During Thanksgiving break last week, Holly Warlick and her team took a trip down to the Bahamas where they defeated Clemson 78-66 and UAB 73-69 in overtime.
Following games against Presbyterian, UNC Asheville, and Florida A&M, the trip down south was No. 11 Tennessee’s (5-0) first chance to play legitimate competition this season. The tough environment against good teams is one of the reasons Warlick decided to patriciate in the Junkanoo Jam.
“(It was a) tough environment to play,” Warlick said on Thursday. “We played against two solid teams.”
In Tennessee’s win over Clemson in game one, the Lady Vols went on a 13-0 run in the fourth quarter to put the Tigers away. The two teams were tied at 54-all at the end of the third quarter, but Tennessee outscored Clemson 24-12 in the final 10 minutes to pull out the win.
Meme Jackson led Tennessee in scoring, dropping in 14 points. Jackson was one of five Lady Vols to reach double-figures. Rennia Davis scored 13 and freshman Zaay Green had 12 points while Kasiyahna Kushkituah and Cheridene Green both tallied 11 points.
As a team, Tennessee forced Clemson into 23 turnovers, extending its streak of forcing opponents into 20+ turnovers to four games.
“This team, I keep saying it, is so resilient,” Warlick said. “They just keep fighting no matter what the score is. They have a thing about them where they fight, and I love that in them. They never think they are out of the game, there’s never a panic, it’s always positive.”
Davis, the Lady Vols’ do-it-all playmaker, credits the resiliency to how close-knit the team is.
“We had a few tough games in the Bahamas,” Davis said Thursday. “But just coming together and ultimately getting the win, I think that says a lot about our team. I always think we can play better.”
Resiliency was most definitely the theme of the week for the Lady Vols. They picked up a win over UAB, but it didn’t look great for most of the game. Tennessee trailed by 12 with 8:08 remaining in the game, but Davis drilled back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers to make it a 6-point game. With 5:07 to go, UAB made a layup, but the Lady Vols’ defense tightened up and didn’t allow a point the remainder of regulation.
“Just keep playing,” Davis said when asked about what was going through her head down 12. “This team is so competitive, so we just wanted to get the win however we could. Everybody stepped up in their own way.”
“She (Davis) has my permission to take over any time she wants,” Warlick said of Davis’ fourth quarter. “She’s our go-to, and we seem to get her the ball more so in the third and fourth quarter.
“We are not totally reliant on her, but we need her to step up and make big plays.”
Trailing 63-57, Evina Westbrook would knock down a three to spark a game-closing 8-0 run. Westbrook would add a layup and a free throw to tie the game at 65-all and send it to OT despite missing the final shot at the buzzer.
“I really didn’t concentrate on the score, it was just us getting stops and moving the ball and getting great looks,” Warlick said of her confidence in the fourth quarter. “The feeling of the game, knowing these kids, and watching them battle in practice – they just had a sense of urgency on the defensive end, and I thought in the fourth quarter our defensive level rose, and they (UAB) were playing tired, and we weren’t playing tired, so I was confident.”
Tennessee outscored UAB 8-4 in overtime to pull off the win. In the fourth quarter, the Lady Vols shot 46.7 percent and held the Blazers to 23.1 percent shooting. Three players reached double-digits as Davis, Westbrook, and Kushkituah combined for 33 of Tennessee’s 44 second half points. Kushkituah recorded her first career double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds.
“She (Kushkituah) just continues to grow up before our eyes every game,” Warlick said. “In the Bahamas I thought she demanded the basketball, wanted the basketball, and I am really proud of her.”
Free throws continue to be a problem for Tennessee. On the season, the Lady Vols are shooting 58 percent from the charity stripe as they’re attempting 13.2 free throws per game. Against Clemson, Tennessee was 10-of-14 from the charity stripe, but against UAB, the Lady Vols were an abysmal 9-of-22.
“It is mental,” Warlick said of the free throw issues. “Their mechanics are good, we just have to get the mental training a little bit better.”
Free throws are just one of many aspects of the game Warlick wants to see her team improve on as the Lady Vols now turn their attention to Oklahoma State.
“We have to cut down on our turnovers and just be consistent,” Warlick said. “Again, make layups and free throws, don’t give your opponent second-chance points, and you’re going to have a great shot to win the game.”
Tennessee will travel to Stillwater on Saturday for a Sunday afternoon contest with the Cowboys (5-0) in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. Tip-off is set for 4 p.m. ET in what will be the Lady Vols’ first ever trip to Oklahoma State.
“They’re young, but they spread the floor, they have players that can shoot the three, have players that can penetrate, have big kids,” Warlick said of Oklahoma State. “They’re going to mix up what they do with us and play zone, play man, press us. It’s a tough place to play.”