Lady Vols advance to Sweet 16

The Lady Vols have to sit at their lockers during the open-to-media portion of the post-game, but if they weren't being asked questions, they ended up in groups anxious to discuss the 79-70 win over Marquette that propelled Tennessee into the Sweet 16 but left a lot to be desired for the players and coaches.

Coach Pat Summitt's message to the team after the win was to the point: Another outing like that and the NCAA postseason would be over for Tennessee.

"After the game she just let us know how it is," redshirt junior forward Vicki Baugh said. "We stunk it up. We're lucky we got away with a victory, because it's not going to happen from here on out, us playing that way."

"She basically said if we play like that we won't win a national championship," senior Angie Bjorklund said. "I completely agree. We've got to get a lot better from now until our next game, which will be Saturday. It's not a lot of time so we've got to work quick."

But Tennessee, 33-2, managed to never lose its lead, contained every run by Marquette, 24-9, and will move to the Dayton Region to face No. 4 seed Ohio State and old foe Jim Foster, who was the longtime coach at Vanderbilt prior to relocating to the Buckeye State.

The Lady Vols will play this Saturday in the home state of their next opponent and might want to haul with them several busloads of the fans who were in Thompson-Boling Arena on Monday. They numbered 9,007 but sounded twice as numerous late in the second half when Tennessee needed defensive stops and got them.

"It was huge," Bjorklund said. "If it wasn't a home game I don't know what would have happened. We really fed off of the crowd's energy and the fact that we weren't going to lose on our home court."

Tennessee entered the game 49-0 in NCAA postseason games at home - counting first and second rounds and regional play before that stage was taken to neutral sites - and had to work to secure No. 50.

"Basketball is a game of runs and momentum," junior guard/forward Alicia Manning said. "And the crowd can help the momentum of the game so much. They really did help us at the end and got our energy level up and helped us pull it out."

The crowd wasn't in a particularly good mood. Pre-game videos appeared on the big screen and were the same ones as Saturday – appreciation for the Armed Forces, reminders about sportsmanship for the teams and game officials and a standard message from NCAA President Mark Emmert.

When Emmert's face appeared on the screen, there were fairly loud boos in the arena, a reaction to the NCAA's investigation of the Vols basketball program and the school's firing of Coach Bruce Pearl on Monday.

Reminders of Pearl are throughout the arena from the photos in the back hallway to the locker rooms and the large murals and photos outside the basketball offices. An increased pall has hung over the men's program since Thursday when Athletics Director Mike Hamilton made remarks on the eve of the Vols' NCAA basketball game that indicated Pearl's job was in jeopardy.

The resulting furor dominated the media for the next four days, including during coverage of the women's tournament.

"We just have to stay focused on us," Manning said. "Our heart goes out to Bruce and the men's team, but we've got to focus on what we're doing. We've been working too hard to let us get distracted by everything else."

"Obviously we feel for that situation," said sophomore guard/forward Taber Spani, who didn't think it affected the team's performance. "That's a tough situation, and it does hang over our university because of all the publicity – it's everywhere.

"But for us we have to stay focused. This is our group, this is our tournament, and we can't let that affect us at all. We've got to be mature enough to not let that affect us."

The Lady Vols were well aware of the turmoil – and the two basketball teams are close – but they concentrated on their task at hand.

"They're OK, they'll be OK, Bruce will be OK," Glory Johnson said. "He's a great coach. It is tough, but he's a great guy and he will be fine wherever he goes. I am sure this won't be the last of his coaching days."

Bjorklund nodded when asked if the weekend had been difficult for the extended Tennessee basketball family, but she said the Lady Vols could block out distractions.

"This team is a lot more focused on winning than letting outside things affect us," Bjorklund said. "That wasn't a factor. We all need to stay focused and should have been a little more."

Baugh, who played effectively in the first half but didn't appear in the second when Summitt shortened the bench, thought the team's propensity to take opponents too lightly popped up again.

The SEC got just four teams into the NCAA tourney – Vanderbilt exited in the first round against Louisville and Kentucky bowed out in the second against North Carolina; Georgia plays Florida State on Tuesday – and the while Lady Vols were tested on the road against Vandy and Kentucky, they went unscathed through 19 conference games in the regular season and tourney.

"I think tonight we really learned to respect our opponent, and I am not going to say we had full respect for that team coming in," Baugh said. "I think (not) because this team has never really been there – all the way – and knows what it takes, and it didn't really help that we went undefeated in the SEC.

"This is a wakeup call for us, and I am glad we had it. Sometimes we don't even need to look at those rankings by our name (such as a one seed for Tennessee). When it's time for the tournament you never know what the outcome is going to be. You've just got to be able to bring your game every single game."

A big part of Tennessee's game has been the overall excellence of Shekinna Stricklen, and the junior guard/forward had a somnambulant start to the game. Stricklen started at power forward and when the ball didn't get inside as intended, it seemed to take her out of the flow of the game on both ends.

"Shekinna is playing a little out of position, which is always tough when you're used to getting more touches," Bjorklund said. "She seems to be more effective on the wing, but at the same time we've got to make it work and trust the coaches' game plan and do the best you can.

"I am going to take the fall for that, not getting the guards moving the ball to start the game. We were just holding the ball, just playing right into Marquette's hands in that sense. Second half when we actually started moving the ball it opened up a lot for Shekinna and the posts."

Stricklen, the SEC Player of the Year who dominated conference games at times no matter where she played on the court, hadn't scored by halftime and was 0-3 from the field, although she did have five rebounds and three assists.

Summitt zeroed in on her All-American candidate at the break.

"She looked comatose," Summitt said. "I ripped her head off at halftime. I was so upset with her. I was brutal with her because I expect her to be a leader. At least Angie when she wasn't scoring she played good defense."

Stricklen, as usual, responded.

"Strick responded great in the second half," Baugh said. "It completely showed that she is a leader and the team feeds off of her energy. She kind of stays in the background a little bit more than other players, and she has to realize that she is a leader on this team and that Pat expects a lot out of her."

Stricklen was clearly out of sorts in the first half, a situation compounded by the ball getting stuck on the perimeter, while Stricklen tried to post up inside.

"I think frustration got the best of her, but we've just got to learn how to pick each other up and try to play through it and push her, because we need her out there," Kamiko Williams said.

"She's going to respond, ain't that right Strick?" Williams said as Stricklen took a seat at her locker after returning from the post-game press conference. "She's going to come back the next game and say, ‘Look at me now.' "

Stricklen smiled but like everyone else in the locker room she was subdued after the game.

"I think I was hurting my team," Stricklen said. "It did seem like I had low energy. I am the one usually getting the crowd pumped. Once I got that going I think it got us going."

The plan to start the game had been to work the ball through the paint but just seconds into Tennessee's first possession Meighan Simmons launched a 24-footer that was not close.

The shot brought a look of disbelief from Summitt and then a shout of Simmons' name, and it took a few seconds before the chagrined freshman would even look towards the bench.

"That was the reaction on the bench," Manning said of the shot. "She's not … she did. That's a freshman thing. She was overanxious. It's tournament time. But she got it back and played really well for us."

Simmons did indeed.

On the next possession Simmons drove, hit the midrange shot, got fouled and completed the three-point play to start the scoring for Tennessee. The play was set up by an offensive rebound by Spani.

Simmons started the half 3-5 from the field – much needed with Bjorklund and Stricklen struggling on offense – and ultimately led all scorers with 18 points.

After the ill-advised shot to start the game, Johnson offered a smile and a few words of support as they both went back down court.

"She had confidence from the jump, although it wasn't the time for her to take the shot," Johnson said. "But she had her confidence from the beginning of the game and she carried it over through the rest of her game.

"I threw up a really bad one, too, so I can relate. I didn't know I was double-teamed, and I wasted my dribble."

That occurred in the second half and also brought a baffled look from Summitt as the team scurried back down the court on defense.

The Lady Vols had played with considerable poise down the stretch in the regular season, and composure is mandatory in postseason when seasons are on the line. The first step for Summitt is some more sit-down time with Simmons, a freshman trying to navigate her first NCAA tourney while playing out of position.

Simmons is not selfish – she leads the team in assists with 98 – and she understands the game plan. But she does have a tendency to get overeager, especially at the start of games.

Tuesday will be an off day for the team, but Summitt said a film session would be scheduled for Wednesday with the freshman.

"Her basketball IQ has got to get a little better," Summitt said. "We'll probably take a look at that with her (on film)."

Simmons was subdued afterwards and seemed well aware that her on-court decisions early in a game have to improve for the rest of postseason.

"I was just a little bit too hyped," Simmons said. "Like Pat said, I was a little overanxious. I was trying too hard. It was a little too much at one time. That shot it was way too far out, and it was out of my range a little bit. I should have passed out."

The Lady Vols built an eight-point lead – Marquette missed its first six shots – following Simmons' conventional 3-point play, a Simmons' jumper in transition, a Bjorklund trey in transition on an assist from Simmons and a nice cut through the paint by Simmons that ended with a baseline jumper.

That made it 10-2 at the 16:32 mark of the first half with Simmons quickly adjusting from a bad shot to good decisions.

"Pat is always on me, telling me to go inside-out, let the game come to me a little bit," Simmons said. "After that first shot I was like, ‘You can't shoot any more shots like that.' I was just a little bit more patient later on."

Marquette, a senior-laden team with the ability to hit shots and penetrate to the basket, answered with a three from Tatiyiana McMorris and a layup by Jasmine Collins to cut the lead to 10-7 at the 15:27 mark of the first half.

Despite Tennessee's plan to get the ball inside, it was the 15:08 mark before Johnson got the ball and scored at the rim for a 12-7 lead. Marquette trimmed the lead to one point, 12-11, after a Collins layups assisted by Paige Fiedorowicz and then a Fiedorowicz layup assisted by Collins.

Tennessee then went on a run and built another eight-point lead, 23-15, behind the marksmanship of Spani, who scored on an offensive board, used a Johnson screen for a jumper and nailed a three-pointer.

The lead, once again, shrank to one point, 25-24, at the 5:54 mark of the first half, but Manning hit a three for a 28-24 lead. Baugh got a putback for a 30-27 lead, and Marquette's Courtney Weibel drained a three-pointer with 3:55 to play before halftime and the teams were knotted at 30.

Simmons got the lead back for Tennessee – which, despite the closeness of the game, never trailed from beginning to end – after driving and lofting a jumper that bounced softly three times before going through the cylinder for a 32-30 lead at the 3:33 mark.

Johnson scored the next five points for Tennessee with a free throw, a turn-around in the paint and a layup assisted by Simmons for a 37-32 lead, but McMorris was left open for a three and brought Marquette to 37-35 with 40 seconds left in the half.

Manning finished the scoring with a putback, and Tennessee took a 39-35 lead into the locker room.

"They just took us off the dribble so much, and our help side needed to be there a lot stronger and our one-on-one D," Manning said. "I know personally I kept letting them penetrate on me.

"But they're quick. I give them all the credit in the world. We've got to be able to guard penetration if we want to go deeper in the tournament."

The Lady Vols shot 50.0 percent in the first half, but Marquette was 5-10 from behind the arc thanks to it two senior guards – Weibel shot 2-4, and McMorris connected on 3-6.

"The biggest thing was they came out unafraid," Spani said. "They were seniors. They wanted to win. They didn't care. They were just going to leave everything on the floor. We realized that, but the intensity level was completely different.

"There were defensive breakdowns. A lot of it I think was communication. There is no way we can let somebody get five made threes That's 15 points of their 35. That's ridiculous, and they were from their two 3-point shooters. That's just us knowing scouting report and committing to it. That happened in the second half, too. We didn't execute the scouting report."

The second half started better for Tennessee after a Spani defensive board and long outlet pass to Simmons, who with Stricklen engaged – Johnson found her early with a high-low pass – once again got an eight-point lead, 45-37, and Marquette Coach Terri Mitchell called timeout.

"We've got to get (Stricklen) involved," Spani said. "She didn't get involved early. She's a rhythm player and when she gets going, everything else, her defense, her rebounding, everything plays off getting in rhythm offensively for her.

"A credit to her she stepped up in the second half and did some big stuff. We needed that. Next game we've got to get our post game involved early. We really have to."

Johnson's bucket for the 45-37 lead came after a steal and then on the offensive possession, she faked a hand-off to Bjorklund, which froze the defense, and then drove to the basket.

"Just talking to my teammates and waiting for my shots to come," Johnson said of her surge in the second half. "I am not trying to force anything. I am trying to crash the boards and play defense."

Tennessee built the lead to 12 points, 55-43, with 14:48 to play after Johnson converted a long pass into a layup, Simmons connected on two treys, and Williams drove and hit the left-handed bank shot.

But Marquette connected to attack – and the Lady Vols' defense was porous at times – and pulled to within five points, 57-52, with 12:29 to play.

"We need to get better," Williams said. "Our defensive end needs to get a lot better. I am going to take it for what it is and try to improve before the Sweet 16 because we're going to need it."

Williams was in the game for critical stretches of the second half – a clear sign in postseason that Summitt has more trust in her than a year ago – and relieved Simmons at point, allowing the freshman to operate from the wing.

"She knows that I can handle the ball and I can score and I can play great defense," Williams said. "That is what it comes down to. She knows I can do it on both ends."

Williams is one of the better one-on-one defenders on the team, but she also had trouble with the Marquette guards. Williams would often keep her player from the basket until late in the shot clock and then the ball-handler got past her, and Williams reached in for the foul. Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss met Williams at one timeout for some instruction.

"Mickie told me that sometimes I get impatient, and I constantly try to tell myself not to reach," Williams said. "She said I have a tendency to stand up and relax a little bit and then the (player) sees it and takes me off the dribble. Stay down, stay down, stay down. I've got to do that consistently."

Tennessee did enough to barely keep Marquette at bay, but the Golden Eagles never went away and after two consecutive baskets from Angel Robinson, a putback and a 19-footer, Marquette was within one point, 63-62, with 6:15 to play, after going on a 19-8 run.

"It was definitely a game of runs," Manning said. "I am just glad we pulled it out."

The crowd seemed to fully engage at that point, and Bjorklund hit a wing jumper and Stricklen got fouled inside and hit both free throws for a 67-62 lead with 5:25 remaining.

The crowd roared on Tennessee's next defensive possession, got a turnover and got even louder. Stricklen was doubled in the paint and dished to a wide-open Johnson for a 69-62 lead with 4:48 left. That led to a Marquette timeout, and the crowd went right back into full-volume mode when the players returned to the court.

Marquette continued to attack the paint and got points at the line, but Stricklen got blocked, got the ball and hit the short jumper for a 71-64 lead with 3:38 left.

Manning got a defensive board, got fouled and hit both free throws in the one-and-one for a 73-65 lead with 1:07 remaining. Manning got another defensive board and got the ball to Johnson for a layup and 75-65 lead with 48.8 left to play.

Robinson scored at the rim twice for Marquette, including an and-one play, to finish the Golden Eagles' scoring and Bjorklund hit two free throws and Stricklen and Johnson one each from the stripe for the final 79-70 score.

Manning stripped the ball-handler on Marquette's last possession and dribbled out the clock with the handshake line already underway.

"I think it was a good back-and-forth game," Summitt said in her post-game press conference. "It had to be a great game to watch, not on my part but probably on your part."

The full text of Summitt's remarks and Tennessee's press conference can be read here.

"We left nothing for chance," Mitchell said. "We fought with all our hearts. It hurts so much. I told our players that you want it to hurt because the day that it doesn't hurt means you haven't given it your all.

"And when it does hurt, that means you're laying a foundation in your life that you will know that no matter what you face, you will be a fighter and you will overcome."

The full text of Mitchell's remarks and Marquette's press conference can be read here.

"It was a great game," Mitchell said. "Tennessee's every bit the number one seed that they are. I think that we showed that we were more than capable and that we belonged. We're fighters."

Mitchell called a timeout early in the game after Simmons opened the scoring with five points and it seemed to settle her team and keep Tennessee from getting loose so early in a game.

"What happened was that they scored on quick, open looks, and then we took quick shots," Mitchell said. "(I told them) ‘No, we're not going to do that any more because that's what gets us in trouble.' I told them you get into the game on defense. That has to be your focus. Get your stops and your offense will come.

"If you think the opposite way and you're focused on your offense and you miss shots, you'll be jogging back on defense. That whole timeout was about defense. The only thing I said about offense was to make them work because we weren't. We were taking quick shots and missing."

Robinson, an All-Big East First Team guard who led all scorers with 19 points, said, "Our main focus going into this game was to not let them get open looks because the teams we watched them play against in the past, a lot of their points were from miscommunication on defense and they were shooting wide-open shots.

"That's exactly what they did at the start of the game. That's why coach called timeout to just refocus us and get back to the game plan for us to make our run."

Manning who guarded Robinson down the stretch, forced a contested shot, got the defensive board, got fouled and stuck the free throws with 1:07 left in the game, saluted the Golden Eagles.

"They were hitting shots," Manning said. "Players make plays and they were making plays. It's March Madness."

Tennessee definitely felt afterwards as if it took the survive part of survive and advance quite literally.

"Definitely," Williams said. "Our demeanor went down in the first half and we weren't playing the way that we know how to play. We do know that we can rely on our offense, but our defense has got to be so much better. On the defensive end it definitely was a wakeup call."

Stricklen added, "I think we needed that. It's better to get it earlier rather than going to Dayton and getting it then. We got through it. That's not a great feeling. It was a close game, and it could have went either way, but it went our way, and we have to just learn from it and just be ready when we go to Dayton."

Four players for Marquette reached double figures. Robinson led the team with 19 points, followed by McMorris with 15, Collins with 14 and Fiedorowicz with 12. The Golden Eagles shot 40.3 percent (27-67) overall, 44.4 percent (8-18) from the arc and 61.5 percent (8-13) from the line.

Marquette had 12 assists, 11 turnovers, five steals and three blocks and tied Tennessee with points in the paint at 32 each.

Tennessee also had just 11 turnovers, but the Lady Vols tallied 16 points off miscues to just seven for Marquette.

The Lady Vols had four double-figure scorers led by 18 points from Simmons, followed by 16 for Johnson, 11 for Manning and 10 for Stricklen, who completed the double-double with 10 boards. Tennessee shot 51.7 percent (30-58) overall, 41.7 percent (5-12) from long range and 73.7 percent (14-19) from the line.

The Lady Vols had 13 assists, nine blocks and five steals and also prevailed on the boards, 40-34, though the glasswork was sub-par by Tennessee's standards.

"I think we're realizing that we're struggling on the boards," Johnson said. "Their guards were crashing the boards hard and so were their post players. We have to have four to the boards and five to the boards sometimes. That didn't happen as much as it should've."

Bjorklund hopes a stiff test that resulted in a win instead of ending the season will ultimately benefit the team.

"I think getting that game out early and learning from our mistakes early because any game from now on if we play like that, we won't win," Bjorklund said. "Everyone really needs to step up, and we've just got to make it happen."

Spring break has ended and the players are back in class. Tuesday will be an off day, and the players will practice Wednesday and Thursday before departing for Dayton.

"We're pretty sure we know what kind of drills we're going to do." Stricklen said. "It's going to be one-on-one drills and boxing out. We've just got to get it drilled in our heads and commit to it."

"It wasn't pretty," Summitt said. "It was frustrating for our coaches. It's only takes one slipup and you're out of the tournament."


Alicia Manning

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