LEXINGTON, Ky. — Three days after Tennessee’s season reached its height at the top of a stepladder, the Lady Vols came crashing back to earth.
The SEC regular season women’s basketball champions were abused by Kentucky. They committed a flurry of turnovers in losing, 78-65, before a crowd of 7,965 at Memorial Coliseum on Sunday.
“Honestly, I think we just underestimated them,” Tennessee’s Meighan Simmons said. “We didn’t come ready to play.”
There was no underestimating the impact of 31 Tennessee turnovers. The season-high total doubled UT’s per game average of 15.5. They led to 33 points by the Wildcats.
The game unfolded from the start in a manner unlike Thursday night’s 82-72 victory over Texas A&M, which clinched the regular-season conference title for No. 8 Tennessee (23-6, 14-2 SEC).
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell exhorted his players to win for departing seniors A’dia Mathies and Brittany Henderson and they responded with an inspired performance.
“I think they played with tremendous intensity and passion today,” Mitchell said. “When we do that, we’re a good basketball
Mathies played her part, scoring 16 points to share the team lead with Jennifer O’Neill. Mathies also had four steals and four assists.
Overall, No. 10 Kentucky (25-4, 13-3) had 32 more field goal attempts (82-49) than Tennessee and amassed a 38-18 edge in paint points. Despite being outrebounded 43-37, the Wildcats parlayed 19 offensive rebounds into an 18-11 advantage in second-chance points.
The Wildcats’ defense, though, was their greatest asset.
“That’s Kentucky’s strength: their defense and their pressure,” UT forward Cierra Burdick said. “They did a great job of getting into the passing lanes. They anticipated all our plays. I give them credit. But we should’ve come out and played better.”
Tennessee point guard Ariel Massengale returned from a right knee injury suffered Thursday and the Lady Vols started three guards to help with the ball-handling. Yet Tennessee coach Holly Warlick spent an early timeout pleading for composure, telling her players: “Don’t panic.”
“I thought they made us play fast,” Warlick said. “If you want to interpret that as panicking.”
All seven Lady Vols who played committed at least three turnovers.
Stalked by Mathies, Simmons had a team-high seven, which offset her team-high 17 points. Burdick, one of the team’s best passers, had six. Freshman Jasmine Jones had four in just 12 minutes.
Tennessee had 19 turnovers by halftime. Even Mitchell said, “That’s a lot of turnovers in a game.”
Still, the Lady Vols trailed just 36-32 at the break. The statistical tradeoff between their sloppy play and Kentucky’s 31.8 percent shooting from the floor was shaping up to be a real bargain.
But then UT committed another turnover to start the second half. Kentucky started pounding the ball inside, resulting in the fourth foul on Lady Vols forward Bashaara Graves.
Mathies, who started 1 for 9 from floor, later hit consecutive 3-pointers as the Wildcats’ lead grew as large as 19 points.
The Lady Vols will have four days to recover before starting the SEC tournament against the Arkansas-Florida winner at noon Friday in Duluth, Ga.
Tennessee vs Kentucky, March 3, 2013
The process begins in the trainer’s room. Center Isabelle Harrison sat out Sunday’s game after suffering a right knee injury Thursday. Warlick described her status as “week to week” and wasn’t sure whether Harrison would be available this weekend.
Guard Kamiko Williams tweaked the right ankle injury she suffered last month but managed to finish Sunday’s game.
“(Monday) marks the beginning of a new season,” Burdick said. “We just have to put this behind us, learn from it and get better.”
Dan Fleser covers Tennessee women’s basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/FleserKNS and http;//blogs.knoxnews.com/fleser.