KNOXVILLE — If Tennessee can play a full game as well as it has performed after halftime thus far in its Southeastern Conference schedule, there’s no telling how good this team could become.
Bashaara Graves scored a career-high 23 points and pulled down eight rebounds Sunday as No. 12 Tennessee rallied in the second half to beat No. 10 Georgia 79-66, giving the Lady Vols their fifth consecutive victory in this series.
“We need to have that at the beginning of the game like we did (after) halftime,” Graves said. “Just come out with a bang. Just get the win. We need to play like we know we can play all the time.”
After trailing 42-40 at halftime, Tennessee (11-3, 2-0 SEC) scored the first nine points of the second half and stayed in front the rest of the way. Four days earlier, the Lady Vols won their SEC opener 73-53 at No. 18 South Carolina after leading 32-31 at halftime.
“Can we play a first half?” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick asked rhetorically after the game. “We get ourselves in a hole. I was really proud of our effort and proud of us coming back in the first half, cutting their lead and playing like we know we should play the second half.”
Graves made of 8 of her 11 shots in perhaps the best game of her exceptional freshman season. The Lady Vols also got an unexpected contribution from another freshman frontcourt player, as Jasmine Jones scored a career-high 12 points to go along with seven rebounds.
Jones entered the day averaging 4.4 points and 3.9 rebounds per game, but she delivered a breakthrough performance off the bench while foul trouble limited starting center Isabelle Harrison to 16 minutes. The combination of Graves and Jones helped Tennessee outrebound Georgia 46-29.
“I haven’t been playing to the best of my ability, so to come out here with the encouragement of everybody else helped me believe in myself as much as everybody else does,” Jones said.
Meighan Simmons added 16 points for Tennessee, while Taber Spani had 11 points and seven rebounds. Jasmine James scored 18 points and Khaalidah Miller had 14 for Georgia (13-2, 1-1 SEC), which continued its history of frustration in Knoxville.
Georgia has won just one of its last 14 meetings with Tennessee and has lost its last 11 games to the Lady Vols in Knoxville by an average margin of 24.7 points.
This seemed like a golden opportunity for Georgia to end that string. Tennessee changed coaches and overhauled its roster in the offseason, and Georgia entered the day with a clear depth advantage. The Lady Bulldogs instead came up short in Knoxville once again.
“I don’t sit around and study all the things they do in the offseason,” Georgia coach Andy Landers said. “I’ve got hay to bale and cows and calves to take care of that are more important to me than that, so I don’t think about that stuff. Now if you’re asking did you think we could come here and win tonight, if that’s your question, yeah.”
It didn’t happen.
Georgia still hasn’t won at Tennessee since edging the Lady Vols 94-93 in overtime on Dec. 8, 1996. Tennessee is the only SEC program with a winning record against Georgia.
This game was closer than most of Tennessee’s recent home wins over Georgia, particularly in the early going. The lead changed hands seven times in the first half alone, with neither team pulling ahead by more than six points.
Georgia used its depth to build a halftime lead against a Tennessee team dealing with foul trouble.
The Lady Bulldogs entered the day having outscored their opponents 391-190 in points off the bench, and they had nine players averaging at least 14.8 minutes per game. Nine Georgia players scored in the first half Sunday, while Tennessee had just nine healthy players on its entire roster.
“They’re a great team,” Spani said. “We needed every person that we had - all nine people, the people who came off the bench and the people who played any minutes - we counted on them.”
Instead of wearing down in the second half, the Lady Vols came out stronger.
Tennessee built a seven-point lead as Georgia missed its first eight shots of the second half. Georgia wouldn’t go away quite yet and cut the deficit to two when Tennessee got careless with the ball.
Simmons and Graves took over from there, as they each scored five points during a 14-3 spurt. Tennessee’s lead never dropped below nine points the rest of the way. The Lady Vols went on three separate 9-0 runs in the second half as they led by as many as 19 points.
“What I’m most excited about is we went down and we needed a stop and we got it (in the second half),” Warlick said. “We didn’t do that in the first half. In the second half, we needed stops and got them, and we turned those stops into points. When you preach it and they do it, it’s exciting for a coach to see that.”
Their next mission is to go on similar runs earlier in games.
“I’d really like to play a 40-minute game and start out a lot better,” Warlick said. “As a coach, it’s about finishing the job, getting the job done. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. But I’d like to start and come out of the gates a little faster.”