Two straight road games against marquee opponents coming off the holiday break.
An already short-staffed team was short one key bench player and had another wearing a protective mask on a broken nose that slowed her down.
None of that boded well for a happy start to the new year for Kentucky on Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Several times, the Cats battled back from double-digit deficits to cut it to four points — including in the final minute — but Tennessee always had an answer and upset No. 17 Kentucky 72-65.
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“Our team was very resilient tonight,” said junior Diamond DeShields — one of three Lady Vols in double figures with 21 points, including nine in the fourth quarter. “Everything was just about perseverance tonight, especially in the second half. I think that says a lot about our team.”
In both teams’ Southeastern Conference opener, Tennessee (9-4, 1-0) held off the Cats’ comeback, going 8 of 8 from the free throw line, including four makes for Jaime Nared, who had 18 points and five rebounds in the win.
Mercedes Russell, who led Tennessee with 22 points and nine rebounds, took advantage of some early foul trouble by UK’s only true post players in the first half to set the tone early.
“Just a great team effort,” Coach Holly Warlick said after the Lady Vols won their fifth straight game. “We stayed focused and solid. Really proud of our effort and how we closed out the game.”
The coach on the other sideline wasn’t disappointed in the effort either, especially given the circumstances. Coming off a difficult road loss at No. 15 Duke, the Cats (9-5, 0-1) had a quick turnaround and were playing without Jessica Hardin.
The senior guard sat out working through the concussion protocol. After breaking her nose against the Blue Devils, swing player Makenzie Cann was playing in a protective mask and went 0-for-3 from the field.
“I have a tremendous amount of confidence in our players,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said. “They battled today under difficult circumstances. We could’ve folded a couple of times, but they do not fold.”
UK plays three of its next four at home, starting with Missouri on Thursday at Memorial Coliseum and then against Texas A&M on Sunday.
The Cats will be happy to get back in the gym and focus on fixing some of what they struggled with in the back-to-back losses.
“We’ve got to get back to Lexington and practice and sharpen up what we do because we just mentally are not where we need to be, but that will improve greatly with reps and being able to practice,” Mitchell said.
One player who looked plenty sharp was Taylor Murray, who scored a career-best 23 points in the loss to go with six rebounds, two assists, two steals and no turnovers.
“She’s just really solid right now on both ends of the floor,” Mitchell said of Murray, who has set new career highs three times this season. “She’s been working hard to mature as a leader, and she’s just having a fantastic sophomore year.”
Tennessee made sure that Kentucky’s leading scorer, senior Makayla Epps, didn’t have a fantastic game. She was held to eight points on 3-for-13 shooting and didn’t score until a minute was left in the first half.
“We remember what she did to us last year, and our main focus was on not letting that happen again,” DeShields said of Epps’ 23-point performance last season in a win over the Vols. “We made sure we had someone on her, and I think that’s what took her out of her game.”
The defensive game plan for Tennessee was to take Epps and Maci Morris out of rhythm. It was just the fourth time in the last 51 games that Epps was held to single digits.
“We were keying in on Epps and Morris because I thought those two kids had to have great games for them to win,” Warlick said. “Our focal point was, don’t let those kids go off.”
Morris, who made just five of her 21 attempts, finished with 15 points for the acts. Evelyn Akhator added 11 points and 10 rebounds playing just 25 minutes for Kentucky.
“Tough, tough stretch, and we’ll sharpen it up because our players want to win,” Mitchell said. “They want to do well. They’ve done a great job; they’ve played one of the toughest schedules in the country.
“It’s a matter of practice. Every time we’ve had that time, the players do a great job, and they’ll do a great job now.”
Because of the quick turnaround from the Duke game, UK wasn’t able to get Cann a fitted mask for her face, but Mitchell said they expect her to have a form-fitting one soon that won’t be such a distraction for the sophomore.
“That one was difficult today,” he said. “It was not an ideal situation for her. So the custom mask will come in and we’ll figure it out.”
▪ Hardin was on the Kentucky bench but not in uniform (concussion). She’s listed as day to day. … Rachel Potter, a walk-on who has played in just two games this season, didn’t make the trip while also battling a concussion.
Missouri at Kentucky
7 p.m. Thursday