KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Mississippi State University women’s basketball team has struggled away from home all season, so the last thing the Bulldogs needed was a trip to No. 9 University of Tennessee.
The Bulldogs trailed the entire way Thursday night and fell 88-45 to Tennessee to remain winless away from Humphrey Coliseum. MSU (9-12, 1-7 SEC) is 0-5 in true road games and 0-3 at neutral sites.
“We have a very young, very immature team, and we play a lot better at home than we do on the road,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. “That’s been the case all year long. Our energy level seems to be a little bit less on the road than it does at home.”
MSU’s past two games tell the story in that regard.
Kendra Grant and Katia May teamed up to shoot 14 of 25 and score 35 points Sunday at home as MSU snapped a six-game losing streak with a 72-57 victory against the University of Mississippi. Grant and May combined to shoot 6 of 32 and score 15 points against Tennessee, which has never lost to MSU in 34 attempts.
MSU needs Grant and sophomore center Martha Alwal at the top of their games to have a chance against quality SEC teams. Alwal did her part, scoring 16 points and grabbing nine rebounds. Grant, who entered the night averaging a team-high 12.6 points per game, had 10 points and shot 4 of 19.
“For Kendra, we really need her to be our scorer and be that go-to player for us, but everyone’s going to have an off night,” Alwal said. “When she has an off night, we’re going to need someone else to step up. It can’t be just me and Kendra all the time. Someone’s going to have to step up for us, and as soon as we have more people step up, then (opponents) can worry about more people on the team other than just us two.”
Tennessee (17-4, 8-0 SEC) showed the kind of balance MSU was missing.
Tennessee guard Kamiko Williams made her first career start in place of injured center Isabelle Harrison and contributed 10 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, and six steals. Meighan Simmons scored 21 points, Taber Spani added 15 points and Bashaara Graves had 10 points.
Harrison will have surgery today on her injured left knee. The Lady Vols don’t know if she will return this season.
“Now that Isabelle’s out, it’s going to have to happen,” Williams said of her big night. “We all have to step up. This game, I tried to focus on defense and rebounding. Everything else just played out for us.”
All nine of the healthy players on Tennessee’s roster entered the game before halftime and ended up scoring at least four points.
“I don’t think it’s so much that we were outnumbered,” Alwal said. “I think that we were outworked most of the time. We could’ve kept up with them, but we didn’t have as much heart as they did. They went 110 percent the entire time, and we took plays off.”
Tennessee forward Cierra Burdick returned to action Thursday after missing eight games with a broken right hand. Burdick, normally a starter, had four points and five rebounds off the bench.
“When basketball is your life since you were five years old and it gets taken away from you for a month, when you get to come back, all you can do is smile,” Burdick said. “I was so energized on the bench trying to be positive for my teammates, but there’s nothing like stepping in between those lines and having the ball in your hand.”
Tennessee wasted no time bouncing back from a 77-67 loss to No. 2 University of Notre Dame that had snapped a nine-game winning streak.
The Lady Vols already led 25-10 by the time Burdick took the floor to a standing ovation with 6:53 left in the half. Reserve guard Jasmine Phillips made a rare first-half appearance and scored eight points, doubling her previous career high.
Freshman center Nia Moore had played in only one of Tennessee’s last five games before this one, but she scored eight points in 12 minutes off the bench Thursday.
“They obviously didn’t have a hangover from Monday because they came out and really took the fight to us, especially in transition,” Schaefer said. “They beat us up and down the floor from the tip.”
Tennessee’s defense suffocated a MSU team that ranks last in the SEC in turnover margin and assist-turnover ratio. The Bulldogs shot just 21.2 percent (7 of 33) in the first half and 31.6 percent (18 of 57) overall. They had 26 turnovers.
“We got plenty of looks early,” Schaefer said. “We just couldn’t make shots.”
MSU will play host to the University of Arkansas at 2 p.m. Sunday (SportSouth).