Lady Vols stumble in season opener

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

On paper, the Lady Vols looked like a championship-contending team in preseason, but games are played on the court, and Tennessee stumbled at Ohio State behind an onslaught of turnovers and foul issues. Jordan Horston led the Lady Vols with a double-double in her hometown, but the outcome won’t sit well with the senior guard.

Coach Kellie Harper, when asked about the preseason hype, said repeatedly that the team hadn’t done anything yet. Her No. 5-ranked team proceeded to make her point with an 87-75 loss to the No. 14-ranked Buckeyes in Columbus.

First, credit is due to Ohio State for its overall poise after trailing 41-33 at halftime and then outscoring the Lady Vols in the third quarter, 30-13. Tennessee managed to get within eight points in the fourth quarter but couldn’t sustain any momentum, and the Buckeyes never let up.

Second, Ohio State is a very good team who will challenge for the Big Ten crown, and the Lady Vols could never get in sync or take care of the ball. Part of that is on the Lady Vols and poor decision-making and execution, but a bigger reason is the relentless pressure applied by Ohio State. The Lady Vols lost control of the ball 29 times and never got a handle on the miscues. Foul trouble plagued Tennessee from beginning to end.

“We got really tight, and we got really passive and obviously, we had a very hard time breaking the press from the start,” Harper said.

Horston did her part with 20 points and 13 rebounds. She got offensive help from transfer guard Jasmine Powell with 19 points. The Lady Vols also won the board battle, 40-30.

But the game was lost on defense – Ohio State scored 87 points – and execution on the offensive end. The Buckeyes got 37 of their points off Tennessee mistakes.

Harper crafted her non-conference schedule by design to challenge her team. Tennessee didn’t pass the first test – but it’s a long season. Teams across the country opened against opponents that were overmatched and out of the game in the first 10 minutes. The Lady Vols flew north to play a team that nearly upset Texas last March in the Sweet 16 and should be in the top 10 by the next poll.

Longtime national basketball writer M.A. Voepel tweeted afterwards: Tennessee gets credit for opening against a top-25 team on the road. In long run, they will get more out of this than by beating an overmatched foe by 40.

The Lady Vols don’t have long to get ready for the next test. UMass, an NCAA tourney team last season and favorite to win the Atlantic 10, will be in Knoxville on Thursday for a 6:30 p.m. tipoff at Thompson-Boling Arena. That is followed by another Big Ten team on Monday in Indiana for a 6 p.m. start.

Tennessee will fly back to Knoxville overnight, have one day to prepare for UMass and then get back on the court in less than 48 hours after the buzzer sounded in Columbus.

Harper sounded as much like a philosopher as a coach after the game.

“I think the first thing is we have to understand where we are, where we need to get better and what the purpose of this is,” Harper said. “Why are we playing on the road top 25 matchup game one? We talk about our goal is to be the best basketball team that we can be, and we wanted to put a schedule together that’s absolutely going to challenge our team because I think that’s how this team can be the best.”

The second and third tests arrive quickly. How will the Lady Vols respond?

Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at Moxley Carmichael since 2013, started her journalism career at the Knoxville News Sentinel and began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press.

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