KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee received a wakeup call before starting the toughest portion of its schedule.
Mercedes Russell scored a career-high 33 points as the seventh-ranked Lady Volunteers came from behind in the second half to outlast Vanderbilt 86-73 on Sunday and remain unbeaten heading into a four-game stretch against ranked opponents.
Vanderbilt (4-13, 0-3 SEC) is struggling through its worst start in school history and has never beaten Tennessee at Knoxville in 33 attempts, but the Commodores gave Tennessee (15-0, 3-0) everything it could handle in this one. Vanderbilt led 62-58 with a minute left in the third quarter before Tennessee's 11-0 run put the Lady Vols ahead for good.
"I think their record's not any indication of how they are," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "They hit great shots. They hit big shots. We went into the game knowing that's what they needed to do to stay in the game, and we didn't defend them. We've got to understand game preparation, what we need to do, stick to the game plan and we won't dig ourselves in a hole."
Tennessee is 15-0 for the fourth time ever and is enjoying its fastest start since 2005-06, when the Lady Vols won their first 16 games and finished 31-5 with an NCAA regional final appearance. In the other two times the Lady Vols started 15-0, they had an undefeated national championship season in 1997-98 and reached the NCAA final in 1994-95.
The next two weeks should provide some clues about Tennessee's long-term potential this season. Tennessee is on the road for its next three games against No. 19 Texas A&M, No. 4 South Carolina and No. 2 Notre Dame before returning home to face No. 5 Mississippi State.
"This is a team that can compete for a national championship," Vanderbilt coach Stephanie White said of Tennessee. "There's no doubt about it."
Vanderbilt stayed close by shooting 10 of 20 from 3-point range. Cierra Walker scored 20 points and was 6 of 8 on 3-pointers. Christa Reed scored 16 points, Chelsie Hall had 15 and Erin Whalen added 10.
But without any starters over 6-foot-2, Vanderbilt had no way of stopping the 6-6 Russell and the 6-3 Cheridene Green, who shot 7 of 8 and had a career-high 17 points off the bench. Tennessee outscored Vanderbilt 56-26 in the paint.
"It was a huge key for us coming into today's game," Russell said. "The past few days in practice, we really just emphasized we could get a lot of paint points and post touches."
Tennessee still trailed for much of the third quarter and didn't put Vanderbilt away until the last five minutes.
Vanderbilt trailed 73-68 with 5:19 left when a Walker 3-point attempt bounced off the rim, her first miss after making six straight shots from beyond the arc. Tennessee then used a suffocating defense to score 10 straight points and put the game away as Vanderbilt committed a flurry of turnovers.
Vanderbilt: Although the Commodores lost for the seventh time in their last eight games, this performance should give Vanderbilt some confidence that it can compete with the rest of the SEC. Vanderbilt's ability to stay close much of the way was particularly impressive since its leading scorer this season -- Rachel Bell -- managed just two points.
Tennessee: Green's performance is encouraging for a team that will likely need more contributions from the junior as it enters the meat of its SEC schedule, particularly if Russell encounters foul trouble. Tennessee needed Green to deliver Sunday because Evina Westbrook and Nared combined to shoot just 6 of 26, though Nared still scored 15 points.
"I was able to cover Russell when we were doing TV when she was a freshman and when she was a sophomore, and she didn't want that contact and was sort of a little bit passive wanting the ball," said White, a former WNBA coach who broadcast women's college basketball games before taking over Vanderbilt's program. "Her development particularly over the last couple of years has been phenomenal. There's no doubt about it. She's hungry for the ball. She puts this team on her shoulders in a way that you don't see a lot of bigs do. She's so poised and mobile. I'm not sure there's anybody in the country that can match up with her."
Tennessee outrebounded Vanderbilt 42-28 and outscored the Commodores 23-6 in second-chance points.
Vanderbilt hosts No. 15 Missouri on Thursday.
Tennessee is at No. 19 Texas A&M on Thursday.
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