Holly Warlick on the Lady Vols' 66-56 victory against Ole Miss
OXFORD, Miss. — Judging by the standings, the teams were pretty well established as polar opposites.
Tennessee was playing for sole possession of first place in the SEC, at least for a day. Ole Miss, meanwhile, shared last place.
What took place on the women's basketball court Sunday afternoon, though, blurred those distinctions.
The Lady Vols rounded up four double-figure scorers and managed a 66-56 victory at Tad Smith Coliseum. But their postmortem echoed with familiar laments about uninspired play.
"When we needed buckets, when we needed (defensive) stops, we got them,'' UT associate head coach Holly Warlick said. "It was a task; it was a struggle. But it was a win for us."
Glory Johnson led No. 13 Tennessee (20-7, 11-3 SEC) with 13 points. The senior forward also grabbed a game-high eight rebounds.
The Lady Vols overcame a slow shooting start to finish at 43.6 percent field goal accuracy (24 for 55) and record 19 assists. They eventually found enough room in Ole Miss' zone defense to score 32 points in the paint.
The victory nudged UT a half-game ahead of Kentucky atop the conference standings. The Wildcats host Vanderbilt on Monday night.
Still, Burdick described her team's energy level as "all flat."
Guard Valencia McFarland scored a game-high 21 points for Ole Miss (12-15, 2-12). She hit four of her team's eight 3-pointers, which forced the Lady Vols to utilize multiple defensive alignments, rather than sit back in a 2-3 zone as they had throughout most of the past two games.
Despite the loss, the Rebels were taking stock afterward in what was gained from an effort that coach Renee Ladner characterized as their best of the conference season.
"They stayed together throughout the course of the game," Ladner said of her players. "Even with four minutes left, they were like, 'We're going to get this.' ''
By then, the Rebels' best intentions had been reduced to wishful thinking. UT had just finished an eight-point scoring flurry to build its biggest lead, 60-48.
Stricklen scored the crucial baskets. First she hit a layup, completing a busted possession that was saved when Kamiko Williams corralled a loose ball, dribbled into the foul lane and slipped a pass to her open teammate.
Stricklen followed with a 3-pointer, one of four by the Lady Vols in 16 attempts from long range.
Now with eight minutes remaining, the Rebels were still in business. One trip down the court had just yielded five points, courtesy of two Ole Miss baskets sandwiched around a Tennessee turnover. The Rebels' hustle had suddenly whittled UT's advantage to 60-56.
"The game wasn't on our offense and defense,'' Stricklen said. "We didn't have the energy. The energy wasn't there."
The Lady Vols assisted the Rebels in other ways, too. First, Ole Miss cobbled together some useful video from UT's earlier losses to Kentucky, South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
"I'm not sure we're like any of those particular teams, but we thought if (the players) saw it, they could do it," Ladner said.
Then the largely pro-Tennessee turnout seemed to inspire the Rebels more than the Lady Vols.
"We have all these fans here and we're playing with low energy, like we don't even want to be on the floor." Johnson said.
"We have to make sure our offense doesn't dictate the rest of our game. Defense is what should get us hyped up."
At least the Lady Vols were inspired enough to win and avert a complete role reversal.