KNOXVILLE—Tennessee coach Kellie Harper has not been satisfied with the Lady Vols’ rebounding.
Their stats didn’t initially reflect those concerns, as No. 20 Tennessee has been consistently dominating on the boards a month into the season.
That is, until Sunday when the Lady Vols hosted Air Force. Despite having a dramatic size advantage over the Falcons, Tennessee got outrebounded in its 81-54 victory at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Harper said she hopes that letdown serves as a wakeup call.
“Sometimes, you just have to have something to back you up,” Harper said. “I’m hoping that this tangible stat sheet is what it will take for them to maybe understand that we’ve got to buy in at another level.”
Air Force (1-7) finished with a 40-39 edge in boards. It’s the first time this season the Lady Vols (7-0) have gotten outrebounded. They entered the matchup averaging almost 53 while limiting opponents to fewer than 35.
Those numbers are in large part a product of Tennessee boasting its tallest team in program history. The Lady Vols stand at 6-foot-4, on average. Air Force’s tallest two players were 6 feet.
“I think it’s pretty obvious we were giving away some serious numbers on pounds and inches,” Air Force coach Chris Gobrecht said. “We had to make up for it with scrapping and clawing and trying to come up with possessions.”
Harper attributed Tennessee’s rebounding struggles on offense to the Lady Vols not crashing the boards. Defensively, she said they were often caught ball watching instead of boxing out, which allowed the Falcons 12 second-chance points.
“(Air Force) crashed the boards as hard as any team we’ve played thus far,” Harper said. “We gave them too many extra opportunities. Our team knows this, and hopefully it will get us in gear this week to feel more urgent with our technique and our box-out and want-to there.”
The Falcons’ effort wasn’t enough to compensate for Tennessee’s 54.8% shooting 21 fastbreak points. The Lady Vols had 19 steals, and they scored 23 points off Air Force’s 22 turnovers.
Rennia Davis, who led Tennessee with 18 points and nine rebounds, said the team can’t rely on its superior athleticism during these early matchups, as that’s not going to fly against SEC opponents.
The Lady Vols will kick off conference play on Jan. 2 against Missouri.
“We have better teams to play with, so it’s not just about now,” Davis said. “It’s about us getting better for future games to come.”
Along with Davis, Rae Burrell was another bright spot for Tennessee. Coming off the bench, the 6-foot-1 sophomore went 8-for-11 from the field for 18 points. That bested her career-high of 17 points, which she notched Tuesday against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
“It’s important to not just use my athleticism because we’re going to be playing teams who are just as athletic as me,” Burrell said. “At that point, you just have to make sure you’re working on the details and decision-making. You can’t just let your talent be the only thing that you have.”
Burrell looks poised to play a bigger role than she did last season, when she averaged 3.6 points and 2.8 rebounds. She is now contributing 10.6 points and 5.4 boards a game.
Harper described Burrell as a “down-hill” kind of player. She plays fast and often refuses to let up when an opponent gets in in her path. That kind of fearlessness can also lead to mistakes, as Burrell accounted for four of Tennessee’s 19 turnovers against Air Force.
“She is aware of her growth and that she could still be a better basketball player in her decision-making process,” Harper said. “We don’t ever want to lose that aggressiveness she brings. I love that about her.”