JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Tennessee coach Holly Warlick waited all season for her team to click.
It might finally be happening at the perfect time.
Diamond DeShields scored 15 points, Jaime Nared added 11 and the Lady Vols bolstered their postseason resume by beating Arkansas 68-51 on Thursday in the Southeastern Conference women’s tournament.
The seventh-seeded Vols advanced to play No. 2 seed and 15th-ranked Texas A&M on Friday. A victory against the Aggies would go a long way to erasing all the turbulence of the regular season.
“We haven’t had a season up to our standard,” Warlick said. “I was really proud of them throughout the year. We had a lot of losses, but they stayed focused and came in every day and worked hard. You just think something’s going to click. It’s clicked toward the end of the season.
“But they could have folded, and they didn’t. Really proud of our young ladies in staying focused and trying to dig out the hole that we were in.”.
Tennessee can only hope to play with the same intensity it did against the 10th-seeded Razorbacks (12-18).
The Lady Vols (18-12) opened up a double-digit lead in the first quarter — they made three of their first six 3-point attempts — and really pulled away in the third. DeShields scored eight straight points late in the third as the Lady Vols extended their advantage to 52-35.
For lengthy stretches in both halves, Tennessee looked every bit like an eight-time national champion and nothing like the team that set a school record for losses this season and dropped out of the Top 25 for the first time since 1985.
“It is a new season,” Nared said. “We just have to refocus. We haven’t had our ideal season, but we still have games left. We have a tournament and then beyond that. We just have to refocus and play the way we’re capable of playing, not worry about what happened before.”.
Although the Lady Vols lost eight of their final 14 regular-season games, they still appeared to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament after beating Georgia last weekend. Now, a second straight win has given them some breathing room.
A loss to Arkansas, though, surely would have weakened their chances.
DeShields, Nared and Co. Never let it seem like a possibility, leading from start to finish. Jordan Reynolds chipped in 10 points for Tennessee, and the Lady Vols’ bench finished with 21 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists.
“Whenever it comes tournament time, our coaches always emphasis it’s a new life,” Reynolds said. “Postseason, anybody can be taken down on any given night, so there’s really no turning back from here on out. It’s really one-and-done now. You don’t know how many games you have left. You don’t always know if you can continue, so you have to give it your all in each game. That’s what they’ve been emphasizing lately.”.
Devin Cosper led the Razorbacks with 20 points. Leading scorer Jessica Jackson added 12 on 5-of-18 shooting.
“That’s kind of been all season long,” Arkansas coach Jimmy Dykes said. “If she’s not scoring, it’s kind of hard for us to get to 60.”.
Arkansas: Was eliminated in its opening game for the fifth time in as many tries as the No. 10 seed. … Managed just 10 bench points. … Cosper and Jackson combined to take 37 of the team’s 64 shots.
Tennessee: Won its opening game in the SEC tournament for the 23rd consecutive year. Last opening-game loss came in 1993. … Improved to 28-3 all-time against Arkansas. … Trying to become the lowest seed to win the SEC tournament since ninth-seeded Auburn edged Florida for the 1997 title.
Tennessee’s fans turned Jacksonville into Knoxville south, dominating both sides of the arena. “I think we had, at one point I turned around and counted, we had 14 (fans) here,” Dykes said. “You saw what they had. But that’s OK. That had nothing to do with the ballgame. Absolutely nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s about what they did on the floor and what we didn’t do on the floor.”.
Arkansas is done for the season.
Tennessee plays No. 15 Texas A&M on Friday.