The Rebels, who finished 24-11 and a win short of the first Final Four in school history, can realistically be called fairly even with other SEC teams and better than most. It just isn't that way when it comes to Tennessee, 32-3, this season.
No shame in it. Most teams in the country aren't - and haven't been - what the Lady Vols are again, and that's one of the top four teams in the country. Maybe the best.
The Lady Vols beat Ole Miss by 12 in Knoxville a month and a half ago. This one wasn't as close. The Rebels came in playing as well as anyone in the country with wins over TCU, Maryland, and Oklahoma. Maybe it's only Tennessee, a 98-62 victor in the Dayton Regional finals, that's playing better.
But that's a debate that will be decided down the road - or in this case up the road - in Cleveland in the next few days.
Everything had to go just right for the Rebels to win this one. It didn't early. Tennessee was up 34-13 midway through the first half, and Ole Miss was shooting less than 30 percent; UT better than 60 percent.
Some of UT's early makes were inside shots off accurate assists. Other times their outside shooting was true.
The Rebels had trouble just getting shots. The taller Lady Vols blocked shots, clogged passing lanes, covered the Rebs up on defense, causing turnovers and wreaking havoc. That's what the Rebels had done to teams in this tournament up to now.
In three NCAA tournament games prior, Ole Miss had averaged more than 36 points off turnovers, many of them the Rebels caused. In this one, that number was only seven points.
It was 51-22 at halftime and midway through the second half 79-44. By then it was fairly clear. The Final Four entrant from here was going to be Tennessee.
The head coaches met to shake hands after the game.
"I told Carol," said veteran UT head coach Pat Summitt, "that this was our best game."
Ross said nobody coaches better than Summitt this time of year.
"Pat's the best at getting teams to be their best in postseason play," she said. "They looked tonight as good as any Tennessee team I've ever seen."
This matchup didn't look good even at Monday's press conferences. The five Lady Vols starters sat on the stage after the Rebels five starters had sat there minutes before. There was some contrast. It was the sheer size. Candace Parker. Sidney Spencer. Nicky Anosike. It isn't just that those three are 6-3, 6-4, and 6-4 across the front line. Add to that fact that they're likely as good as any front line in the women's college game.
Ole Miss was 6-1, 6-1, and some number under 6-0 after that. No, it isn't all about size. But with their strength and athleticism, it was too much to overcome.
UT set the tone early with a couple of 3s from Shannon Bobbitt. It was early but a couple of minutes in UT was up 10-2.
I also think Tennessee's familiarity had something to do with the loss. Maybe not so much to make it as one-sided as it turned out to be. Sure Maryland knew Ole Miss from the first meeting in November, a 31-point Terrapin win. But this was a different Rebel team in March than the one Maryland had faced four months earlier.
TCU didn't know the Rebels. Oklahoma didn't. Neither really did Maryland.
"You can watch (Ole Miss) on TV and you can watch them in person and it's two different opinions of how they play," Summitt said Monday. "On TV they don't look like they're that much faster and quicker and more aggressive. When you see them actually play in person, you can see their overall team speed and quickness and their ability to get up and down the floor on both sides of the ball."
Trouble is, Tennessee does the same thing. Tuesday night they did it even better.
The loss to the Lady Vols doesn't diminish a thing the Rebels have done all year, which is bring the Ole Miss women's basketball program back to national respectability.
With three important seniors - Armintie Price, Ashley Awkward, and Jada Mincy - leading the way all season, Ole Miss got more publicity in the past two weeks in women's basketball than it has in 10 years.
That's a good thing for all things Ole Miss.
Awkward and Mincy gave their hearts and souls to this program, but it was Price who was the heart and soul of this team and really the three Ole Miss teams before this one.
Few players have meant more to their program for four years than Price has for women's basketball at Ole Miss.
She and her senior teammates will be missed. They've given their all for Ole Miss.
This entire team and coaching staff have done the same thing. They made folks in Mississippi and across the country take notice of Ole Miss again.
Ross, admittedly emotional in the postgame press conference, could barely make it through.
"I don't know if I can go there," she said when asked about those three seniors and her thoughts that the season and their careers are over, her voice trailing off.
So Price spoke later and tried to put it all into words.
Said Price, who was named to the All-Regional team along with her teammate Ashley Awkward: "Coach Ross told us not to let this loss define us. We're just going to keep loving each other and remembering all these wonderful moments we had together."
A whole lot of others would be wise to do that as well.
Tennessee too much; special run ends for UM
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