Basketball

Lady Vols’ small winning streak faces big challenge today

KNOXVILLE — In a perfect world for Tennessee women’s basketball coach Holly Warlick, stopping Mississippi State would be as simple as figuring out a way to slow down forward Teaira McCowan.

But the sixth-ranked Bulldogs have much more than the 6-foot-7 senior, and that’s going to be the challenge for the Lady Volunteers today.

Tennessee (15-7, 4-5 Southeastern Conference) will be in Starkville, Mississippi, to face McCowan and the Bulldogs (21-1, 9-0) at 2 p.m. EST.

The Lady Vols have had a week between games, giving the young, depth-deficient team a chance to rest. They took Monday and Thursday off amid preparations for a team that defeated Tennessee 71-52 in Knoxville last season.

Mississippi State went on to fall to Notre Dame in the 2018 national championship game on a 3-pointer by Arike Ogunbowale with 0.1 second to play, the Bulldogs’ second consecutive loss in the final.

This year’s Bulldogs have averaged 88.2 points per game, led by McCowan’s 16.9 with 13.7 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per contest. She’ has shooters all around her, too, with six teammates having made at least 10 3s this season, and four making those at a rate of 35 percent or better.

“They are a veteran team,” Warlick said Friday. “McCowan is so strong inside. (Anriel) Howard is an unbelievable rebounder — great experience. The whole team, they’re athletic, shoot the 3. We’re going to have to be spot-on with everything we do.”

Tennessee has won three straight games, although the combined SEC records of LSU, Florida and Vanderbilt add up to 8-21, with LSU just 5-5 in the league. But after a six-game losing streak — the program’s longest in nearly 50 seasons — the Lady Vols desperately needed wins.

During the streak, the Lady Vols have cut down on turnovers while sharing the ball better. They’ve had more assists than turnovers in each of the past three games, improving to 4-1 for the season when that’s been the case. Rennia Davis averaged 20 points and 9.7 rebounds during the stretch, while the team has received a boost from the return of senior Meme Jackson from an injury and the re-emergence of sophomore forward Kasiyahna Kushkituah from an earlier injury.

Kushkituah, as well as senior Cheridene Green and possibly freshman Mimi Collins, will be tasked with the challenge of slowing McCowan. It will be up to the perimeter players to slow the rest of the Bulldogs.

But Warlick believes they’re at least embracing the challenge.

“Our young ladies understand what they need to do,” she said. “Limit our turnovers, take great shots, keep them off the boards, and we have to rebound. So I think they understand our game plan and they’re focused. We’ve had a great week of practice; it’s been really solid and focused. We’ve gotten right to the point, so I am excited to get the opportunity to play them.”

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.

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