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Lady Vols Drop SEC Home Opener to Fiery Tigers

(Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

No. 10 Tennessee dropped its SEC home opener to Missouri on Sunday afternoon by a score of 66-64.

The game came down to the wire with the Lady Vols (12-2, 1-1 SEC) receiving two chances to hit a game-winning shot. Missouri (13-3, 2-0 SEC) led Tennessee 65-60 with 1:37 remaining in the game until Zaay Green stepped up and completed an and-one, cutting the Tigers’ lead to 65-63. Following the bucket, Tennessee’s defense got a stop, and Evina Westbrook took it coast-to-coast and drew a foul. Westbrook made one of her free throws to bring the Lady Vols within one.

Following Westbrook’s free throw, Tennessee came up with a defensive stop, and Holly Warlick immediately called a timeout with 19.6 seconds remaining. Coming out of the timeout, Warlick put the ball in Rennia Davis’ hands. Davis settled for a mid-range jumper and missed.

Missouri’s Sophie Cunningham grabbed the rebound and was quickly fouled. Cunningham stepped to the free throw line and made just one of her two attempts, leaving the door open for the Lady Vols to win the game or send it to overtime.

Warlick once again called a timeout with 3.1 seconds remaining, which allowed the ball to be advanced to mid-court. Warlick once again put the ball in Davis’ hands. The result was the same the second go-round, resulting in Tennessee’s first loss since the Stanford game on Dec. 18.

“The first one we did,” Warlick said following the game when asked if she got the look she wanted on the final two possessions. “The second one, we did not. But we got the ball inbounds, and we got a good look.”

“I thought it was a makable shot for me,” Davis added. “It just did not go in.”

It was a close game throughout. The Lady Vols led for over 19 minutes, while Mizzou led for just over 13 minutes. Though Tennessee was in front for nearly half the game, it never led by more than five and there were 13 lead changes.

UT led 25-24 at the half. In the first half, Tennessee shot 36 percent from the field while Mizzou shot 35 percent from the field. Both teams turned it over 12 times. Westbrook paced the Lady Vols in the first half with 11 points.

Both teams were much more efficient in the third quarter. Mizzou won the third quarter 24-21, and it was the most points scored by both teams in any quarter. Tennessee led by as many as five in the frame while Missouri led by as much as four.

These are the biggest takeaways from the Lady Vols’ first loss in conference play.

Three-Point Defense

Missouri scored 45 percent of its point on Sunday from the 3-point line, scoring 30 of its 66 points on 10-of-22 shooting from distance.

Haley Troup led the 3-point barrage against the Lady Vols, connecting on 4-of-6 of her three-point attempts. Sophie Cunningham was 3-of-5 from behind the arch while Lauren Aldridge was a perfect 3-for-3.

“Bottom line is that we gave up too many threes,” Warlick said. “With a team like this, if you make mistakes, they take advantage of them. We cannot give up the wide-open threes and expect it to be okay.”

Entering the day, Missouri was shooting 32 percent from three on the season and was making eight threes per game. The Tigers’ 10 made 3’s against Tennessee tied for the most the Lady Vols have given up all season, and Mizzou’s 45 percent shooting clip was the fourth-best percentage an opponent has shot against Tennessee.

Three-pointers have been a thorn in the side of the Lady Vols’ hip all season. Four teams – Florida A&M, Stanford, ETSU, and Belmont – have made nine threes this season when facing Tennessee, while two teams – Texas and Missouri – have made 10.

Meme Jackson

While Missouri was making life hard on Tennessee from the perimeter, the Lady Vols’ best 3-point shooter had her worse game of the season.

A game removed from scoring 27 points in a road win against Auburn, Meme Jackson totaled just two points on 0-of-9 shooting and 0-0f-3 from three. Jackson scored her only two points on free throws and played just 30 minutes. She did have two steals.

“Meme Jackson who has been so good for us, struggled today,” Warlick said. “And that hurts us.”

It was just the second time this season that Jackson didn’t make a field goal. She was 0-for-4 against Stetson last month. That game is also the only other outing in which the junior hasn’t made a 3-pointer this season.

Mizzou’s Dynamic Duo

Entering the game, Missouri’s one-two punch of Cunningham and Amber Smith were one of just two duos in the SEC to rank in the top-20 in both scoring and rebounding. Cunningham’s average of 15.7 points entering the game ranked ninth in the league while Smith’s 14.5 points ranked 15th.

Tennessee was able to keep Smith in check, holding her to just seven points on 3-of-8 shooting. It tied Smith’s lowest output of the season.

Cunningham, on the other hand, was a headache.

She scored 20 points on 6-of-12 shooting, grabbed six rebounds, tallied six assists, a block, and a steal in 33 minutes of action. Not only was Cunningham’s production a headache for the Lady Vols, but so were her antics throughout the game and into the handshake line following the game.

Near the of the third quarter, Cunningham was driving to the basket when she elbowed Davis. The referees didn’t blow the play dead despite a clear foul, allowing Cunningham to score on a layup. With Davis stumbling around trying to knock the cobwebs off, the refs finally halted play. They went to the monitor and established that it was an unsportsmanlike foul – also known as an intentional foul. Tennessee was awarded two free throws and possession.

“I’m really not surprised [the foul wasn’t called] because of who it was,” Davis said. “I was just playing defense and she was dribbling, she stuck her elbow all the way up and I flipped back because she hit me dead in the eye.

“I was glad they called an intentional foul.”

Then there was the post-game situation, where it appeared on television cameras that Cunningham was not pleased with a Lady Vol staff member for not shaking her hand. Cunningham began to yell at the staff member and grab her hand, demanding her to shake it. On the way off the court, Cunningham also appeared to jaw back-and-forth with Tennessee players Rae Burrell and Lou Brown.

“That’s kind of not up to me,” Warlick said when asked if Cunningham was a dirty player. “I just think she plays hard. She is a tough kid, and that’s just how she plays. We know that is how she plays. The officials know how she plays. It is what it is. You can’t get caught up in that stuff. We weren’t concerned about that.”

Up Next

After facing back-to-back double-digit win opponents to begin conference play, the schedule doesn’t get any easier. Tennessee will face No. 16 Kentucky (14-1, 1-0 SEC) in its next game out on Thursday night at 7 p.m. ET. The game will be broadcast on the SEC Network.

“We are off tomorrow because we have to give them a day off,” Warlick said. “We will focus on (Kentucky) Tuesday and Wednesday and play Thursday.

“This is what this conference is. It is a grind. You learn from today, then you have to refocus on the next game.”

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