The Lady Volunteers of Tennessee could do no wrong in their first 10 minutes on the floor. Seemingly unstoppable on offense and suffocating on defense, the Vols jumped on Auburn early, building a 17-point lead in the first period stunning the home crowd.
When the final buzzer sounded, those 2,290 in attendance at Auburn Arena had experienced a 33-point swing over the final three quarters of play. Auburn defeated Tennessee on Thursday night, 79-61, giving Coach Flo her first win over the Vols as Auburn’s head coach. The triumph presented the Tigers with their first win over Tennessee since the SEC Tournament in 2009.
“For us to come back from 17 is unbelievable, but I knew this was a relentless group,” said Auburn head coach Terri Williams-Flournoy. “Sometimes I think they don’t even look at the scoreboard, they just keep playing so hard. We were shell-shocked a little bit, I don’t think they knew they could play that bad in the first quarter. But we were relentless and kept fighting for the rest of the game.”
Auburn utilized 50% shooting in the second half and a career-high 29 points from Janiah McKay to turn a comeback into a blowout. Katie Frerking served as the Tigers’ swiss army knife, torching the Volunteer defense with 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting. Aggressive play rounded out the senior’s stat-line with seven boards, three assists and two steals. Defensively, Auburn forced 22 turnovers on the night and scored 33 points off those turnovers.
It was McKay who powered the Auburn offense down the stretch. The sophomore drained all three of her attempts from beyond the arc. In the paint, she went right at 6-foot-6 Mercedes Russell. She was asked what was going through her head whilst weaving around the Tennessee center.
“I’m thinking: ‘I’m gonna dunk on her,’” said the sophomore guard. “If I think I’m big, I’m gonna elevate a little higher than normal. Hitting that first three definitely raised my confidence level. I started getting to the rack and they didn’t know what I was going to do. They might run out at us and then the lane comes open.”
In the first quarter, Auburn’s play on both ends was tamed by hot shooting and consistent stops by Tennessee. Volunteer big bruiser Mercedes Russell established her presence physically and efficiently early on with 13 points in the first quarter. Russell posted a double-double by nights’ end, with 26 points and 11 boards.
Tennessee’s early defensive wall around the paint broke down by the middle of the second quarter.
“They (Auburn) attacked the paint and finished,” said Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick. “They stayed the course and played amazing. They played hard, they played tough and they turned us over. They hit shots on their end and came at us like we were standing still. Well, we were standing still. Honestly, we didn’t have an answer for them. They effected our play tremendously.”
The Tigers posted 46 points in the paint to Tennessee’s 28 and won the battle on the offensive glass by three. The Vols brought size, but Auburn brought energy.
“We did a good job of emphasizing attacking the basket,” said Williams-Flournoy. “We started getting there. It was something we had talked about, but you don’t really know you can do it until you actually do it. I told them not to take many more than ten threes.” (Auburn finished 4-12 from three-point range)
Auburn shot 61% in the second quarter whilst climbing out of their 17-point hole. After shooting 39% in the first, the Volunteer defense allowed Auburn to score in the paint seemingly at will.
“For one thing, they got tired and that’s what our press defense does,” said senior forward Katie Frerking. “You could see at the beginning of the game that they were handling it. But even by the second quarter, the lane opened up. Me and Janiah looked at each other and said ‘they can’t guard us, just get there.’
“We’re finally showing people that we have the talent and we’ve put the pieces together. We know we can compete with anybody.”
Auburn continues to pick up steam heading into another marquee matchup with the Kentucky Wildcats on Sunday.
“Tennessee is a big name in the world of basketball, but for us it’s a win in the SEC and a win at home,” said Williams-Flournoy. “We want to continue to take care of home court. Tennessee is a very good team with a lot of All-Americans. But at the end of the day, it’s a good win for us to continue to be successful in the SEC.”
Auburn improved to 14-5 on the season and 4-1 in SEC play, while Tennessee fell to 11-7 and 2-3 in the conference. The victory pushes the Tigers to third in the SEC, tied with South Carolina. Auburn tips at 2 p.m. CST on Sunday against Kentucky, televised on the SEC Network.
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