KNOXVILLE -- A tough week for the Tennessee Lady Vol basketball team got just a little bit tougher on Sunday afternoon here at Thompson-Boling Arena.
With the season’s largest crowd of 13,436 fans and a national television audience watching, the sixth-ranked Lady Vols were hoping to get a little redemption after blowing a big lead and losing at fifth-ranked Notre Dame on Thursday, but the third-ranked and undefeated Mississippi State had other ideas.
It was an emotional afternoon for everyone involved as it was the kickoff to the “We Back Pat” week where all 14 Southeastern Conference teams and many others around the country raised money and general awareness to the Pat Summitt Foundation and its fight against Alzheimer’s disease.
The Lady Vols lost for the second straight game as they got beat 71-52 by the Bulldogs in a game that really wasn’t that close.
With the win, Mississippi State improves to 20-0 overall and 6-0 in SEC play while Tennessee falls to 16-3 overall and 4-2 in conference play. Tennessee still has a commanding 37-4 lead in the series after winning the first 36 games, but the Bulldogs have won four of the last five, including the last two at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Bulldogs are averaging more than 86 points per game in those 19 wins. They didn’t score quite that many on Sunday, but they did everything else right to win in a very hostile environment.
And on a day when they honored the memory of the greatest coach in the history of women’s basketball, Mississippi State won in a way that would have made coach Summitt extremely proud…with defense and rebounding.
The Bulldogs only shot 41.8 percent from the field, but they limited the Lady Vols to just 35.8 percent as they took 14 more shots than Tennessee and they also enjoyed a comfortable 44-33 edge in rebounding, including 17 offensive boards that created 20 second-chance points.
“That was a heckuva game between two really good teams and a great win for us here on the road,” said Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer, now in his sixth year as their leader.
“In a game where we honored Pat’s memory, this was a contest about toughness and rebounding. I’m sure Pat would not have liked the fact that we won, but she would have appreciated the way we did it and that’s through rebounding and tough defense.
“It was about us being ready to play and I think we were, but we have four senior guards who make things click for us and it all begins with them,” he said in reference to Blair Schaefer, Roshunda Johnson, Victoria Vivians and Morgan William.
“This is the best offense we’ve had since I’ve been here, but there are days when the defense has to save the day and that was the case today. It was a tremendous effort by our kids and this was a step forward for our program,” he added.
Tennessee senior Mercedes Russell, who has now scored in double figures in every game this season and 49 of her last 51 starts, finished with 16 points to lead the Lady Vol offense.
The 6-6 senior from Springfield, Oregon kept Tennessee in contention early as she scored six of her team’s first eight points.
Jaime Nared, the only other senior on Tennessee’s roster, sank two free throws with 4:43 left in the first quarter to give the Lady Vols their last lead at 10-8.
Vivians scored on a layup to knot the score and was the start of a 7-0 run that allowed the Bulldogs to build a 21-14 lead when the first quarter ended.
Johnson scored on a putback of her own missed shot right before the buzzer as the Bulldogs stretched that lead to 39-26 at intermission.
Tennessee trimmed the difference to 53-44 when the fourth quarter ended and even got within seven points at 57-50 following two charity tosses by freshman Anastasia Hayes with 7:19 to play before the visitors from Starkville finished the game on a 14-2 run.
Nared didn’t dodge any bullets when making her post-game comments.
“We didn’t make our shots and they played great defense,” she began after finishing the day with a dozen points and four rebounds.
“It’s hard to win in this league when you don’t get stops and you don’t score, but we just didn’t play hard enough against a really good team,” she added.
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick echoed similar feelings.
“Mississippi State was simply outstanding today as they shot well from outside, did a nice job of penetrating and they got too many loose balls,” she began.
“We took a lot of bad shots as we just didn’t force them to guard us. We had plenty of chances, but just couldn’t seem to get over the hump. I’m really disappointed that we weren’t more tough, but they have a seasoned team of veteran players and they exposed us a little bit.
“We’ve had a tough stretch with three tough road games before today, so we need to get back in the gym to practice and recommit ourselves to playing better defense. I’m sure that we’re going to get better,” Warlick added.
Vivians had 24 points to lead a quartet of Bulldogs in double figures.
Johnson scored 16 while Teaira McCowan and Schaefer both finished with a dozen apiece.
McCowan also snagged 18 rebounds – including a whopping 10 on the offensive end – as her team won the rebound battle, 44-33. Vivians finished with nine.
Russell and Nared were the only double-figure scorers for Tennessee.
Evina Westbrook chipped in with eight points and six assists while Rennia Davis and Hayes both finished with seven points. Davis topped Lady Vol rebounders with 10.F
Tennessee will be at home on Thursday to face Ole Miss in its next game while Mississippi State will host Florida on Thursday.
MISSISSIPPI STATE 21 18 14 18 -- 71
TENNESSEE 14 12 18 8 -- 52
MISSISSIPPI STATE (71) – McCowan 12, Schaefer 12, William 5, Johnson 16, Vivians 24, Holmes 2, Danberry, Campbell, Bibby.
TENNESSEE (51) – Davis 7, Nared 12, Russell 16, Westbrook 9, Jackson 2, Hayes 7, Green.
FIELD GOALS: Mississippi State 28 of 67 for 41.8 percent; Tennessee 19 of 53 for 35.8 percent.
3-POINT GOALS: Mississippi State 7-18 (Schaefer 4-8, William 0-2, Johnson 2-3, Vivians 1-5); Tennessee 0-8 (Davis 0-1, Nared 0-3, Westbrook 0-1, Jackson 0-3).
REBOUNDS: Mississippi State 44 (McCowan 18, Vivians 9); Tennessee 33 (Davis 10, Jackson 6).
ASSISTS: Mississippi State 11 (William 5); Tennessee 8 (Westbrook 6).
STEALS: Mississippi State 10 (Vivians 3, Schaefer 2); Tennessee 4 (Nared 2).
(Email John Hunt at email@example.com)