Tennessee entered Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, SC on Thursday in desperate need of a win to have any hope of making the NCAA Tournament.
To add even more intrigue, the LSU Tigers, the Lady Vols’ SEC Tournament round two opponent, needed the win for the same reasons, resulting in a back-and-forth battle of bubble teams.
In the month of March, there’s an adage that college basketball teams live by; ‘survive and advance.’ Eight-seeded Tennessee (19-11) did just that, outlasting the 9-seed LSU (16-13), 69-66 to advance to the third round of the SEC Tournament.
“We knew it was going to be hard-fought game,” Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick said. “Our kids showed up..They stayed focused. When things didn’t go well, we stayed the course.”
Here are some of the takeaways on the Lady Vols season-saving win:
Westbrook shines late
Enough cannot be said of the impact that Tennessee sophomore guard Evina Westbrook made in the second half on Thursday.
Westbrook had been one of the Lady Vols’ most consistent players throughout most of the regular season, but experienced a drop off over the last couple of games.
The Salem, Ore., native took matters into her own hands in the opening minutes of the third quarter and didn’t look back, scoring 15 of the team’s 41 points over the last 20 minutes of play.
Late in the game, Westbrook’s contested three to put Tennessee up by five, as well as her coast-to-coast layup to extend its lead to 66-62 with less than a minute left were just a few examples of how crucial her performance was to her team.
“I ran a play to Evina (Westbrook) and she attacked the basket,” Warlick said. “I ran everything as much as I could to her. I put her in a position where there were makeable shots for her. In the first half, she kind of had to create her own shots, but once I saw her attack the basket, I ran the ball through her. She stepped up.”
On a day where Tennessee’s backcourt accounted for fifty points, having Westbrook back to form was a major factor in the win, and will continue to be in the third round on Friday.
Big shots in big moments
Westbrook wasn’t the only player that came up in the clutch for the Lady Vols.
With about three minutes remaining in regulation and leading by just four, sophomore forward Rennia Davis scored a three from the top of the key to go ahead 62-55.
“I think that (shot) just gave us another momentum boost,” Davis said. “For us, it’s all about finishing games. Every defensive stop counts, and I think that shot was just the momentum shift we needed.”
Davis scored a team second best 19 points on the day, but that three was enough to give Tennessee the last momentum shift they needed to close out the game.
Free Throw Shooting
The final stats were a perfect representation of what transpired on the court.
The Lady Vols and Tigers were neck-and-neck in almost every category, including points in the paint, second chance points, and points off of turnovers.
That is why Tennessee’s trips to the charity stripe were so important. The Lady Vols finished 9-of-12 (75-percent), with Davis making the biggest impact by going 5 for 6 in the fourth quarter.
“I was just glad we got to the line,” Warlick said. “Our free throw shooting has been huge down the stretch. Getting to the free throw line was huge and at the end, I wanted to get the ball into Rennia’s hands. She’s our best free throw shooter.”
Survive and advance
Ahead of the SEC Tournament, Tennessee was an 11-seed playing South Dakota State in Iowa City in the first round of the NCAA Tournament according to ESPN Bracketologist Charlie Creme.
That placement was largely based on the outcome of the Lady Vol’s match up with LSU, and with the win now behind them, they’ll get set to face off against the SEC Tournament’s top seed, the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Tennessee and Mississippi State met back on February 10 in Starkville, Miss., where the Lady Vols collapsed late in the second half in a 91-63 loss.
“We’ve a played a game and Mississippi State hasn’t,” Warlick said. “I think that can be an advantage for us. We’ve got to rely on being in great condition and listen to our gameplan. We have an opportunity for a rematch, which our kids are excited about.”
Part two of Tennessee vs Mississippi State is set for a noon tip-off on Friday in Greenville.