On Thursday night, the Tennessee women’s basketball team was riding high after a big win over LSU in the second round of the SEC Tournament. That win added to an NCAA Tournament resume that was lacking in quality.
That same team faced a much tougher challenge on Friday in the quarterfinals, drawing the SEC Regular Season Champions and top-seeded Mississippi State Bulldogs, a team that dominated the Lady Vols earlier in the season.
Despite a promising start, Tennessee fell away later in the game, and its SEC run ended with the 83-68 loss.
“We battled, we just didn’t have enough,” head coach Holly Warlick said. “I’m proud of our kids for fighting, didn’t give up, didn’t look at the score.”
In the first matchup between these two teams earlier in the season, Evina Westbrook was suspended due to a violation of team rules. Her presence on the court was obviously missed, as Tennessee fell apart down the stretch in the 91-63 loss.
She was a full participant in the rematch, and, despite the result, she certainly made her presence felt on the court. The Oregon native followed an impressive 20 point showing in the second round of the SEC Tournament with a 19 point outing on Friday.
She finished 8 for 15 from the field, cashing in on two three-balls.
A large part of Mississippi State’s success against Tennessee was its dominant defense. At times, the Lady Vols could not even get the ball in-bounds without turning it over, or taking a time out.
The most significant aspect of that was the Bulldogs’ relentless press. The Lady Vols struggled to get the ball past the century line, given they were able to safely get the ball in-bounds. They turned the ball over 26 times, the highest mark this season.
In the second quarter, Tennessee had more turnovers, 10, than points, nine. Mississippi State had nine steals, and, in comparison, turned the ball over only 11 times. It was able to score 30 points off of Tennessee’s giveaways.
“Our main thing was our turnovers, we had 26 turnovers,” Westbrook said. “They had 30 points off our turnovers. That really just killed us. We just have to do a better job at executing and getting the ball in under pressure.”
The Lady Vols are not a three-point shooting team. Their offensive efforts this year have been predicated upon getting points in, or near, the paint. They average about 32 percent from beyond the arc, and make about five threes a game.
On Friday, they had six threes in the first half. In the first quarter alone, three different players were able to connect from deep. Meme Jackson, who has been the sharpshooter for Tennessee, had three in the first half.
“We were getting great looks in the first half and the second half,” Jackson said. “We just have to hit open shots.”
Tennessee finished well above the average mark, hitting nine threes. Jackson had three to lead both teams.
Tennessee’s next opponent is not exactly clear, as the NCAA Tournament is next on the docket. The team will find out on Monday, March 18 where it will land in the tournament- that is, if Tennessee does get selected.
With the loss to Mississippi State, the Lady Vols’ fate in the postseason still hangs in the balance. Most recently, they were listed as one of the “last four in” teams, which means they remain on the bubble.
ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme’s latest projection has them as a No. 11 seed playing six-seed Drake in the first round of the tournament in College Park, Md. He maintains that with the win over LSU, Tennessee did just enough to sneak into the tournament.
All will be revealed on Monday, as the team waits patiently.