KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s Cierra Burdick has a simple explanation for her recent surge.
Burdick scored a career-high 24 points and had eight rebounds and six assists to help the sixth-ranked Lady Vols beat No. 18 Mississippi State 79-67 on Sunday.
Burdick’s big performance came three days after a 16-point effort in a 73-72 victory at No. 10 Kentucky.
“I’ve just been playing with a lot of passion and energy,” she said. “There’s no formula to what I’ve been doing. I’ve just been trying to keep things simple. I think when I play with my heart, that’s when I play my best. That’s just what I’ve been doing.”
Burdick’s contributions went beyond her impressive statistics. Tennessee coach Holly Warlick praised the leadership that the senior forward showed after the Lady Vols’ 15-point, second-half lead had shrunk to five.
Tennessee (19-3, 9-0 SEC) responded with seven straight points to put the game away.
“She got in the huddle and she was so positive, to keep our team together, rally around each other,” Warlick said.
“Everything was positive. That’s what you need from a player. We weren’t doing some things really well, and she stepped in and gathered her troops together and kept it positive.”
Bashaara Graves added 17 points, including nine straight during an 11-0 run early in the second half, as Tennessee won its 17th straight home game. Isabelle Harrison had 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Tennessee hasn’t lost at home since falling 75-71 to Kentucky on Feb. 16, 2014.
The Lady Vols shot a season-high 56.9 percent against Mississippi State (22-3, 7-3), which had allowed only three other opponents to shoot over 45 percent. Tennessee made 11 of its first 12 shots in the second half.
“We gave up a lot of uncontested shots,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. “That’s really unusual for us. We didn’t quite have the ball pressure that we typically have.”
Victoria Vivians had 17 points to lead Mississippi State. Breanna Richardson scored all 13 of her points in the second half, Kendra Grant had 11 and Jerica James 10.
The Lady Vols have won all 36 of their meetings with Mississippi State, but this game was more competitive than most of their previous matchups. The first half alone featured 12 ties, and Tennessee’s 36-31 advantage at the intermission matched the largest lead either team had owned up to that point.
Tennessee built a 59-44 advantage with its sizzling start to the second half, but the Bulldogs wouldn’t go away. Grant’s jumper with 3:19 left cut Tennessee’s lead to 70-65 before the Lady Vols sealed the victory.
“I walk out of here thinking ‘Hey, we’re pretty good,'” Schaefer said. “We probably are a Top 20 basketball team and I don’t think many people would disagree with that.”
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs are two wins shy of matching their school record for victories in a season. Mississippi State entered Sunday having won four straight conference games, the first time it had done that since 2006-07.
Tennessee: The Lady Vols are 9-0 in conference play for the first time since 2010-11. That team finished a perfect 16-0 in SEC competition.
GRAVES HITS 1,000
Graves’ 17 points increased her career total to 1,001. She reached the milestone in front of numerous family members, including her mother, grandmother and great grandmother. “None of them knew I was even close (to 1,000), I don’t think,” Graves said. “It was great for them to be here and to share this moment with them.”
This marked the second straight game in which a Lady Vol hit the 1,000-point mark. Harrison reached that milestone Thursday in a 73-72 victory at No. 10 Kentucky. Senior guard Ariel Massengale has 991 points.
This was the first Tennessee-Mississippi State matchup between two ranked teams since the 2003 SEC tournament. … Graves scored her 17 points on only six field-goal attempts. She was 5 of 6 from the floor and 7 of 7 from the free-throw line.
Mississippi State hosts No. 12 Texas A&M on Feb. 8.
Tennessee is at Florida on Feb. 8.
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