Lady Vols face Irish for Final Four slot

DAYTON, Ohio - A critical part of Meighan Simmons' pre-game preparation occurs the night before a game through her stomach and her pillow. The freshman guard needs a hearty meal - she put away a 20-ounce steak, baked potato and Caesar salad before the last game - and then a good night's sleep. With a berth to the Final Four on the line this evening, Simmons' intent was to repeat the routine.

The players rotate among roommates on the road and Meighan Simmons is paired in Dayton with sophomore Taber Spani, who is inclined to turn in early, too. The two watched part of the Spokane Regional - the last game tipped at 11:30 p.m. Eastern on Saturday - but were sound asleep before it ended.

Coach Pat Summitt also puts the team in electronic deprivation by taking their cell phones and laptops. That prevents interruptions from family and friends via phone calls, text messages or online chats. The devices are returned between games so the players can catch up, but they turn them back in before retiring for the evening.

"It's not a problem, and I understand what she is doing," Simmons said. "She wants us to get focused the night before and get as much rest as we can."

No. 1 seed Tennessee, 34-2, takes on No. 2 seed Notre Dame, 29-7, at 7:03 p.m. Eastern (ESPN) at Dayton Arena in the regional final. The winner advances to the Final Four in Indianapolis next weekend.

Simmons will be in the starting lineup for the Lady Vols and will be asked to repeat her floor game in the 85-75 win over Ohio State in the semifinal. The freshman, a two guard tossed into the point spot this season, was poised throughout her 40 minutes on the floor.

"We haven't been past the Sweet 16 since '08 and that's when we won the national championship so for this team it's very special," redshirt junior Vicki Baugh said. "I think getting here and being one game away from the Final Four makes this team very hungry."

Simmons certainly has an appetite but exactly where she puts the food on her slender frame remains a mystery. When Simmons was asked how she could follow up her superb floor game for the regional final, she mentioned the standard basketball adages about focus and consistency. She also mentioned sleep, food and mental preparation.

"Have good rest and a good meal the night before," Simmons said. "Think about the things that you did the game before and think about the things you need to do for the next game. Learn from the mistakes that you made and be able to make the right decisions in the next game."

Could Simmons go 40 minutes again if needed?

"I probably could," Simmons said Sunday. "I go to sleep early. If I had a really good steak, I would be fine. The day before yesterday I had a 20-ounce T-bone. It was good, and I ate the whole thing. I had a baked potato and a Caesar salad, and then we had ice cream afterwards. It was good. I ate it all."

Simmons might want to stick to that pre-game plan.

"She just played one of her best all-around games," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said. "She has really been such a spark for us, and I really believe she's a difference maker for this team. I think she is one of the reasons that has allowed us to have the success that we have had this year.

"She's got this mentality, she's got this competitive edge, and she's not afraid of anything. If I shoot and miss, the next one is going to go in. If that one doesn't go in, the next one is going in. She has that attitude."

Simmons also showed Saturday that she can balance that fearlessness with a game plan. Tennessee wanted Kelley Cain to get early touches, and Simmons fed her the ball.

"I think she was very clear on what our game plan was," DeMoss said. "I think she responded to that. There were not options. It was get the ball inside."

It was a maturity that Simmons developed from last Monday's game against Marquette to Saturday's matchup with Ohio State and bodes well for the future. The game plan had been the same, but Simmons started the Marquette game with a long, and unexpected, three that missed.

Then, there was Saturday's block of Ohio State's Samantha Prahalis, who had a wide-open layup until Simmons somehow reached the play after both a late start and having to cross to the other side of the court. That play isn't in any game plan.

"She chased it down," DeMoss said. "You can't coach that. You hope that that's in all of our kids' hearts to sprint that hard to catch up with that kid. She had to kick it into another gear, and she did."

The block got continuous play on ESPN highlights and while Simmons saw it, she tried to downplay it.

"I watched it (Sunday) morning and some of it last night," Simmons said. "But at the same time I don't let it get to me. It's just something that happens and it comes with it, but it doesn't make me cocky at all."

Still, a year ago Simmons was playing in high school with local media coverage in San Antonio. A year later her signature play of the postseason is on repeat on the highlight show. Simmons got calls from her home state of Texas - until the phones got taken away for the night - from friends who saw her on the national sports network.

"It was kind of funny," Simmons said. "One of my close friends called me and said, ‘Man, you're on SportsCenter right now!' Family back home can tell me, ‘I see you here,' and ‘I see you there,' and ‘I'm praying that y'all can take it all the way.' "

The other loop on continuous play on SportsCenter - even embedded on the lead-in Saturday evening - was Summitt's halftime tirade. The players were clearly amused when asked about it Sunday by the media at their press conference with Summitt.

"I like discipline," Simmons said. "Whenever she does things like that sometimes I look at her, and I make eye contact with her because I understand. I am used to being yelled at all the time.

"I am used to being told, ‘You need to get your behind over here,' and things like that. That is one thing that I really appreciate about Pat. That means that she really, really cares and that she really wants us to do good."


Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Meighan Simmons, 5'9 freshman guard, No. 10 (13.8 points per game, 2.8 rebounds per game), hails from Cibolo, Texas, has 103 assists this season despite being out of position at point as a first-year player, also has grabbed 100 rebounds, needs two points for 500 on the season; Taber Spani, 6'1 sophomore guard/forward, No. 13 (7.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg), hails from Lee's Summit, Mo., 79.2 percent free throw shooter, has connected on 32 treys this season; Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 junior sophomore guard/forward, No. 40 (12.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg), hails from Morrilton, Ark., second on the team with 74 assists despite moving off the ball, has connected on 41 treys this season with nine coming in the SEC and NCAA postseasons; Glory Johnson, 6'3 junior forward, No. 25 (12.0 ppg, 9.6 rpg), hails from Knoxville, Tenn., leads the team with 345 rebounds with 130 coming on the offensive end, one of seven players on team to tally triple digits in rebounds; and Alyssia Brewer, 6'3 junior forward/center, No. 33 (3.0 ppg, 2.6 rpg), hails from Sapulpa, Okla., will make her seventh start of the season, 2010 SEC Sixth Woman of the Year making her way back from Achilles tendon surgery, has played in 19 games this season.

Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw is expected to start: Skylar Diggins, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 4 (14.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg), hails from South Bend, Ind., has 173 assists this season, 12 assists against Oklahoma in semifinal win; Brittany Mallory, 5'10 senior guard, No. 22 (7.0 ppg, 2.2 rpg), hails from Baltimore, Md., connected on six treys in win over Oklahoma, has 94 assists this season; Natalie Novosel, 5'11 junior guard, No. 21 (14.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg), hails from Lexington, Ky., has connected on 77.8 percent (7-9) of her three-pointers in NCAA tourney, 30-72 (41.7 percent) on the season, made eight in 16 Big East games and seven in three NCAA tourney games; Becca Bruszewski, 6'1 senior forward, No. 32 (9.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg), hails from Valparaiso, Ind., twisted knee in win over Oklahoma, was listed as questionable for Monday's game, semifinal was school-record 133rd game played for senior; and Devereaux Peters, 6'2 senior forward, No. 14 (11.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg), hails from Chicago, Ill., second in Big East with 58.7 field goal percentage, had 17 points, 13 boards against Oklahoma.

Bruszewski was held out of practice Sunday.

"I am not sure what her status will be (Monday)," McGraw said. "We'll take that day to day. We hope that we can use her a little bit, but her knee is pretty sore, so we'll just have to wait and see. Obviously, we need her in there with toughness. I know she is going to want to play.

"Her mental toughness I think is going to at least get her out there a little bit to see if she can go, but she's our leader. She's someone we really rely on to be the physical presence inside so she's a big key for the game."

If Bruszewski isn't cleared, the Fighting Irish are likely to start Natalie Achonwa, a 6'3 freshman forward who averages 7.3 points and 5.5 rebounds a game. Achonwa had 10 points and eight rebounds against Oklahoma.

"She is really coming into her own right now," McGraw said of Achonwa. "She had a great Big East Tournament. I thought she could have been on the All-Tournament Team there. She played really well (Saturday). She has really done some great things lately. … We're going to need her to be inside and be physical (against Tennessee).

"When she came in (to college) I think you look at her and you say, ‘Boy, she's going to be good.' The question is when. When is it going to happen. I thought even early on she had some really good games for us. I remember telling her before the Big East season started that, ‘I don't look at you as having potential anymore. I feel like are a good player.'

"I think from there she's really just gotten better. I would say she has surpassed our expectations for the season."

SHUFFLING STARTERS: There is a saying in East Tennessee that if you don't like the weather, give it a day and it will change. The same could be said of Tennessee's starting lineups this season.

The format for the media day between games in regional play is for the five starters to accompany the head coach to the press conference. Alyssia Brewer and Taber Spani, who came off the bench in the semifinal win, are slated to start Monday, although a coach can still make changes on game day.

After an 0-4 game from the floor against Ohio State, Pat Summitt decided to bring Angie Bjorklund off the bench - as she did after returning from a foot injury late in the season - and start Spani on the perimeter.

"Whatever we need to do to win," Bjorklund said. "I trust the coaches' decision. I am just here to win. I am going to do my best whether coming off the bench or starting. With this team she has started someone different nearly every single game, so we never really know. It's basically been who is producing."

The second change came about after a conversation Summitt had with Kelley Cain, who has always been honest with the coach about her health status. Notre Dame faces up at the high post, and Cain thought Brewer would be better suited to deal with that at the start of the game.

The staff has been willing to reconfigure the lineup depending on matchups, and the latest was used during the SEC tourney, which turned into the Tennessee Invitational.

"We had a great tournament," Bjorklund said.

"Angie is a great person on and off the court," backcourt buddy Shekinna Stricklen said. "She encourages us, and she tells us what we need to know. That's a great leader."

During those games when she came off the bench, Bjorklund would watch closely and stay in communication with the assistants, especially Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick.

"It gives you an opportunity to see what's going on, read the defense, see where the openings are, see how to guard them," Bjorklund said.

The lineup change is also a reaction to what Notre Dame does offensively.

"We took Kelley Cain out of the lineup because I know they're going to face up at the high post, and that's not Kelley's strength, " Summitt said. "Lyssi is a lot more mobile and then you've got Glory Johnson, who's got the mobility, and Stricklen (across the frontline).

"So we're trying to go a little bit more mobile," Summitt said. "It's always a wait and see. But I think our mobile players will be our more effective players."

It doesn't mean that Cain won't play. She will come off the bench and be used in relief.

"How the posts are looking to score and if they are looking to score," Cain said. "That is basically what I will be watching on the bench. And then what else I can do to help my guards out as far as seeing who's hot at the time."

The Lady Vols know the staff hasn't hesitated to tinker with the lineup - they have said it keeps them in a state of readiness - but that doesn't mean it doesn't sometimes take them by surprise. That was the case with Brewer.

"They didn't have any idea who was going to start until we told them (Sunday)," Summitt said. "They were just sitting around talking and chatting and we said, ‘OK, here are the five people who are going to start.' I am sure Lyssi thought, ‘I'm starting?'

"It's just a matchup situation that our staff, we talked about it, we had a long conversation (Sunday) morning and we all arrived at this was best five. Now, that doesn't mean everybody else is going to be sitting there thinking, ‘Am I going to play?' They know that we're going to play deep in our roster."

Tennessee has a roster full of high school All-Americans - albeit a few are in various stages of health because of injuries - so the approach meant egos had to be checked at the door to the gym floor.

"It's about team, not about me," Cain said. "For the team to be successful everybody has to put in their part. As far as starting we really don't care who starts. Anybody on our team could start. If we went anywhere in the country all of us would probably be like the best player on the team, but we are all on the same team.

"We know that everybody has their own strengths and we're going to play to those strengths. This game Lyssi starts."

Bjorklund, who had to be extracted from a high-spirited game of Pictionary in the locker room for the interview - it's a popular activity among teams in postseason, especially since NCAA rules keep them confined to the locker room for the media portion without cell phones or laptops allowed to be in use - clearly wasn't upset by the change and said it just showed the team's depth.

"Almost every team we play, they play five, six players, seven maybe, and so I think the fact that we can play 11 players almost every single (postseason) game so far, it speaks volumes to our depth," Bjorklund said.

"I just roll with what I need to do. It's not about me. It's about this team and it's about this team and winning. If I let that get to my head … you just can't in order to play my best and help the team win."

Cain also was shouting to be heard by the media over the screams of Pictionary.

"Lyssi is a lot more mobile than I am, especially because of my hip and stuff," Cain said. "I'm like, ‘Go ahead. Let Lyssi go out there and show what she can do in this tournament.' "

Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss began her career on the sideline in 1977, spent 18 years at Tennessee, seven years at Kentucky and Texas and then returned to Tennessee last spring.

A team changing its starters from a semifinal game to a regional showdown is rare to say the least, but the quality of the Lady Vols' depth is such that it seems reasonable.

"Thank God for our bench," DeMoss said. "Our bench outscored (Ohio State's) bench 22 to two. We knew that going in. One of our strengths as a team is the fact that we have a great bench. That's one of our weapons."

It's been an interesting challenge for the coaches because they've had to balance using all the pieces at the right time, keeping the team ready at all times and also making sure key players log extended minutes when necessary. Tennessee used 11 players against Ohio State with Meighan Simmons still going the distance and Shekinna Stricklen logging 36 minutes.

"It's a unique situation. It really is," DeMoss said. "But I think that's how much confidence we have in those players that are sitting there. We know what each one of them can do, what we need at that particular moment, and we hope they'll bring it that night.

"And they know how valuable they are, and I think they have taken a lot of pride in that. So, again, that is one of our weapons that hopefully we can continue to utilize."

Spani noted, "I haven't been on a team this deep. It's amazing because we could just keep going down the bench, and somebody could be starting. That just shows how much hard work we have all put in and how much we have invested as a team as a whole."

The Lady Vols have the chance Monday to do what the majority of this team never has - get to a Final Four.

"It would be the best feeling ever," Stricklen said. "I think when the game starts we'll just focus on things we have to do on the court. To get to the Final Four you have to play hard, and you have to play great defense and rebound."

"I think we just need to go into the game extremely confident," Alicia Manning said. "I am really excited about it and I am ready to get the game going."

SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Notre Dame game. Here is her assessment.

When Notre Dame has the ball: The Irish like to increase the tempo, and they also are patient in their half-court sets.

"First of all they're going to push in transition," DeMoss said. "If they see an opportunity to catch you not getting back or catch you with your back to the ball, they're going to push in transition.

"They run a variety of things. They are very efficient offensively. They run the Princeton with a lot of different options out of the Princeton. They run quick hitters where they can come off of ball screens and backdoor cuts and back screens. There is really not an action that we're not going to have to defend. They are just very efficient."

Defensively, Notre Dame is disciplined and often plays man.

"They are just very solid fundamentally," DeMoss said. "They are not going to give you a lot of easy baskets. They are going to make you shoot over them. They don't do anything fancy, but they play very, very good team defense."

When Tennessee has the ball: The Lady Vols want an up-tempo game, paint points and good shot selection.

"Offensively, I think we're going to keep doing the things that we do," DeMoss said. "We're going to keep pushing in transition. We've got to get the ball inside. I think we can get it in the paint whether it's post feeds or off penetration. And then see what gaps we can find, what openings we can find.

"Our kids are just going to have to come to play. They've got to hit open looks, and people who can take it off the dribble have got to do a really good job of getting it off the dribble for us."

Defensively, the Lady Vols changed the starting lineup to counter the Irish.

"It's more about how we match up with them," DeMoss said. "They like to spread the floor offensively, and we knew that Kelley (Cain) was going to have to get out away from the basket too much, and we just didn't want to start the game putting her in that position. We felt like it's probably a better defensive team for us."

Tennessee will want to have all of its defensive options handy from man to zone to full court looks.

"I think our pressure has got to be better than it was (Saturday)," DeMoss said. "We started out too conservative. We started out too afraid of their penetration, and we just weren't doing anything. We were getting caught in no man's land.

"So, we're going to play Tennessee defense, pressure, active, and then we can adjust from there, but we've got to start out with an aggressive-type game plan. I am sure we'll mix it up. We've done it all year where we mixed up zone, mixed up man, pressed a little bit and see what we think is going to be effective."

DEFENSIVE SILENCE: Tennessee's defense in the first half against Ohio State was rather quiet, both figuratively and literally.

The primary chatter on the court came from Kelley Cain, a redshirt junior center. The bench noise came from junior guard Briana Bass, who was trying to help from the sideline.

"There was a lot of talking that we didn't do," Taber Spani said. "It's more committing to what we're doing. We did a lot of different things, and communication comes in when we need to know what we're doing, if we're going to hedge or we're going to switch or we're going to Velcro or whatever. We kind of threw the whole game plan at them.

"I think in the second half we took it upon ourselves that we were not going to let our person score. Their field goal percentage dropped."

The defense was porous, but Shekinna Stricklen was encouraged that it later stiffened.

"We are still struggling on one-on-one defense, ball screens, help side," Stricklen said. "We are still struggling but when we needed it, we were able to buckle down and get a stop."

It is not that this Tennessee can't play defense, it is that sometimes it doesn't, which has been maddening for Pat Summitt.

"When we put our minds to it, and we buckle down, we can play great defense," Kamiko Williams said. "We've just got to do it consistently. Once we get into the flow of playing defense every game like we're supposed to, we'll be good."

Williams is a player for Tennessee that can make an opponent's defense look shaky because of her ability to get to the rim. Dribble penetration is difficult to defend and both Ohio State and Tennessee used that approach to score.

"The offensive player has the advantage," said Alicia Manning, who can penetrate and is also called upon by Tennessee to try to stop it. "The defensive player has to react to what they're doing."

Tennessee will sometimes funnel dribble penetrators into the post defenders, but they had their hands full with Ohio State's Jantel Lavender.

"Because they had such a strong post presence you couldn't really focus on just guarding the perimeter," Sydney Smallbone said. "It's harder to guard everybody out there, which is something Ohio State had. They had shooters and penetrators with Jantel inside. It poses a lot of matchup problems."

"We didn't start off the game respecting them and their offense and their shooters," Vicki Baugh said. "That bit us in the butt because they shot a very high percentage in the first half. Second half we realized it's time to buckle down."

Freshman Lauren Avant entered the game because of her ability to pressure the ball, and she did that well. But Avant, who was at the top of the defense on the ball, ended up out of position on switches and screens and needed someone behind her to talk the action.

"We just had a lot of confusion," Avant said. "I think it all started with our lack of communication. We corrected that in the second half. We discussed getting over their ball screens and keeping people in front."

Cain will be on the bench to start Monday's game so her voice will have to be heard from afar. The bench players all can shout out what they are seeing to the players on the court.

"Try to keep talking from the bench," Cain said. "I know that is what I try to do. I sit there trying to yell my head off over there. Hopefully, somebody will hear me.

"Sometimes the people that are in the game they just get in the zone so much that they forget they have to talk to help everybody around them."

The coaches will be listening for on-court chatter.

"If it's not there (Monday) night, we're going home," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said. "Because they run so many different things that we can't tell them from the bench every time what is going to happen. They've got to take some ownership of being able to call out back screens, to call ball screens, to call back doors.

"If we don't do it, it will be a long night for the Lady Volunteers."

The message has been delivered.

"Number one, communicate," Stricklen said. "Let each know where the shooters are at. Let each other know that we're in help side. They are a very smart team. If you're are denying really hard, they go back door. They read stuff like that very well. They live to drive and kick. We really have to stop transition."

Tennessee will be going against a team that is "committed to defense," Spani said.

"Devereaux Peters is a big part of what they do," she said. "They rely on her a lot, and they also have great guard defenders. We are going to have to execute. We can't go in and expect to score at will, because that is not going to happen."

OFFENSIVE EFFICIENCY: On the flip side, Tennessee shoots the ball very well - 47.0 percent overall on the season and 38.3 percent from the arc as a team with Angie Bjorklund connecting at 45.6 percent from long range and Shekinna Stricklen, who plays all over the court, at 49.1 percent overall.

During the NCAA tourney, Tennessee has shot 51.2 percent and against ranked opponents all season the Lady Vols still shot 45.6 percent.

At times this season, the Lady Vols likely shot too good for their own good.

At a players-only meeting before the team returned to practice to prepare for the Dayton Regional, one point raised was that the guards needed to trust the posts to score and feed them the ball more, an approach that was effective in the semifinal win as Kelley Cain scored the team's first six points in the paint.

A scorching night in the net can mask defensive deficiencies that will appear in postseason when the teams are better - especially with just eight still standing - so an approach of just outlasting a team on the scoreboard can backfire.

"It's going to bite us in the behind if we're not careful, because Ohio State was almost 70 percent from the field in the first half," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said. "That means we've got to shoot 71 percent to beat them if we're going to have that mindset.

"If that is out mindset it needs to change because as it gets deeper into the postseason, teams get tighter and tighter and tighter and usually shooting percentages go down."

Tennessee is capable of doing both - shooting well and playing solid defense.

"Sometimes it's like either you can either get an offensive game or a defensive game," Kelley Cain said. "We just need to learn how to play a defensive game and an offensive game together."

SCHOOL SERIES: Tennessee and Notre Dame have played 20 times and the Lady Vols have won every game. The current teams don't have much history, though, as they have played just once in the past four years when the current seniors were freshmen.

"I haven't been a part of any of those 20 games, but we know the history between the two programs," Notre Dame sophomore Skylar Diggins said. "Two Hall of Fame coaches, and it's just going to be a great game. These teams have met up with each other and played in some close games, and we're obviously looking to break that."

The Lady Vols realized the series history would be motivation for the Irish.

"It would be important to any team to be the first to beat Tennessee," Lady Vol junior Shekinna Stricklen said. "For them not to beat us, we need to buckle down and play great defense and play as a team."

Pat Summitt believed it would be a source of inspiration.

"Absolutely," Summitt said. "If I was in the situation, I would do the same. I think for us, we have to take care of what we do best. I was so impressed with Notre Dame's play and I know our team took note of everything.

"I think (Monday) is going to be a great game. If we don't bring our defense and board play and take care of the basketball, it could be a tough night for us."

Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw wasn't inclined to focus on the futility aspect when asked if she would tell her team that Tennessee was 20-0 against the Irish.

"Well, that would be pretty silly of me to bring something like that up I think," McGraw said. "This team is a team that hasn't played Tennessee. … Certainly we are not going to be talking about the past."

Her focus was clearly on this version of the Lady Vols and keeping them off the boards.

"I think we need the best out of everybody on our team," McGraw said. "I think that we need everybody to get in and rebound, to box out, to try to get a career-high rebound. Devereaux (Peters) is our leading rebounder so naturally we look to her to lead that charge, but I think that responsibility is really going to fall to everybody."

McGraw expected a physical game in the paint Monday evening.

"I think they are extremely physical inside," McGraw said. "I think they're going to set some bone-crushing screens. They're going to be very physical on the boards. We've got to be able to hold our ground.

"I think we've been tough all year long. I think our players are tough, they're fighters, and we're going to need all of that."

Peters acknowledged that Tennessee's post size was formidable and said the Irish needed to use their ability to move around the court when dealing with Tennessee's bigs.

"I think we need to focus on us and not try to bang with them," Peters said. "We're more mobile I think and really try to work that part of our game as opposed to them pushing you down in the post and really back you down.

"We have to use that to our strengths, the fact that we're faster and try to get around them and do things like that. Push through it. It's the tournament. You can't focus on their strengths as much as your own."

FAMILIAR FOES: Although Tennessee and Notre Dame haven't played since 2008 in a Sweet 16 matchup in Oklahoma City, there is some overlap with the players.

Lady Vols senior guard Sydney Smallbone's high school was across the street from Notre Dame and she is from Granger, Ind., which is where Coach Muffet McGraw lives.

Smallbone played AAU ball with Becca Bruszewski.

"She is one of my good friends," Smallbone said.

Smallbone also crossed paths in AAU basketball with Skylar Diggins and Devereaux Peters.

"They're a great team, and Muffet is a great coach, so it's going to be a good matchup," Smallbone said.

The Georgia players also have a connection to Notre Dame's roster. Alicia Manning and Kelley Cain know Fraderica Miller, a junior guard for the Irish who is from Atlanta.

Cain and Miller played on the same team in middle school and then went to different private high schools - Cain to St. Pius X and Miller to The Marist School.

"We were big rivals," Cain said.

Heather Mason, the Lady Vols strength and conditioning coach, spent five years on the staff for the Irish from 1998 to 2003.

Taber Spani (2009, USA, U19) and Alyssia Brewer and Shekinna Stricklen (2008, USA, U18) also played with Diggins.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Sunday was Alicia Manning's 21st birthday, but it was a rather quiet one with the team in postseason.

A couple of teammates did deliver their own version of cheer.

"Me and Miko actually beat her up. That was about it," Shekinna Stricklen said. "We got a few punches on her. That was good."

Stricklen has been rooming with Kamiko Williams on this trip, and the two have enjoyed the down time when not practicing or playing.

"We have been lazy," Stricklen said. "We close all the blinds. We're watching TV, sleeping, that's about it."

ACL REBOUND: Devereaux Peters of Notre Dame and Vicki Baugh of Tennessee would likely have a lot to talk about when it comes to knee injuries. Both are agile and athletic post players who suffered two ACL injuries to their left knee in a short period of time.

Peters is about five months ahead of Baugh in terms of total recovery time and had a season last year much like Baugh had this year - in and out of practice, still needing a lot of rehab and occasionally getting frustrated.

Peters turned a corner in January and has averaged 24.1 minutes while posting 11.9 points and 7.5 boards a game. She was named to the All-Big East First Team, was selected as Big East Defensive Player of the Year and made the cut for Al-American consideration.

"I think when the Big East season began in early January her game really elevated to the next level," Coach Muffet McGraw said. "She has just been really phenomenal at both ends of the floor. She can score around the basket. She's rebounding for us. She makes things happen in transition.

"She's coming into her own. I think she's completely healthy right now. After a long struggle with all the knee problems that she had it's great to be able to see her out there playing without any pain."

Peters said as her time on the court increased, so did her comfort level, especially being full go in the off-season and at practice.

"Being able to work on the little stuff, my jumper, layups, mobility, being able to cut and plus being more with the team and getting that chemistry back that I didn't have," Peters said.

Last season was one for Peters to scrape off the rust. This season she felt like her old self.

"Absolutely," Peters said. "I don't think about it at all. Last year I felt like I wasn't cutting as much. I wasn't as quick as I normally was. I think I have gotten that back a lot."

Baugh and Peters met each other at the 2007 McDonald's All-American game.

"She's a great player and just knowing that she's overcome that and she looks great out there on the court is good for me," Baugh said.

Peters was happy to hear that her comeback had been noticed by Baugh and encouraged her.

"Absolutely," Peters said. "It's really tough coming back from any ACL, let alone two. I don't think people really understand how much it is coming back physically and mentally as well. It's a mental mountain you have to get over.

"I really think it takes that full year (on the court) to really get back to what you used to be even though you can play and do what you were doing physically. Mentally, it really takes that whole year to get back to where you were before. It's tough."

Peters leaned on former Notre Dame player Niele Ivy, now an Irish assistant coach, for support. Ivy tore her left ACL in college.

"It definitely helps when you see other players that can do it," Peters said. "With Niele Ivy it was really helped to have her around when I was going through it, because she knew exactly what I was going through, the days where I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can't do this.' It's really hard.

"I am glad she can look at me and be encouraged, because you need a lot of encouragement going through that. Sometimes you just feel like you are never going to make it back to that point."

Baugh knew the recovery from two major surgeries - and then a third to repair a torn meniscus on the same knee - would take time. She sat out last season and returned to the court after a nearly two-year absence.

"Most definitely it takes time," Baugh said. "Right now it's been week to week how does it feel. Jenny (Moshak) continues to tell me that next year is going to be totally different, and I will barely have to see her.

"If I just keep working - it's always hard when you're getting back in it - I think it's a positive thing for my future."


Tennessee is 20-0 against Notre Dame. The series began in 1983, and the teams played twice in 2008 - a regular season matchup and in the Sweet 16. Tennessee trailed at halftime, 33-31, in the NCAA matchup but won 74-64 behind 34 points from Candace Parker. Tennessee's overall record in the Elite Eight is 18-5. … Tennessee is 1-2 in games played on March 28. The lone win on this date was against Notre Dame, 80-66, in 1997. The two losses on March 28 were to Southern Cal, 83-59, in 1986; and North Carolina, 75-63, in 2006. … Notre Dame is third in the nation with an average of 13.0 steals per game. The 454 steals surpassed the former school record of 450 set last season. The Fighting Irish led the Big East in three-point field goal percentage defense at 27.2 percent. … Tennessee is 14-5 against the Big East in the NCAA tourney. This will be the second Big East team that the Lady Vols will face in the 2011 tourney. Tennessee defeated Marquette in the second round.


The Sweet 16 press conferences are available to view online here.


Alyssia Brewer

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