For three games, it looked like Tennessee had finally turned the corner on its season.
After dropping five-straight, the Lady Vols largely dominated in wins over LSU, Florida and Vanderbilt and went into their biggest conference test with momentum, looking to make a statement on their once forgettable season.
On Sunday, Tennessee failed that test, reverting back to everything that plagued them in their earlier losing skid in their worst loss of the season, a 91-63 decision to No. 5 Mississippi State.
Mississippi State certainly wasn’t a game that Tennessee needed to win, but it was one they needed to prove they could play well in, and for nearly three quarters, they were doing just that.
However, the last 15 minutes of the second half saw Tennessee give up big shots, commit costly turnovers and have a lack of capitalization on defense, leaving them once again looking for answers.
At 15-8 overall, with a 4-6 mark in SEC play and six more regular season contests still on the docket, the latest postseason projections have Tennessee sitting out of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history.
According to ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme, who currently has the Lady Vols listed in his ‘first four out’ along with Michigan, BYU and West Virginia, Tennessee is not completely out of the running for a tournament seed yet.
But how can it improve its stock? Opportunities for some quality wins still remain with games against No. 22 Texas A&M, No. 11 South Carolina and Missouri still left to be played, and the Lady Vols cannot afford another hiccup against teams like Ole Miss or Vanderbilt.
Tennessee will have plenty of chances to close out the season strong and avoid making all the wrong kinds of history, but it will need to do these things to make it happen:
This was a problem that persisted throughout the first part of the season during the Lady Vols’ non-conference slate, and it only made things worse during the first half of SEC play.
It looked as if that problem had been somewhat corrected during the three-game win streak, but it came back to bite Tennessee in a bad way against Mississippi State.
The Lady Vols had an 18-9 turnover/assist ratio in Starkville. To put that in perspective, in each of their three-straight wins prior to facing the Bulldogs, they had more assists than turnovers. Even more damaging was the fact that Mississippi State converted those turnovers to 12 points.
In its losses to Missouri, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and Notre Dame, Tennessee finished on the losing end of the turnover battle.
While it is common knowledge that turning the ball over more than your opponent is a recipe for losing games, it is something the Lady Vols have done far more often than not in SEC play, and with six conference games left, Tennessee better find a solution for that problem because recent history indicates that they cannot win without it.
Win in the paint
Tennessee was seemingly getting more production out of its post players than they had all season in the three games leading up to Mississippi State.
Senior forward Cheridene Green recorded a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds versus Florida and came close to earning another against LSU.
Freshman center Mimi Collins and sophomore forward Kasiyahna Kushkituah were turning in key performances and logging crucial minutes in those wins.
Versus Mississippi State, those same three players accounted for eight total turnovers and eight total points.
While it should be noted that the Bulldogs are headlined by All-American center Teaira McCowan, the Lady Vols were also drastically outscored in the paint, 50-30 and outrebounded, 38-30.
Although Tennessee will not be facing a player that matches the caliber of McCowan in their remaining games, they need to have success down low to have a chance to win.
More than Rennia
For the most part this season, when Rennia Davis has scored in double figures, it went a long way in Tennessee getting the win.
But that is not always the case, as evidenced by Sunday’s loss. Davis led the team with 29 points, and they still lost by 28. Granted, the team’s leading scorer, Evina Westbrook, was on the bench due to suspension, but the freshman guard Zaay Green and senior Meme Jackson only scored 13 and 6 points respectively.
While Tennessee will be glad to have Westbrook back versus Auburn on Thursday, the offense is going to have to find ways to score points besides those two players. If Jackson and Green can also post double scoring figures in the next couple of games, the Lady Vols offense will be hard to stop for anybody.