Defense helps No. 4 Lady Vols outlast Albany 63-55
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee is creating more drama than usual in producing its typical fast start.
Mercedes Russell had 12 points and five blocks Friday as the fourth-ranked Lady Vols held off several Albany threats down the stretch, outlasting the Great Danes 63-55 for their 27th straight home victory.
Tennessee (5-0) hasn’t lost at home since a 75-71 defeat to Kentucky on Feb. 16, 2014.
This game extended Tennessee’s recent trend of surviving close games at home. After blowing out Central Arkansas 102-47 in its season opener, the Lady Vols have won their last four games by a combined total of 20 points.
“It’s better to work through these things now than in April,” said Tennessee guard Diamond DeShields, who added 11 points. “We’re definitely getting better. I do feel we got better tonight. Albany did a great job defending us, but that’s what we need. They helped us get better.”
The Lady Vols actually should be happy if they’re still working through these things in April since that’s when the Final Four takes place. But they should get an immediate indication of whether these early tests have helped in the short term. Tennessee hosts No. 8 Texas on Sunday.
“We’ve got to come in and come ready to play,” Tennessee guard Jordan Reynolds said. “We can’t continue to play like we’ve been playing.”
Shereesha Richards had 19 points and 10 rebounds to lead Albany (4-1). Imani Tate added 15 points and Erin Coughlin scored 12.
Albany had the ball with a chance to tie the game in the final minute, but Richards missed a leaner from about 10 feet away with 17.2 seconds left. Richards then fouled Bashaara Graves, who made two free throws to give Tennessee a four-point cushion.
After Albany missed two 3-pointers on its next possession and committed a technical foul, Tennessee sank four free throws with 1.3 seconds left to account for the final margin.
Even before that missed shot by Richards, Albany failed to convert on three earlier possessions in which it trailed by two with less than four minutes left. In one of those possessions, an offensive foul on Tate nullified what would have been a tying basket.
Albany coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson called herself a “proud coach” after the game and credited her team for staying calm in a road environment. Albany’s zone defense also did a nice job of neutralizing Tennessee’s height advantage. Graves, who was averaging 16.7 points and 11.3 rebounds per game, had just nine points and seven rebounds Friday.
“Anytime No. 12 (Graves) or No. 21 (Russell) caught the ball, we were going to double them and make them prove themselves,” Abrahamson-Henderson said.
Albany: Minnesota and Albany entered the day as the only Division I programs to have two players averaging at least 20 points per game. Tate’s 15-point performance Friday lowered her average to 21.2 points per game. Richards averages 20.2 points per game. Abrahamson-Henderson calls Richards “the best mid-major player in the country.”
Tennessee: Sophomore forward Kortney Dunbar was wearing a walking boot on her right leg during the second half after playing four minutes in the first half. Tennessee coach Holly Warlick had no immediate update on the severity of Dunbar’s injury.
“Every time the game got close, we were like, ‘Yeah, we need a stop,’ and we went and got it,” DeShields said. “But that’s what we have to do all game.”
The Lady Vols were outscored 28-20 in the paint. Tennessee had outscored its first four opponents 180-94 in the paint. The Lady Vols made up for it by shooting 7 of 21 from 3-point range. In the three games leading up to this one, they had gone a combined 5 of 42 from beyond the arc.
Albany: Hosts Providence on Tuesday.
Tennessee: Hosts No. 8 Texas on Sunday.