Tennessee couldn’t (ball)handle an historic women’s basketball occasion on Thursday night.
In their first game against rival Connecticut in 13 years, the Lady Vols collapsed under the weight of 27 turnovers, one short of their season high. In the messy process, a 3-point halftime lead unraveled into a 60-45 loss before a crowd of 13,659 at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn.
No. 23 Tennessee (15-4) scattered nine of those turnovers about the third quarter.
No. 5 Connecticut (17-1) combined the generosity with aggressive defense and rebounding, outscoring UT 21-7 during the pivotal 10-minute stretch.
“We lost our composure completely,” UT coach Kellie Harper said during her postgame radio show on the Vol Network. “They just came out and punched us in the mouth in the third quarter and we did not handle it. Called a quick timeout trying to get everybody composed and settled. … I think you definitely saw some youth and inexperience really, really show itself in that third quarter.”
There were other reasons for the Lady Vols’ loss. Despite their size advantage, they were outrebounded 47-45 and outscored in second-chance points, 11-4. Although UT started two freshmen, the most impactful first-year player was UConn forward Aubrey Griffin, who scored 13 points off the bench.
The turnovers, though, were the most compelling feature of UT’s demise, reaching embarrassing proportions at times.
For example, the Lady Vols had more turnovers than baskets (14-13) in the first half, betraying their best play in the process. They were the aggressors in leading by as many as eight points (26-18) at one point.
They played well enough to coax an endorsement from, of all people, UConn coach Geno Auriemma.
“The way they played in the first half,” he said during an interview afterward on ESPN, “We’ve played some good teams. I don’t know if they’re the No. 23 team in the country. They’re pretty darn good.”
The Huskies, who were credited with an astounding 17 steals, were much better in the second half. At one point in the fourth quarter, Tennessee had as many second-half turnovers (11) as points after halftime.
All nine Lady Vols who played were charged with at least one turnover. Freshman guard Jordan Horston led with six, but veteran forward Rennia Davis, who scored a game-high 16 points, had four, as did fellow junior Kasi Kushkituah.
In this case, the mistakes translated into missed opportunities more than anything. UConn 15-6 edge in corresponding points wasn’t overwhelming, considering UT’s sloppiness. Tennessee actually shot a better percentage from the floor than UConn (33.9 to 31.5). The Huskies’ two leading scorers, Megan Walker and Christyn Williams, combined to score only 18 points and collectively shot 7 for 29 from the floor.
But UConn had 17 more shot attempts (73-56) than Tennessee.
Harper did the math afterward and asked, “What if we had 15 more shots?”
“Give yourself a chance to be good,” she lamented. “Right now we’re holding ourselves back.”
Judging by the numbers, one of the Lady Vols’ most nagging problems is getting worse. They committed 20 turnovers on Monday against Alabama, contributing to the struggle they had in overcoming the Crimson Tide, 65-63. LSU, which visits on Sunday, is capable of creating more havoc.
“We’re going to see this again,” Harper said. “We’re going to see really good teams that will pressure you. You’ve got to find composure. You’ve got to take care of the ball or you don’t have a chance.
“We’ve been saying that. We’ve been talking about that. Obviously you’d like to see some progression in that area.”
Sophomore point guard Jazmine Massengill from Chattanooga had 11 points, seven rebounds and committed only two turnovers.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org