KNOXVILLE – Tennessee took its time in getting around to an encore on Thursday.
The Lady Vols’ follow-up to Monday’s upset of Notre Dame began in a sluggish manner against Tennessee State. A 73-43 victory before an announced crowd of 7,213 at Thompson-Boling Arena was achieved, to some extent, in spite of Tennessee’s energy and effort.
UT coach Kellie Harper summed up the performance with one of her initial post-game comments.
“To be sharp and the best team you can be,” Harper said. “You can’t take nights off.”
Rae Burrell came off the bench to score a game-high 14 points. Rennia Davis, who was named SEC player of the week after scoring 33 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in Monday’s 74-63 victory in South Bend, Ind., had 12 points and 11 rebounds.
“We’re still working on the consistent (play) piece,” Davis said. “We still have to get that right.”
The Lady Vols (4-0) were at their best in the third quarter, when they held Tennessee State (1-1) to 1 for 17 shooting from the floor and outscored the Lady Tigers 16-5.
“I thought our defensive energy was good in the third quarter,” Harper said. “We were able to feed off our defense.”
The talk of energy, or lack thereof, was fitting since UT was playing its first home game without guard Zaay Green, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice last Saturday. Harper said UT’s biggest challenge on Monday was not the Fighting Irish but rather playing its first game without Green, who typically plays at a breakneck pace.
Her absence was more evident on Thursday as the Lady Vols played with a hangover from Monday’s victory and struggled to get up to speed.
“Obviously that throws a kink into things losing Zaay,” Harper said. “She always brings energy. I think that’s one of the things we’re going to miss from her.”
With one less guard, Harper hinted that forward Lou Brown, who had eight points and grabbed seven rebounds, might make some cameo appearances on the perimeter.
Burrell’s effort, which included seven rebounds and three assists, was noteworthy since she best approximates Green’s effort level. The challenge will be harnessing it properly.
“I think the thing you get with Rae is she’s going to come in and make a play,” Harper said. “Sometimes they’re negative. A lot of times they’re positive.”
On this night, she produced two of the game’s top highlights with post feeds to center Emily Saunders. On the first Burrell zipped a pass to her freshman teammate off a transition drive for a basket. The second was a difficult lob pass from deep in the corner that Burrell arched over a defender’s outstretched arms to Saunders for another layup.
UT’s environment: After the NCAA denied Tennessee transfer Evina Westbrook’s waiver request for immediate eligibility at Connecticut, Huskies coach Geno Auriemma ripped UT’s environment on Wednesday as being “not necessarily healthy.”
Harper has a different view of the situation.
“From my viewpoint, the 12 players that I work with are bought in,” she said. “They play hard. They practice hard. They have good team chemistry. Tennessee is a great place to be a student-athlete.”
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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.