KNOXVILLE — Meighan Simmons called it the type of test No. 16 Tennessee needed as it heads into the toughest portion of its schedule.
The Lady Vols barely passed, thanks largely to reserve guard Kamiko Williams.
Williams, a senior guard with a history of inconsistency, continually made big plays down the stretch Wednesday night as Tennessee erased an 11-point, second-half deficit to outlast Middle Tennessee 88-81 in overtime.
“You’re seeing the result of her having great practices and being focused and being into practice,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “The result is she’s playing really well in the games. She’s got a lot of confidence right now, and we’re going to do our best to keep that confidence in her.”
Tennessee (5-1) will carry a five-game winning streak into a stretch of four straight meetings with Top 25 teams. The Lady Vols host No. 22 North Carolina on Sunday, then take two weeks off before playing at No. 13 Texas on Dec. 16 and at No. 3 Baylor on Dec. 18. Tennessee returns home to face No. 1 Stanford on Dec. 22.
“It (was) a test for our future and who we were going to be playing later on, with North Carolina, Texas and Baylor,” said Simmons, who scored a team-high 19 points. “I’m not trying to think ahead, but it’s a test to see what our mentality is. When adversity hits, what are we going to do? Are we going to just keep our backs against the wall, or are we going to continue to fight back?”
The Blue Raiders (4-2) were seeking their first victory over the Lady Vols in 20 attempts and had lost 82-43 to Tennessee last year, but their poor history in this rivalry certainly didn’t bother them for most of the night. Middle Tennessee led for the first 35 1/2 minutes of the game and erased a five-point deficit in the final 42 seconds of regulation.
“It was a big motivational thing tonight more than anything, looking back at last year’s game and bringing it over to this year’s game,” said Middle Tennessee guard Icelyn Elie, who scored 21 points and forced overtime by sinking a 3-pointer with 2.3 seconds left in regulation.
Middle Tennessee’s tenacity was all the more remarkable considering its circumstances.
This represented Middle Tennessee’s fourth contest in a five-game road trip that will require the Blue Raiders to travel 5,000 miles. Three of those four games have required overtime. Middle Tennessee had lost 69-63 at Iowa in overtime and had beaten Tennessee Tech 65-59 in overtime and Louisiana-Lafayette 72-45 in its last three games. The Blue Raiders next play Saturday at South Dakota State.
Middle Tennessee still managed to throw quite a scare into Tennessee despite making just two substitutions all night. The first move came when starting center KeKe Stewart hurt her knee two minutes into the game. Middle Tennessee coach Rick Insell wouldn’t go to his bench again until point guard Shanice Cason fouled out with 36 seconds left in overtime.
Cason picked up her third foul with 5:12 left in the first half and drew her fourth foul with 11:27 remaining in the second half, yet she stayed in the game both times. Middle Tennessee’s skeleton crew remained strong enough to withstand just about every challenge provided by the deeper Lady Vols.
“Even when they did get that lead, we were still confident that we’d win the ballgame,” said Middle Tennessee forward Ebony Rowe, who collected 19 points and 12 rebounds. “We knew we had the right people to step up.”
Rowe, Elie and Kortni Jones each played all 45 minutes for Middle Tennessee. Laken Leonard replaced the injured Stewart early in the game and scored a career-high 17 points while shooting 5-of-8 from 3-point range.
Tennessee had its own depth issues. Freshman guard Andraya Carter injured her right shoulder with 7 1/2 minutes left in the second half and didn’t return. Bashaara Graves and Ariel Massengale both left the game with leg cramps before returning. Graves finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds, while Massengale also scored 15 points.
But Williams arguably was the difference in the game. All nine of her points came in the last 6:05 of regulation or overtime. Her energy was a bigger factor than her point total.
“My teammates, they talk to me on the floor and keep me motivated,” Williams said. “At the end of the day, I just want to do it for them.”
After trailing all night, Tennessee finally took its first lead at 64-63 when Williams got a steal and made a 10-footer with 4:26 left in the second half. Williams added a 3-pointer in the final minute of regulation.
Williams also sparked a 10-0 run in overtime that allowed the Lady Vols to put the game away. Williams pulled down a rebound with the score tied. She made a steal and found Simmons for a layup that gave Tennessee an 81-77 advantage with 1:54 left. She added a jumper to extend Tennessee’s lead to six with 40 seconds later.
Williams capped her big run by drawing a charge that finally fouled Cason out of the game. Williams joked afterward it might have been the first time she drew a charge in her career.
“In overtime we found our second wind,” Simmons said. “We came out there, fought through adversity and came together as a team and continued to play hard.”