It wasn't necessarily a pretty game, but you finally had the feeling that the Lady Vols were giving everything they had out on the floor. The game was tight until the final three minutes or so, when the Lady Bulldogs began to wear out and were strapped by foul troubles. Those in attendance (including me!) are all invited to a free chicken sandwich from Chik-Fil-A, courtesy of 40 minutes of hard effort.
Actually, the Lady Vols may have been a bit guilty of trying too hard. Particularly in the first half, Mississippi State was able to get a lot of open looks to the basket with lateral motion; the Lady Vols were running so hard to maintain their best defense that they'd find themselves outrunning the play. MSU could then cut the play back inside the defender for an easy look.
Here are a few observations from my perch in the student section:
The Lady Vols still need some time to settle into the game. For the first ten minutes, it felt like MSU ran only one offensive play - a set pick at the top of the free throw circle where the ball handler had the option to dribble in for a layup or kick out to the open player (assuming the defender came in to assist). It worked very well, especially since MSU seemed to shoot better from 3-point range than anywhere else.
Actually, the Lady Bulldogs did shoot better from 3-point land. They were 41% beyond the arc, but only 35% overall. Credit a tenacious interior defense as a part of that, but credit also the MSU guards for some terrific outside shooting. Without that, MSU would not have been in the game as late as they were.
Team discipline was much better. There were very few fouls away from the ball, which was good to see. Both teams were playing very physically, so it's good to know that they kept the physicality under control.
Kelley Cain is becoming a beast in the interior. She's had yet another terrific game; nobody can accuse her of not giving effort. 8-12 shooting and only two fouls kept her in the game for 26 minutes and let her lead the team with 17 points. Once she found her rhythm, MSU simply did not have a defensive answer for her.
Angie Bjorklund had one of the better "quiet" games of her career. She started the game with a couple of quick 3's for Tennessee, giving you the impression that she'd be on fire. However, she ended with only 9 points despite 31 minutes of play. In those 31minutes, she did a terrific job of setting up plays and finding the open player. She also had a monster rebound streak at one point where she would shoot a 3, chase down the rebound on the other side of the basket, shoot another 3, chase down the rebound back on the original side, and so on. Plays like that showed the effort in the girls tonight.
Quick "hustle" stats: Rebounds - UT 44, MSU 25. Assists - UT 21, MSU 9. Steals - UT 1, MSU 6. Blocks - UT 11, MSU 0. Turnovers - UT 11, MSU 3. The steals were mostly a result of early tentative passing (5 steals in the first half). The turnovers were partly a function of the steals and partly that slow start, where some passes went out of bounds. It's still a young team, but it's a young team that, for one game, show that they can play like they want it.
In short, MSU played just as hard as Tennessee and stayed with them as long as they could. However, the effort overextended their starters, with three starters having 4 fouls (one with 10-15 minutes left in the game). Tired and tentative, they just didn't have enough reserve to match up with the deeper Lady Vols. Then, and only then, did the superior talent in the UT roster assert itself and pull away for the win.
See? That's what effort will get you.