KNOXVILLE—A break was welcomed by the Tennessee women’s basketball team. The Lady Vols got the week off after defeating Vanderbilt 82-65 today for their third straight win. That streak came on the heels of a six-game losing streak — the program’s longest skid in 49 years. In short, it has been a tough month for Tennessee.
“We needed a little break,” Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick said. “We had a chance to just focus on Mississippi State and kind of take a little break and heal. We’re just beat up a little bit and tired, so I thought it was really solid for us this week.”
Tennessee (15-7, 4-5 SEC) would like to believe it has turned the corner, but its last three victories have been against lower-tier SEC opponents. That ends at No. 6 Mississippi State (21-1, 9-0 SEC) — the defending SEC regular-season champion and top-ranked team in the conference. Tipoff is at 2 p.m. today in Starkville.
“Our young ladies understand what they need to do,” Warlick said. “Again, limit our turnovers, take great shots, keep them off the boards, and we have to rebound. So I think they understand our game plan and they’re focused.”
The Bulldogs have won 25 consecutive SEC regular-season games. They are averaging wins of 33.8 points and have won their four SEC home contests by an average margin of 17.1. The Lady Vols will have their hands full with Teaira McCowan, who is averaging 16.9 points and 13.7 rebounds while shooting 66 percent from the field. “For us, it’s keeping a body on her,” Warlick said. “She’s an unbelievable offensive rebounder, and we have to try to limit her touches and limit her ability to get second-chance points.”
Mississippi State has the advantage of experience with a starting lineup that includes four seniors, including McCowan, Texas A&M graduate transfer Anriel Howard (15.5 points per game) and Arkansas transfer Jordan Danberry (13 points per game).
Tennessee, on the other hand, is young, with seven of 10 active players either freshmen or sophomores.
“(They are a) veteran team,” Warlick said. “McCowan is so strong inside. Howard is an unbelievable rebounder, great experience. The whole team — they’re athletic, shoot the three. We’re going to have to be spot-on with everything we do.”
Tennessee has proved it can hang with the best. The Lady Vols led then-No. 1 Notre Dame by three points at halftime on Jan. 24 before their inability to take care of the ball became costly. The Fighting Irish scored 12 points on seven turnovers in the third quarter en route to a 77-62 win.
Warlick expects Mississippi State to capitalize on Tennessee mistakes in similar fashion.
“If we turn over against Mississippi State, they’re going to shoot layups,” Warlick said. “You’ve got to make them work for every shot they get, and turning it over and giving them a layup, they don’t have to work very hard to do that.”
Two of Tennessee’s three wins were against the SEC’s bottom teams — Florida (6-17, 2-8) and Vanderbilt (6-16, 1-8). The Lady Vols won both games by 17 points after downing LSU 74-65 on Jan. 27 to end their worst stretch in the modern era of women’s basketball.
For comparison’s sake, Mississippi State defeated Florida 90-42 and LSU 68-35.
“We’ve played in some pretty hostile environments, and I don’t think one is any different,” Warlick said. “We seem to focus more when we’re away, and we will talk about it when we get down there. ...They’re young. You hope they come out and bring us what we need.”