NASHVILLE – For a change, Tennessee got the start it wanted.
The Lady Vols still had to fight past stubborn Vanderbilt and fight through foul trouble for the hard-earned finish: an 83-75 SEC women’s basketball victory over the Commodores before a crowd of 10,154 at Memorial Gymnasium.
Taber Spani scored a career-high 24 points to lead No. 9 Tennessee (16-3, 7-0 SEC), which faces No. 2 Notre Dame on Monday night at Thompson-Boling Arena. The senior wing shot 8-for-14 from the floor and grabbed six rebounds in what UT coach Holly Warlick called, “the best game of her career at Tennessee.”
Teammate Meighan Simmons, who sat out for more than two minutes down the stretch with four fouls, added 23 points.
Both players combined for six of 10 free throws converted by the Lady Vols in the final minute, which sealed the outcome.
Christina Foggie scored 22 points to lead Vanderbilt (13-6, 3-3). Tiffany Clarke added 19 for the Commodores, who came back from 12 points down at the start of the second half. They took aim at wiping out another double-figure deficit until the final minute.
“They’re fighters,” Spani said. “We talked about that before the game. Even if we got up by 15 or 20, they wouldn’t give up until the final buzzer.”
Tennessee’s victory, coupled with Kentucky’s loss to South Carolina, gave the Lady Vols sole possession of first place in the conference.
“I’m just so happy right now,” Simmons said.
Warlick, on the other hand, was cautious.
“It’s great that we’re undefeated,” she said. “But it’s still a long season in the SEC. Anything can happen.”
The Lady Vols also won with head coach emeritus Pat Summitt in attendance for the first time on the road since the season opener at Chattanooga.
“She brings inspiration to our team every time we see her,” Spani said.
The 3-pointer was Tennessee’s best weapon in the first half, enabling them to avoid another early deficit. Simmons and Spani combined for five of them.
Bashaara Graves complemented the outside scoring by going to work down low for eight of her 16 points.
Along with her scoring, Spani produced one of UT’s best first-half plays on defense. She wrestled the ball from Vanderbilt’s Kady Schrann and saved the ball to Simmons while tumbling to the court.
Simmons sped up the floor, dribbling behind her back and driving to the rim — only to ruin the highlight with a miss. No matter, teammate Kamiko Williams hustled for the follow-up rebound basket and a 25-14 Tennessee lead.
Jasmine Jones later swatted a Commodores’ pass out of the air, leading to Spani’s trey and Tennessee’s biggest lead, 41-26.
After scoring the last basket of the first half, the Commodores bolted from the locker room after halftime with a 12-point scoring run. A Jasmine Lister 3-pointer erased the remnants of Tennessee’s lead with 15:38 left.
“We were not a mature team the first four minutes of the second half,” Spani said. “We had to battle back.”
The 10 consecutive free throws at the end capped a 21-for-23 performance from the foul line in the second half (91.3 percent). Overall, UT was 23 for 29 (79.3 percent) from the line.