And just like that, we're upon the final home game in Holly Warlick's first season as head coach.
It's a season ever Lady Vols fan should be proud of. Sure, there are the two head-scratcher losses to Chattanooga and Missouri, and there was the 0-3 run against this year's NCAA #1 seeds, but the Lady Vols are again in the driver's seat for the SEC crown despite good challenges from four other schools in the conference. It's also the swan song for Taber Spani and Kamiko Williams, who have both been absolute pleasures to have around. Unfortunately, Taber's injuries and Kamiko's tendency to doubt herself kept them from playing at full gusto for all four years, but this year has been a banner year for both of them, and one they should unreservedly be proud of.
As for the game itself: we've said it too much already, but ... win, and they win the SEC. They'd also assure themselves of no worse than a #3 seed in the NCAA tournament and be solidly in the driver's seat for a #2 seed. It's also the first conference game against Texas A&M, and we certainly don't want any team to have the advantage in conference matchups, even if it were only 1-0. (Aside: Missouri is 1-1; this must be fixed.)
Texas A&M lives and dies by Kelsey Bone, who is averaging 17.6 points on 12.5 shots, 9.9 boards per game, and shoots nearly 58%. The 6'-4" junior is on watchlists for player of the year (she won't get it, but the nomination itself speaks volumes). Against Vanderbilt, she wasn't 100% and couldn't run well. It showed; the Aggies lost 51-61. Bone still got 17 points and 8 boards, but wasn't effective in setting up the rest of her team or in slowing down the Vanderbilt offense.
A&M doesn't take many bad shots. They're averaging 47% in conference play (38% from three, but they don't shoot a lot from beyond the arc), 20 free throw attempts per game, and a 1.1 A/TO. They are a half court team that won't press a whole lot or take risks for turnovers and transition opportunities. They're basically the anti-Tennessee in the league, but still very effective at what they do.
A part of their success is senior point guard Adrienne Pratcher. The Memphis native has a 2.7 A/TO and runs the offense for most of the night, although freshman Jordan Jones will get about 15 minutes at the point. Neither are big scorers, but both can set up the offense well. A&M has lots of size on the team, so it's doubtful that we'll see Jasmine Jones assigned to guard the point; that duty will fall to Ariel, Kamiko, and Meighan. So long as they can slow down the point guards and force them to set up the offense late in the shot clock, they can minimize the touches that Bone receives, and thereby limit A&M's scoring chances.
So as far as this game goes, let's just jump to the bullet points:
- Bashaara Graves vs. Kelsey Bone. This is the key. Bone is the start and end of A&M's offense; with her hobbled, they fell at Memorial to the Commodores on Sunday. I do not know if she is still limited, but a Bone that cannot run makes for a very difficult night for A&M. We'll see this matchup next year, too.
- Pace. Texas A&M seems to favor half court sets and a controlled tempo, while Tennessee is all about running the floor. Keeping the pace high would significantly benefit Tennessee and would minimize the effectiveness of Bone.
- Isabelle Harrison. She's rusty, but she's back. If she can spell Graves for a few minutes here and there, it might be enough to keep fresh legs against Bone for the whole night. Her return has made things far easier on Tennessee.
- Smart shooting. A&M doesn't tend to get more than about 60 points against top 25 teams, so Tennessee shouldn't have to win a scoring race. They just need sound shot selection that gets them above 70 points to have the odds-on chance for a win. A few runs via the transition offense and not letting A&M grind the game out will be enough.
It should be a great battle of wills to see who controls the tempo of the game. Both teams were flat on Sunday, and both teams should be expected to play better today. It's a home game, though, and I can't help but pick Tennessee 78 - 67 with the lead breaking open in the final minutes. This win clinches the SEC, takes the #1 seed in the SEC tournament, and sets their NCAA floor to #3. And ending the final home game for Taber, Kamiko, and Holly's First Year with a win would be a great nightcap on a season that has the future of Lady Vol basketball looking very bright.