STARKVILLE, Miss. — Tennessee lost the ball but not the ball game Thursday night.
Stymied by 22 turnovers, UT relied on zone defense and key baskets to pull off a 67-63 SEC women’s basketball victory over Mississippi State at Humphrey Coliseum before a crowd of 3,169.
Bashaara Graves and Ariel Massengale combined to hit three free throws in the final 26 seconds to secure the outcome. They led No. 12 Tennessee (14-3, 3-2 SEC) with 13 points apiece.
Kendra Grant scored 21 to lead Mississippi State (14-4, 1-3), which was lurking with 62-59 inside the final minute.
“I think this kind of win, getting this kind of win, it’s a big deal,” Tennessee guard Andraya Carter said.
“Everything wasn’t going our way,” she said. “We had to grind it out.”
While UT coach Holly Warlick lamented the sloppiness, she applauded the effort.
“I asked them to play as if they were trying to get a scholarship,” she said.
The Lady Vols were dead-eye accurate down the stretch, hitting 11 of their final 14 shots to top off a sizzling 66.7 percent shooting performance in the second half (14 for 21).
Warlick said that the players prepared the scouting report, but she provided a last-minute wrinkle, announcing beforehand that the Lady Vols would open in a zone defense.
“I was trying to get something our players were comfortable in,” she said. “I thought it was necessary for us to play a zone.”
The 2-3 alignment spared the Lady Vols foul trouble at the outset. It also discouraged the dribble penetration plays that had been tearing through their man-to-man alignment. A 1-2-2 deployment was an adjustment to State’s shooters.
“Here’s the deal,” Warlick said. “I wanted to go back to man-to-man and the (assistant) coaches wanted to stay in zone.”
Tennessee was in good shape after overcoming an early spate of missed shots to lead 20-8.
Then came the turnovers. They began with six during an eight-play sequence, robbing UT of its early momentum.
The mistakes continued in a variety of ways — everything from dribbling mishaps to errant passes to losing the ball as if it was bar of soap.
They continued right up until Massengale lost the ball on Tennessee’s final possession of the first half. By the break, Tennessee’s lead had dwindled to a shaky 26-23.
“Some of those are just self-inflicted,” Warlick said. “We travel, double dribble, offensive foul. That’s something we have to clean up. I’ll take the blame for that. That’s an area we’ve got to get better at.”
The Lady Vols continued losing the ball after halftime, causing Warlick to burn a timeout in the first minute.
They didn’t commit any turnovers, though, in the final seven minutes. Instead they made five layups.
Graves converted an offensive rebound into a putback basket with 3:18 left. Isabelle Harrison hit a back-cutting Carter for a crucial layup with 36 seconds remaining.
“We kept fighting back,” Carter said. “(Assistant coach) Dean (Lockwood) says it’s a lot like boxing. When you get hit, you have to fight back.”
Tennessee takes a break from conference play to face No. 2 Notre Dame (16-0) on Monday at Thompson-Boling Arena.