A young man played a lovely fiddle version of the National Anthem on Sunday. As the solo went on the crowd of 7,207 softly started singing along. The plaintive fiddle and the subdued chorus of voices was moving, and reminicent of the Ashokan Farewell made famous by Ken Burns' civil war documentary and cuppycup's SEC Letters Home. Then the game started and it felt like the Ags were one of those valiant Civil War units being overrun by a more powerful opponent. The Fightin' Texas Aggies fought for 40 minutes, but it was never close after midway in the first half as the Lady Vols played a complete game and never trailed.
Tennessee started on an 8-0 run with the Ags missing their shots badly against a packed-in 3-2 zone. It didn't help that Courtney Williams had to go out with 2 fouls less than 5 minutes in, and before the Ags had scored at all. Courtney Walker broke the ice with a jumper and the Ags climbed back to down 2 on the strength of some inside play by Karla Gilbert. This got 2 fouls on the Vols Bashara Graves, and kindled some hope that A&M would be able to make a run like we did after a slow start against the Gamecocks. But unlike the Gamecocks, the Vols did not turn it over, and the Ags were not able to clamp down on defense.
The Vols step up their game
Tennessee fans have a phrase "SIMMONS, NO!" to describe how they feel about the sometimes out-of-control play of their star guard Meighan Simmons. Well, "SIMMONS, NO!" now means something completely different to Aggie fans after the game at Reed. Simmons went off for 26 points, 15 in the first half. She was 12/19 with 3 rebounds, a block, a steal, and only 1 turnover. And her block came on that turnover, as Simmons hustled back after Courtney Walker stripped the ball from her and raced for a layup. Simmons caught Walker and slapped the ball out of bounds. This was with 3:42 left in the game and an 18 point lead… and she was still hustling and playing really well. Courtney Walker is an elite defender and she was contesting almost everything. But Simmons was just killing CWalk all day. Coach Blair had predicted that Simmons, a San Antonio native, would have a big game in her home state. Unfortunately, he was very right.
Tennessee's front line was the problem I feared in the post-Mizzou preview. Karla fought hard and got a double double: 14 points and 11 boards. But she was in foul trouble for much of the game. Achiri grabbed 8 boards but was 1-5 from the field. Tennessee outscored us in the paint 38-16. Some of that was by winning fast break points 17-0. But the Vols also won the rebounding battle 42-37.
Andraya Carter was singled out by both coaches in the post-game for praise, confirming my impressions at Reed. Carter started in place of Ariel Massengale, who didn't make the trip after getting hit in the face in the Florida game. Carter's 10 points were among the 4 starters who finished with double figures in scoring, but her points were not nearly as key as how well she ran the point. She had 6 assists against only 2 turnovers while playing all 40 minutes. This set the tone for the Vols, who only turned it over 10 times for the game, which is well below their 17.3 average. Her two steals included one at the end of the first half that she converted to a fast break layup that deflated the crowd after Jones had gotten a steal to set up a last shot to possibly cut the lead to 12 at the break. Instead the Vols went to the locker room up 16.
I guarantee you Massengale will get well in a hurry before the next game. But give Carter so much credit.
- Coach Blair in the post-game
Ags in the Kill Zone
Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick talked about how they had worked on their zone for this game. There have been times during the Blair years when Aggie fans have wondered why any team ever plays anything but zone against us, so while the players credited the Vols staff for a great scouting job, this was not exactly a brilliant insight. But most top teams eschew zone D, so I found myself wondering if the Ags had not expected Tennessee to play zone.
Following this obvious game plan for A&M, the Vols basically sat back in a 3-2 and dared the Ags to beat them from outside. A&M has neither the shooters nor the inclination to use 3 point jumpers to force teams out of these zones. Going 1-12 from outside the arc reinforces Coach Blair's insistence that it's better to break down zones with penetration of their weak spots leading to intermediate jumpers and assists in the paint. This is true to a point, and our zone offense has improved over the season. But that improvement has been against teams not nearly as talented as Tennessee, and losing Courtney Williams to early foul trouble hurt our zone offense as she has been one of our main weapons for penetrating these gaps. We're still better against man defenses. Coach Warlick talked about how easily we scored when she tried to go man; she abandoned the man defense after that. There were times when we were able to break down the zone, but it wasn't efficient. A&M was held to 29.4% shooting in the first half and 38.2% in the second. A&M actually had more fg attempts than UT, 68-61. Some of this was because the zone did give up 21 offensive rebounds: but we could only convert these into 18 second-chance points.
If you had told me ahead of the game that Walker would score 20, Williams 14, and Karla would have a double-double, I would have liked our chances. That we had those stats in a 21 point blowout loss reflects the defensive problems noted above, but also problems on offense. In the post game, Blair noted how unbalanced his offense was, with the CW network taking 39 of the Ags 68 attempts, and getting only 34 points out of those 39 shots. But he also noted that they had to take those shots because nobody else was getting open. It was not a particularly good outing for Jordan Jones. The good: 7 assists against only 2 turnovers. The bad: 0-4 from the field, and not being able to get the running game going.
Bottom line and Auburn up next
Tennessee was the better team on Sunday. They showed why everyone picked them so high in the preseason and unfortunately for the Ags they showed none of the weaknesses that their fans have been complaining about. Tennessee is not only very, very, good, they match up really well against our weaknesses.
With S. Carolina's win at Vanderbilt, the Ags would still get the top seed if the season ended today, thanks to the tiebreaker from our OT win at home. With the 9 game win streak snapped, the Ags need to bounce back and not get a new streak going to keep pressure on the teams chasing them. Getting back on track starts on Thursday as A&M hits the road for games at Auburn and Vandy before coming home for a rematch with LSU.
Auburn is 11-9 overall and 2-5 in SEC play, but 4 of their 5 losses have come to teams ranked ahead of A&M (Vandy, S. Carolina, UK, and LSU). The 5th loss was an 87-69 defeat on Sunday in Gainesville. The Autigers* are led by 6-1 Sr W Tyrese Tanner, who is averaging 16.2 ppg. She also leads the team in rebounds, just ahead of her younger sister Tra'Cee Tanner, a 6-3 F/C who is averaging 10.4 ppg. The Tanner sisters are two of 4 Auburn players averaging double figures. The other two are 6-1 Jr G Hasina Muhammad and 5-10 Fr G Brandy Montgomery. 5-8 Fr G Meagan Tucker took over as the 5th starter after the S. Carolina game. 5-9 Jr G Kiana Parker now comes off the bench.
Despite their record, Auburn could be dangerous, especially at their place. The Autigers played S. Carolina close for most of their game. The score was tied at 55 with 7:41 to go before the Lady Gamecocks pulled away. Auburn only lost to UK by 2, 73-71. They led LSU at half and were tied with 15:37 left before the Lady Corndogs pulled away. Auburn is averaging 18 turnovers/game.
Thursday's game is at 6PM CST. Looks like no TV, so I'll do another radio-based recap if I do one Thursday.
*There are too many tigers in the SEC. Inspired my Mizzou's website being mutigers.com, I'll call the War Eaglettes the Autigers.