KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) On a day that it honored three of its national championship teams, Tennessee made a statement that it’s ready to start competing for titles again.
Jaime Nared and Mercedes Russell both produced double-doubles Sunday as No. 11 Tennessee outlasted No. 2 Texas 82-75 in a physical matchup of unbeaten teams.
”If that was the No. 2 team in the country, where do we stand now?” Russell asked after the game. ”82-75. There’s your answer right there.”
Texas (7-1) is the highest-ranked team Tennessee has defeated in Holly Warlick’s six seasons as coach. The Lady Vols closed the 2016-17 regular season by winning at Mississippi State, which was ranked second in the coaches’ poll and third by The Associated Press.
Tennessee made a statement in front of a crowd that included members of the Lady Vols’ 1987, 1997 and 2007 national championship teams, who were honored at a halftime ceremony.
Those former champions met Tennessee’s current players at a pregame shootaround and joined the postgame locker-room celebration. Chamique Holdsclaw, the star of the 1997 team and the leading scorer in Tennessee history, was unable to attend but tweeted ”haven’t seen a TN team play this hard and together in a long time” late Sunday afternoon.
”We talk to our kids a lot about tradition and `Lady Vols For Life,”’ Warlick said. ”We take that really, really seriously. A lot of programs are the same, but I think what separates Tennessee is our alumni and the love they have for this program. The former Lady Vols take a lot of things personal. They’re competitive. But they’ve been nothing but positive with this group. I was excited they could be here to watch a big win for us.”
Nared collected 23 points and 13 rebounds as Tennessee never trailed. Russell added 15 points and 12 rebounds, and Tennessee freshman Evina Westbrook had a career-high 15 points.
After Texas tied the score 29-all in the opening minute of the third quarter, Tennessee went on a 7-0 run to pull back ahead for good. The Lady Vols overcame shaky free-throw shooting down the stretch by making seven of their last eight field-goal attempts.
The Lady Vols led 74-73 when Tennessee’s Anastasia Hayes was fouled with 42 seconds remaining. Hayes made the first free throw and missed the second, but Nared got the offensive rebound and was fouled with 32.6 seconds left. Nared made both free throws to provide some breathing room.
”Tennessee was just tougher than we were today,” said Texas guard Lashann Higgs, who scored 15 points.
Jatarie White, Audrey-Ann Caron-Goudreau and Brooke McCarty all fouled out for the Longhorns. Jordan Hosey didn’t return to the game after getting hurt in the third quarter, and Ariel Atkins missed a key stretch of the fourth quarter with an injury. Atkins returned in the last three minutes and scored a team-high 21 points.
Texas coach Karen Aston criticized her team’s shot selection and credited Tennessee’s hustle. She said after the game that ”we didn’t look very well coached, and that bothers me.”
”People talk about other teams being tough, but we know we’re tough,” Nared said. ”I think we showed how gritty we were tonight.”
Texas: The Longhorns fell behind early because their leading scorers this season – McCarty and Atkins – each scored just two points in the first half while shooting a combined 1 of 11 from the floor. Atkins played much better the rest of the way and scored 19 second-half points, but McCarty never got going. McCarty scored eight points and shot 2 of 14, including 0-for-6 from 3-point range.
Tennessee: After playing seven of its first 10 games at home without a true road game, the Lady Vols won’t be returning to Thompson-Boling Arena for 3 1/2 weeks. Tennessee has road games Dec. 17 at Long Beach State, Dec. 21 at No. 18 Stanford and Dec. 31 at No. 20 Kentucky before hosting Auburn on Jan. 4.
”What I learned about our team is we’re not quite ready to respond when somebody’s popping you in the mouth, because we got popped today,” Aston said. ”We’ll get better from this. There’s no question.”
Tennessee outrebounded Texas 51-47. Texas entered the day ranked fourth in rebound margin. … Texas was just 3 of 18 and Tennessee 2 of 13 from 3-point range.
Texas hosts Northwestern State on Wednesday.
Tennessee is at Long Beach State on Sunday.
Follow Steve Megargee at https://twitter.com/stevemegargee