HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Karoline Striplin clapped her hands enthusiastically, yelling encouragement in a desperate attempt to rally her team as the game hung in the balance.
None of them reacted.
Tennessee reset for another Middle Tennessee inbounds play after Jasmine Powell deflected the first. But none of the Lady Vols responded to the spark Striplin tried to ignite in the second half. Eventually, it ended with Tennessee’s 73-62 loss to MTSU, its first in program history.
“We’ve got to take some ownership — a little bit more ownership than we’re taking in that locker room right now, to be quite honest with you,” Lady Vols coach Kellie Harper said. “We’re trying to help them, but at some point they’ve got to step up and help themselves. Really challenging our team right now.”
Tennessee couldn’t prove that it’s the best team in the state anymore after being the best program in the nation for decades. This was the first loss to an in-state opponent for Harper, who is in her fifth year with the Lady Vols. They had won all 22 matchups with MTSU until Wednesday at the Von Braun Center.
Striplin was the only Tennessee player to score again after Gregory’s 3-pointers, and she’s the only one who had the will to win against the in-state opponent. The junior forward had a career-high 29 points, shooting 4-for-8 from behind the arc. She added three rebounds, two assists and a steal. No other player scored in double figures.
“I think they’ve really got to – individually, they’ve got to look inside themselves and see where each person can get better,” Harper said. “As a staff, we continue to help them and continue to work with them every day. But there’s got to be some gut checks right now.”
One of the areas Harper wants players to take ownership is rebounding, which has been an issue all season. The Lady Vols got outrebounded for the third game in a row, and it killed them against a team that shot 45.5% from the field and 50% on 12 made 3-pointers.
Tennessee was without two of its best rebounders in Rickea Jackson and Jillian Hollingshead. Jackson missed her seventh game with a lower leg injury, and Hollingshead missed her first due to concussion protocol.
But with the Lady Vols falling to 4-5 on the season, accountability needs to be taken by everyone.
“Oh, obviously we do,” Harper said of her staff looking inward as well. “That’s my job. Every single day I pick apart every single decision I make. I know that our staff is working their tail off right now, 100%. But when we talk about – we’ve got to have some of that in the locker room. We’ve got to have some leaders emerge in our locker room right now, more than ever.”
The game was won and lost in moments where MTSU worked harder to make the plays. Besides outrebounding the Lady Vols, MTSU hit buzzer-beater 3-pointers to end the second and third quarters. Both came after Tennessee turnovers.
The second-quarter buzzer beater was particularly deflating. Tennessee was inbounding the ball for the last play of the half, but Tess Darby mistimed her pass and Sifa Ineza scooped up the loose ball, lost Destinee Wells with a quick spinaround at the arc and drained the 3-pointer.
It was Ineza’s only three points of the game.
“The back-to-back threes to end the second quarter were critical,” Harper said. “We had probably an ill-advised shot that led to a transition three, and then we had a turnover that led to a three. And we’ve got to take some ownership, that’s on us. Those two plays, we’ve got to do a better job on the other end of the court so that doesn’t happen. But I thought those two in particular were critical.”
Harper was pressed in the postgame news conference about where the team goes from this loss and the ownership that needs to be taken. And according to Tennessee’s leader, it starts with the players in the locker room, who have some soul-searching to do before SEC play starts in a month.
Cora Hall covers University of Tennessee women’s athletics. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @corahalll. If you enjoy Cora’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that allows you to access all of it.