LEXINGTON, Ky. — Tennessee’s fast start against Kentucky was more than enough to withstand a sometimes-uneven finish by the No. 7 Lady Vols.
Evina Westbrook scored 17 points, Mercedes Russell added 16 and No. 7 Tennessee started quickly against Kentucky and never trailed in rolling to a 63-49 victory Sunday in the Southeastern Conference opener for both schools.
Playing for the first time since beating then-No. 18 Stanford 10 days ago, the Lady Vols (13-0) showed no rust in scoring the game’s first 10 points for a 26-7 lead after one quarter at Rupp Arena. The gap reached 23 points midway through the third as they remained unbeaten while handing the Wildcats (8-7) their sixth consecutive loss.
Westbrook, a freshman guard, got Tennessee rolling with three of its five 3s on eight attempts in the opening quarter for 11 points. The Lady Vols missed their final nine shots from long range, but teammates contributed from inside the arc to lead comfortably.
“The shots were just open, so if they’re not going to guard us, we’re going to take shots,” said Westbrook, who finished 7 of 11 from the field. “A different arena, definitely, but we warmed up good. We had a really practice (Saturday) and everyone just really focused.”
Russell made 7 of 10 shots, accuracy that offset a rough start by leading scorer Jaime Nared, who missed her first eight attempts before making 2 of 3 in the fourth to finish with 11 points. She also had 10 rebounds.
Rennia Davis, another freshman, added 11 rebounds and 9 points.
Tennessee controlled the rebuilding Wildcats in nearly every category, from rebounding (50-31) to inside points (30-24). The only downsides were 40 percent shooting and 21 turnovers, though Kentucky converted them into just eight points.
The Lady Vols were also outscored 29-27 in the second half, but coach Holly Warlick wasn’t complaining.
“I didn’t think we let up,” she said. “Did we miss some easy shots? Yeah, we did. But I just love our energy and effort and how we’re playing well together. We’re not going to play a perfect game. …. Our goal was to be 1-0 today in the SEC, and that’s what we are.”
Maci Morris had 18 points for the Wildcats, who shot just 30 percent in the first of three games this season on the home floor of the successful men’s team.
Tennessee: Entering the game ranked third nationally in rebounding at nearly 50 per game, the Lady Vols matched their average with their fourth-largest margin this season. Their defense meanwhile held an opponent at or below 30 percent for the fifth time this season.
Kentucky: The Wildcats started 3 of 16 from the field and improved only slightly in shooting 30 percent or below for the second time in three games. Their lone bright spot was forcing a season-high 21 turnovers, but they failed to convert offensively. Coach Matthew Mitchell chalked up the overall effort to a lack of confidence.
“There is some doubt in our minds, and we’ve got to battle through that,” he said. “The only way you get confidence is through achievement and against Tennessee, they’re really talented and you can’t make those mistakes.”
Warlick and her players were especially pleased with a zone defense that kept Kentucky scoring leader Morris from getting off to the same hot start that propelled Tennessee.
“That was part of our game plan to throw them off a little, because they’re used to getting in a rhythm with the man-to-man,” Russell said. “The zone is very good for us, and today we played it very well. That’s the best we’ve played it all year.”
Tennessee hosts Auburn on Thursday and Vanderbilt on Sunday.
Kentucky visits Texas A&M on Thursday.