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Game Notes: Tennessee Gets Stunned in Auburn and Suffers Second Loss of the Season

AUBURN, Ala.– The No. 4 Tennessee Lady Vols shockingly fell to the unranked Auburn Tigers on the road 71-61. The Lady Vols played well out of the gate but quickly fell behind Auburn in the first half, trailing the Tigers by 11 points at the break. 

In the third quarter, Tennessee was a different team, scoring 23 points, ten from Horston and seven from Walker, to take a 51-50 lead at the end of three. 

However, the fourth quarter saw the Tigers bury the Lady Vols, outscoring the fourth-ranked team in the nation by 11 points and securing the home victory. The win marks the first time Auburn has defeated an AP Top-5 team since 1997, according to the SECN+ broadcast, and the first time the Tigers have defeated an AP Top-5 Lady Vols team since 1991.

Turnovers finally caught up with Tennessee. The Lady Vols had been struggling with turning the ball over as of late, as they committed 15 in the first half against Georgia. Against Auburn, Kellie Harper's squad was responsible for 22 turnovers, leading to 22 points off of turnovers for the Tigers compared to UT's 11 points off of Auburn's nine giveaways.

Below are some game notes from a disappointing night for the Lady Vols

Turnovers, Turnovers, Turnovers

As mentioned above, Tennessee's struggles with turnovers finally caught up to them. At the beginning of the season, the Lady Vols elite defensive play allowed for slow offensive starts and led to gritty wins. As the season progressed and Jordan Horston continued to shine, the Lady Vols became dominant on offense despite a ramp-up in turnovers and won games handily.

Against Auburn, Tennessee's defense was flat the majority of the night, the ability to score points was few and far between, and 22 turnovers was too much.

And a handful of them came at crucial moments in the game, too, such as when the Lady Vols were trailing in the last five minutes and Alexus Dye and Rae Burrell allowed the Tigers to regain possession. Those two turnovers were critical in thwarting Tennessee's ability to make a comeback attempt.

Head coach Kellie Harper touched on turnovers during the post-game press conference, noting that it is not learning but rather executing. 

Keyen Green's Absence Means a Lot to the Team's Confidence

This week, Kellie Harper announced that role player forward/center Keyen Green would not be available with a torn ACL for the remainder of the season. Green's loss is a massive blow to Tennessee's leadership on the floor and in their post presence, as Green's maturity as a sixth-year senior and presence in the paint have been vital to the Lady Vols' success this season.

The Auburn game was Tennessee's first without Green, and while the paint presence was lacking a bit and there was not as much aggressiveness in the board game, the team's confidence suffered the most, according to Harper. 

Emily Saunders played seven minutes in relief of Tamari Key, who played 27. Karoline Striplin did not play a minute, and Harper's small rotations of putting Dye or Puckett under the goal had left their defense helpless. 

Key remains one of the Lady Vols best players, but the absence of a role player such as Green may hurt Tennessee more than some thought–maybe more than the Lady Vols thought–as it sure did against Auburn.

Tamari Key finished with seven points, three of them coming at the line, eight rebounds and three blocks. 

SEC Teams Cannot Be Taken Lightly

Tennessee entered Auburn Arena as a heavy favorite on Thursday. The Lady Vols had been undefeated in conference play (7-0), and Auburn was 0-7 in SEC games. Granted, the Tigers had kept many games against Kentucky, Alabama and Florida close late, but, on paper, this was one of UT's biggest layups remaining on the schedule.

Then, the unranked Auburn outplayed the No. 4 Lady Vols and handed them their second loss of the season. Thursday night shows that Tennessee can overlook no SEC team, and that is not to say they did that, but UT laid one of their worst offensive eggs of the season and let the Tigers put up more points than they had against any other conference opponent.

Harper and the players gave Auburn credit for their performance and mentioned that this game serves as a teaching moment moving forward. 

Aicha Coulibaly

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If Tennessee's self-inflicted wounds were not enough on Thursday night, the Lady Vols had to deal with one of Auburn's Aicha Coulibaly's best nights of the season. The Tigers' star guard lit up Tennessee for 26 points and 10 made field goals, a season-high.

Coulibaly continuously found ways to get to the rim and attack UT's defense, who became more spread out in an attempt to guard the three-point line. Kellie Harper touched on how Auburn being down a post player hurt the Lady Vols defensive scheme.

"Them being down their post player actually hurt us," Harper said. "It spread us out more and made us have to guard their shooters because they have five of them on the court."

Coulibaly's 26 points is her second-highest total of the season and highest against a conference opponent. No. 5 was also nearly mistake-free, as she committed one turnover, in contrast to Tennessee's leading scorer Jordan Horston who committed six.

Harper also gave Coulibaly credit for playing a miraculous game during the post-game media availability.

"Coulibaly played outstanding. She scored a lot in the paint, and we didn't guard as well as we needed to," Harper said.

In addition to becoming only the second team to beat the Lady Vols and the first SEC team to do so, Auburn scored the most points any team has this season on Tennessee except Stanford. The Tigers and Cardinal are also the only two teams to lead by double digits at halftime over UT.

The Positives

Although the Lady Vols lost disappointingly, a few positives are to be taken away from a cold night in Alabama.

-The feeling of loss is likely to ignite more of a flame in Tennessee. It already did in Jordan Horston.

-Learning how to play without Keyen: This was the first game without Green. Harper and the players will have a better idea of how to attack without No. 13 moving forward.

-The loss came sooner rather than later: Tennessee lost this game with many left to be played. As far as seeding goes, the Lady Vols have plenty of time to work their way back up into the top five, especially with a pair of wins over UConn and South Carolina.

-It happened on the road: Who likes losing at home?

-Third-quarter performance shows the Lady Vols can bring themselves back to life whenever they choose: Down 11 at halftime, the Lady Vols knew they needed a big second-half performance to secure a win. They came out swinging in the third quarter and laid 23 on the Tigers in the third frame to take the lead. The Lady Vols fell apart again in the fourth, but the third quarter performance shows that UT's grit and explosiveness are alive and well.

What's to Come

The Lady Vols return to Thompson-Boling Arena on Monday night to host Arkansas at 7 p.m. ET. It will be a rematch of the early January matchup in which Tennessee won by seven points in Fayetteville. 

Photo Credit: Tennessee Athletics

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