Rennia Davis could’ve talked all night and all they way back to Knoxville about scoring 33 points Monday night against Notre Dame.
Instead, Tennessee’s junior forward couldn’t say enough about the defense behind a 74-63 women’s basketball upset of the Fighting Irish in South Bend, Ind.
“We’re taking the defensive end serious this year,” she said during a postgame interview with ESPN. “I think at times last year we didn’t. We were inconsistent on that end. I think coach Kellie (Harper) has really emphasized that we have to play that end to even compete in a lot of ballgames this year.”
Davis, who shot 12 for 20 from the floor (5-for-9 on 3-pointers) and gathered 10 rebounds, carried the same thought to her star-of-the-game turn on the Vol Network.
“When we do good on that end,” she said, “the offense kind of comes naturally for us.”
Davis’ testimonial was noteworthy because she and her teammates aren’t always going to shoot like they did against Notre Dame. They don’t project as a team that will go 8-for-19 from long range on a regular basis. Davis’ warm-up for matching her career scoring high was a four-point showing against Central Arkansas last Thursday.
Furthermore, Harper has been stressing the program’s traditional staples of defense and rebounding as the foundation for the program’s remake. She’ll need Davis’ full support to make it work.
“We made shots tonight,” Harper said. “No matter if we’re making shots or not, I was proud of our defensive effort. I thought we were locked in.”
Tennessee (3-0) had a hand – actually lots of hands – in holding the No. 16 Fighting Irish (2-1) to 31.4 percent shooting from the floor (22 for 70). The Lady Vols also blocked 12 shots.
UT supported its defense with a 55-28 edge in rebounding. Jazmine Massengill, who’s from Chattanooga, had a career-high 13 rebounds to go with a personal-best nine assists.
Davis’ role is even more important now that the Lady Vols have lost sophomore guard Zaay Green for the season with a torn anterior cruciate knee ligament. UT announced the injury right before the game’s start.
Green was averaging 13 points per game. She was being counted as an aggressive defender and a pace-setter on offense. The injury could turn out to be a real gut punch.
For one game at least, it seemed to provide an motivational boost.
“It’s kind of like ‘Play for Zaay,’ kind of like a campaign thing,” Davis said. “Zaay is somebody who is going to come out and play hard. If we can reciprocate that energy, we’re going to be able to win a lot of games.”
The Lady Vols will need more efficiency to go with whatever energy they muster to win consistently. They committed 28 turnovers, which corresponded with 19 Notre Dame points. Davis and freshman guard Jordan Horston combined for 13 of the turnovers.
“At one point, I just quit looking at (the total),” Harper said. “I kept writing on the (dry-erase) board ‘Make the easy play. Make the easy play.’ ”
The ball-handling follies served to remind that its early November. Since Notre Dame is replacing five starters from last season’s national finalist team, the result will need more context as well.
In the meantime, it’s an encouraging turn toward wherever the Lady Vols are heading.
“It’s going to be a long season; we’re going to have struggles,” Harper said. “We’re going to have some hard times. But this is a good one to get us off in the right direction.”
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He may be reached at email@example.com