Lady Vols’ Freshmen, 3-Point Shooting Carry Them Into SEC Play

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    (Photo via Tennessee athletics)

    Though the men’s team is getting all of the attention this season, the Lady Vols (11-1) enter SEC play with the same exact record and ranked No. 10 in the country.

    Tennessee has benefited from a fairly easy non-conference schedule to begin the season. But it’s also had impressive showings on the road with a 76-63 win in Stillwater over Oklahoma State and an 88-82 win over then-No. 12 Texas in Austin.

    The Lady Vols will be faced with yet another tough challenge on Thursday night when they travel down to Auburn to take on the 12-1 Tigers. Here’s what Lady Vols head coach Holly Warlick had to say on Wednesday as her team prepared to begin conference play on the road.

    Bring on the Mighty Tigers

    Over the last couple seasons, Terri Williams-Flourney has been quite the thorn in the side of Warlick.

    Tennessee has won 13 of their last 15 trips to The Plains but lost the last time they were in Auburn. On that night last January, Auburn capitalized on 22 Tennessee turnovers, scoring 33 points on its way to a 79-61 victory. The Lady Vols have won 27 out of the last 30 meetings, but there have been several close games in the last couple of meetings.

    “I think we’re just two very similar teams,” Warlick said during her media availability. “They’re athletic, rely on defensive pressure, full court pressure, rebounding. They play hard.”

    Auburn returned six letter-winners from last season, including four starters. Janiah McKay, Daisa Alexander, and Unique Thompson are the key pieces to the Tigers’ success, but Auburn has started the same five in all 13 games this season – including senior Emari Jones and redshirt junior Crystal Primm.

    Four of the five Tiger starters average double-figure scoring. Thompson is the only starter averaging a double-double at 13.2 points and 11.2 rebounds per game, but McKay is the leading scorer at 14.9 points. Primm averages 11.6 points per game, while Alexander averages 10.9.

    “They’re shooting the ball so much better this year,” Warlick said of Auburn. “It makes it difficult because not only are they three-point shooters, they penetrate. It makes it really, really difficult to defend. And they’re playing with a lot of confidence.”

    Senior Emari Jones will miss the rest of the season after suffering a knee injury vs. Alabama State on Dec. 29. She was averaging 10.7 points and was Auburn’s leading 3-point shooter before the injury.

    Even without Jones, Auburn will still be difficult to defend. At 82.0 points per game, Auburn ranks No. 3 in the SEC and No. 19 nationally in scoring. The Tigers have won nine straight and are ranked No. 20 in the latest NCAA RPI with a pair of top-50 wins.

    “We do like a fast game, but we don’t want them to speed us up and us turn it over,” Warlick said. “When we’re getting pressed, we don’t want to just turn and throw and turn it over. So, we want to attack, yes. But if we’re not attacking and we’re turning it over, we’ve got to pull back and be a little more deliberate with the basketball.”

    Slowing down Auburn’s fast-paced offense is only half the battle. The Tigers are also forcing an average of 21.9 turnovers, which ranks second in the conference and 25th nationally. Auburn has forced at least 20 turnovers in 10 of its 13 games this season and are 4-0 when forcing at least 25 turnovers.

    “Auburn speeds you up, kind of like us,” Warlick said when asked about the Tigers’ defense. “They speed you up and make you panic, and we can’t do that. If we’re going to turn it over, it needs to be something going toward the basket. We can’t do it in the front court and give them easy shots.”

    Auburn and No. 10 Tennessee are set to tip-off conference play Thursday night from Auburn Arena at 7:02 p.m. ET.

    Freshmen Standing Out

    Through 12 games, the Lady Vols’ freshmen have really stepped up and produced at a high clip. Tennessee’s four rookies are averaging a combined 31.5 points per game, 17.0 rebounds per game, and 10.5 steals per game. They’re also shooting 49 percent from the field and 44 percent from the 3-point line over the last two games.

    “We signed some really strong offensive kids, and they fit into the offense,” Warlick said. “I think our offense, we’re distributing the ball a lot better (than last year). The ball isn’t getting stuck in one person’s hands. And when that happens, we’re getting great looks.”

    Five of the 11 players on Tennessee’s roster are new to the program, and though there was a lot of turnover this past season with the departure of Mercedes Russell and Jamie Nared, the chemistry on the team is very good. Even so, Warlick didn’t necessarily expect for the freshmen to look this good, this early.

    “We’re a majority of freshmen and sophomores, and that group is the main group we’re playing,” Warlick said. “They’ve got great experience. We’ve got 12 games under our belt. The majority of them played good minutes in them, so we need them to step up and rely on what we’ve done to help us going forward.”

    Three-Point Success

    Tennessee is averaging 82.6 points per game this season, including 87.3 over the past three games. That ranks as the NCAA’s No. 15 scoring offense.

    As a team, the Lady Vols haven’t taken a tremendous step forward from last season shooting three-pointers, but Evina Westbrook and Rennia Davis have. Westbrook shot 31 percent from the 3-point line last season. This year, the sophomore is shooting 45 percent. As for Davis, she’s shooting 47 percent from the 3-point line after shooting 33 percent last season.

    “They worked on it this summer,” Warlick said of the improved 3-point shooting. “They continue to get in the gym now and work on it, so I think you’re seeing it pay dividends on the floor. When you get in and shoot reps, it gives you confidence to shoot them in the game.”

    Tennessee has hit seven or more three-pointers in five-straight games. In four of their past five outings, the Lady Vols have connected on nine or more threes.