But the Bulldogs showed Sunday they also can still play the championship-caliber defense that become so important in the program’s recent emergence as a national contender.
Victoria Vivians had 24 points and nine rebounds as No. 3 Mississippi State defeated No. 6 Tennessee 71-52 to remain unbeaten and match its best start in school history. Tennessee posted its lowest point total of the season, missed its last 10 shots and had no baskets in the game’s final 7 minutes, 54 seconds
“Tonight’s a step,” Schaefer said. “I hope like heck we’re really making progress and we’re going to carry these on now to the last 10 (games) because we’ve got some monsters in front of us, but boy, today, was really special defensively.”
Mississippi State (20-0, 6-0 SEC) also had a 20-0 start last season and went on to finish 34-5 with a loss to South Carolina in the NCAA Tournament final.
“I have been on them about defense,” Schaefer said. “That’s the difference between this year’s team and last year’s team. We’re not very good defensively. And today we managed to find a way to really play well defensively.”
Mississippi State also showed its toughness on the glass. The Bulldogs outrebounded Tennessee 44-33 and outscored the Lady Vols 20-11 in second-chance points. Tennessee (16-3, 4-2) entered the day with a plus-11.4 rebound margin that ranked fifth among all Division I teams.
Mississippi State’s Teaira McCowan had 12 points and 18 rebounds, with 10 of her boards coming on the offensive end. Roshunda Johnson scored 16 points and Blair Schaefer added 12 for Mississippi State.
“We just didn’t play hard as a team for 40 minutes, period,” Tennessee guard Evina Westbrook said. “That can’t happen.”
Tennessee’s Mercedes Russell scored 16 points and shot 7 of 9, but the 6-foot-6 center didn’t get much help. Russell’s teammates shot a combined 12 of 44 from the floor and scored 36 points.
Jaime Nared had 12 points for Tennessee, but shot just 3 of 14.
Tennessee has lost three of its last four, with all four of those games coming against Top 25 foes.
The Lady Vols lost 79-76 in overtime at No. 16 Texas A&M, won 86-70 at No. 10 South Carolina and lost 84-70 at No. 5 Notre Dame before returning home to face Mississippi State. They led Texas A&M by four points in overtime and squandered a 23-point advantage at Notre Dame.
Mississippi State: As much as both teams talked about Mississippi State’s edge in toughness after the game, the Bulldogs also capitalized on a prohibitive advantage from 3-point range. Mississippi State outscored Tennessee 21-0 on 3-pointers, as the Bulldogs shot 7 of 18 and the Lady Vols went 0 for 8.
Tennessee: The good news for Tennessee is that it’s made it through the toughest portion of its schedule now that it’s finished this run of four straight games against ranked teams. Only one of Tennessee’s next seven games is against a team currently in the Top 25 — a Feb. 1 home date with Texas A&M.
Before the game, five different organizations presented checks totaling $106,600 to the Pat Summitt Foundation, the organization started by the former Tennessee coach to fight Alzheimer’s. After the first quarter, the Pat Summitt Foundation presented a $500,000 check to the University of Tennessee Medical Center’s Pat Summitt Clinic.
Summitt led Tennessee to eight national titles and 1,098 wins before stepping down in April 2012, one year after she announced she had early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. Summitt died in June 2016 at the age of 64.
“I’m disappointed our kids weren’t more tough,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “I’ll just be honest with you. I thought we gave up too many loose balls. We didn’t get on the floor as much. We’ve done that. It just didn’t appear that we had that today. We’ve got to make sure we instill that in our kids.”
Mississippi State hosts Florida on Thursday.
Tennessee hosts Mississippi on Thursday.
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