KNOXVILLE — Kamiko Williams made the most of a rare opportunity.
Williams made her first start of the season Thursday night in place of injured center Isabelle Harrison and produced 10 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and six steals as No. 9 Tennessee breezed to an 88-45 Southeastern Conference victory over Mississippi State.
Williams delivered her second double-double and produced career highs in rebounds, assists and steals. The 5-foot-11 senior guard now wants to start producing those totals on a more consistent basis.
“Now that Isabelle’s out, it’s going to have to happen,” Williams said. “We all have to step up. This game, I tried to focus on defense and rebounding. Everything else just played out for us.”
Harrison will undergo surgery Friday after re-injuring her left knee Monday in a 77-67 loss to No. 2 Notre Dame. The 6-3 sophomore averages 10 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. The Lady Vols don’t know whether she can return this season.
“I hope she is back, but I think until they go and figure out what’s going on with her knee, I don’t know,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “I guess it’s 50-50. That’s me guessing.”
Tennessee (17-4, 8-0) didn’t need Harrison against Mississippi State (9-12, 1-7), which has never beaten the Lady Vols in 34 attempts. Tennessee won for the ninth time in its last 10 games by dominating the overmatched Bulldogs, who had snapped a six-game losing streak Sunday with a 72-57 victory over Mississippi.
Meighan Simmons scored 21 points, Taber Spani added 15 points and Bashaara Graves had 10 points as the Lady Vols led from start to finish. Martha Alwal led Mississippi State with 16 points and nine rebounds.
The one-sided nature of the game allowed the injury-riddled Lady Vols to play everyone. Sophomore forward Cierra Burdick returned to action Thursday after missing eight games with a broken right hand, but the Lady Vols still have only nine healthy players.
All nine of Tennessee’s available players entered the game before halftime Thursday and scored at least four points. UT typically has used a seven-player rotation against SEC competition. Burdick, normally a starter, had four points and five rebounds off the bench.
“When basketball is your life since you were 5 years old and it gets taken away from you for a month, when you get to come back, all you can do is smile,” Burdick said. “I was so energized on the bench trying to be positive for my teammates, but there’s nothing like stepping in between those lines and having the ball in your hand.”
Williams got the Lady Vols off to a fast start by collecting six points, eight rebounds and four assists in the first half. Warlick had said Wednesday she planned to have freshman forward Jasmine Jones start in place of Harrison, but Williams got the nod instead. Williams had made six previous starts in her career, though they all came in her freshman and sophomore seasons. Warlick said Jones, a freshman, feels more comfortable coming off the bench.
Williams learned she would start about a half-hour before the opening tip.
“It’s one of (Williams’) best games since she’s been here,” Warlick said. “That’s our expectation for her.”
Tennessee already led 25-10 by the time Burdick took the floor to a standing ovation with 6:53 left in the half. Reserve guard Jasmine Phillips made a rare first-half appearance and scored eight points, doubling her previous career high.
Freshman center Nia Moore had played in only one of Tennessee’s past five games before this one, but she scored eight points in 12 minutes off the bench Thursday.
Harrison’s injury puts pressure on Burdick, Moore and Jones to help starting forward Bashaara Graves handle the post duties.
“We need to have Izzy’s back,” Burdick said. “We’re so big on being a family, and when one of our family members goes down, it’s important for us to have each other’s back. Nia and I were just trying to get back in the groove of things and step up for Izzy.”
Tennessee’s defense suffocated a Mississippi State team that ranks last in the SEC in turnover margin and assist-turnover ratio. The Bulldogs shot just 21.2 percent (7-of-33) in the first half and 31.6 percent (18-of-57) overall while committing 26 turnovers.
Mississippi State starting guards Katia May and Kendra Grant went a combined 6-for-32.
“They obviously didn’t have a hangover from Monday because they came out and really took the fight to us, especially in transition offense,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. “They beat us up and down the floor from the tip. Holly’s doing a great job, her and her staff are doing a great job. I know right now she’s band-aiding it and holding it together with some injuries. That’s an awfully hard thing to do, and they’re doing a great job.”