FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — For the longest time on Sunday, Tennessee didn’t look the part of SEC women’s basketball leader.
The Lady Vols’ image was grossly distorted by a misspent first 20 minutes against Arkansas.
An extreme mental makeover to start the second half restored their usual look. But some touch-up work was required to finish a 60-54 victory before a crowd of 2,758 at Bud Walton Arena.
“It was just the intensity and a mindset on defense,” Taber Spani said.
That’s how the senior forward explained UT’s about-face in erasing an 11-point deficit within the first 5 minutes, 2 seconds of the second half. The aggressiveness factored into the Lady Vols’ ability to preserve their lead down the stretch, too.
The Lady Vols parlayed a strategic decision to trap off ball screens into a second-half trapping siege. They traded a few layups for rushed shots and some turnovers, particularly a big steal by senior Kamiko Williams with 2:09 left.
“We respond so much better when we’re just aggressive, active and taking chances on defense,” UT coach Holly Warlick said.
The victory, coupled with losses Sunday by Kentucky and Texas A&M, clinched a share of the regular-season SEC title for No. 11 Tennessee (22-5, 13-1). The Lady Vols conclude the regular season with a home game against A&M on Thursday, followed by a game at Kentucky next Sunday.
To first escape Arkansas, they needed a game-high 18 points from Meighan Simmons. The junior guard concluded a frantic drive by knifing across the lane and rolling in shot with 2:27 left, expanding a vulnerable two-point lead to 54-50.
Spani scored 14 points. After missing an open 3-point attempt with UT up seven and then a layup, she hit a driving pull-up jumper for a 56-51 lead with 43 seconds left.
Bashaara Graves scored 11 and grabbed a team-high nine rebounds, part of UT’s 46-33 advantage on the boards.
The offensive highlights notwithstanding, the Lady Vols’ usual strengths betrayed them. They shot 33.9 percent from the floor, a far cry from their 47.9 percent accuracy in league play. The points were the lowest since scoring 60 against Stanford on Dec. 22.
During pre-game introductions, highlights of Arkansas’ 72-71 upset win in Knoxville last season were shown on the scoreboard video screen. The display caught the attention of several Lady Vols. But it seemed to inspire the Razorbacks (17-10, 5-9), particularly on defense.
They had a hand in 13 first-half turnovers by Tennessee.
“They put a little more pressure on Tennessee than maybe Tennessee thought they could,” Arkansas coach Tom Collen said.
Warlick reached down her bench, which was longer Sunday with the availability of center Isabelle Harrison.
At one point, no true post players were on the floor for Tennessee. Later when Harrison returned after missing six games following knee injury, she and Graves collaborated on a textbook high-low play that resulted in a conventional 3-point play.
The post-play collaboration was an exception as UT had just eight paint points at halftime.
Led by Quistelle Williams’ 15 points, Arkansas scored the final nine points of the first half and the first basket after halftime, opening a 30-19 lead.
“From then, we just said basically ‘that’s it,’ ’’ Spani said.
Judging by the statistics, the Lady Vols’ second-half defense didn’t exactly cripple Arkansas. The Razorbacks scored just two fewer points and committed six turnovers.
The greatest impact was on Tennessee, which scored 41 points while committing just three more turnovers.
“We were just passive (early), we were passive on both ends,” Warlick said. “We’re not very good at being passive. You can be patient on offense, but you can’t be passive.”
Warlick referred to the upcoming week as “a great opportunity” for UT before adding, “it’s got to be a different game for us if we want to come out and get two wins in those two games.”