KNOXVILLE — A close loss to the nation’s sixth-ranked Mississippi State women’s basketball team would have been respectable for Tennessee.
The Lady Vols entered Sunday’s SEC matchup in Starkville as heavy underdogs just three games removed from their longest losing streak in almost half a century. When Tennessee trailed by six points late in the third quarter, it seemed like maybe the program really had turned a corner following its historic six-game skid.
Then came the remaining 12 minutes, during which a two-possession game turned into a blowout. Mississippi State went on a 21-2 run spanning the third and fourth quarters en route to a 91-63 victory. The 28-point deficit is the Lady Vols’ biggest conference loss in program history and their second largest overall.
Tennessee hasn’t lost a game by a larger margin since falling to Texas by 31 points in 1984.
The Lady Vols are now at risk of hitting the most devastating of milestones. As the only team to play in every NCAA tournament since it began in 1982, Tennessee (15-8, 4-6, SEC) might not make the cut this year.
Still, Tennessee coach Holly Warlick remains positive about the state of the program.
“They’re a great basketball team and they went on a run, and we couldn’t answer,” Warlick said of Mississippi State. “But I’m proud of our kids. We’ll focus on this for 24 hours, and then we’ll regroup and get ready for Auburn.”
There are six games left, starting with Auburn (18-6, 6-5 SEC) on Thursday at Thompson-Boling Arena. The good news is the Lady Vols have already defeated the Tigers, downing them 78-69 on Jan. 3. It was Tennessee’s last victory before the losing streak that continues to hang over the program like a dark cloud.
For that reason, Thursday’s game against Auburn should offer an idea of where the Lady Vols stand and which direction they are moving. Seven of 10 active players on their roster are freshmen or sophomores.
“They are young, but we’re going to roll with them,” Warlick said. “That’s all we’ve got but, you know what? I’m glad I have them. I love this team. For the most part, they play hard and that’s all I ask of them.”
Tennessee will have back point guard Evina Westbrook, who was suspended on Sunday against Mississippi State for a violation of team rules. She missed class and, as a result, missed one of the biggest games of the regular season.
While Lady Vols fans didn’t find out about Westbrook’s sidelined status until right before the game, Tennessee’s Meme Jackson said the team knew a couple days prior.
“I think it really didn’t affect us that much,” Jackson said. “We had the game in our hands. We were close. We just kind of stopped playing hard, but she was still a big help on the bench cheering us on.”
Averaging 5.1 assists and 16 points, Westbrook has been the Lady Vols’ most consistent player. They need production out of her as well as Rennia Davis, who is back on track after a four-game single-digit scoring slump. Davis picked up the slack in Westbrook’s absence against Mississippi State with 29 points. She has averaged 22.3 points and 8.8 rebounds the last four games.
Jackson hasn’t been the same since scoring 27 points in Tennessee’s first matchup with Auburn. She has averaged 6.6 points in eight of Tennessee’s last 10 games while missing the other two with a sprained ankle.
While things have gone south for the Lady Vols since their first meeting with the Tigers, Auburn is on a roll having won three of its last four games. The Tigers are coming off a 75-72 victory over Arkansas — a team that edged Tennessee 80-79 on Jan. 21. They have also defeated Ole Miss and Georgia with a loss to Kentucky in the mix.
Tennessee’s upcoming four-game stretch is going to be an uphill battle. After Auburn, the Lady Vols will face Missouri, Texas A&M and South Carolina. Texas A&M and South Carolina are among the top three teams in the SEC while Missouri already has a 66-64 win over Tennessee under its belt.
“These kids — I will tell you this, they’re competitive,” Warlick said. “It’s about learning and every loss, we have learned. I can promise you that.”