Following its loss against the Missouri Tigers on Sunday, the 16th ranked Tennessee women’s basketball team (12-3, 1-2) did something against the Kentucky Wildcats (15-2, 2-1) it had not done in over 20 years, and not in a positive way.
For the first time since the 1996-97 season, the Lady Vols dropped two straight home contests in a row after falling to Kentucky 73-71. It also marks the first time since 2014, and just the fourth time overall, that the Wildcats have won in Knoxville.
“We’re young,” head coach Holly Warlick said. “We’re sophomores and freshmen, and we just have to keep learning, and putting them to the test, and practicing. We’ve got to go back to defending 101.”
One of the biggest problems this season for Warlick’s squad has been holding onto the ball. They turn the ball over a total of almost 17 times per game, much to the head coach’s chagrin.
In the early goings of Thursday night’s contest, the turnover issue once again reared its ugly head, almost dooming the Lady Vols from the start. In the first quarter alone, they turned the ball over seven times, accounting for over one third of their total for the game.
While they would slip up just twice more to end the half, the problem did not go away. 10 more in the second half led to 19 total turnovers for Tennessee. Kentucky was able to capitalize on a majority of those turnovers, scoring 22 points off of them.
The Wildcats only gave the ball up 16 times, marking the second conference showdown in three games that the Lady Vols have lost the turnover battle. Evina Westbrook had eight turnovers from the guard spot, her worst mark since last season’s game against Auburn on January 4, 2018.
“I’ll give Evina credit, she was attacking the basket,” Warlick said. “She was aggressive with the ball. She’s going to try to get people the ball. I know she threw a couple of passes that led us too far.”
Collins shines early in sputtering offense
Tennessee’s offensive performance was nothing short of lackluster for a majority of the night against Kentucky. At the half, it was just a cool 27-percent from the field, with just 10 total field goals made in 20 minutes of play.
The Lady Vols did not hit their first three-point shot until the closing minutes of the third quarter, missing their first eight up to that point. One of the only consistent factors in their offensive effort early on came from an unlikely source in freshman Mimi Collins.
“She was pretty focused before the game,” Cheridene Green said. “She just really had the energy and the confidence to finish her shots. It was really good.”
Through just seven minutes on the court, Collins scored 11 points to lead her team through a majority of the first half. In addition, she was able to pull down three boards in that span of time.
The Waldorf, Md. native was responsible for four of their 10 total buckets through the first two stanzas of play, and went 3-for-4 from the free throw line. She was one of just three Tennessee players to finish in double digit scoring.
The other two were Rennia Davis and Evina Westbrook, who finished with 12 and 20 points respectively. Despite a late surge, including a fourth quarter in which Tennessee was able to outscore Kentucky 25-15, the early offensive struggles proved to be too much to overcome down the stretch.
“In the first half we were slow, we needed to pick it up,” Green said. “We needed to understand the game plan, there were mental lapses. We picked it up after halftime because we wanted to win, and we were hungry.
“But we just fell short.”
Following the two straight losses, things don’t get easier for the beleaguered Lady Vols squad. They next take to the court on January 13 to face the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens. It will be the first in a series of two straight SEC road trips for Tennessee.
Georgia currently sits at 11-4, including a 2-0 mark in conference play, with wins against LSU and Vanderbilt. It also boasts the second best defense in the conference, and 13th nationally, allowing just over 53 points per game to opponents.
Last year, Tennessee eased past the Bulldogs in Knoxville, winning 62-46. This year’s team is a much improved opponent, however.
“We have great players on this team,” Davis said. “I just think we have to get back to, we’ve got to play together as a team every game, and we’ve just got to do the little things. We can’t continue to have these mental lapses that I feel like we have sometimes.”