No. 7 Tennessee (15-0, 3-0 SEC) defeated Vanderbilt 86-73 on Sunday afternoon thanks to a dominating fourth quarter performance by the Lady Vols defense. Dating back to last season, Tennessee has now won 11 straight games in Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Lady Vols and Commodores battled back-and-forth for three quarters, but Tennessee clamped down in the final frame, allowing Vanderbilt to score just 11 points.
“We turned our defense up the fourth quarter,” Lady Vols head coach Holly Warlick said following the win. “Why we waited, I don’t know. When our backs were against the wall, we did some great things on defense that gave us a lot of energy.”
Junior guard Meme Jackson sparked the defensive performance, draining a three as the third quarter expired to give Tennessee a 65-62 lead. The 3-pointer capped off a 7-0 Lady Vol run to end the quarter.
Tennessee’s momentum continued over into the fourth quarter, as it started off the quarter on a 6-2 run, forcing Vanderbilt to call a timeout – trailing, 71-63. Warlick’s squad then turned up the intensity another notch.
The Lady Vols full-court press diminished Vanderbilt’s ability on offense following a 30-point third quarter for the Commodores. Tennessee forced eight turnovers in the fourth quarter to spark a 10-0 run in the closing minutes to close out the game.
Mercedes Russell led the way for the Lady Vols, scoring a career-high 33 points on 14-of-20 shooting. The senior also hauled in eight rebounds and blocked two shots. Russell has now scored ten or more points in every game this season and 20 or more points in four games.
Getting the ball inside to Russell was a huge key for the Lady Vols, as they knew they could exploit that matchup.
“The past few days in practice we really emphasized that we need to get a lot of paint points and post-touches,” Russell said following the game. “Our guards did a really good job of getting in the paint and hitting jump shots and attacking the basket.”
Redshirt junior Cheridene Green also had a career-game, scoring 17 points and grabbing five rebounds. Four of the London native’s rebounds were on the offensive glass.
“She is just an old school basketball player,” Warlick said of Green. “A blue collar worked that goes to work. She is going to get a rebound and doesn’t care who she has to run over to get it.”
As the Lady Vols were slacking in the third quarter, Green knew she had to come in and provide a spark. That’s what she focused on, and that’s exactly what she did.
“I told myself we just have to have energy,” Green said. “Basketball is really exciting for me. Sometimes I get a little too excited. I love watching the game and being involved. I’m always ready, no matter how many minutes I get. I’m always going to be ready to go in even if it’s just grabbing rebounds or talking or playing defense. I’m always ready and excited to play.”
Vanderbilt was able to keep pace with Tennessee due to the play of Cierra Walker and Christa Reed.
Walker exploded for 11 points in the first half on 3-of-3 shooting from three. She would go on to finish with 20 points and six assists on 6-of-8 from behind the 3-point line. Reed contributed 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting.
Tennessee jumped out to an early 8-0 lead to start the game, but would go on to shoot 39 percent in the first quarter. Vanderbilt would close out the first frame making five of its last seven shots to send the game into the second quarter tied at 16-all.
Vandy continued its hot-shooting from behind the three-point line, starting off the second quarter making back-to-back three’s. Tennessee tied the game twice in the frame and would go on a 10-0 run midway through the quarter to take a 37-32 lead into halftime.
The defense struggled in the third quarter for the Lady Vols, as they allowed Vanderbilt to score 30 points in the quarter. With the defense struggling, Tennessee was able to remain in the game by out-rebounding Vanderbilt. The Lady Vols out-rebounded the Commodores 42-28 while also scoring 56 points in the paint.
Tennessee now turns its attention to a brutal four-game stretch – three of which are on the road. The Lady Vols will travel to No. 19 Texas A&M next Thursday, before heading to Columbia next Sunday to take on No. 4 South Carolina. They’ll then travel to South Bend on Jan. 18 to take on No. 2 Notre Dame before returning home on Jan. 21 to take on No. 5 Mississippi State.
With a big challenge ahead, Warlick and her players know improvements need to be made. The Lady Vols turned it over 14 times on Sunday and allowed Vanderbilt too many good looks on offense. That’s where Warlick wants to see the improvement going forward.
“They understand. The defense is going to be key for us,” Warlick said. “You can’t give up ten threes, and you can’t send people to the free-throw line. You have to be mindful of who you’re guarding and how we need to defend individuals.”
Now 15-0, the Lady Vols face a stretch that will provide fans with a better picture of what this team is. Vanderbilt head coach Stephanie White has her own idea of how good Tennessee can be.
“This is a team that can compete for a national championship,” White said following the game. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Edited by Seth Raborn
Feature image courtesy of Tennessee Athletics