For at least a half of basketball on Sunday, it looked like the 10th-ranked Tennessee Lady Vols were not going to get caught looking ahead to SEC play, or be fatigued from their second game in three days.
That only lasted for a half, however.
After a dominating first half where Tennessee shot 9-13 from beyond the arc for an impressive 69.2-percentage and a 16 point halftime lead, the upset-minded Belmont Bruins stormed all the way back to pull within one point in the fourth quarter, as the Lady Vols failed to match their offensive performance from the first half.
Thanks to a 7-0 run midway through the final period, Tennessee (11-1) pulled away late to avoid the upset and head into the conference play on a high note with a 84-76 win over the Bruins (7-4) in front of an announced attendance of 8,546 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“We like to make it exciting,” head coach Holly Warlick said following the game. “Our defense was solid for about 25 minutes. In the third quarter I thought we let our offense affect our defense, and you can’t do that.”
Following their win over Murray State on Friday, Warlick pointed out the problems Belmont could present. After the Bruins jumped out quickly to a 7-3 lead, those sentiments rang true.
The shooting, which was headlined by sophomore guard Rennia Davis and freshman guard Zaay Green in the first 20 minutes, sent Tennessee into the half holding a 16 point lead.
“Consistency is definitely important,” Davis said. “But it’s important to understand that basketball is a game of runs. Belmont had their run. We were just able to consistently get some stops and put together some shots.”
That same offensive prowess did not carry over into the final 20 minutes for the Lady Vols, as a brutal third quarter where they only managed to score 8 points along with abysmal 3-of-18 shooting from the floor. Tennessee was outscored in the period, 23-8 and the Bruins headed to the fourth quarter with seemingly all of the momentum only trailing one, 59-58.
For Davis, guarding the Bruins on the defensive end presented one of their biggest challenges of the season, particularly in the third quarter.
“(Belmont) is one of the better offensive teams we’ve played this year,” Davis said. “They shoot the three ball so well. Just being able to stand in front of who you are guarding and playing one-on-one defense.”
It didn’t take long into the fourth for Belmont to grab their first lead since the early going of the first quarter. The Bruins took a 60-59 advantage, but only shortly as both teams traded baskets and exchanged leads prior to a big run by Tennessee that they would use to close out the game.
After scoring just 7 points in the first half, Westbrook was paramount for the Lady Vols in the second half, scoring 13 points en route to a 20 point performance, including important baskets late in the game.
The game was Westbrook’s ninth game scoring in double figures, and her sixth game scoring 20 points or more. Just as big as the points were the 7 assists and 6 rebounds that Westbrook had down the stretch.
“Obviously as a point guard my job is to call out the plays,” Westbrook said. “I had Rae (Burrell) come up and set a screen every play and it was working, so we just kept running that. I was just making sure everyone was involved and everyone knew what they were doing.”
In addition to Westbrook, the Lady Vols had three other players score in double figures, with Davis, senior guard Meme Jackson and Green notching 19, 10 and 10 points respectively.
As a team, Tennessee finished with 19 assists and 41 rebounds while making 30-of-68 from the floor and 9-of-21 from three.
The Lady Vols will next head to Auburn where they will face the 12-1 Tigers to tip-off SEC play.
The game is set for 7 p.m. on Thursday at Auburn Arena.