FAYETTEVILLE – The 60-51 final score doesn’t reflect it, but Arkansas had the No. 7 Tennessee Lady Volunteers on the ropes for much of Sunday afternoon’s SEC women’s basketball game Tennessee won before 2,344 at Walton Arena.
The loss drops first-year coach Jimmy Dykes’ Razorbacks to 10-6 overall and 0-4 in the SEC going into their next game Sunday at home against SEC rival Missouri.
Three of the four SEC losses — Texas A&M here Jan. 4, at Mississippi State Thursday and Tennessee — were inflicted by teams ranked in the AP Top 15.
Coach Holly Warlick’s Lady Vols advance to 14-2 overall and 4-0 in the SEC.
Arkansas led 21-18 at half and was up nine (37-28) with 11:48 left in the game.
However, after shooting 0 for 6 on first-half 3-pointers, including 0 for 3 by guard Ariel Massengale, the Lady Vols sizzled for 6 of 7 second-half 3s, with Massengale nailing 4 of 5.
“We talked for two days about not letting (Massengale) get shots,” Dykes said. “So, put that on me, because No. 5 (Massengale) was the difference in the game.”
“I thought Massengale’s threes were huge,” Warlick said. “It was a tough battle for us, a grind, and Arkansas outrebounded us (42-38 despite Tennessee’s size advantage, Dykes would note). We’ll take the win against a solid Arkansas team.”
Tennessee took over the game with Arkansas’ best player, sophomore forward Jessica Jackson of Jacksonville, scoring a game-high 18 points off the bench, and its leading scorer for the season, sophomore guard Kelsey Brooks, hitting only 3 of 14 shots Sunday but considerably occupying Tennessee’s defense, Warlick said.
Arkansas was up, 40-37 when 6-3 post Jackson and Brooks took a seat at 7:59 and down 44-40 when they returned at 6:20 immediately after a Tennessee layup for starting guard Bashaara Graves’ lone points.
“They were just worn out,” Dykes said. “Kelsey played 35 minutes and Jess didn’t start but played 24 and she said, ‘Coach I need a break.’ And when they need a break they need a break. When your two leading scorers (Brooks and Jackson entered the game leading the team with 16.5 and 14.5 averages) are on the bench it’s hard to score.”
It marked the first time in Jackson’s two Arkansas seasons that she didn’t start.
“I came off the bench because of something I did in practice,” Jackson said. “I had to respond like nothing happened and just go out and fight for my team.”
Jackson “did a really good job responding off the bench,” Dykes said, calling it “a coach’s decision” not to start her.
“She played hard and made shots,” Dykes said.
Warlick called Jackson “an exceptional player.”
“She is a hard guard for us because she is a big player who can handle it inside and step out and shoot outside,” Warlick said.
Melissa Wolff, the listed 6-foot junior from Cabot but really shorter than 6-feet, Dykes said, led Arkansas on the boards with a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double and dished four assists against one turnover.
“Melissa Wolff is 5-11 on a good day,” Dykes said. “But, she has a double-double just because she cares and she fights. She got rebounds she had no business getting other than her want-to is bigger than anybody else’s on the floor.”
Wolff said the close but no cigars against Texas A&M (51-50) and now Tennessee “are frustrating.”
“But no one in the gym can say we ever gave up,” Wolff said. “We fought until the end.”
Tennessee was led by three seniors, Cierra Burdick (17 points, including 10 of 11 free throws) Massengale (16 points with 4 of 4 free throws, plus her four 3s) and Isabelle Harrison (13 points, 13 rebounds).
All three credited Arkansas’ fight but said the Lady Vols’ depth wore Arkansas down.
“We knew coming into the game they have four players that play 32 minutes or more a game on average,” Burdick said. “We wore them down and they got tired. They just didn’t have the depth that we had.”
With Tennessee opening shooting 1 of 8 and Arkansas opening hitting 1 of 10, the game was knotted 2-2 almost a full five minutes into the first half.
Arkansas only trailed once in the first half, (9-8) then reeled off a 7-0 run capped by Jackson’s followup for its biggest first-half lead, 15-9 at 8:23.
Arkansas led once more by six (17-11 on Jhasmin Bowen’s basket at 4:55) and closed intermission up 21-18.
Arkansas took two 9-point, second-half leads before Massengale’s 3s and Tennessee’s depth buried the Razorbacks at the end.