When asked how a win against No. 14 Texas A&M would affect No. 12 Tennessee’s confidence, freshman guard Evina Westbrook's focus was on her locker room.
“I think it's going to bring our team a lot closer together on the court and off the court,” Westbrook said. “We are just going to be moving forward.”
And the Lady Vols did exactly that, besting the Aggies 82-67 at Thompson-Boling Arena to move to 18-4 on the season, including a 6-3 SEC record. The win marked an important rebound victory for Tennessee, as the team had dropped four of its last six games heading into the Texas A&M contest.
Now, with the Lady Vols set to travel to Nashville, Tennessee, on Sunday to face the Vanderbilt Commodores (6-17, 2-7 SEC), head coach Holly Warlick’s team will look to utilize the positive energy gained from its defeat of the Aggies and regain success in the final stretch of the regular season.
“Every win is big for us,” Warlick said. “After the stretch we went through, the sky was falling. I will say this, we held on (against Texas A&M). We got after it early, and we competed for four quarters.”
If the Lady Vols can find victory against the Commodores on Sunday, the win could set Tennessee on a path to find momentum and cruise through the final contests of its regular season slate with its tough road stretch now in the past.
But despite Vanderbilt’s low record this season, that task may be easier said than done.
The Commodores are coached by Stephanie White, who is in her second year at the helm of the program. She joined Vanderbilt after stints as an assistant with Toledo, Kansas State, Ball State and multiple WNBA teams. She served as the head coach of the Indiana Fever before leaving to take the job with the Commodores.
Vanderbilt is paced offensively by freshman guard Chelsie Hall. She leads the Commodores with 13 points per game and also is first on the roster in assists per contest with a 2.8 mark.
Freshman forward Autumn Newby, a 6-foot-2 Georgia native, leads Vanderbilt with 6.7 rebounds per game. She also averages 5.0 points per game and has notched 10 blocks on the year.
Tennessee defeated Vanderbilt 86-73 in the two teams’ first matchup this season, with 6-foot-6 senior center Mercedes Russell scoring a career-high 33 points on 14-of-20 shooting. The Portland, Oregon, native currently averages 16.6 points per game and has recorded a team-high 189 rebounds on the year.
Russell’s impact has been strong for the Lady Vols all season, and her last action on the court was no exception, as she scored 18 points and grabbed 13 rebounds against Texas A&M.
“The hardest shot to guard is (Russell’s) jump hook,” Texas A&M senior center Khaalia Hillsman said.
“She is what, 6-foot-6 or 6-foot-7? She is already long. She has a long wingspan; it's not like she has little arms or something. I tried to make her shoot further away from the basket. Her release was so high, and she finishes so well, it is very hard for me to block.
“I tried to make her go baseline, because at least I could try to tip it. She has perfected that jump hook. That's definitely her hardest shot to guard since she has perfected it so well.”
And if Russell, Westbrook and their fellow Lady Vols shine similarly against Vanderbilt, the impact of that win could have reach far into the future of Tennessee’s season.
Sunday’s contest is set to tip off at 2:00 p.m. at Memorial Gymnasium. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.