NASHVILLE — Tennessee scraped together an offense and salvaged an outcome Sunday night.
A freshman’s fingerprints were all over this crucial reclamation work in the second half against Vanderbilt. But it wasn’t the usual Lady Vols rookie doing the honors.
After a cameo appearance in the first half, Lauren Avant arrived like a one-woman cavalry brigade after halftime, complete with solid point guard play and stout defense.
Teammate Shekinna Stricklen earned team scoring honors with 14 points in a 65-57 SEC women’s basketball victory over the Commodores before an announced crowd of 11,386 at Memorial Gymnasium. Yet she passed the credit quickly to where she thought it was due.
“She had it all today,’’ Stricklen said of Avant. “She brought the energy in the second half.”
Avant’s spirited play helped the Lady Vols overcome a 13-point halftime deficit and one of the worst halves of offense in program history. She backed up Stricklen with 11 points and gathered four steals to spearhead the defense.
“She was more than a spark,’’ UT forward Alyssia Brewer said. “She lit a bonfire and kept it burning.”
No. 4 Tennessee (24-2, 12-0 SEC) scored 50 points in the second half and shot 51.5 percent from the floor (17 for 33). Glory Johnson was the other Lady Vol scorer in double figures with 10 points. The junior forward also had 14 rebounds for her ninth double-double of the season.
Guard Meighan Simmons, who has inspired most of the freshman headlines this season, scored nine, including a driving layup that gave UT the lead for good, 51-49 with 3:42 left.
“I think once they got more aggressive again and came after us, we got on our heels defensively and didn’t do the job that we did (in the first half),’’ Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. “Then you get tight on offense because you can’t get the stops you were getting in the first half
“The frustrating piece is until the last 8 minutes we were beating them and they’re a number 4 team in the country and there’s a lot to be said for that.”
Led by Jence Rhoads’ game-high 15 points, Vanderbilt (17-8, 8-4) set the tone with its dogged defense, which robbed Tennessee of any semblance of offense in the first half. The 15 points were a season low for a first half and the third lowest total in program history.
“Vanderbilt came out with a lot more energy,’’ UT coach Pat Summitt said. “Why? Because they were here and they wanted to beat us.”
Tennessee looked beaten and broken at halftime, shooting a chilly 20 percent from the floor (5 for 25). Four starters — Meighan Simmons, Taber Spani, Johnson and Stricklen were a combined 0 for 14 from the floor.
The Lady Vols also committed 12 of their 17 turnovers in the first 20 minutes. Vicki Baugh, who made her first start since Dec. 30, 2008, was charged with five of them. She and Johnson finished with six apiece.
Reserve Elan Brown’s two free throws gave Vanderbilt its biggest lead, 28-15, which the Commodores took into halftime.
“I ripped everybody,’’ said Summitt, recounting her locker room talk. “Nobody was stepping up taking ownership, leadership.”
Summitt described her search for an effective lineup combination as “almost like roll call.”
Avant, who returned with 16:05 left, answered the call. She all but attached herself to Commodores guard Jasmine Lister.
“That started it all,’’ Stricklen said.
Lister and fellow guard Rhoads finished with a combined 11 turnovers. Twelve of Tennessee’s second-half points corresponded with Vanderbilt turnovers and 14 points were scored in fast-break fashion.
Avant helped start something good.
Dan Fleser covers Lady Vols basketball. He may be reached at 865-342-6288. Follow him at http://twitter.com/fleserKNS and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/fleser/