Georgia Tech's Kaela Davis showed Tennessee just what it's missing, but the fourth-ranked Lady Vols still found a way to win.
Davis continued the remarkable start to her freshman season by scoring 28 points Sunday against Tennessee, the school she nearly attended instead of Georgia Tech. Tennessee withstood Davis' barrage and beat the Yellow Jackets 87-76 in a matchup of unbeaten teams.
"I have 'Georgia Tech' across my chest and so obviously that's what I'm concerned about," Davis said. "I came in here just focused on our game plan and what we needed to do to win the game. I knew it was a tough environment for anyone to play in, but the biggest thing was to keep composure in that environment."
Davis, the daughter of former NBA forward Antonio Davis, was one of the nation's most heralded prospects in her high school class. The 6-foot-2 freshman was verbally committed to Tennessee for nearly two years before eventually signing with Georgia Tech. She's averaging 22.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game thus far in her freshman year.
"The day Kaela Davis signed with Georgia Tech, it changed our program forever," Georgia Tech coach MaChelle Joseph said. "She elevated our program before she ever stepped foot on campus."
Davis' twin brother, A.J. Davis, is a freshman forward for the Tennessee men's basketball team. He was in the stands Sunday wearing Tennessee gear and cheering for his sister.
"I definitely noticed," Davis said. "He's a big guy. He stands out."
Tennessee (4-0) outlasted Georgia Tech (2-1) by capitalizing on its 65-38 rebounding advantage. Tennessee hadn't collected as many as 65 rebounds in a game since Nov. 23, 1996. The Lady Vols had 33 offensive rebounds, their highest single-game total since Jan. 10, 2000.
Bashaara Graves and Isabelle Harrison had 18 rebounds each, career highs for both players. Graves also had 23 points and five assists to match career highs in those two categories.
"When you have two kids with 18 rebounds apiece, that's the difference in the game," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "It's second-chance points. That's just heart and desire to go in and rebound."
Mercedes Russell scored 14 points, Meighan Simmons added 13 and Harrison had 10 for Tennessee, which led by as many as 18 points in the first half before Georgia Tech used outside shooting to get within four midway through the second half.
Aaliyah Whiteside had 16 points for Georgia Tech. Sydney Wallace and Tyaunna Marshall added 13 points each, though Marshall shot just 6 of 25.
Tennessee's fast start Sunday ended the Lady Vols' early-season trend of relying on second-half surges. Tennessee had been outscoring teams 134-84 in the second half through its first three games of the season. In the first half of those games, opponents were playing Tennessee to a 94-94 deadlock.
After trailing 41-23, Georgia Tech ended the first half on a 12-3 run and continued its comeback early in the second half by relying on its perimeter attack. Georgia Tech went 8 of 21 from 3-point range, while Tennessee was just 2 of 13.
Davis sparked the comeback by scoring 13 points in the first 9:06 of the second half.
"It was one of the most gutsy performances I've seen from a freshman my entire career,:" Joseph said.
Tennessee held Davis to three points the rest of the night by closely guarding her with 6-2 forward Cierra Burdick. Warlick said Burdick delivered the best defensive performance of her career.
But the Lady Vols didn't put the game out of reach until late in the second half. Ariel Massengale sank back-to-back jumpers to spark a 12-0 spurt as Georgia Tech finally started to cool off from long range. In the end, Georgia Tech's edge from long range couldn't compensate for Tennessee's decisive advantage on the boards.
"I'm proud of our team," Joseph said. "Obviously, we're going to go back and see how to keep a team from getting 65 rebounds. When we do that, it's a different ballgame."