TV: ESPN2 / ESPN2 plus 1
Stats: Do we have to?
When we last left Tennessee, the Lady Volunteers were busy chucking rocks in the direction of Nashville's second basketball team; yeah, they won, but 58-49 is the definition of winning ugly. Now, they host Kentucky, 14-3 overall and 3-3 in conference with losses to South Carolina (fair), Ole Miss (uh), and Auburn (UHHH?). It should be noted the Wildcats did win the return match with Auburn, 54-47. Maybe we shouldn't note that.
We've seen Kentucky enough to know their gameâplay fast, force turnovers, have maybe one person who's competent enough to hit a shot from outside six feet, rinse, lather, repeat. Makayla Epps is that one person, and she's good enough to win this game on her own, shooting a smooth 56% true shooting percentage (with only hitting 22% from deep, no mean feat) and 1.12 points per weighted shot, which is a stellar number for a guard. Kentucky has a slightly smaller rotation than we've seen in years past (effectively eight deep, although ten players have gotten time). The offense looks like Epps creates, Evelyn Ahkator holds down the post, Jenee Thompson and Maci Morris hit outside shots, and Alexis Jennings is, uh, there?
For Tennessee, the struggles will come in two places: can they avoid bad turnovers and can they limit Epps' ability to drive and create? I have a sneaking suspicion as to the former, especially in Lexington, but they have the tools to be mostly effective with the latter in Andraya Carter. There may be secondary issues if Epps manages to get either Te'a Cooper or Diamond DeShields guarding her (DeShields is turning and conceding drives way too easily on defense, which is compromising the rest of the scheme), but as long as the posts aren't stuck in 3x2 situations the interior should be fine enough.
This is going to need to be a game where Tennessee runs inside-out on offense, preferably just inside. If Ahkator and Jennings are in foul trouble, this forces Morris (who looks like a swing type), Batouly Camara, and little-used Ivana Jakubcova into post defense, the first two of which are freshmen. If Tennessee can't hold Kentucky down on offense, keeping them in foul trouble may be the only option. Both Ahkaltor and Jennings have gotten into foul trouble before, so it can happen again.
At this point, what Tennessee does on offense is a known commodity. We've covered it before. They can play with pace if needed, but against Kentucky bleeding the pace out of the game and playing slow and ugly is the way to go. The good news: they have plenty of practice doing that. The bad news: I don't think they have enough here.
A loss here isn't the end of the worldâBashaara Graves is the only senior on this squad, so they're younger than we think they areâbut it won't make anyone rest any easier.
PREDICTION: Kentucky 68-59, but it's a 3-to-5-point game until late.