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Tennessee struggles, suffers first loss of season

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espnW Highlights of the Night (1:53)

On the hardwood, Texas wins a matchup of top-10 teams against Tennessee while SEC schools Kentucky and Mississippi State are victorious by a wide margin. (1:53)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Texas coach Karen Aston didn't try to put any lipstick on this oinker, although she was happy to win it.

"It was a little bit of a choppy, ugly game," Aston said after her Longhorns beat Tennessee 64-53 on Sunday. "But I think that typically happens when the two of us get together."

Actually, what typically happens is that Tennessee is victorious; the Lady Vols came in with a 23-13 edge in their long-running series. Texas had beaten Tennessee just twice in the past 10 years, although that included last season.

So now, Texas (5-0) has won two in a row over Tennessee. And although it was just the Lady Vols' first loss thus far in 2015-16, you could almost feel some waves of frustration and concern emanating from the crowd of 10,204 fans on hand. As they walked out of Thompson-Boling Arena -- many actually leaving before the game had ended -- you imagined their mood matched the foggy, rainy gloominess outside.

It just wasn't a very good day for the bright Orange vs. the burnt Orange. Among their five previous games, the Lady Vols had a couple of two-point squeakers -- beating Syracuse 57-55 and Chattanooga 59-57 -- plus had to work hard to put away Albany 63-55 on Friday. Anyone who watched those contests had to wonder if this loss was coming.

Especially with Texas' ability to throw size -- 6-foot-7 Imani Boyette and 6-5 Kelsey Lang combined for 18 points and 13 rebounds -- and what can feel like an endless supply of guards at opponents. (And that's even without Brady Sanders and Ariel Atkins, neither of whom played Sunday.)

It ended up being a display of so many things that Tennessee coach Holly Warlick already was worried about, including discipline on defense, shot-making and turnovers.

And while it's just one game -- "We will figure it out," Warlick said -- the fact is that while most teams obviously are still in construction mode this early in the season, Tennessee clearly has much to work on.

But is that really surprising? No, not when you consider all the factors. Tennessee lost three seniors who averaged in double figures in scoring last season. This year, the Lady Vols need to get a lot from two players who sat out last year -- Diamond DeShields (transfer) and Mercedes Russell (injury) -- and another, Te'a Cooper, who's a freshman trying to figure out how to be aggressive but stay out of foul trouble.

DeShields, dealing with leg injuries, has missed practice time and still doesn't seem 100 percent -- despite her 24 points and 11 rebounds on Sunday. She is trying to get her timing down, and become comfortable in Tennessee's system. Or, actually, maybe it's a matter of Tennessee's system getting comfortable with her. DeShields was 9-of-22 from the floor, and it's hard to picture where Tennessee's offense would have been without her Sunday.

Senior forward Bashaara Graves, who was 22-of-26 from the field in her first four games, was 2-of-5 from the field for four points Sunday. The Lady Vols had trouble working the ball inside against Boyette and Lang, and then couldn't offset that with effective shooting from their guards. To the contrary, Cooper, Jordan Reynolds and Andraya Carter were a combined 6-of-29 from the field, a big part of Tennessee's yucky 30.4 shooting percentage.

In contrast, Texas got a team-high 18 points from freshman guard LaShann Higgs and 12 from sophomore Brooke McCarty. Aston said that steady play from older guards such as seniors Empress Davenport and Celina Rodrigo and junior Brianna Taylor helps empower a rookie such as Higgs to play a little more freely because of the safety net provided by the veterans.

"Now we have players that can come off the bench and feel like they are actually getting mentored by older players who have sort of been there and done that," Aston said. "That's just the evolution of where our team is right now, as opposed to two or three years ago."

So can the same be said of Tennessee? While there are veterans such as Graves, Carter, and Reynolds who've all had a good amount of experience, this is a team trying to establish its on-court leader and its demeanor.

And there's the matter of injuries, which of course so many teams deal with. But right now Tennessee doesn't have sophomores Kortney Dunbar (ankle sprain) or Jaime Nared (broken hand) available, and might have lost junior Jasmine Jones after a collision took her out of the game with a head injury in the third quarter.

None of this is meant to make excuses for Tennessee, project doom for the Lady Vols, or take away from the good things Texas did to win. But Tennessee always has high expectations, and euphemisms have never cut it here.

Yes, it's still November. The Lady Vols have talent, and they can look at aggravating things like missed layups and turnovers Sunday and recognize how much of that can be cleaned up by better concentration and execution.

But Sunday's game should inject some concern and sense of urgency into the Lady Vols about the long haul ahead and how much better they need to become in order to get where they really want to go.