We have to clean up both areas, we have to make better passes but also have to make better decisions with the ball.”
Tennessee seemingly just handed the Bulldogs the basketball on many possessions. Mississippi State saw that the Lady Vols were being loose with the ball after defensive boards, so guard Jordan Danberry took advantage of this by sitting in the backcourt and attacking Tennessee from behind to rack up five steals on the night which all seemed to come from the same strategy, the Ladys Vols just seemed to never adjust which is something that a team should take care of after the first or second time it happens, not let it keep happening after the fourth. Tennessee is averaging 17.5 turnovers per game yet are only forcing an average of 13 turnovers by their opponents, if they want to make a run deep into March, this is a discrepancy that needs to be taken care of.
Dire Need of Post Scoring
If there is one thing to harp on this season, it has to be Davis. She has been absolutely outstanding for the Lady Vols, but when she is not on the court, one will notice a very big issue: Tennessee struggles mightily to score in the post. Freshman center Tamari Key averaged 16.5 points per game in her senior year of high school, granted it's hard to imagine she was facing other 6’5 centers every night like she does in SEC play. Tennessee was hoping to get a lot more post production from Key, but at this point in the season she is only averaging 7.3 points and 4.3 rebounds in 19.1 minutes. For someone who towers over many opponents, one would hope that she would have the aggression to attack the basket much more often that she does and, if anything, draw fouls and force the opposition into foul trouble. For example, in Thursday’s game, MSU’s starting forward Jessika Carter had four fouls for almost the entirety of the fourth quarter, but Key and Kushkituah did not look like they even knew she was in foul trouble as no one attacked her under the basket and forced her to be physical in hopes of getting her out of the game. Key is a true freshman who has a very high ceiling, hopefully a solid off-season in Harper’s system can produce a much more aggressive player who can utilize the natural advantage she has over most players to be a dominant force in the league.
The Lady Vols will get a much-needed week off after playing the No. 1, 3 and 8 teams in the nation over this past stretch of games. They will hit the hardwood again next Thursday to take on LSU on the road. The game will tip at 7:30 P.M. EST in Baton Rouge and can be viewed on SEC Network+ or listened to on the Lady Vol Network.