Evina Westbrook drove the wide-open lane to score another bucket, but a moment later Braxtin Miller answered right back with a basket of her own.
While Oklahoma State and Tennessee were the headliners Sunday afternoon, the sophomore shooters of Westbrook and Miller were at least the undercard.
The two scored the same amount of points but the woman in the lighter shade of orange prevailed, with Westbrook and the Lady Volunteers beating the Cowgirls 76-63 inside Gallagher-Iba Arena.
For Westbrook, the 29 points were a career-high while it was just another feather in the cap of Dayton, Ohio, product Miller, who scored 30 last week against Wichita State.
“We didn’t have any answers for Westbrook,” OSU coach Jim Littell said. “She is a tremendous player and from a fan standpoint, it had to be fun watching her and Braxtin Miller go at each other. They are two great offensive players.”
Initially, it seemed it wouldn’t be much of a duel at all as the No. 11 Lady Volunteers jumped out to a quick lead using a frenetic pace and a sizeable height advantage to disrupt the Cowgirls’ flow.
After Littell called a timeout midway through the first quarter, OSU (6-1) went on a run and from then on, it was a fight for the rest of the first half. Although Tennessee shot an incredible 60 percent from the field in the first period, OSU was right behind at 50.
Despite the Cowgirls being unranked, Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said it took every bit of weeklong preparation for the Lady Volunteers to walk off Eddie Sutton Court with a victory.
“They have a great team. It is hard to guard a team that shoots the 3 well and has kids that penetrate and get on the offensive boards,” Warlick said. “They are a tough basketball team. To say that we weren’t nervous would be an understatement. We had a week to prepare for them and we prepared pretty much every day. They are going to beat a lot of teams.”
With Miller, Vivian Gray and Jaden Hobbs all starting to heat up in the second quarter and the Lady Volunteers (6-0) cooling off, the Cowgirls found themselves in the lead near halftime.
A combination of Tennessee’s shots not falling in the second quarter along with OSU figuring out how to beat the three quarter-court trap to find open shots played into the Cowgirls’ favor.
“I think we did a good job of figuring out when they were trapping and figuring when to hit the flashing people and I think that is what got our offense started and what got our offense rolling in the second half,” Hobbs said.
When the teams went into halftime, the crowd of 3,493 was energetic as the home squad held onto a 43-40 lead. But, the difference of experience shined through in the locker rooms.
Warlick and the Lady Volunteers had been in a situation like Sunday’s before, having to come back from 12 points against Alabama-Birmingham in their last outing. When she walked into the locker room, the players were already working on adjustments.
“They had exactly what I was going to say already written on the board,” Warlick said. “They understand it is a 4-quarter game. This team, they are resilient and don’t seem to panic and I let them play through a lot of things.”
When the teams emerged from the break, Tennessee completely bewitched the Cowgirls, outscoring them 21-6 in the third quarter. For Salem, Oregon, native Westbrook, it was time to feast; alongside teammates Rennia Davis and freshman Zaay Green, the trio combined for 59 points.
“The lane was open so every chance I could, I took it,” Westbrook said. “It didn’t seem like they were stopping us, so coach always tells me to keep going until someone stops you. I really just listened to her on that part.”
Whereas the Cowgirls could allow the drive inside in the first half because they were keeping up on offense, the team struggled to score in the third quarter. Littell said with the defensive adjustments Tennessee made including switching up with a 2-3 zone that virtually eliminated the 3-point shot, the Cowgirls were stuck. In previous years, OSU could toss it inside, but with inexperience at the post now, OSU couldn’t keep the Lady Volunteers honest.
“We have to get a fourth scorer in there and find a way to develop our post players, they are both new,” Littell said. “We have always had a threat at the block and we need to throw it in there. We aren’t going to develop that position unless we start throwing it in there more. That is something we can work on.”
Even Miller could no longer keep up the pace she was on as she scored just seven points after a 22-point first half. Joining her with double digits were Hobbs and Gray with 12 and 14 apiece, but the trio grew tired because Littell couldn’t afford to go to a bench that hadn’t produced all season.
“I think it brings a challenge to us we haven’t really seen yet and will only help us,” Miller said. “Even though it comes at a loss, we get a lot better by seeing what we have to work on with rebounding and boxing out and things like that. We can only come out stronger after this.”
Warlick said Miller was a priority for the Lady Volunteers and believes playing a player of her caliber will only help her squad in the future.
“Braxtin is a special young lady,” Warlick said. “Twenty-two (points) at half, I told them that she was on course to score in the 40s. She was a priority for us, a no-touch player. I thought our kids stepped up to that challenge.”
The Cowgirls brought the game back within single digits in the fourth quarter, but Tennessee held on to win. Littell wasn’t disappointed with the effort at all, just the execution at points, especially poor ball movement against the tall Tennessee lineup – only one player stood below 6-foot.
With one day to prepare after a win against Texas State on Friday, he believed his players put it all out on the court. Looking on the bright side, Littell believes the loss Sunday will do more for his squad moving forward than any of its previous six wins did.
“To play that level of competition with a team that is a storied program and go toe-to-toe with them for quite a while, it is fun to have a group like that come in,” Littell said. “… We’re not into moral victories, but this did us a lot of good and it will drive some points home to our kids about what is important to winning tight games.”