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Notebook: Sara Puckett, Tess Darby push Lady Vols basketball toward victory at SEC Tournament

Madeline McNeely, Staff Writer Mar 7, 2024 Updated Mar 9, 2024


Sara Puckett (1) celebrates with her Lady Vols teammates near the end of the game after she scored 22 points against Kentucky at Bon Secours Wellness Arena. Thursday, March 7, 2024.






Lady Vols basketball survived the second round of the SEC Tournament.


Tennessee defeated Kentucky, 76-62, on Thursday afternoon. Despite back-and-forth play in the first half, the Lady Vols (18-11, 11-6 SEC) were able to push the pace forward and secure a win over the Wildcats (12-20, 4-12).


“We’re excited to be advancing in the tournament,” Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper said. “Every game is going to be a tough, hard-fought game. Proud of our team for coming out with this win.”


Here are three takeaways from the win.


Sara Puckett makes buckets


During this season, Sara Puckett has been a valuable player for the Lady Vols, even when the stat sheet did not seem to capture her performance fully. However, against Kentucky, Puckett’s presence was evident on the court and in the box score.


“I think she’s always done a really good job running the floor,” Harper said. “She’s one of the fittest players that we’ve had in this program the last few years. So, I think, one, she’s going to get where she needs to get. Two, she does talk more this year. I think she knows what she’s doing, and now she vocalizes it better. And that’s important for a teammate. It makes her easier to play with.”


Puckett led the game with 22 points and showcased her effectiveness not only through scoring but also through moving the ball around. Puckett worked to match and build the team’s energy.


Puckett made herself available on the court, which opened up scoring opportunities for herself and her teammates. This was evident in Puckett’s ability to put up points each quarter.


“I think Sara put herself in the right position a lot of times,” Harper said. “I thought she worked for post-ups more than she’s been doing. That was really good to see.”


Tess Darby with a double-double


Tess Darby came to life for Tennessee in the second half scoring 10 points and pulling down 10 rebounds for her first career double-double.


Darby had been a senior leader among the Lady Vols this season. Her ability to communicate effectively does not go unnoticed by her coaches and teammates.


“I’ve always said Tess is really easy to play with,” Harper said. “Tess is easy to play with because she talks you through things, she communicates well. You may not always do it right, but if you communicate it, you’re doing it wrong together, which is great to be on the same page.”


Tennessee had 50 rebounds to the Wildcat’s 33. Darby’s ability to battle for boards allowed Tennessee to move forward with a win.


Tennessee’s defense led it toward victory


Tennessee’s offense was stagnant in the first half, which caused them to go point-for-point with Kentucky. With key scorer Rickea Jackson on the bench due to foul trouble, Tennessee knew it would need to be more productive offensively in the second half.


The best thing about those tough plays was our first-half defense,” Harper said. “When our offense was stagnant and not scoring, not having production, our defense held strong and gave us a chance.”


The Lady Vols started the third quarter with a slower tempo, but Tennessee began to find ways to apply defensive pressure as the quarter progressed, which allowed them to build momentum and quicken the pace of the game.


“We knew that we did not do a good job defensively in the first quarter,” Puckett said. “Second quarter, we held them to eight points, and we only scored nine. But we knew what we had to do coming into the third quarter. Starting off strong was a big thing. We could not just let off at all, and so that’s what the team and I focused in on, and that’s what we did.”


Tennessee found its largest leads in the second half, winning the third quarter , 25-18, and the fourth quarter, 23-18.


Extra, extra


Tennessee will advance to play Alabama on Friday, March 8, at 2:15 p.m. ET. The last time the Lady Vols faced Alabama, they felt the sting of a loss.


Moving forward, Tennessee is prepared for a challenge. It will look to carry over their poise and ability to stay calm when things become difficult.





“We know it’s going to be a huge challenge,” Harper said “Obviously they played well when we played them down there. Hopefully we’ve grown. You don’t walk out and it just happens. You got to go out and make it happen.”


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