Redshirt junior Diamond DeShields made a huge return to the hardwood in Tennessee's 72-65 win over No. 17/23 Kentucky on Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena.
After missing the last two games, DeShields scored 21 points on 50 percent (8-of-16) shooting to go along with four rebounds, two assists and a block. Fellow redshirt junior Mercedes Russell compiled another strong outing, scoring 22 points, grabbing nine boards and dishing out three assists with no turnovers in 38 minutes of duty.
Tennessee (9-4, 1-0 SEC) is now 29-6 in SEC openers and improved to 2-2 on the season against ranked opponents.
Junior Jaime Nared scored in double digits for the 10th consecutive game, posting 18 points behind 5-of-10 shooting to go with five rebounds, two assists and a steal.
She also was 5-of-6 from the charity stripe, making her last four within the final minutes of the game to ice Tennessee's fifth-straight win.
A trio of players led Kentucky (9-5, 0-1 SEC) in scoring. Taylor Murray finished with 23 points and six rebounds. Evelyn Akhator recorded the contest's only double-double, posting 11 points on 100 percent (5-of-5) shooting and 10 rebounds. Maci Morris finished with 15 points on the day.
The Lady Vols started off hot on offense in the first quarter, hitting five of their first seven shots. DeShields got off to a quick start, dropping 10 points in the stanza as Tennessee took an early 20-14 lead over Kentucky.
The key story line for the second period was Tennessee's ability to hold preseason All-American Makayla Epps scoreless until 1:10 remaining in the first half, when she nailed a pair of free throws. She would finish the half with four points on 1-of-5 shooting. Russell fueled the Lady Vols, totaling 12 points and seven rebounds in the half. UT went into the intermission leading, 36-29.
The two teams played even in the third period. UK used a 6-0 run in the final two minutes to pull back within four, but Russell's dominance continued, as she hit a layup with two seconds left in the quarter to give Tennessee a 52-46 lead at the end of three.
DeShields stepped up big in the final stanza, tallying nine of UT's 20 points in the quarter to seal the game for the Lady Vols. Tennessee improved its series record against the Wildcats to 54-11 all time.
The Lady Vols are on the road for the next game, heading to Nashville to face the Vanderbilt Commodores at Memorial Gym. The game will tip off at 8 p.m. CT (9 ET) and will be televised on SEC Network.
After missing the last two games, Diamond DeShields didn't skip a beat in her return, scoring 21 points on 8-of-16 shooting.
Her 21 points marked the second time this season she has eclipsed the 20-point margin (28 at ETSU, 11/15/16).
She has now scored in double digits in seven straight games.
DeShields has now converted on at least 50 percent of her shots in three games this season.
Keeping Epps in Check
Tennessee held preseason All-American Makayla Epps to only eight points in the outing, which ties a season low for the sharp-shooting senior.
She converted on 3-of-13 (23.1 percent) from the field and was 0-of-4 from beyond the arc.
Her first points came on a pair of free throws with 1:10 remaining in the first half.
In her last four games against the Lady Vols, Epps has averaged 17.3 points per game on 39.4 percent shooting, including two 20-plus point performances.
Tennessee was 13-of-16 from the charity stripe in the game and came up clutch when it mattered, converting on all eight of its free throws in the fourth quarter.
Jaime Nared had ice in her veins during the final 34 seconds of the game. After Kentucky pulled within four points, Nared nailed four free throws to seal the victory for the Lady Vols.
Nared, who led the SEC in free throw percentage coming into the game, was 5-of-6 from the line on the evening. She is now 45-of-50 (90 percent) from the charity stripe on the year.