Tennessee (22-8) eliminated its bitter in-state rival Vanderbilt (22-9) by a score of 68-57 and will next play on Saturday at 6 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPNU) against South Carolina (23-8) at Bridgestone Arena.
"I think we have some confidence," South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said. "I think it's a neutral site. Tennessee played a tough game today. We played a tough game today."
Nashville has been anything but neutral - Vandy Coach Melanie Balcomb drew laughter when she repeated a reporter's question about it being "a little tilted" to Tennessee fans - but the Gamecocks won last month in Knoxville.
"The fact we did beat them on their floor does help with our confidence level," Staley said. "At this time of the season, if we do stick to our game plan and execute, we can give ourselves a shot at winning it."
Tennessee went to a senior lineup Friday to improve its starts, and it worked against the Commodores, who piled up 93 points in a win last month over the Lady Vols.
Burdick hit back-to-back jumpers for a 17-8 lead at the 11:28 mark and then Meighan Simmons entered at 9:41 and got her offensive game in gear.
"She moves fast and shoots fast," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said. "She is explosive. She can rattle off 10-15 points before you can bat an eye. The first half, she did help us to help extend the lead."
With Vicki Baugh controlling the glass for Tennessee, the Lady Vols built a 30-13 lead over Vandy with 4:20 left. But then the fouls began to pile up - Glory Johnson and Baugh joined Stricklen on the bench with two each - and Vandy came back at the line.
The foul trouble did affect us a little bit," DeMoss said. "Also, when Vicki Baugh picked up her second foul. We had to go to the bench. One thing it hurt a lot was our rebounding. We didn't seem to dominate the boards like we did early with that big lineup.
"I think our defense did slip a little as well. The foul trouble did affect us a little bit in the first half."
Tennessee's lead had dwindled to eight points, 35-27, at halftime, and after a break extended by 29 minutes because severe weather needed to pass over the arena and downtown area, the Lady Vols opened the second half with four turnovers in five possessions - a Stricklen layup was the exception - and then Stricklen headed back to the bench with her third foul at the 16:14 mark.
"I was really frustrated," Stricklen said. "I didn't get to play in the first half because I had two fouls. I picked up the third, got really frustrated.
"Coach came over there, went off on me, made it worse. I really got mad. I really felt bad because I let my teammates down."
Stricklen said after the game that the Summitt stare got her going when she retook the court and she misses the withering looks when she doesn't get them.
Vandy twice cut the lead to one point, but the Lady Vols never lost it.
"This is a frustrating finish for us," Balcomb said. "We had every opportunity down the stretch. We fought hard, made good adjustments, just didn't make the plays."
Tennessee had a hand in that with its defense.
"We switched around," DeMoss said. "We ran some 3-2. Sometimes we overload the top from the free throw line. And, we ran some 2-3. The zone was pretty good to us overall.
"They started getting it inside in that post area. They were going high-low when (Stephanie) Holzer was hitting that shot. We would go zone then we would go man for a while. That bothered them a little bit. We switched off screens.
"We knew Melanie would adjust to whatever defense we were running. That's why we kept switching. Whatever we were running, she'd adjust. They would switch.
"It was a well-played game, a well-coached game. It was great for our fans."
Balcomb noted Tennessee's preparation.
"Tennessee did a great job," Balcomb said. "Came out with a lot of energy. Defensively did a great job. Obviously, they used the time to prepare for us while we were preparing for Mississippi State and used that time well."
When Stricklen reentered the game with 10:42 to play, she took it over.
Stricklen buried a long three over Kady Schrann to give Tennessee a 48-44 lead and then scored on an and-one play with the free throw for a 51-46 lead with 8:49 left.
Glory Johnson followed that with a turn-around shot - on an assist from Stricklen - plus the foul and converted for a 54-46 lead with 8:02 left.
Stricklen then buried another long three for a 57-48 lead and after a Simmons shot caromed off the backboard, Johnson stuck the putback for a 59-51 lead.
Baugh found Stricklen for a layup in transition and a 61-53 lead and then Stricklen launched a 26-footer with one second on the shot clock that settled neatly through the net for a 64-55 lead with 3:06 left after Kamiko Williams saved a loose ball and got it to the senior.
Stricklen and Johnson sealed it from the line with four consecutive free throws for the 67-58 final.
Vanderbilt was led by Christina Foggie with 16 points. Stephanie Holzer and Jasmine Lister had 12 each.
The Commodores shot 34.5 percent (20-58) overall, 17.4 percent (4-23) from long range and 92.9 percent (13-14) from the line.
Vandy had four assists, 12 turnovers, six steals and three blocks. The Commodores had 16 points off turnovers compared to just seven for the Lady Vols.
Tennessee was led by Stricklen with 18 points, while Johnson added 15, and Simmons chipped in with 11.
The Lady Vols shot 50.0 percent (26-52) overall, 30.8 percent (4-13) from long range and 63.2 percent (12-19) from the line.
Tennessee had 10 assists, 16 turnovers, five steals and a block. The Lady Vols outscored Vandy in the paint, 24-18, prevailed on the boards 68-57 and nipped the Commodores in second-chance points, 10-7.
"I thought we had a great finish," Summitt said. "We had a lot of people step up. Obviously, Glory Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen I was proud of Stricklen, she hadn't done anything early, but she came up really strong late.
"I'm just really proud of this team overall."
INSIDE TENNESSEE'S TAKE
A storm roared overhead at halftime of the Tennessee-Vanderbilt game but left the roof intact at Bridgestone Arena.
So, the Tennessee fans did their best storm impersonation in the second half and raised enough ruckus to nearly lift it off themselves.
The crowd numbered 8,594 but it sounded as loud as twice that many and thundered to its feet in the second half behind the sharp-shooting of Shekinna Stricklen.
When Stricklen hit a three ball with 3:06 remaining that stretched a tenuous six-point lead to nine, it sounded as if another storm rumbled overhead.
Halftime was extended nearly 30 minutes past the usual 15 minutes so that the teams could hunker down in the locker rooms.
Vanderbilt apparently weathered that delay better than Tennessee as the Lady Vols turned loose of the ball to start the second half, but got back on track and, more importantly, never lost the lead.
"At the beginning of the second half when we had the delay, I wasn't really pleased with how we can out," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said.
Postseason seems like an odd time to make major changes to the starting lineup, but it worked Friday, as the five seniors worked in unison on both ends of the court.
"That's probably our best defensive team," Warlick said. "These seniors have been through a lot, so we're putting it in their hands. They've accepted the challenge.
"They set the tone and then we subbed in."
The substitutions performed at a high level in the first half with Cierra Burdick draining her first two jumpers, Meighan Simmons shooting 5-7 from the field and Ariel Massengale picking up three assists, including a nice feed to fellow freshman Isabelle Harrison.
The all-senior lineup seems to have solved a vexing problem for Tennessee - its lethargic starts.
The lineup also got on the boards - that would be the Vicki Baugh factor and the fifth-year player logged 18 minutes in the first half with six points, six rebounds and, more importantly, zero turnovers.
Perhaps most importantly, the seniors opened the game with an effective defense, and, surprisingly, the matchup zone worked against a team full of three-ball shooters.
In the last game against Vanderbilt - in which the Commodores scorched the nets for 93 points - Tennessee played a mix of man and zone and neither worked well. In the second half, playing from behind, the Lady Vols stayed primarily in man. They mounted a comeback but Vandy surged again for the win.
On Friday, the zone was efficient for the first half and then for the second half, the Lady Vols switched into man and back to zone at times. For Vandy's last possession, Glory Johnson smothered Christina Foggie, and she darted left and then right before reversing direction because she had no path.
Vandy got a three ball attempt from Kady Schrann but it was off, and Baugh snared the rebound to snuff the final threat.
"We made a commitment in practice," Warlick said. "They understand the value of defensive rebounding. So that's what has gotten us so far and why we're playing the way we are."
Warlick said she would have thought the suggestion "crazy" if she had been told before the game that the Lady Vols would play 75 percent of the game in a zone, but it worked.
"I think probably what we worried about the most was their setting screens, us going under, they hit threes," Warlick said. "So we worked really hard on going over the top of their screens, making sure we identified their three-point shooters.
"It worked. We were rebounding. So as long as it kept working, we were going to stay in it. If they would have hit some threes early, we probably would have gotten out of it."
Vandy was 2-11 in the first half from behind the arc. When Vandy adjusted and got to the soft spots of the zone, Tennessee shifted to man. As a result, the Commodores shot an anemic 17.4 percent from long range for the game.
"It's big. It's spread out," Vandy Coach Melanie Balcomb said of the matchup zone. "We just didn't attack it like we needed to. We didn't get any second shots because when you don't get penetration, or you get the ball inside, they've got everybody in position to rebound."
One of the most noticeable differences in Tennessee's defense is the chatter. The seniors talk constantly and when someone misses an assignment, that player hears about it. When the underclassmen entered the game, the tone and tenor had been set.
"These young ladies they've had a lot of pressure on them all year," Warlick said. "They've stepped up to the challenge.
"If they play the way they've played and continue to play, we're in good shape."
ODDS AND ENDS
FROSH FIRST: The freshmen got their first postseason experience Friday.
"You thought you had enough energy in TBA, " Isabelle Harrison said, referring to Thompson-Boling Arena, "and coming in this arena and having everybody come out and support you, it's like times 10.
"I am ecstatic. I love playing here and I want to keep on experiencing it."
Harrison got a bucket on a nice feed from Ariel Massengale and was able to give the senior posts a much-needed breather.
"I just wanted to come in ready for my team," Harrison said. "I have their back when they get tired. I wanted to go in with a lot of energy."
At one point in the first half all three freshmen were on the floor together.
"It's exciting," Cierra Burdick said. "I just get excited. There was a play when Rel hit Izzy, and Izzy took it for a drive and I get hyped up. I think it's just showing what's coming in the future. I love playing with these guys."
Burdick hit two shots after entering the game to boost her team, an indication that her regular season play would carry over to postseason.
"These past four weeks I am trying to be more composed and keep my poise," Burdick said. "It has really helped with my shot. I am not rushing things. I am finding shots that are good for me."
"It's a dream come true," Massengale said. "It's a new environment. It's win or go home. Tennessee has the best fans and they travel well. In a way this is like a home game for us.
"We've just got to go out there and play ball."
OUCH FOR IZZY: Freshman Isabelle Harrison took a shot to the face in the first half of the game and had to be taken to the locker room for treatment, but she was OK.
"I got hit in the nose," Harrison said. "But last week I also got busted in the lip during practice so that reopened, and it was just all coming out."
OUCH FOR ARIEL: Ariel Massengale took a knee to the right quad on a drive to the basket in the second half. To add insult to injury, she was called for a charging foul.
Massengale left the game at the 12:55 mark and didn't return. She was replaced by Kamiko Williams, who dusted off her point guard skills.
"It's just sore," Massengale said. "We've got one of the best trainers that there is so (Friday night and Saturday), we're going to be rehabbing and trying to get it back 100 percent.
"If not, this time of the season you've just got to push through."
When Massengale went down, it brought her father and grandparents to their feet from their seats right behind the bench.
"I can hear them a lot," Massengale said. "My dad has one of those voices that just sticks out to me. They got great seats for the tournament. I am glad they are sitting there.
"My grandparents are just an hour away (in Murfreesboro) so they can make this drive easily. It's a blessing. I am just happy to be here."
THREE BALL APPRECIATION: Taber Spani knows something about launching the long ball, and she erupted when Shekinna Stricklen drained one from about 26 feet out.
"It was so deep," Spani said. "It was so clutch. She was feeling it, and we needed her to, and she stepped up when we needed her to."
Spani is limited by a left knee injury - she logged just seven minutes Friday and missed her one three attempt - and is fighting frustration but keeping her focus on the team.
"It's a team; it really is," Spani said. "You have to put everything personal aside. It's about our team advancing. As a competitor it is tough sometimes, but as a leader on this team I am just trying to be energetic and vocal.
"Everybody on this team is stepping up in a different way."
Meighan Simmons also can speak to the long ball.
"To half court," Simmons said with a smile when asked what Stricklen's range was. "She practices that. It becomes fluid to her. She has the ability to shoot where she wants to, and she did an amazing job today."
CROWD RESPONSE: The orange-clad fans have stepped up their game, too. The 8,000-plus in Bridgestone in Nashville sounded like 18,000-plus in Knoxville.
"I love that crowd," Taber Spani said. "It's huge. We need them and hopefully there will be even more people (Saturday) if possible."
"They're great, they're the best, thank you for them," Cierra Burdick said.
"They just give us so much momentum and energy," Alicia Manning said. "They really stepped up for us."
"It's amazing," Meighan Simmons said. "This is one of the best fan bases in the country and that is one of the reasons why I decided to come here. Through the ups and downs, they are always there."
SENIOR SKILLS: The all-senior lineup meant some regular underclassmen starters now come off the bench.
"You've got to roll with it," Ariel Massengale said. "They got us off to a great start and they know what this time of the year is all about. They've been through it plenty of times.
"They have something they want to prove to the world so they come out and play with the intensity and energy."
"I am proud of these seniors," Cierra Burdick said. "I feel like when they are playing with energy and they are playing together, they can beat any five on the floor.
"I am in full encouragement of them starting. I think they're a great five to play on the floor. Our underclassmen job is to come in and bring energy and fill in the spots when the seniors need a rest."
STANDING TALL: Briana Bass has been a life lesson in resilience for her team. She played sparingly leading into her senior year but surged in the second half of the season and now is part of the senior lineup.
"She's a great person, has a great attitude," Ariel Massengale said. "I look up to her and I am so happy that she got her opportunity. She has worked hard and just like she cheered for me in the beginning of the season, now it's my turn to cheer for her.
"That is what being a team is all about. Whatever it takes for us to win at the end."
STANDING FIRM: Vandy ran an in-bounds play in the first half that bunched all four players at the elbow - the corner of the free throw line. Briana Bass had staked out her spot to defend it and was getting shoved aside by Vandy's posts.
Bass dug in and didn't budge, much to the delight of the crowd as the 5'2 sparkplug held her ground against much bigger players, including 6'4 Stephanie Holzer.
"Oh, I was so mad at that big girl," Bass said. "Because I had the position first and, of course, she thought she was the bigger body, and she was going to push me out of the way.
"The only reason I moved is because the referee told me that I needed to be on the outside or the inside. Other than that I wasn't going to move. I was so mad."
TENNESSEE WAY: The Lady Vols held Vandy to 57 points - 36 fewer than the last time the two teams met.
"We knew we had to come out and play Tennessee basketball, and that is what we did," Meighan Simmons said. "We communicated a lot a lot. We rebounded the ball very well.
"We had some turnovers here and there, but we were able to persevere and keep our momentum going out there on the floor, and we were able to play team basketball. That's what we need to do from here on out."
It will take the same approach on Saturday against South Carolina.
"We're so ready for it," Simmons said. "Do we really want to go home or do we want to make a statement? Right now we're taking it one step at a time."
"We had to prove which team is the Tennessee team," Glory Johnson said.
SEEK SHELTER: The Lady Vols and the Commodores were a few seconds away from tipping off the second half when the players and staffs were sent back to the locker room for safety as tornado warnings roared across Nashville.
During the 29-minute delay, hail and rain pounded the roof of Bridgestone Arena.
"It's kind of weird because we've been in a game called off at Ole Miss because of the rain, the lights went out in St. Thomas, so now we have a tornado watch," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "I don't know what we're doing, but … "
The other two weather-related incidents happened last season - a power outage in the Virgin Islands and then torrential rain that blew in via the air vents at Ole Miss.
It wasn't the first tornado delay for Meighan Simmons, who is from Texas.
"But it wasn't as bad as this," Simmons said. "God just watched over us and made sure nothing happened to us."
The players used the extra time to stretch, discuss the game plan and eat some snacks.
"We kept moving around to keep ourselves mobile," Simmons said.
The players got restless at halftime, but they kept stretching and moving around the confined space.
"We had the coaches talking to us," Glory Johnson said. "We were able to talk a little bit more about what went wrong. Holly and I were watching film a little bit. That was crucial. I think it helped."
It was a first for Vicki Baugh, and extra time to rest was not what her knee needed.
"I really didn't like that," Baugh said. "I've been through knee injuries. I wanted to get back and stay warm. That didn't help me and Kamiko, but the rest of them were fine. They loved it.
"A little extra rest and stretching for them. For me I was tightening up."
It was also a first for Johnson.
"This was my first tornado delay, and it was kind of scary," Johnson said. "They had us all secure in the locker room and I was so glad they had us secure, but my family is out there so I was like, ‘OK, if anything happens, if I hear that the roof is flying off, I am sprinting out there to go get my family.'
"I love that they protected us but I was worried about my family."
If Johnson had headed to the door the way she crashes the glass, it is likely that nobody on the staff would have tried to stop her.
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