KNOXVILLE — For a team still struggling to find an offensive identity like the Tennessee women’s basketball team, the Lady Vols can’t afford to have a bad night defensively.
So far at home, the UT defense has done their job.
Tennessee’s offense struggled to open up Thursday night’s contest against Tennessee State, but the defense bailed them out as the Lady Vols were victorious 73-43 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“I am glad we got the win, but I didn’t think we played great,” head coach Kellie Harper said. “We were a little slow coming out the gate and our energy was a little bit lower than it needed to be. Hopefully, this is a learning experience for our team.”
It was the defense early and often for the Lady Vols who held Tennessee State to just 22 first half points where the Lady Tigers shot just 21 percent from the field and made just eight shots.
Tennessee State finished the game shooting 20 percent from the field and made just 15 shots and five three-pointers out of 30. The Lady Tigers scored just five points in the third quarter.
The Lady Vols should have dominated the game with their size advantage, Tennessee State didn’t have a player over 6-feet-1-inch while Tennessee has 11 players over six feet. UT out-rebounded Tennessee State 59-39 and had four blocks.
“Our defensive energy was really good in the third quarter,” Harper said. “Our bench came in and gave us great energy. We were able to feed off our defense and that was really a positive.”
Coming off a big win over Notre Dame on Monday night, the Lady Vols seemed to still be celebrating that win on Thursday night, coming out flat offensively.
Tennessee got off to an 8-2 start but went cold, allowing Tennessee State to even tie the score up at 10 with less than two minutes left in the first quarter. A Kasi Kushkituah layup and Jordan Horston layup gave UT a 14-10 lead at the end of one.
The second quarter saw a little more offense, scoring 21 points and shooting 47 percent from the field, but they still seemed out of sync for much of the quarter. The team was bailed out by Jordan Horston and Rennia Davis who scored 16 of the teams 21 points in the quarter.
Just three days after scoring 30 points and draining five threes against Notre Dame, Davis had a quiet 12 points and 10 rebounds, her third double-double in the first four games of the year. Davis shot just 3-of-8 from the field but made up for it at the free throw line, going 6-of-7.
Horston continued her solid play at home in the game with nine points, six rebounds and three steals.
The Lady Vols used the size on the offensive side of the floor as well, especially in the second half, with 44 points in the paint compared to Tennessee State’s 12.
Kushkituah led the charge in the paint with 11 points, 10 of them coming in the paint. Freshman Emily Saunders used her 6-feet-5-inch size as well with six points down low.
“We’re working on keeping Kasi from dribbling the ball,” Harper said. “She’s so powerful and strong that when she brings the ball to the floor, she allows guards to play with her. Hopefully we can continue to work with her about going to get it and scoring.”
Harper responds to Auriemma’s comments
On Wednesday after a win in Nashville against Vanderbilt, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma took to the podium to discuss the eligibility of former Lady Vols player Evina Westbrook who is now a member of the Lady Huskies basketball team.
Westbrook was denied immediate eligibility to play this season, and Auriemma has commented multiple times on the “unhealthy environment” that Westbrook is said to have faced while at UT.
“Well think about this,” Auriemma said on Wednesday. “A kid is in an environment that’s not necessarily healthy. An environment that, if you knew what the environment was, which I can’t say, you would not want your kid in that environment. And the athletic director there (Philip Fulmer) knows it, OK, but he’s not going to support her leaving, which would’ve helped us a little bit.”
On Thursday, Harper, who was not around when Westbrook was a member of the UT team, responded to the comments.
“From my viewpoint, and I am only here now, but the 12 players here bought in, play hard, practice hard and have great team chemistry,” Harper said. “From my viewpoint, Tennessee is a great place to be a student-athlete.”
The Lady Vols will be back in action on Tuesday as they stay at home to take on Stetson. That game tips-off at 7 p.m. and can be seen on SEC Network +.