Nothing is more dangerous than a team with nothing to lose. Kentucky embodies that mantra.
The Lady Vols (21-10, 13-3 SEC) draw the Wildcats for their first matchup in the SEC Tournament. Kentucky is on a two-game win streak in this year’s tournament after finishing the SEC regular season slate 2-14.
But, Kentucky is a different team when it comes to the SEC Tournament. Last season, the Wildcats fought back from being a No. 7 seed to win the championship. This year, Kentucky is a No. 14 seed fighting for its second championship in a row, with nothing to lose.
“You want to make sure your team is focused,” Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper said. “One thing that we have done all year, we keep things very consistent with our preparation, regardless of the team.”
Tennessee faced Kentucky in the season finale on Sunday, beating the Wildcats 83-63 in Lexington. The Lady Vols had a dominating game on the offensive end in that game.
Tennessee shot an SEC-play-best 58% from the field in the wire-to-wire win. The Lady Vols had 26 assists on 36 field goals.
Assist numbers have been crucial for Tennessee this season with its best games coming when assist numbers are high. Tennessee averages 15.9 assists per game this year. In their losses, the Lady Vols averaged only 10.5 assists per game.
“That’s one of the things that we’ve had a lot of growth through,” Harper said. “When we are high assist, we play really well. That might sound obvious to a lot of people, but some teams play differently. When we are sharing the ball and we’re getting a lot of production from everyone, our team is just better.”
The Lady Vols have had more turnovers than assists in all but one of their losses.
Against Kentucky the first time on Sunday, Tennessee had 20 turnovers compared to its 26 assists. The Lady Vols will have to replicate that success on Friday.
“When we’re low turnover I think that’s when we’re being aggressive as well,” Harper said. “Our team understands that’s how we need to play. We’ve got to continue to find ways to do that.”
Harper has preached pace of play to her team this season. When the Lady Vols have success, they were able to get out into transition and push the pace.
That was on show against Kentucky on Sunday. The Lady Vols landed the “first punch” and never looked back. That is a strategy they will need in March.
“Their focus was good,” Harper said. “They came out and set the tone early and we really were trying to do that, to focus in on how we needed to play.”
While the regular season didn’t go as planned, basketball is a tournament sport. Just as Kentucky won the SEC Championship last year, the regular season does not reflect what you will do in the postseason.
Harper has experience in both coaching and playing at this stage. She left her team with a message as they enter the madness of March.
“They’ve got to be focused and leave it out there,” Harper said. “You do not want to finish a game and have regrets. That’s the last thing you want to do. So for them, just leave it all out there, have fun, enjoy the moment and play free. I think that’s going to be important.”
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