KNOXVILLE — Coming off a four-point win against ETSU to start their season, the Tennessee women’s basketball team faced more questions than answers entering their home opener against Central Arkansas Thursday night.
The questions continued to mount for Tennessee in the first half of Thursday’s game, as the team scored just 33 points in the half and 13 points in the second quarter.
However, the answers seemed a little clearer when the final buzzer went off.
The Lady Vols held the Sugar Bears to just 11 points in the second half and cruised to a 63-36 win at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“Our players were excited about some of the improvement we had,” coach Kellie Harper said. “Both improvement from the first to second game and from the first half to the second half. We’re going to continue to get better, and the players understand that.”
Holding just a seven-point lead at the half, Tennessee outscored the Sugar Bears 18-7 in the third quarter to build a 19-point lead. The Lady Vols followed that with a 12-4 fourth quarter.
It wasn’t just the offense as the Lady Volunteers defense held Central Arkansas to seven points in back-to-back quarters and four in the fourth quarter. Central Arkansas shot 25.4 percent from the field and nine percent from three-point range as UT suffocated them on the defensive end. Tennessee had eight blocks and forced 16 turnovers.
“At halftime, we just focused on defense and wanted to make sure we were locked in on the defensive end,” Lou Brown said. “We have great chemistry, and I think that is really what pushed us to keep them to seven and four points in the second half.”
After appearing on multiple preseason watch lists this week, Tennessee’s Rennia Davis looked lost on the court Thursday night in the first half. Davis started the game by airballing a three-pointer and missed her first three shots. She also picked up two fouls in the first half and had to sit for the remaining minutes.
While Davis made two of her first three shots coming out of the half, she still struggled in the second half, finishing with four points.
“I thought Rennia took some good shots early, but they didn’t fall,” Harper said. “She’s just got to keep shooting. We have to find her some good looks.”
With Davis struggling to start, UT got a spark from their freshmen early and often. Jordan Horston and Tamari Key each made their first starts as Lady Vols and came out firing, scoring Tennessee’s first 14 points of the game.
While the Sugar Bears seemed to have an answer for Davis, they could not stop Horston who finished the first half with 15 points on 5-of-5 shooting, including two three-pointers.
She capped off her strong first half right before the halftime buzzer, spinning past a Central Arkansas defender and laying the ball off the glass to give Tennessee a seven-point lead.
Horston continued the strong showing, scoring the first basket of the third quarter and finished with 17 points and five rebounds.
“I feel like I just slowed down and played my game,” Horston said. “The first few games I was jittery so I just needed to slow things down.”
Horston wasn’t the only freshmen to step up though. Key hit her first three shots of the game and finished with eight points while also having three blocks and five rebounds.
Jessie Rennie also made her presence felt. Up just two with the first half winding down, Rennie hit a three from the corner that seemed to suck the air out of the Sugar Bears and swing the momentum back to the Lady Vols.
“Jessie is very smart and easy to play with,” Harper said. “She doesn’t get in the way, and she makes good decisions. She makes a lot of little plays that go unnoticed. It’s not going unnoticed by the staff that her plus-minus was the highest after the ETSU game.”
Horston led the team with 17 points while Zaay Green had nine points and Rae Burrell had eight. After starting the ETSU game, Jaiden McCoy was out on Thursday night and was supporting a cast on her left hand. Harper said she will be out for an undetermined amount of time.
For a team still trying to find their identity, the Lady Vols schedule does them zero favors. Tennessee travels to South Bend, Indiana on Monday to take on 16 th ranked Notre Dame. That game tips off at 7 p.m. and can be seen on ESPN2.