The opportunity presented itself more than once in the final seconds at Thompson-Boling Arena on Sunday for the Tennessee women’s basketball team to extend, or win, the game.
Ultimately, its attempts to tie or take the lead came up short as the 10th-ranked Lady Vols (12-2, 1-1 SEC) fell to the Missouri Tigers (13-3, 2-0 SEC), 66-64.
“I love our energy,” Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick said. “We played so hard. That’s why this was a tough game for our players.”
The game was one of the more physical that Tennessee had played all season, and for most of the contest, defense ruled the day. However, the Tigers got hot late from beyond the arc and used it to their full advantage to leave Knoxville with a conference road win-something that is always hard to come by.
For Tennessee, the loss can be credited to their inability to defend the three in the second half, Missouri’s hot shooting and the consequences that stems from playing in the rugged SEC.
Missouri heats up down the stretch
From the opening minutes, it was clear that the game was already heading into the direction of a low-scoring, defensive struggle.
Tennessee managed to hold Missouri to just 9-of-26 shooting for just over 34-percent. The Lady Vols also out rebounded the Tigers 22-16 en route to a one point, 25-24 lead at the intermission.
The Lady Vols struggled on the offensive end as well, but the second half would come down to who’s defense came up with more stops. Tennessee failed to do that, especially in the fourth quarter.
Opportunities to win the game abounded for Tennessee late, but their inability to stop Missouri’s offense when it mattered most went a long way in deciding their fate.
In a game where every basket was going to matter, Missouri’s second half shooting proved lethal. After going just 4-of-13 in the first half from deep, the Tigers managed to go 5-for-9 in the second, with most them coming in the fourth quarter.
According to sophomore guard Rennia Davis, miscommunication on defense allowed Missouri to hit more uncontested shots in the second half.
“A couple of times, it was just miscommunication,” Davis said. “On a couple of switches they were able to knock down some threes. Just things like that, that we can definitely clean up.”
Green proves to be a presence down low
Despite the loss, one positive that Tennessee was able to take away from the game was the play they got from their senior forward, Cheridene Green.
Green managed to match a season high in points with 13. The most impressive stat for the London, England native was the 14 total rebounds she pulled down, another season high.
Following the game, Green was reserved and was asked that in order for the Lady Vols to find success, would she need more performances like the one she had on Sunday. Her answer was simple.
“Yes, I need to do that more.” Green said.
Warlick was impressed with the performance as well, citing that she saw improvement out of Green in the paint.
“I thought Cheridene wanted the basketball,” Warlick said. “I thought she dominated the boards. She wanted offensive rebounds and got them. I thought she shot the ball really well. I just loved her energy.Just how hard she plays brings the team energy as well.”
A game of emotions
In a game as physical as this one, it usually provides its fair share of tense situations. That physicality came to a head late in the third quarter.
On one of Missouri’s offensive possessions, Tigers guard Sophie Cunningham attempted to drive to the basket while being guarded by Davis.
Cunningham was able to score and take the lead, 48-44. On her way to the basket, Cunningham hit Davis in the eye with one of her elbows, prompting a review from the officials. The officials ruled an unsportsmanlike foul on Cunningham, and senior guard Meme Jackson went to line for two shots.
The play garnered more than a few negative reactions in the crowd of well over 9,000, which persisted throughout the contest.
“At the end of the day, I was just playing defense,” Davis said. “She just stuck her elbow up and I just flew back. She (Cunningham) hit me dead in the eye. I was glad they called it an intentional foul because we usually don’t get those calls.”
For the players, they have come to understand that tensions often run high in conference play, and it is something they’ve learned to not let get to them in the heat of the game.
“We know every game in the SEC is going to be physical,” Tennessee sophomore guard Evina Westbrook said. “The coaches made a point, especially for this game, to keep our heads level and tried not to get sucked in to all the acting.”
The slate doesn’t get any easier for Tennessee. The Lady Vols will play host to the 16th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats on Thursday. Tip-off is slated 7 p.m. and the game will be broadcasted on the SEC Network.