Turnovers bothering No. 6 Tennessee during tough stretch


The Associated Press

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Perhaps the biggest lesson Tennessee has learned in its stretch of four straight games against ranked opponents involves reducing its soaring turnover totals.

The sixth-ranked Lady Vols must correct that problem soon as they attempt to close this tough four-game run by moving into a tie for first place in the Southeastern Conference.

Three days after committing 28 turnovers to blow a 23-point lead at No. 5 Notre Dame , Tennessee (16-2, 4-1 SEC) is back home today to face No. 3 Mississippi State (19-0, 5-0). Tennessee has the second-highest turnover total in the SEC, while Mississippi State leads the conference in turnover margin.

“They get after you,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said of Mississippi State. “You’d better protect the ball.”

Tennessee hasn’t done that often enough.

With freshmen Evina Westbrook and Anastasia Hayes sharing time at point guard, the Lady Vols are committing 17.5 turnovers per game. Vanderbilt’s the only SEC team with more turnovers this season.

The turnover issues have grown more apparent the last couple of weeks with Tennessee facing the hardest part of its schedule.

Tennessee had 16 turnovers in an overtime loss at No. 16 Texas A&M and 18 in an 86-70 victory at No. 10 South Carolina . Then came the collapse Thursday at Notre Dame.

After leading 37-14 early in the second quarter, Tennessee lost 84-70. The Lady Vols were outscored 34-10 in the fourth quarter and finished the game with more than twice as many turnovers (28) as assists (13).

Tennessee reviewed the breakdowns at Notre Dame during a Friday film session.

“After we watched film, I think a lot of them kind of wore their feelings on their sleeve,” Warlick said Saturday. “I don’t think they realized exactly how we got to the point we did. Once we saw it, they were like, ‘Oh, wow.’ Actually, I let them sulk for the day. We had a pretty hard practice and some of them struggled a little bit.

“Today, we bounced back and had a great prep. That’s what it’s all about.”

Senior guard/forward Jaime Nared, who has 13 turnovers in her last two games, says the problems sometimes come from Tennessee trying to make a “home-run play” when a simpler pass would suffice. Tennessee must avoid repeating those mistakes against Mississippi State, which has forced 20.7 turnovers per game.

“We just have to make things simpler,” Nared said after the Notre Dame game. “We’re just trying to make too many things happen instead of just playing the game of basketball. … We sometimes overcomplicate it.”

Another issue has been the inability to get the ball to 6-foot-6 senior center Mercedes Russell down the stretch. Although Russell is averaging 16.9 points, she has taken only one field-goal attempt after halftime in each of Tennessee’s last two games.

“We’ve got to find her a little bit better ways to give her opportunities to score, and she’s got to continue to work hard,” Warlick said. “She’s done a great job. Notre Dame had a great adjustment. We started not hitting from the outside, and they just kept packing it in on Mercedes. Until you hit an outside shot, that’s what teams are going to do.”

The Lady Vols still could come out of this four-game stretch with a share of the SEC lead.

Tennessee is tied for second place in the SEC with No. 11 Missouri (16-2, 4-1) and Georgia (16-2, 4-1). They’re all a game behind Mississippi State.

Handing Mississippi State its first loss could help Tennessee earn redemption after the embarrassing finish at Notre Dame.

“We know it’s a challenge, but I couldn’t think of a better time to play than after a bad loss for us,” Warlick said.

Mississippi State also has plenty of incentive.

The Bulldogs lost 82-64 at home to Tennessee last season when a victory would have given Mississippi State a share of its first SEC title in any women’s sport. Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer recalls that his team was “a basket case from the jump” that day after an emotional pregame ceremony honoring its senior class.

“I was embarrassed,” Schaefer said. “It was over before it ever even started. It’s a helpless feeling, and Tennessee just played extremely well.”

By Paul Wager

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