KNOXVILLE – The curtain shrouding the upper deck of Thompson-Boling Arena came down Sunday afternoon.
A season-high crowd of 12,738 turned out for Tennessee’s women’s basketball game against Texas A&M, thereby necessitating the makeover for seats that paralleled the sideline. The fans were drawn, in part, by discount tickets. Still, they reached full volume on several occasions.
“My pre-game speech was about our crowd,” UT coach Kellie Harper said. “What a great, big-time environment. That’s what it was today.”
The crowd got an eye-full of the Lady Vols’ ongoing plight. They suffered a fourth consecutive loss in falling to the Aggies 73-71. Did the fans also get a glimpse of a better future? UT’s overall effort suggested the possibility more so than the other three losses.
Rennia Davis and Rae Burrell combined for 37 points. The Lady Vols outrebounded Texas A&M 41-38 and recorded 21 assists. And they didn’t buckle when falling behind by 10 points midway through the third quarter.
“I thought we competed the most in this four-game stretch,’’ Davis said.
UT coach Kellie Harper considered the performance in terms of the entire season and was encouraged as well.
“I thought it was one of our best games in terms of 40 minutes of effort,” she said. “I think we can build on that. You just have to clean up some of the stat-sheet items.”
The ongoing clean-up, though, continues to temper any sense of optimism about UT’s chances against tougher teams like No. 16 Texas A&M (20-5, 8-4 SEC).
For example, A&M guard Chennedy Carter went off for 37 points in her second game back from an ankle injury. She matched the total Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard scored against the Lady Vols earlier this season.
Tennessee struggled to stay with Carter as she ducked around screens and moved about the court. She coaxed UT freshman Jordan Horston into an ill-advised foul on a 3-point attempt in the third quarter and made all three free throws, part of A&M’s 28-for-33 shooting from the foul line.
No. 25 Tennessee (17-8, 7-5), on the other hand, shot a crippling 6 for 16 from the line.
Down the stretch, Carter set up Burrell for a foul and converted another free throw. Burrell didn’t distinguish herself on that play or afterward in saying of Carter: “Sometimes she flops.”
Horston and Burrell also didn’t stand out as ball-handlers. They combined to commit 11 of Tennessee’s 16 turnovers, which resulted in A&M’s 19-8 advantage in corresponding points.
After falling behind 48-38, the Lady Vols drew to within either four or three points on 10 different occasions. In those moments, they managed just one defensive stop while committing two turnovers. Texas A&M scored on six occasions. Davis’ layup to end the game amounted to UT’s only points scored.
“They’re going to get smarter as they go,” A&M coach Gary Blair said of Tennessee. “That’s all they need to do to go with all that athleticism.”
For the time being, that’s more of a hope than a certainty.
“I am so hopeful,” Harper said, “coming off this game that we’re going to do everything we can to correct some things. (And) we’re going to do everything we can to build off it.”
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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