KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – In a defensive battle, the No. 15/12 Tennessee women’s basketball team took down Southern Illinois, 59-49, in the 2021-22 season opener on Wednesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena. The Lady Vols rode a late run to victory, outscoring the Salukis 17-2 in the last five minutes of play.
Tennessee (1-0) overcame the absence of its top three returners, as Jordan Horston did not play due to injury. Rae Burrell went down with an injury in the second quarter and was unable to return. Tamari Key accumulated fouls early and was held out of significant action until the fourth quarter.
Alexus Dye made her presence felt in her first game as a Lady Volunteer. The graduate transfer tallied 14 points and 13 rebounds for her 33rd career double-double. Graduate Jordan Walker added 14 points of her own, while Burrell tossed in 12 on 6-of-9 shooting before departing.
Walker and Sara Puckett came through in the clutch when the Lady Vols needed it. The two hit back-to-back 3-pointers halfway through the fourth after Tennessee had missed its first 13 tries from beyond the arc. They combined for 14 points in the final period as Walker contributed nine, Puckett five.
The defensive struggle started early, as the Lady Vols held Southern Illinois (0-1) to 3-of-13 (23.1 percent) shooting from the floor in the first period. Burrell’s offensive output started early, sinking 4-of-5 attempts and helping the Lady Vols to a 12-11 lead after one. Ten players saw the court in the quarter, as the Lady Vols experimented with different rotations playing together to try and generate a spark.
Dye dominated the offensive glass in the second quarter, pulling down four offensive rebounds and turning them into six second-chance points. The Salukis hung around by way of the 3-pointer, shooting 4-of-7 (.571) from beyond the arc. Despite only taking 13 shots to Tennessee’s 19, the range gave Southern Illinois the lead, 30-27, at the half.
The third quarter saw long possessions with neither side putting together much offense. Only 23 shots were taken between the teams, both made five. The difference came, again, in Southern Illinois’ accuracy from deep, as the Salukis were 2-of-3 on 3-pointers while UT missed all three tries.
Tennessee, trailing 42-38 to enter the fourth, got four quick points but a three from SIU’s Makenzie Silvey swung the momentum to the Salukis. Walker took it right back, hitting UT’s first 3-pointer of the game with 5:06 left on the clock. The jumper broke the seal on treys as Puckett netted a corner three 69 seconds later to give Tennessee its second lead of the half, and UT never looked back. The Lady Vols buckled down on defense and used their height advantage, with Key returning to action, to create chances near the rim. They finished the game on a 17-2 run in the last five minutes and an 8-0 run in the last 100 seconds of the contest.
All five newcomers made their Tennessee debut, while sophomore (and Greenfield, Tennessee native) Tess Darby made her first career start for the Big Orange.
The Lady Vols head to the road for a date with UCF on Friday, in Orlando, Florida. Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m. on ESPN+. It is the first of two matchups with AAC opponents, as Tennessee hosts last year’s AAC regular season and tournament champion, USF, at Thompson-Boling Arena on Monday, Nov. 15. Tickets are on sale at AllVols.com.
SUCCESS AGAINST THE SALUKIS: Tennessee coach Kellie Harper earned her 12th career win as a head coach over Southern Illinois (and first at Tennessee). It ties the most for her against a single opponent with Evansville and Indiana State.
STARTING STRONG: The Lady Vols won their ninth consecutive season opener, 21st of the last 22, and are 28-3 when opening the season at home. Coach Harper is 7-0 in season openers as a Power 5 coach and has taken all three at Tennessee.
DEFENDING THE HOME COURT: UT’s defense has held opponents under 50 points in the home opener the last five seasons. It is also the fourth time in the last two seasons holding the opponent under that number.
HARPER’S 25: Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper won her 25th game at Thompson-Boling Arena. The third-year coach has only dropped one non-conference game at home (No. 3 UConn, 61-67, on Jan. 21, 2021).