KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee built a big lead early and stretched it out in the second half with a record defensive performance.
Mercedes Russell had 19 points and 10 rebounds Thursday night as No. 12 Tennessee trounced Central Arkansas 77-34 to remain undefeated. Tennessee held Central Arkansas scoreless for the game’s final 11 minutes, 4 seconds.
“It’s definitely huge for us,” Russell said. “We’ve been emphasizing (defense) in practice lately more and more because we know every night we’re not going to shoot as well as we usually do, so we can always rely on our defense. I think tonight we did a really good job.”
The Lady Vols (7-0) capitalized on their depth to outscore the Sugar Bears 17-0 in the fourth quarter even after emptying their bench. This marked the first time Tennessee’s defense recorded a shutout quarter since NCAA women’s basketball went to the four-quarter system in 2015-16.
Central Arkansas (3-2) scored just 10 second-half points, the lowest second-half total Tennessee has ever allowed. The Lady Vols have given up just eight first-half points on two occasions.
The Sugar Bears were coming off a 106-23 blowout victory over NAIA program Crowley’s Ridge but struggled against much tougher opposition Thursday. After Central Arkansas grabbed a 6-5 lead midway through the first quarter, Tennessee scored the next 15 points and never looked back.
“Tennessee was just doing what they wanted to, when they wanted to, how they wanted to,” Central Arkansas coach Sandra Rushing said.
Tennessee has its second 7-0 start in Holly Warlick’s six seasons as coach. Tennessee started 10-0 in 2013-14 and went on to finish 29-6 with a loss in the NCAA regional semifinals.
The 6-foot-6 Russell capitalized on her height advantage over a Central Arkansas team that didn’t play anyone taller than 6-2. Anastasia Hayes added 14 points and Meme Jackson had 11.
Taylor Baudoin had 11 points and seven rebounds for Central Arkansas.
Central Arkansas: The Sugar Bears entered the night shooting 50.4 percent from the floor this season to rank seventh among all Division I teams, but they shot just 23.7 percent (14 of 59) against Tennessee. Central Arkansas went 5 of 30 in the second half and 0 for 15 in the fourth quarter.
Tennessee: The Lady Vols capitalized on another fast start. Tennessee owned a 22-8 lead after the first quarter and has outscored opponents 152-87 in the opening quarter of its first seven games.
Central Arkansas’ matchup with Tennessee continued the Sugar Bears’ mixed bag of a nonconference schedule. Among Central Arkansas’ first eight opponents are three Top 25 teams (No. 9 Baylor, Tennessee and No. 18 Texas A&M), three NAIA programs and one NCAA Division III school. The only team that doesn’t fit one of those three categories is Alcorn State, which lost 75-52 to the Sugar Bears on Nov. 20.
Jackson scored all 11 of her points in the first half to reach double figures for the first time since a 10-point effort against Vanderbilt on Jan. 5.
“(I’m) just being more aggressive,” Jackson said. “Holly, she always tells me to attack the basket more and stop settling for 3’s. Today I just tried to attack the basket.”
Central Arkansas hosts Central Baptist College on Thursday.
Tennessee hosts Alabama State on Sunday.
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