Lady Vols survive Blue Raider surge

Ariel Massengale

The Lady Vols notched their fifth win of the season Wednesday night, but it took an extra five minutes to do as Tennessee needed overtime to tame Middle Tennessee, 88-81.

"It was two teams going at it," Head coach Holly Warlick said. "I like the way we battled."

It was indeed a battle for Tennessee (5-1) as Middle Tennessee (4-2) took a 5-0 lead and forced the Lady Vols to play from a trail position for nearly 36 minutes.

Tennessee took its first lead of the game with 4:26 left to play when Kamiko Williams hit a bank shot to put her team ahead 64-63, and the crowd of 10,768, which had gotten restless but stayed supportive, erupted.

"I think you're seeing Kamiko Williams at her best right now," Warlick said. "She put (together) two games, back to back, and I was extremely proud of her and proud of our whole team for just getting a win."

Middle Tennessee coach Rick Insell would have preferred not to see this new version of Williams, whose career at Tennessee has been marked by inconsistent play.

I wish she'd been a little more inconsistent tonight," Insell said with a wry look. "She came in, and her length and her strength just overtook (Shanice) Cason, and then she stepped up when they needed that three and hit it. That was big; that was her big play, but she's a senior, and that's what seniors are supposed to do."

Williams' trey came with 55 seconds left in regulation and the shot clock at three when it left her hand. That gave Tennessee a 73-68 lead and the points were vital as Middle tied the game in regulation with a jumper by Ebony Rowe and a three ball with three seconds left by Icelyn Elie.

Tennessee had been down by as much as 12 in the first half and 11 in the second half, but the Lady Vols battled back this time - unlike the season opener at Chattanooga.

"I think it is a sign of growth," Warlick said. "I think Middle Tennessee is an outstanding basketball team. They are very well coached and they pushed us to the limit and made us do some things we probably have not had to do this year. I was proud of our players for not giving up.

"We could have thrown in the towel being 11 down and we battled. That is the sign of a solid basketball team; when you do not give up and you battle and we were not concerned being down 11. All we were saying was that we needed stops. I think UTC prepared us for this game tonight."

There was a major difference, of course. Tennessee was at home Wednesday. But there was also another difference. Middle Tennessee is a better basketball team than Chattanooga. The Blue Raiders have three First Team players from the Sun Belt Conference and have a balanced attack inside and out. They lack depth, but they are laden with veterans who have been tested in post-season.

Middle Tennessee did an excellent job of moving the ball - and its players moving without the ball - and Tennessee's only hope to wipe out the deficit was to play defense.

The difference makers were a freshman, sophomore and a senior. Andraya Carter entered the game and Cason could no longer turn the corner and get to the rim with the freshman hounding her every move. Kamiko Williams had to provide relief for Ariel Massengale, who suffered leg cramps, and then Massengale had to return for Carter, who re-injured her right shoulder at the 7:35 mark of the second half and didn't return to the game.

Add a junior to the mix, too. Meighan Simmons continues to play the best defense of her career, and she combined with Williams in overtime to seal the game with back-to-back steals and layups - Williams' theft to Simmons' score and then Simmons' takeaway and Williams' layup for an 83-77 lead with 40 seconds left.

On the next play, Williams drew a charge near center court and celebrated with some exuberance that Simmons referred to it as a "mini seizure."

Warlick joked it was the first charge of Williams' basketball career

"I think I got more excited because we were just doing a charge drill in practice not too long ago, and I don't really know how to take charges," Williams said. "It was probably the first time I've ever taken a charge, so I got excited."

It wasn't, but it likely was the most important one she has taken at Tennessee as it secured the win since Tennessee got the ball back and Isabelle Harrison scored inside for an 85-77 lead with 33 seconds left in overtime.

It was a physical game inside and freshman Bashaara Graves didn't back down, as the post affectionately called "The Beast" by her teammates put up a double-double with 15 points and 12 boards.

Graves also had three steals, one assist and just one turnover in 39 minutes of play. She had to leave the game briefly in the second half to be treated for leg cramps.

Jenny Moshak will likely be running triage Thursday - the players are off the practice court but should be in the training room - as Carter's shoulder will need to be treated, Massengale, who logged 37 minutes, is still recovering from an Achilles injury, and several other players were slow to get up after hard tumbles. Simmons nearly went the distance at 41 minutes and led Tennessee with 19 points.

"The fight," Massengale said by way of explaining the win. "We've had a couple tough practices lately. Coach keeps reminding us not to back down. No team is just going to give us a ‘W.' We have to go out there and take it.

"Through our practices, everything we do is for this moment right here. It just a matter of going out and making the preseason and work worth it."

Warlick hit the right note in the second half when, tired of the no calls inside - even Graves appeared visibly frustrated after one hard hack and no whistle - she left the timeout huddle and spent some one-on-one time with an official, much to the crowd's delight.

"I was frustrated with our players," Warlick said with a smile when asked if the officials upset her. "You know, I thought we could have been playing a lot better, and I'm just emotional.

"I think I got a little too emotional, and I calmed down. I just think we were not doing what we needed to do, and we needed to somehow get back in the game. ... "

It was actually needed and answered another question about Warlick as a head coach - would the officials listen to her? They did, and Tennessee got to the line late in the game after fouls were called inside.

The comeback also was vintage Tennessee as the Lady Vols forced Middle Tennessee deep into the shot clock and stepped up their glass work. The result was a come-from-behind win that had loss oozing from it for nearly 36 minutes.

"I would say it's a tough win, but I would also say it's a test for our future and who we face later on," Simmons said. "Not to think ahead, but it's a test to see where our mentality is.

"When adversity gets you, what are we going to do? Are we going to keep our backs against the wall or fight back? I think we found our second wind in overtime and responded to the adversity."

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