Lady Vols pummeled by Irish

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - The Lady Vols set a program record for fewest points scored in a game and were buried 72-44 by Notre Dame. Go inside for the game story, Inside Tennessee's Take and post-game press conference videos.

"I just want to apologize to the fans," Tennessee Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "We just were not very good today and we were not in Notre Dame's league. I am disappointed we didn't play hard. We didn't compete."

"We knew it was going to be a great game when we walked out and saw a sea of green," Notre Dame Head Coach Muffet McGraw said. "It was an awesome sight. I think it really fired the team up and got us so engaged."

When one coach opened her press conference with an apology and the other noted the T-shirt color of the fans, it's a good indication of how the game went.

Tennessee (14-5) was steamrolled by Notre Dame (20-1) before a sold-out crowd of 9,149 at Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center.

"Tennessee was banged up a little bit coming in, but I think the crowd really rattled them," McGraw said. "We were able to keep our composure defensively, and I think that was key."

The Lady Vols have been shorthanded all season because of injuries, and Monday marked the first time all 11 players on the roster were medically cleared. Taber Spani, who missed the last eight games to rest a bone bruise on her knee that she suffered in November, was released on game day.

But it didn't help against the Irish - a very rusty Spani was 0-2 in nine minutes of play - and the Lady Vols got little offense from anywhere else on the court.

Meighan Simmons was the lone scorer for Tennessee in double figures with 13 points on 5-15 shooting, and she chastised herself after the game for the misses.

"I'm very disappointed in myself personally, not being able to knock down shots that I usually knock down, not playing lockdown defense like I did against LSU," Simmons said.

Simmons had plenty of company in terms of offensive struggles. Tennessee shot 20.0 percent in the first half and trailed by just 10 points at halftime, 28-18, because the Irish were misfiring, too, and turning the ball over by trying to force it inside.

The Lady Vols had plenty of chances as they were all over the offensive glass in the first half, but the nine boards yielded just three second-chance points before the break. They were missing layups and free throws, going 7-35 overall and 4-10 from the line in the first half.

"I really think it's just a lack of focus," Simmons said. "We came in and we were energized, then we kept looking at the scoreboard. We weren't playing, we gave up early. We can't play games like this."

Tennessee briefly led 4-2 at the 18:04 mark of the first half when Simmons scored a layup in transition, but Notre Dame's Kayla McBride scored two consecutive layups to give the Irish a 6-4 lead at the 15:44 mark, and they never trailed again.

McBride ended up with 17 points for the game and made up for the struggles of Natalie Novosel and Brittany Mallory, who combined to shoot 2-12.

But despite Tennessee's early shooting woes, Notre Dame could get very little separation because of its own lack of marksmanship.

"We got the shots that we normally take and make, but they just weren't falling," Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins said.

"We made some mistakes on transitions where we usually make better decisions as a team. Coach told us to not get discouraged and to keep attacking. We just had to stay in attack mode."

McGraw said her concern about Tennessee coming into the game was its ability to rebound the ball, and her worries were well founded in the first half, but the Lady Vols couldn't convert multiple chances at the rim.

Glory Johnson, who has been solid for Tennessee since the loss at Stanford, started the game 1-7 from the field. Shekinna Stricklen, who missed one game after spraining her right knee a week ago, opened with a 1-6 line from the field.

"We missed a lot of lay-ups," Coach Pat Summitt said. "We didn't shoot the ball well, at all. If you don't shoot the ball well on the road things start to fall apart. That's exactly what happened."

Tennessee stayed within striking defense in the first half because Notre Dame had 10 turnovers to eight for the Lady Vols, and the Irish shot just 35.5 percent. Novosel and Mallory were a combined 0-7 and weren't getting the shots they liked, especially Novosel, who thrives on getting in the paint and getting to the line.

"We knew we had opportunities that first half," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said. "I thought our defense was pretty good. Notre Dame missed some shots they normally make. We were still in the game, shooting as woefully as we were shooting.

"We came out in the second half and Notre Dame fixed some of their offensive problems. We were not able to get the stops when we needed. We just couldn't stop the bleeding.

"We did not have the intensity on the defensive end to take away the plays that they wanted to run. They just had their way with us on the defensive end."

Notre Dame got a three-pointer from Skylar Diggins - she accounted for all five of the Irish makes from long range - just 10 seconds into the second half. That was followed by four consecutive layups and the Lady Vols were down 39-21 and had to call timeout just three minutes into the second half.

"We had to get defensive stops, and didn't get any defensive stops," Simmons said. "It's not a matter of how many shots you hit. We did not play defense today."

Notre Dame found its offensive rhythm - the Irish shot 67.9 percent in the second half - and poured in 44 points after the break.

"We have an offense to go against any of Tennessee's defenses," Diggins said. "We did a good job of moving the ball and working off of each other."

Diggins struggled in the first half but found her stroke in the second half. After sticking a three-pointer to boost the lead to 47-26 with 13:21 to play, Diggins turned and struck a pose in front of the Irish bench before heading down court in a clear sign she had her swagger back.

"I know she's going to get going, and I have total confidence in her ability," McGraw said. "She did a great job of controlling her frustration and worked to turn the game around by hitting a number of great shots."

Simmons, Stricklen and Ariel Massengale hit a three-pointer each in the second half to pump a little life into Tennessee, but the team, as a whole, was deflated.

There was no positivity out there on the floor," Johnson said. "Eventually everyone just started yelling at each other and that's just not how our team is. You can't do anything with negative energy."

It showed in the final score of 72-44, the fewest points Tennessee has scored in the modern era. The previous low was 45 points tallied against Belmont on Jan. 17, 1976.

"That is a pretty amazing accomplishment against a team of that caliber," McGraw said. "We really dug in defensively and helped each other."

Notre Dame was led by Diggins with 27 points. She was joined in double figures by McBride with 17 points and Devereaux Peters with 16. The trio accounted for 60 of the team's 72 points.

The Irish shot 50.8 percent (30-59) overall, 41.7 percent (5-12) from long range and 63.6 percent (7-11) from the line. Notre Dame had 25 assists, 19 turnovers, 11 steals and five blocks.

Simmons led Tennessee with 13 points. Johnson added nine points and nine rebounds. Baugh tallied eight points and six rebounds.

The Lady Vols shot 27.9 percent (17-61) overall, 37.5 percent (3-8) from the arc and 43.8 percent (7-16) from the line. Tennessee had 12 assists on the 17 made baskets - Massengale accounted for four helpers - 19 turnovers, eight steals and four blocks.

"Never give up," Simmons said when asked what learned Monday. "Don't give up so early, no matter what the score is, you have to work.

"We have to play all 40 minutes until the final buzzer goes off."

The Lady Vols were out-rebounded 44-35. Notre Dame tallied 48 points in the paint compared to just 20 for Tennessee. Both teams had 19 turnovers, but Notre Dame converted the Lady Vols' miscues into 26 points, while Tennessee got just 13 in that category.

"We have to learn some lessons from this game, at least get something from it," DeMoss said. "We go back, we watch some tape. We see where we were picked part on the defensive end at times. Transition defense, things we have been talking about.

"(Learn) what it takes to be the No. 2 team in the nation. We have to learn from this game."

INSIDE TENNESSEE'S TAKE

The coaches will want to use the game film as a teaching tool. I suggest burning it in some sort of team ritual.

The sooner the Lady Vols put that wipeout in their rear-view mirror, the better in all likelihood.

It won't be needed as motivation. Notre Dame knocked Tennessee out of a Final Four berth last March. If that wasn't sufficient motivation, a regular season loss won't be either.

The players also seemed to recognize right away what went wrong. They weren't befuddled or at a loss for words.

Sophomore Meighan Simmons said they quit early. Senior Glory Johnson said they started snapping at each other, and it was counterproductive.

In an interesting contrast fifth-year senior Devereaux Peters was asked during Notre Dame's press conference about the Irish players getting in each other's grills a couple of times and how it didn't seem to bother them.

"Short-term memory loss," Peters said.

The line drew laughter, but Peters was serious. And it is how past Tennessee teams - the highly successful ones - operated. They policed themselves on the court, and they didn't take it personally.

Tennessee, for the past three seasons, has fallen well short of its goals. And while the fourth season has a ways to go, one thing has to be fixed - how the players respond to adversity, internal and external, on the court.

In the players' defense, they have been through what no other team has from career-ending injuries to teammates to unexpected attrition to the revelation that their head coach had early onset dementia.

But, according to their statements after the game, the players are not making the transfer from practice to games. That is puzzling. If they can do it in one setting, they should be able to replicate the process, at least to a greater extent than they showed in South Bend.

"We didn't bring everything over into the game that we did in practice," Simmons said. "We worked on back screens and they kept back-screening us and getting Skylar (Diggins) open when we knew that they were going to do that.

"We didn't execute like we were supposed to."

Execution issues can be fixed. But a team that repeatedly fails to execute is more problematic for the coaching staff.

One solution would be some continuity with the starting lineup. Injuries have prevented the staff from sticking with a consistent lineup this season.

That could be working itself out as Shekinna Stricklen was back from a one-game absence after a sprained knee and Taber Spani returned after an eight-game absence because of a bone bruise.

Vicki Baugh entered the second-half at the 15:49 mark and went the distance without any issues with her stamina or knee. Baugh's extended presence might need to start in the first half, as she has shown a willingness to use her voice. When the game was out of hand in the second half, it was Baugh who gathered her teammates and encouraged them to keep going.

When adversity strikes the Tennessee players can get very quiet. Baugh is unlikely to let that happen.

Ariel Massengale, a freshman point guard, has said she is learning her teammates' tendencies. It would be helpful for a first-year floor leader to have continuity on the floor, especially on the offensive end. The coaches have had to resort to an assortment of lineups and, in their defense, they are trying to find players who are effective at both ends of the court and it can vary game to game.

But for all of the mistakes on defense, the Lady Vols lost because they couldn't score. They shot 20 percent in the first half and were down just 10 points because Notre Dame couldn't find the net with any consistency either.

The Lady Vols missed at the rim and from the line, the easiest shots to make. Misfires from those places usually mean a lack of focus. The pileup of misses took a toll on the team, and the players looked shell-shocked by halftime.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, hit its stride to open the second half, and the result was the second-worst defeat in program history in terms of margin, second only to the 31-point gap against Texas in 1984.

That Tennessee lost on the road to the No. 2 team in the country wasn't surprising. That Tennessee lost in such resounding fashion wasn't expected.

When Holly Warlick opens the press conference with an apology, it was an atrocious game.

But it was a non-conference contest in January. Neither team won or lost anything on Monday except a single game.

The Lady Vols have three games this week so they will take off Tuesday as planned. On Wednesday, they get back to practice and prepare for Alabama, followed by Georgia.

They have the talent to compete on a national level, but they haven't gotten the results, especially on the road, that is commensurate with that talent.

"Some individual players probably got frustrated and quit playing as hard as they normally play," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said. "As far as saying the whole team quit, no, I don't agree with that. It's very disappointing when you get down 25 or 30 points in a ballgame. Your pride gets a little hurt.

"Great teams find a way to score on the road. They find a way to make shots, they find a way to get stops. Right now, we are not finding a way to make plays to win on the road."

With the entire team finally off of Rehab Row - and it claimed a vital one in Spani - the coaches can perhaps seek some stability over the next month in terms of starting lineups and rotations.

Tennessee does have quality depth on the roster, and the coaches will need to tap it, but continuity is needed for a team to hit its stride, find offensive flow and defensive tenor and maintain it.

"We have to get back to work," Pat Summitt said. "Everybody has to be invested in what we are doing. It's a very disappointing game tonight. We have to find a way to fix these things."

The Lady Vols have time - and, for the first time, a full roster, albeit Spani just got cleared - and they should have sufficient motivation going forward.

"We were thrilled that we had the opportunity to get Shekinna back and get Taber Spani back, who hadn't played since before Christmas," Warlick said. "We've got to go back to the fundamentals and we've got to get better at one-on-one defense. It's just a whole slew of things."

When Warlick was asked if this senior class had time, she was quick to say yes and that they were not tossing in the towel. While the staff and players were aghast at their play Monday, they know that the season still hasn't been defined.

They also recognize that much remains to be done.

"We've got to get better, and we have a very short time to get that way," Warlick said.

Meighan Simmons, a sophomore, was quite aware of what went wrong.

"Don't give up so early, no matter what the score is, you have to work," Simmons said. "We have to play all 40 minutes until the final buzzer goes off. We can't expect to come out and say, ‘We are Tennessee,' put our jersey on.

"We have to go out and play hard. We have to play Tennessee basketball."

Quitting early, getting beat on the boards and multiple defensive lapses is not, to say the least, Tennessee basketball.

I still say burn the game film.

VIDEO COVERAGE

Holly Warlick, Glory Johnson, Meighan Simmons

Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw, Skylar Diggins, Kayla McBride, Devereaux Peters


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