January 21, 2018 10:24:54 PM
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Home Sweet Home.
The banner with Tennessee women's basketball coach Holly Warlick along Interstate I-40 in Knoxville alerts all travelers they are in Lady Vols country.
For years, this neck of the woods was forsaken land for the Mississippi State women's basketball team. The first 16 visits to Knoxville all ended with losses. That streak stopped last season when MSU defeated Tennessee for its first road win in the series and just its second all-time victory in 39 meetings.
If Sunday is any indication, MSU is feeling a lot better about playing in a place where "Rocky Top" is the most popular song.
Victoria Vivians scored a game-high 24 points, while Roshunda Johnson added 16 and Teaira McCowan had her 15th double-double of the season to lead No. 3 MSU to a 71-52 victory against No. 6 Tennessee in a Southeastern Conference game before a crowd of 13,436 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The victory was even more satisfying for MSU coach Vic Schaefer because it came on a day Tennessee honored longtime former coach Pat Summitt to kick off the SEC's "We Back Pat Week." The seventh-straight year of the week-long initiative is designed to raise awareness and to bring recognition to The Pat Summitt Foundation and its fight against Alzheimer's disease.
"That was a heck of a basketball game between two really great teams," Schaefer said. "Today for us was about toughness and competitive spirit. If you are going to come into Thompson-Boling and play this program on a special, special day, for me to honor Pat, it was about toughness, about competing, about rebounding.
"To win the rebounding battle it really says a lot about my kids. I am proud of them. Tennessee has a heck of a basketball team. It is the hardest-playing Tennessee team in a while. I love my kids today. We were competitive, tough plays, loose balls, all the hustle plays I really felt like we got."
MSU (20-0, 6-0 SEC) earned its highest-ranked road victory in program history in matching the 2016-17 team for the best start in program history. The victory also was MSU's second-straight in Knoxville and its fourth in the last five meetings against Tennessee (16-3, 4-2).
With Florida State's 50-49 victory against Louisville, MSU and Connecticut are the only remaining undefeated teams in Division I women's basketball.
The Bulldogs earned their latest victory by outrebounding the Lady Vols 44-33. Tennessee entered the game having been outrebounded only twice. The Bulldogs turned the advantage into a 20-11 edge in second-chance points thanks in large part to McCowan (12 points, 18 rebounds).
MSU also shut Tennessee down at the most critical juncture. Two free throws by Anastasia Hayes cut MSU's lead to 57-50 with 7 minutes, 19 seconds to play and energized the crowd. But Johnson scored on a drive and Blair Schaefer (12 points) hit a dagger 3-pointer from the right corner to kick the lead to 62-50. Tennessee missed its final 10 shots from the field as MSU pulled away.
"Teaira competed all night, against an All-American, a first-round draft pick (Mercedes Russell)," Schaefer said. "Roshunda and Blair were just making big shots. Victoria was great. We talked about needing to punch first and for being able to punch again. It was about being ready to play, and I thought we were."
Russell led Tennessee, while Jaime Nared had 12. Rennia Davis had a team-high 10 rebounds for the Lady Vols. But Tennessee, which came in averaging 83.9 points per game and shooting 48 percent from the field, was 19-for-53 (season-low 35.8 percent) from the field. The Lady Vols hadn't shot less than 40.3 percent from the field entering the game.
"Mississippi State was outstanding today," Warlick said. "They did exactly what we thought they would do. They shot threes and had some wide-open threes and they penetrated and scored and they had opportunities for second-chance points. We took a lot of ill-advised shots. We just didn't have it today. It was a tough day at the office.
"You can't make a lot of mistakes against Mississippi State. They're solid and they're veterans and we're still learning and we're still growing."
The Bulldogs are learning every game how to be an attacking team for 40 minutes. No other play epitomized MSU's relentless nature than a possession in the second quarter that started with Tennessee's Rennia Davis blocking a shot by Morgan William. Vivians rebounded the miss and couldn't convert. McCowan rebounded that miss and also failed to score. Vivians ended the sequence with another offensive rebound and putback to give MSU a 28-22 lead.
"Coach has been talking all week about being aggressive and rebounding," Vivians said. "If you don't get the first one, go try to get the second one, or the third one, or the fourth one."
MSU also is growing in confidence. After building its lead to as many as 44-28 on a three-point play by Vivians with 7:45 to go in the third quarter, MSU weathered the storm when Vivians and Johnson picked up their third fouls late in the quarter and went to the bench. Instead of faltering in a hostile environment, the Bulldogs stayed aggressive and continued to attack. They even played some of the best defense coach Schaefer said he has seen from his players this season. That made the veteran coach especially happy on a day the SEC honored a coaching legend who helped pave the way for his success in Starkville.
"Tremendous effort and toughness by our kids today," Schaefer said.
MSU will return to action at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (SEC Network) when it plays host to Florida at Humphrey Coliseum.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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