ATLANTA — Some time between a misspent Friday night and Sunday afternoon, Tennessee hit the reset button on its play.
Judging by their 71-54 women’s basketball victory over Georgia Tech, the Lady Vols really punched it.
“Like night and day,” forward Cierra Burdick said.
No. 20 Tennessee (1-1) played with more vigor than it showed during a 80-71 loss at Chattanooga two days earlier, building a 15-point halftime lead and leading by as many as 24 points down the stretch by tapping into what Burdick quantified as “butt-loads of energy.”
Likewise, the Lady Vols’ collective attitude was improved enough to withstand Georgia Tech’s 13-point scoring run to start the second half.
The victory, before a crowd of 5,517 at McCamish Pavilion, was the first for Tennessee first-year coach Holly Warlick. She smiled in the interview room afterward, spread her arms wide and said, “it feels awesome.”
In her first career start, freshman forward Bashaara Graves led UT with a double-double, scoring 18 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. She also had four steals.
Burdick, who scored just four points on Friday, made her first six shots and finished with 16 points. She and Meighan Simmons combined for UT’s five 3-pointers
Point guard Ariel Massengale was a calming influence off the bench with nine points and four assists.
Tyaunna Marshall led No. 22 Georgia Tech (0-1) with 18 points, but the Yellow Jackets shot 33.3 percent from the floor (21 for 63) and committed 20 turnovers.
“They came out and punched us and we didn’t punch back,” Georgia Tech coach MaChelle Joseph said. “That’s what happened and then they got us on our heels and we never recovered from that.”
The Lady Vols struck their first blows with baskets. Instead of missing five of their first six shots, as they did on Friday, they hit three consecutive 3-pointers within the first four minutes.
“You come out and hit buckets and it makes the game a lot easier,’’ Burdick said. “The game flows a lot smoother when the ball is going through the hole.”
There was nothing easy about Graves’ performance. She set up shop near the basket like a blacksmith, pounding the offensive boards for four putback baskets in the first half in helping Tennessee built a 45-30 lead.
Warlick referred to Graves as “a little bit of a throwback.” Burdick was more graphic in describing the 6-foot-2 forward.
“She’s a beast,” Burdick said. “That’s the only way to put it.”
Warlick aided her team’s effort by utilizing a zone defense for the majority of the game. Unlike Friday, when the strategy was a concession to UT’s defensive struggles, Sunday’s deployment was intended to minimize the threat of Georgia Tech’s athleticism.
The Yellow Jackets’ drives into the defense produced more turnovers than baskets and they shot 19 percent on (4 for 21) on 3-pointers.
All that was left was for the Lady Vols to withstand was Tech’s charge out of the locker room at halftime, which whittled their lead to 45-43. The Lady Vols hurt themselves by committing four of their 17 turnovers during that span. But they responded with an 18-point scoring run of their own.
The outcome was a source of relief for the players. Burdick said that one of the hardest things she had to do was slide into a seat on the team bus next to Warlick and apologize for Friday.
“We didn’t make her look like a good coach on Friday,” freshman point guard Andraya Carter said. “Tonight I thought we made her look like she deserved the job.”
Warlick took a phone call before the game from head coach emeritus Pat Summitt, who didn’t attend the game. Warlick said the absence was planned due to Summitt’s schedule. Athletic director Dave Hart also called, offering encouragement.
Once the game began, the players answered with their play.