Tennessee defused a bomb squad in convincing fashion Thursday night.
The Lady Vols struck early and scored an 84-39 SEC women’s basketball victory over Missouri before a crowd of 10,967 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Meighan Simmons led No. 9 Tennessee (12-3, 3-0 SEC) with 18 points. Bashaara Graves scored 16. Isabelle Harrison had 12 and grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds. Taber Spani was UT’s other double-figure scorer with 11 points.
After two victories that featured strong second-half play, the Lady Vols surged before halftime, building a 48-21 lead. The advantage enabled them to empty the bench and share the playing time in advance of Sunday’s game at Florida. Simmons and Ariel Massengale logged the most minutes with 29 apiece.
Missouri (12-5, 1-2), the conference’s most potent 3-point shooting team, managed nine treys and set an arena record with 36 attempts. Morgan Eye hit six treys and set an arena record for 3-point attempts by an individual (17). She scored a team-high 18 points.
No matter the distance, the Tigers struggled to hit the target. Along with their 25 percent from long range, they were worse on their other attempts, finishing a collective 19.7 percent (13 for 66) from the floor. The percentage was a season low by a UT opponent.
“When you don’t knock down shots,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said, “it makes for a long night.”
Tennessee’s best defense at the outset was a prolific offense. The Lady Vols took advantage of the game’s fast tempo to score 24 points inside the first eight minutes. By halftime, seven Lady Vols had scored and three were threatening to reach double figures.
I just love that kind of play. I love up and down,” Simmons said. “I think that actually it brings out our strengths.”
The Tigers struck for a pair of early 3-pointers and were halfway to their per-game average of 10 by halftime. It wasn’t for lack of defensive effort on the Lady Vols’ part. They had been reminded all week that the Tigers’ made an SEC-record 18 treys last Sunday against Auburn. Coach Holly Warlick said that she told her players; “You think Auburn ... they practiced for the three and knew Missouri was going to shoot the three. You may know it, but it’s up to you to stop it.”
Guarding Missouri’s offense, though, had to be experienced to be truly appreciated by the Lady Vols. Even post players Harrison and Graves found themselves occasionally guarding on the perimeter.
“They set eight screens in one set,” Simmons said. “We have never experienced that.
I thinks that’s like I said, it just tests our defense and how well we can play defense for 30 seconds.”
Several Lady Vols took turns chasing Eye. Along with limiting her scoring damage, they helped force five turnovers by the sophomore guard.
The Tigers missed their first 11 shots from 2-point range before Bri Kulas converted a layup off an inbounds play with 3:58 left in the half. They finished 4 for 30 on 2-pointers.
We knew that they were three point shooters, so we definitely wanted to take that away from them,” Harrison said, “and then I feel like once we really got down to that, they tried to come inside and we’re such a presence in there, it affects their shots.”
The Lady Vols struggled to recapture the energy with which they started the game, missed eight of their first nine shots to start the second half.
Still, they had their moments. Jasmine Jones and Kamiko Williams woke up the crowd by blocking consecutive shot attempts by Tigers forward Darian Saunders, leading to a transition basket by Simmons with 7:35 left.
Williams later climbed up to dislodge a shot that stuck between the rim and the glass.
Dan Fleser covers Tennessee women’s basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/FleserKNS and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/fleser.