Kelley Cain’s performance spoke loudly on her behalf Thursday night.
Tennessee’s center tied a school record with eight blocks and set career highs with both the blocks and 17 rebounds. She also scored 14 points in a 74-57 SEC women’s basketball victory over Arkansas.
Teammate Alyssia Brewer had something to say as well after the near triple-double, referring to the 6-foot-6 center as “a beast.”
Cain returned the favor in volunteering praise for Brewer. The 6-3 forward had 20 points and nine rebounds.
“Her game has elevated to a completely different level,’’ Cain said.
The appreciation was more than mutual. No. 5 Tennessee (20-2, 8-1 SEC) was grateful as well, along with an anxious crowd of 11,817 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“We always emphasize getting the ball inside because we have two of the best posts in the country,’’ guard Angie Bjorklund said. “I say that with great confidence. They work really well together, especially with the high-low game. I thought they really battled inside and I was proud of them. I hope they continue to play like that.”
The Lady Vols had a fight on their hands with Arkansas (9-13, 1-8), which was led by Charity Ford’s 18 points. The Razorbacks prepared for the game by erasing the conference standings in their locker room, which showed them mired in 11th place.
“We were starting fresh tonight,’’ Arkansas coach Tom Collen said. “This isn’t an easy place to start.”
No matter, the Razorbacks covered for the disparity in size and talent with spunk and determination. Ashley McCray, who stands 6-3 jousted frequently with Cain for position around the basket. At one point, official Bryan Enterline brought both players together for a scolding.
“We talked about winning the battle of effort,’’ Collen said. “There are not many teams in this league that play much harder night in and night out than Tennessee. I honestly thought we won the battle of effort tonight and I think that’s what allowed us to at least stay in the game.”
The Razorbacks’ effort was aided by nine 3 pointers. Guard Lyndsay Harris scored all 12 of her points from behind the arc.
Tennessee, meanwhile, hurt itself with inefficiency. Several wayward passes played a part in Arkansas’ 11 steals.
Freshman Kamiko Williams made her first start at point guard and her inexperience showed with just two points, two assists and two turnovers.
“I thought she’d be a lot better,’’ UT coach Pat Summitt said. “This is her first start at the position. We’ve got time. We need her to do a better job of getting the ball out of her hands. There were a few possessions that she was out there by herself.”
UT ended up playing the position by committee, running Shekinna Stricklen and Briana Bass at the point.
“(Alicia) Manning got caught a few times at the top,’’ Summitt said, “but she wasn’t put there to be a point guard.”
UT also was searching for a shooting guard. Bjorklund was missing in action at halftime with zero points and two shot attempts. She responded after the break by scoring 17 points. Her first points came in rapid-fire succession — three consecutive baskets to give UT a 43-30 lead with 15:23 remaining.
“I was getting shots within the offense and playing inside-out,’’ Bjorklund said. “Coming off of screens was big, too. Kelley had a lot of screen assists tonight.”
Brewer assisted Cain on the game’s final two baskets as they put the finishing touches on their shared effort by connecting on two pretty high-low plays.
“It’s definitely effective,’’ Brewer said.
On this night, it worked out well on Tennessee’s behalf.