Lady Vols fall short of Final Four

DAYTON, Ohio - Amid a locker room of tears and disappointment, Alicia Manning's voice was steady and her words direct: The Lady Vols needed to play with more effort on defense, and it finally caught up with the team. Nobody disagreed with that sentiment, especially the coach, and Tennessee enters the off-season still seeking the rising senior class' first Final Four.

Pat Summitt sat Monday night in a room adjacent to the locker room, the anger still etched on her face. As she answered a question about the 73-59 loss to Notre Dame, her voice rose with each word, the remarks clearly intended for the players as they sat nearby waiting on the media portion of post-game to be completed so they could prepare to leave Dayton Arena.

"They still don't get it," Summitt said. "They're selfish. They're immature. They don't like to play together. I don't know what we're going to do. We're probably going to have to look at our roster and find out how many people really have the heart and the passion to be in this program.

"I'm as sick as I've ever been of this group."

Summitt had to provide the majority of the fire and snarl all season for the team, and she was still combustible after the game.

"I am very upset and I am very disappointed in our basketball team," Summitt said at the post-game press conference. "I don't think we came here with the focus and don't ask me why. I look at this junior class and I look at Angie (Bjorklund) as a senior and I am kind of lost for words as to why they wouldn't come in and already have a pact on what they were going to do.

"At the same time, you have to give Notre Dame great credit. They had great ball movement and no question Skylar Diggins was the player that made them go. We did not have a guard play that way, and guard play is very, very important at this time of the year.

"I hate this for our program, our administration. I hope our players will learn from it because we've got a ways to go. We were exposed."

The press conference video can be viewed online here.

The locker rooms at the arena were mere steps away from the court, so the sounds of Notre Dame, 30-7, celebrating its Final Four berth leaked easily through the walls, the Lady Vol fans among the 5,708 in attendance having mostly departed for the parking lot after the game ended.

"I can't stand it," Taber Spani said through a sea of tears.

Several players were inconsolable, Shekinna Stricklen among them, with their heads buried in their hands. Most were able to speak to the media, including freshman guard Meighan Simmons, who suffered through a 1-11 shooting night and wiped away tears as she tried to explain what went wrong for Tennessee, 34-3.

Simmons will be back. Seniors Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone wore their jerseys for the last time in the Elite Eight. Smallbone said it has not yet sunk in for her.

"It hasn't set in," Smallbone said. "It's going to take awhile I think. They are some of my best friends because we have been through so much together. I am going to miss being a part of the team and especially this team."

Bjorklund, whose next step likely is the WNBA, was able to speak through tears. She leaves Tennessee as the all-time three-point shooter with 305 treys and a national title ring in 2008, but a loss in the Elite Eight was not how she expected to exit in orange.

"If I have the opportunity I definitely want to (keep playing basketball), but I wasn't expecting to think about that this early right now," Bjorklund said.

The Elite Eight was another step for the junior class, but it also got on the wrong side of history with the program's first-ever loss to the Fighting Irish.

"We went into the locker room after the game and the first thing the team said was, ‘1 and 20!' Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw said. "I want to thank (the media) for bringing that to their attention. I think the law of averages said we had to win one."

That was in reference to the Irish entering the game with a program record of 0-20 against the Lady Vols.

"I think the maturity and growth of this team is the best I've ever coached," McGraw said.

The juniors for Tennessee enter the off-season still short of the Final Four, and Alicia Manning said the incoming freshmen were going to learn from day one what her class didn't - how hard a team has to work to make it to the final event of women's college basketball.

"We need everything we can get right now," Manning said. "I love hard-working people. If they're going to come here and do the same thing then I've got respect for that. They're coming in to a great program, so I hope they're ready.

"I know how it is coming in as a freshman and you need to set the bar early with these freshmen coming in. You can't come in with a lackadaisical attitude. You can't come in not working hard every second you get a chance to."

Junior Glory Johnson also wasn't at a loss for words - she needed just one when asked when went wrong for Tennessee.

"Our defense, our defense, our defense," Johnson said.

Although Tennessee won the battle of the boards, 46-34, it missed on key boards late that kept possessions alive for Notre Dame.

"Our rebounding was lacking," Johnson said. "I went out with two fouls so it was partly my fault. But we can't just throw up shots and not go rebound. And then every time we were missing they were scoring, we were missing, they were scoring, we were missing, they were scoring."

Tennessee, for once, didn't shoot well. As the shots misfired, so did the Lady Vols' composure. Players reverted to bad habits such as holding the ball too long or taking the first shot after a pass instead of reversing or moving through the paint.

Simmons, whose steady hand and shooting carried Tennessee in the semifinal win over Ohio State, was so rattled she had a shot hit the side of the backboard. Johnson got it back and scored - Johnson was 4-9 for 12 points and grabbed 14 boards - but the Lady Vols were out of sync for most of the game.

The Lady Vols had won a lot of games this season by outscoring opponents, not necessarily stopping them, but they shot 32.8 percent overall and 21.1 percent from long range. With the points not piling up, Tennessee needed its defense, and that has been sub-par all season.

"Our defense catches up with us every game, every first half, you can see it," Johnson said. "It's not good at all but most of the time we can pick it up in the second half."

That didn't happen Monday as Notre Dame answered its 29 points in the first half with 44 after the break. The Lady Vols mustered 35 points to its 24 before the break, which was aided by a Taber Spani high-rise three just as the buzzer sounded.

The game opened as if neither team had been in a regional final - which was the case for every starter on the floor. Angie Bjorklund opened on the bench after struggling with her shot in the NCAA tourney, and it was a tough end to an outstanding career at Tennessee.

"I hate it for her," Summitt said. "If everybody would have rallied around her this might not have happened. She needed some help."

The Lady Vols were crestfallen after the game. Stricklen stayed buried inside a locker, several teammates trying to console her. Lauren Avant choked out a few words in reply to questions, but sounded as if she was ready to sob.

Manning sat at her locker and looked angry.

"It's one thing if you get beat by players making good players," Manning said. "But I think we got beat with our effort, and I can't live with that. I really can't, because that is what I do. That is my thing.

"So to sit on the sideline and watch that, it killed me. I was dying to get out there and do something, get some kind of energy level going."

Manning did do so, especially in the first half, when Notre Dame built an eight-point lead and the Lady Vols needed stops. But the Irish built on that lead in the second half and Tennessee looked for an offensive answer. That kept Manning on the bench and underscored Tennessee's juggling act all season - how to get its strongest defenders on the court in a mix with its scorers.

"That's a hard way for it to end," Manning said. "But it happened. It's over. I think we could have gone a lot farther."

That sentiment was shared by her teammates as the Lady Vols felt like they let a Final Four slip away with shoddy defense.

"Defensively we let their best players make the plays when it counted," Spani said. "In the Elite Eight everybody is good. Notre Dame is a great team, and we didn't step up and stop them, and we didn't make shots."

The game began with turnovers by both teams and two missed shots by Simmons. Tennessee got on the board first after Johnson got a steal and passed ahead to Stricklen for the layup at the 18:11 mark of the first half. Diggins answered with a three for Notre Dame at the 17:52 mark, and the Irish built a seven-point lead, 11-4, as Tennessee continued to misfire.

Tennessee managed to tie the game, 13-13, at the 10:18 mark of the first half on a drive and bank shot by Vicki Baugh. The score remained knotted until Baugh hit a free throw at the 8:06 mark of the first half, an opportunity to create some separation negated by missed jumpers and turnovers.

Notre Dame led by eight, 29-21, after two free throws from Becca Bruszewski with 48 seconds to go and after a turnover by Alyssia Brewer in the paint, it looked like Notre Dame would add to it but Natalie Novosel traveled. Tennessee called timeout with four seconds left, and Spani buried a deep three as the buzzer sounded that was well defended, and the Lady Vols trailed 29-24 at halftime.

"At halftime we knew we played awful, and we were only down by five," Spani said. "But I think what hurt us is we didn't get stops in the second half when we were making runs. We were starting to score and we couldn't stop them from making their runs and that was the difference."

That was the second half in a nutshell. Tennessee scored the first four points on an offensive rebound from Stricklen and then a layup from the junior in transition to cut the lead to one point, 29-28, just 55 seconds into the second half. It looked like a patented Lady Vol game this season - slow start, strong finish.

But that was as close as Tennessee would get. Notre Dame answered every run and although the Lady Vols continued to cut the lead to four points - the last time at 51-47 with 6:28 to go - the defense faltered throughout the game.

"When we're not scoring we've got to bring the defense," Bjorklund said. "We've been saying that all year. You can't make last-minute changes. You've got to learn to get it done from the start and make it happen.

"You've just got to buy into the system - that's defense and rebounding."

Notre Dame got the lead to double digits, 60-48, on a nifty layup by Devereaux Peters with 3:39 to play and with the way Tennessee had been shooting, it seemed then that the only suspense would be the Irish's margin of victory. The Notre Dame bench got a warning for celebration at that point in the game.

Tennessee fought until the final second - and fouled Notre Dame to put them on the line - and the final score was 73-59, and another bitter exit for the Lady Vols in the postseason.

Manning indicated the team knew what to expect from the Irish but failed to stop it.

"I think we didn't stick to our game plan like we needed to," Manning said. "We knew they were going to drive and dish. We knew they were going to dish to the posts. We didn't stop it, and it killed us."

What a team does in the postseason is not a surprise because of the amount of scouting film available. Tennessee simplified the process for the Irish by taking quick outside shots that were often one and done.

"Good teams don't rely on just any one thing," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "There's balance. And that's one of the things we've tried to stress all year. We've tried to play through our inside and inside-out.

"You can't live and die just on jump shots. You can't do that, and tonight we were not hitting shots whatsoever. If you're not hitting jump shots you had better have a strong inside game and you had better be able to dribble drive by people, get some fouls, get to the paint."

At this point in the season, it's a matter of execution on both sides of the ball, and Notre Dame got little resistance when running its offenses while Tennessee took early shots and turned over the ball when it did get inside because of loose handles and lax ball security.

"I think we weren't the aggressors tonight," Bjorklund said. "I give Notre Dame a lot of credit. They knew our game to a T, our personnel and plays and just executed better than us."

Tennessee also was hindered by Simmons playing just four minutes in the first half because of foul trouble. The speedy freshman pushes tempo for Tennessee and puts pressure on the defense. Kamiko Williams filled in for Simmons but was 1-6 in the first half with three turnovers. Notre Dame left her open to take outside shots and when Williams drove, she misfired on shots she usually hits.

When Simmons reentered to start the second half, she still struggled offensively and finished the game 1-11 from the field.

"Obviously, Meighan was not herself today," Summitt said. "Just looking at her stat line, 1-11 and 0-5 from the three, you can tell she was very anxious so we had to look to other people to do stuff for us. She is a freshman, and sometimes we forget that, with a great future ahead of her.

"This was a big game that seemed a little bit different to her than playing through the SEC and getting here."

Simmons acknowledged after the game that she was nervous beforehand.

"I know I was," Simmons said, using her jersey to wipe tears off her face. "I had a little bit of nerves. In this game you can't have nerves. You've just got to go out there and play your game."

A team that struggled defensively all season immediately pointed to that side of the ball as an explanation for the loss.

"Know your defense," Stricken said at the post-game press conference. "That's the key to winning the game. You have to play as a team. You have to bring your defense and energy and we didn't have that today.

"Shots weren't going and when that happens you better play defense. We didn't have any leaders step up today and we weren't clicking as a team."

Manning didn't mind the sounds of the Irish celebrating while they donned Final Four hats and T-shirts. She said the team needed to hear it.

"I am happy for them," Manning said. "They worked hard. They deserved it. It's a heart-breaker for us, but they outplayed us. It's one and done in March Madness. One and done. They outplayed us and they deserve to go."

Notre Dame was led by Diggins with 24 points. Three other players reached double digits for the Irish with Novosel scoring 17, Bruszewski adding 13 and Brittany Mallory chipping in with 10 points. The Irish shot 44.6 percent (25-56) overall, 45.5 percent (5-11) from long range and 81.8 percent (18-22) from the line.

Notre Dame had 17 assists, 16 turnovers, 11 steals and one block. The Irish had 34 rebounds, led by eight tallied by Bruszewski and six grabbed by Natalie Achonwa.

Tennessee was led by Spani and Stricklen, who both scored 13 points. Johnson added 12 and completed the double-double with 14 rebounds. Baugh was 3-4 off the bench with eight points and five rebounds.

The Lady Vols shot 32.8 percent (22-67) overall, 21.1 percent (4-19) from long range and 64.7 percent (11-17) from the line. Tennessee had 11 assists, 19 turnovers and eight steals. Tennessee prevailed on the boards, 46-34, with Spani second on the team with seven rebounds. Stricklen tallied six boards.

Summitt had fretted about the team's tendency to try to outscore teams instead of stop them, and her warnings about defense being the key to success in postseason perhaps finally sunk in with the players.

"She told us that we didn't come ready to play and she's disappointed, as we expected," Baugh said. "Most definitely we're disappointed. We're trying to adjust at the end things that we should have taken care of at the beginning of the year. Defense. We're going to make that a priority starting now."

"Instead of dictating, we didn't react well," Kelley Cain said. "Our defense was awful to be honest."

The Lady Vols will carry signification motivation into the postseason with five true seniors and two redshirt ones in Cain and Baugh. Cain has played her career at Tennessee in pain, and this season was no exception with chronic hip and back issues that limited her again Monday.

"To be honest that doesn't matter right now," Cain said. "I was able to play so it doesn't matter what pain I'm in. I am always going to be in pain."

Cain said that she will wait for word from Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine, to determine what she can do in the off-season. Baugh expects to be full go this summer, her first since arriving on campus with the current senior class.

"This off-season is not so much recovering," Baugh said. "I feel like I've done that so now it's just enhancing my game. I am feeling good."

Basketball conditioning will be a priority for Baugh.

"Most definitely," Baugh said. "This season I haven't gotten to play consistently. It's different in games. It's always different. I can do as much elliptical or treadmill as I want but it's different when we simulate games. That is definitely a priority."

Baugh will graduate in May but will enroll in graduate school. She said it was difficult to say good-bye to Smallbone and Bjorklund.

"It's very hard," Baugh said. "We came in together. We've been through a lot together. Angie was my roommate freshman year, and Sydney's my roommate right now. It's very hard. We're a very close class and I just wish them the best of luck."

"I'll never be on a closer team in my life I know that for sure," Smallbone said. "I'm going to miss it and it's sad that this is the way it ended. But this group will get through it and go to work. They always do."

The two freshmen, Avant and Simmons, got more upset as the time passed and by the time they were asked about the off-season, both could barely raise their head.

"I will work on every aspect," Simmons said. "My shot selection was bad. I should have got it inside earlier. I should have been more patient. I was a little too anxious."

"Everything, every aspect of the game, try to get the team together so we can come back next year," Avant said. "This definitely motivates me."

Johnson was well aware of the ticking clock for her class.

"Work on my game inside and out," Johnson said. "Maintain that confidence. It's my last year and I am trying to get a championship before I leave. One more year to do it.

"It is motivation. It was motivation this year. I want however many I can get, but we have a lot of learning to do. Maybe we'll start working on our defense earlier rather than wait until tournament time."

Spani will actually have an off-season this summer. A year ago she was shelved because of turf toe with her left foot placed in a cast as soon as the season ended.

"This is going to be the first off-season I really can work," Spani said. "Everyone has got to get better on one-on-one defense. That is definitely a priority and just continue to expand my game."

Manning, whose defense and rebounding are already at the expected Lady Vol level, will turn her attention to shooting and ball handling. She also mentioned something intangible.

"Trying to get the fire in everyone else that is in me," Manning said.

Summitt said the team would likely return to practice soon. It's allowed on a limited basis by NCAA rules, and Tennessee has taken advantage of it for the past two years.

"If Ms. (Joan) Cronan would let me I would probably go back in there tonight," Summitt said with a smile, her composure still intact despite the simmering anger.

While Summitt was at the post-game press conference the three assistants sat in a back area talking among themselves. The agony of the loss lined their faces.

"I can't describe to you the level of disappointment that we feel right now," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "It's incredible."

But Lockwood is never at a loss for words, and he managed to describe the pain, the sounds of players crying still coming from the locker room.

"I know our coaching staff feels this way, and I've got to believe we've got players in that locker room who feel this way, you feel like someone literally has put you down, not anesthetized you and cut you open and just started pulling your guts out," Lockwood said.

"When you don't play your best and you haven't represented yourself with your best effort it literally feels like someone is just operating on you live and pulling your guts out of your body. That's how we're starting to feel right now."

That type of pain means a program cares.

"That's a good thing," Lockwood said. "You're darn right it is."


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