By Steve Megargee
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee needed a big moment from an unlikely candidate to survive an upset attempt from Ole Miss.
Kortney Dunbar came off the bench and made two critical baskets in the last two minutes Thursday night as No. 24 Tennessee rallied to beat Ole Miss 57-51 after blowing a nine-point, fourth-quarter lead.
“We’re going to need her down the stretch,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “I think this is a great start for her.”
Dunbar hit a layup to put the Lady Volunteers ahead for good with 1:36 left. After Ole Miss turned the ball over on its next possession, Dunbar sank a 3-pointer to make it 55-51 with 1:05 remaining.
That represented quite a contribution for someone who didn’t even enter the game until barely three minutes remained. In fact, Dunbar hadn’t played at all in five of the eight games leading up to this one.
“I know a lot of people say I might not get a lot of playing time, so coming into clutch situations like that, it might be kind of nerve-racking,” Dunbar said. “But even in practice, when we’re doing situations and scenarios, I’m always the one shooting that last-second 3.”
Bashaara Graves had 15 points and 12 rebounds as Tennessee (16-10, 7-6 SEC) beat Ole Miss (10-16, 2-11) for the 28th consecutive time. Shandricka Sessom scored 21 for Ole Miss, which has lost seven straight.
Tennessee withstood the loss of starting center Mercedes Russell, who appeared to hurt her right ankle barely two minutes into the game and never returned. The Lady Vols also overcame a scoreless performance from Diamond DeShields, who entered the night averaging a team-high 13.9 points per game.
Warlick had no immediate update on Russell’s condition.
After trailing 50-41 with 71⁄2 minutes left, Ole Miss went on a 10-0 run and took the lead on a pair of Erika Sisk free throws with 2:39 remaining.
“We went zone, and I knew Tennessee had struggled with the zone in some games,” Ole Miss coach Matt Insell said. “It was kind of a desperation-type thing.”
Ole Miss led by one and had the ball with less than two minutes left but failed to score. Tennessee’s Te’a Cooper got the rebound off Shequila Joseph’s missed shot and threw a long pass to Dunbar, who capped the fastbreak with the layup that put the Lady Vols ahead for good.
This matchup marked Ole Miss’ second game in a stretch of four straight contests with ranked opponents. Ole Miss lost 62-48 on Monday to No. 12 Texas A&M. The Rebels host No. 14 Mississippi State on Sunday and No. 3 South Carolina on Feb. 25.
Dunbar wasn’t the only Lady Vol to come off the bench and deliver. Meme Jackson scored four points and had an assist during a 10-0 Tennessee run that ended the third quarter.
Jackson hadn’t come off the bench in Tennessee’s last four games and had scored a total of two points in the entire 2016 calendar year before Thursday.