MURFREESBORO – For the second year in the row, the No. 4 Lady Vols were put to the test by an in-state opponent in their season opener.
This time though, they came out victorious in a 67-57 road win against the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders on Friday at the Murphy Center in Murfreesboro.
Tennessee (1-0) overcame severe foul trouble and a large first half deficit on its way to the comeback victory.
Despite the fact that her team was whistled for 34 fouls, including six players with four or more, head coach Holly Warlick left impressed with the poise her team displayed down the stretch.
"I thought for the most part we didn't dwell on the mistakes we made in the first half," Warlick said. "I wrote on the board in halftime the team with the most second chance points is going to win. They didn't let the slow start bother them. We're proud of them. Our starters played with a lot of fouls and we got out of there and finished the game."
The Lady Vols struggled to score in the first half, shooting just below 30 percent from the field.
"Any road trip for us is difficult and you're a little concerned when you go into halftime down by 12," Warlick said. "We are going to have to learn to come out early and play well in both halves. I thought tonight was a hostile environment for us."
However, the second half was a different story.
Despite trailing by a dozen points, Tennessee was sparked by the play of sophomore point guard Andraya Carter on both sides of the ball in the second half.
Not only did Carter deny the passing lanes for the Blue Raiders that were open in the first, she led her team on a 14-0 run to start the second half and also came up with a big block and two 3-pointers.
With 8:18 left in the game, Carter drained her second long range shot of the night off a Jasmine Jones assist. From that point on, the Lady Vols maintained control.
"I thought Andraya came in and set the tone defensively for us," Warlick said. "She got our team feeling good about our defense. Her pressure was huge for us and we got rolling. She gave us the energy we needed."
Down the stretch for the Lady Vols, the second biggest crowd ever inside the Murphy Center – 11,227 fans – didn't seem to faze them.
Isabelle Harrison and Mercedes Russell, the two Lady Vol centers, provided a big boost on the offensive end in the second half as they combined for 16 of their 24 combined points.
"We came out hard in the second half and did what we had to do," said Harrison, who led Tennessee scorers with 13 points. "We knew that the team that came out in the first half wasn't us and we put that past us."
Russell recorded 11 points to go along with seven rebounds and three blocks in her first game as a Lady Vol.
"They were keying on her in the first half and she played like a freshman the first half," Warlick said. "She came in the second half a lot more relaxed. It was a different second half for us."
Senior forward Ebony Rowe led all scorers with 21 points and 16 rebounds for MTSU.
Tennessee will enter a second straight tough road test Monday night when it travels to Chapel Hill, N.C., to take on No. 12 North Carolina.
"We started out with a great opponent in MTSU and it's going to be a fight for us and they showed how it is going to be all season," Carter said. "We have one of the toughest schedules and starting out with one like tonight is going to help us the rest of the season."