No. 3 Lady Vols trounce Tennessee State 94-43
Tennessee hasn't started a season this well since its last national championship.
Bashaara Graves scored 17 points to lead five Tennessee players in double figures and the third-ranked Lady Vols remained unbeaten with a 94-43 victory over Tennessee State on Tuesday night.
The Lady Vols (10-0) have won each of their games by at least nine points. Tennessee also started 10-0 in 2007-08 before losing 73-69 in overtime to Stanford, which happens to be the Lady Vols' next opponent.
''We knew we were 9-0, and we knew we wanted to take another step to get to the national championship level,'' Tennessee guard Meighan Simmons said.
Tennessee will put its perfect record to the test Saturday when it heads west to face the sixth-ranked Cardinal. The Lady Vols' only previous game against a Top 25 foe was an 81-65 victory Nov. 11 at No. 14 North Carolina, which was ranked 12th at the time. They've outscored their 10 opponents by an average of 24.8 points.
''For the most part, we've played hard,'' Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. ''The opponent shouldn't matter. You're working on yourself and how you get better, and get better as a team.''
Tennessee benefited Tuesday from a balanced attack.
Graves made all six of her shots from the floor and was 5 of 6 from the free-throw line. Simmons added 13 points. Cierra Burdick, Isabelle Harrison and Mercedes Russell had 12 points apiece. Rachel Allen also scored 12 points to lead Tennessee State (3-8).
All nine of Tennessee's healthy players scored at least six points. A facial injury prevented Jasmine Jones from playing against Tennessee State, though Warlick expects the sophomore forward back for the Stanford game.
''We definitely wanted to come out and play Lady Vol basketball,'' Burdick said. ''That's something we've been struggling with in past games, playing down to our competition. We can't do that. We've got to come out and play to our potential every single night. That's the sign of a great team.''
Tennessee sprinted to a 14-1 lead in the first four minutes and never looked back. The Lady Tigers missed 23 of their first 26 shots and trailed 42-9 with 6 1/2 minutes left in the first half.
Tennessee State shot just 1 of 22 from 3-point range and was 14 of 74 overall.
The Lady Vols seemingly could do whatever they wanted Tuesday. At one point, Simmons tossed an inbounds pass off the backside of a Tennessee State player and retrieved the ball for an easy layup.
''I think we were just having fun,'' Burdick said. ''Lately we've been so uptight, worrying about not doing the wrong things. It takes away from our play and takes away from what we can do as players. We just tried to go out, have fun, enjoy the game. We keep being reminded this is a gift. It's a gift to lace up these sneakers. It's a gift to put on this jersey. We don't take that for granted.''
Tennessee State had won its last two games by double digits, over North Florida and NAIA program Martin Methodist, but the Lady Tigers were facing an entirely different level of competition Tuesday.
A look at the rosters underscored the challenge facing Tennessee State.
Tennessee State didn't have a single starter taller than 6 feet. Six of Tennessee's 10 players are 6-2 or taller. The Lady Vols were coming off a 103-64 victory over Troy in which they had pulled down 74 rebounds, the second-highest total in school history. Tennessee entered the night with a plus-15 rebound margin, while Tennessee State was at minus-6.7.
The Lady Vols outrebounded Tennessee State 58-35 and outscored the Lady Tigers 54-24 in the paint. Tennessee's block total (11) nearly matched Tennessee State's basket total (11). Russell, the Lady Vols' 6-foot-6 freshman center, had six blocks.
''Of course, their size, I thought that was the big difference in the game,'' Tennessee State coach Larry Joe Inman said. ''I thought like it affected what we did. I thought their transition game hurt us. I thought they exploited a lot of our weaknesses.''
In the teams' two previous games, the Lady Vols also breezed to easy victories: 114-63 in 1985-86 and 104-51 in 1987-88.