KNOXVILLE — Penetration is what Holly Warlick preaches.
Her Lady Vols don’t always listen, but when they do, nights like Thursday’s 82-67 victory over Southeastern Conference foe No. 14 Texas A&M happen.
“It’s a higher percentage and it’s harder to guard the penetration,” the sixth-year UT head coach said. “We have kids that are very capable of penetrating to the basket. We wanted to go at them and attack all their guards.”
Those drives to the basket broke open a one to two-possession game as the fourth quarter started and No. 12 Tennessee used on 8-2 spurt, taking a 65-61 lead.
A timeout from each coach was sandwiched in between before Aggie Ariel Howard bucketed two, coming within two points, at the four-minute, 53-second mark for Texas A&M’s first points since Khaalia Hillsman scored with just under nine minutes left in the final frame.
“I think in the fourth quarter, we really came out with a lot of energy and stuck to our defense,” UT center Mercedes Russell said. “We limited their points. They only had two points in the first three minutes, and we really turned it on from there. Then, on the offensive end, we started hitting shots.”
The Tennessee defense that forced 19 Aggie turnovers, including seven from standout Chennedy Carter who scored a game-high 25 points, was huge.
But, the Lady Vols (18-4, 6-3 SEC) on the offensive end were a hair better. After struggling to hit shots in the third quarter— just 23.8 percent compared to a 59.4-percent first half — UT found its stroke again when it counted, making 8 of 12 (66.7 percent) shots in the final 10 minutes.
Once Howard snapped Texas A&M’s scoring drought, the Aggies (17-6, 6-3) didn’t see the bottom of the net for nearly two minutes, while UT used its defense to generate offense.
“We just ran our offense,” said UT senior Jaime Nared, who scored 23 points, of the final frame’s success. “We weren’t settling for the first shot. We got really good shots in the fourth quarter, which has been what we haven’t been doing in the last few games.
“When we are passing, kicking and driving and spreading out their defense it kind of opens up new things for us. We got Mercedes in the paint, scoring easily and we had a lot of weapons that we were able to use tonight.”
Anastasia Hayes was a game-changer off the bench, despite her team-high six turnovers, with 16 points. The freshman started a 17-4 run to end the fourth quarter, when she penetrated for a layup before capping it off with two free throws.
Carter drove in for an easy layup during the UT spurt, cutting it to 71-65 with just over three minutes remaining, but the Lady Vols didn’t lie down.
Actually, it was the opposite. Three free throws swished through, and then Hayes and Meme Jackson hit back-to-back wide-open triples to put it away, 80-65, with a minute left.
“We attacked the basket, and that’s what we have to do, we can’t settle for jump shots,” Warlick said. “Then, when we attacked the basket. We got wide-open threes so they weren’t contested. Annie (Hayes) hit a big three, then Meme (Jackson) hit a big three, and that just separated us.”
The entire first half Thompson-Boling Arena was given a back-and-forth affair, even the Frisbee dog halftime show didn’t slow down the pace, as Tennessee carried a 45-41 lead into intermission.
Aggie Jasmine Lumpkin led the way in the first-half shootout, scoring a career-high 22 points in the first 20 minutes alone, but the last 20 were a different story.
The Lady Vols shut her down completely and used their press to wear down the other Aggies. It was successful as was the redemption UT received against Texas A&M after it handed UT its first loss of the season on Jan. 11, starting a losing spurt of four games in a six-game span.
“This was a huge game for us,” Russell said. “There’s not many times where you get to play the team twice, especially a team that beat you.”
“What makes this a good win for us is how much doubt has come from the losses and everyone questioning us,” Nared added, “and just how much things have been different when we’ve lost games from all around. Just the fact that we’ve stuck together and we’re still working, despite what anyone says or has to say about us. We know who we are. We are going to keep fighting and keep getting better. We’ve heard it all.”