KNOXVILLE — Alcorn State coach Tonya Edwards said it’s always great to return home, then the former Lady Volunteers star quickly clarified her comment.
“You don’t want to take a whooping at home,” Edwards said, “but it’s great to be back home.”
Alcorn State took an expected whooping Sunday and fell 90-37 to No. 20 Tennessee in Edwards’ return to her alma mater. Tennessee has won four straight games since opening the season with an 80-71 loss at Chattanooga in Holly Warlick’s head coaching debut.
Edwards played on Tennessee’s first two national championship teams in 1987 and 1989. She was named the most outstanding player of the 1987 Final Four. The Alcorn State coach greeted former Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt before the opening tip and received a loud ovation from the announced attendance of 10,609 at Thompson-Boling Arena during pregame introductions.
“It was truly awesome,” Edwards said. “I always thought Tennessee had the best fans in the country, and you could tell that again today.”
The Lady Vols (4-1) weren’t quite as hospitable the rest of the day. Meighan Simmons collected 12 points to lead six Lady Vols in double figures as Tennessee never trailed the entire game.
“That means we’re sharing the basketball and we’re playing together and not relying on one person,” Warlick said of the balanced scoring. “I love it. I would say our offense is a little bit ahead of our defense, and we’ve worked more on our defense.”
Tennessee’s defense also fared quite well Sunday. The Lady Vols forced 34 turnovers, collected nine blocks and limited Alcorn State (0-4) to 22.6 percent shooting. Tennessee’s last four opponents have each shot below 35 percent.
The Lady Vols put the game out of reach by going on a 17-0 run that started in the final minute of the first half and lasted through the first four minutes of the second half.
Bashaara Graves, Isabelle Harrison, Jasmine Jones, Nia Moore and Taber Spani scored 10 points each for Tennessee. Tierro Frost collected a team-high nine points for Alcorn State.
“We’ve learned to play together,” Simmons said. “We’ve kind of learned to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We get out there, play with each other, lift each other up when we’re down and stick together.”
The Lady Vols showed they still have plenty of room for improvement as they get ready to host Middle Tennessee on Wednesday and No. 25 North Carolina next Sunday. The Lady Vols shot just 7-of-12 from the free-throw line in the first half and finished the game with 19 turnovers.
But the Lady Vols also shot 55.7 percent, including 61.8 percent in the second half. The performances of Spani and Jones provide particular reason for optimism.
Spani, one of two seniors on the Lady Vols’ roster, entered the season with 57 career starts to rank second on the team. But she fell out of the starting lineup after struggling against Chattanooga and had averaged just 4.8 points through the Lady Vols’ first four games.
She showed signs of turning the corner last week by shooting 3-of-5 and scoring nine points in a 79-67 victory at Miami. Spani continued her progress Sunday by shooting 4-of-5 and scoring 10 points, even though she didn’t take a single shot in the second half. She reached double figures for the first time since a 14-point performance in an 85-64 rout of UCLA on Dec. 17.
“For this team, I need to shoot well, and I haven’t been, so I’ve been pretty frustrated about that,” Spani said. “I look more at percentages (than points). I shot a pretty good percentage, so that’s good.”
Jones, a promising freshman 6-2 forward, bounced back in a big way Sunday after picking up four fouls in only three scoreless minutes against Miami. Jones reached double figures for the first time in her young career. She also pulled down seven rebounds to match Moore and Harrison for the team lead.
“Once she settled down, you can see her athletic ability, (her) beautiful jump shot and she plays hard,” Warlick said. “That’s what I love about her, and that’s why I want us to keep her in the game.”