Lady Vols scoot into second round

The Lady Vols used their defense to jump-start both halves and safely reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Go inside with InsideTennessee for analysis and video interviews with all 10 players.

Holly Warlick has been preaching defense all season, and Tennessee listened Saturday and used that side of the ball to ignite the offense for an 83-62 win over Oral Roberts.

Meighan Simmons, a player known more for her offense than her defense, used her speed to generate points and take a 6-5 game in the favor of Oral Roberts to a 13-7 lead for the Lady Vols after a steal and layup, three-pointer and then a steal and and-one layup in the span of two minutes.

Simmons was beaming in the locker room before the question was even finished. Yes, the junior knows that defense matters in postseason.

No. 2 seed Tennessee (25-7) will next face Creighton (25-7), a 10 seed that took out No. 7 seed Syracuse (24-8) in a 61-56 upset that saw the Bluejays launch 36 threes and connect on 11 of them.

Tipoff for the second round is set for 7 p.m. Monday with the winner moving to Oklahoma City to face the winner of UCLA-Oklahoma.

But the Lady Vols first had to handle No. 15 seed Oral Roberts (18-13), which seems to face Tennessee in postseason with point guard issues. In 2008, the Golden Eagles lost their point guard to an ACL injury seconds into the game. In 2013, Jaci Bigham was ill with a severe stomach virus and had barely eaten for the past 72 hours.

"She's mad at me because I keep throwing Pedialyte at her and it tastes bad," Coach Misti Cussen said. "It's that feeling of, when you've had a really bad stomach virus, there's just weakness.

"She didn't want to be sat down, so we limped along today. She is our emotional leader and our motor, both verbally and with the ball."

Knoxville is not the place to limp along, as the Lady Vols are now 20-0 in the first round in NCAA tourney games at home.

Simmons and Ariel Massengale applied pressure on the ball, and the result was a game that went from close in the first five minutes to a 44-31 halftime lead for Tennessee.

"I think that's something that we definitely pride ourselves on," Massengale said. "I think the speed that Meighan and I have to put pressure on the other team's guards, it's something that we definitely take a lot of pride in. It's something we want to do.

"It makes the game a lot easier for us, a lot more fun being able to get steals and get easy buckets in transition."

It is a style of play emphasized by Warlick and underscored by assistant coach Kyra Elzy, who has preached the gospel of defense to the guards.

Tennessee had 11 steals and eight blocks, while Oral Roberts had 10 swats and nine steals. Both teams - and the fans, which numbered nearly 7,000 - seemed a bit startled at some of the quick whistles, as the players wanted to ratchet up the defense.

Such is the nature of postseason when new striped crews arrive at the various host sites for tournament play.

The Lady Vols had to adjust inside to the shot-blocking ability of the 6-3 Sarah Shelton, a junior who emphatically rejected six Tennessee offerings and drew admiration even from fans dressed in orange.

"Sarah's really coming on," Cussen said. "She had a block with two minutes left in the conference finals a week ago, and it really turned the tide for us to seal the championship for us.

"Clearly she brought that ability with her here, and hopefully she can take it back home to Tulsa and bring it back out again next year. … She's got that volleyball background."

So does Isabelle Harrison, who returned to game action for the first time since Feb. 28 after sustaining a right knee injury.

She had three blocks and has delighted her teammates with an imitation of the Dikembe Mutombo finger wag. She left the paint to send a three-point attempt sailing backwards, a feat that energized the crowd likely as much for the effort as the mobility.

"I think she played like she has not been hurt, and that's what we wanted to do," Warlick said. "We wanted to get her in, get some minutes, see how she goes. I'm very proud of her today."

Harrison is wearing a brace on her right knee after an MCL injury that came one month after a meniscus tear to her left knee. The fans applauded as she walked to the scorer's table and cheered as she left the game with a stat line of 13 minutes, seven points, five boards, three blocks and an assist.

"We missed her. We really did," Simmons said. "We needed Izzy today because we needed that extra oomph. Izzy brings that.

"When she has that inside presence like she did today getting three amazing blocks. It intimidates a lot of people."

When Harrison is patrolling the paint, the perimeter players can apply stickier defense. Harrison and post Bashaara Graves also are used on wing traps, and their size can smother the ball.

Tennessee's defense needed adjustments at halftime - Warlick made that clear at the break - and it worked as Oral Roberts' shooting percentage dipped from 37.0 percent in the first to 28.2 percent in the second.

"When we go in the locker room, they write down what they think they needed to work on," Warlick said. "They were right on: one-on-one defense, boxing out, limiting your turnovers.

"We just focused on us and tried to get better, especially one-on-one defense."

The game marked the end of Kevi Luper's career. The Oral Roberts senior tallied 20 points.

"I thought Luper was exceptional," Warlick said. "She would get us up, and then she would go under. We had to get a little more disciplined in our one-on-one game."

Luper completed her career with 2,867 points, second among active players behind Baylor's Brittney Griner.

"A loss is a loss," Luper said. "I wanted to play at Tennessee in middle school. A loss is a loss. I'm at ORU, and I'm so happy I'm here. We went out and played as hard as we could, but it's still a loss."

Tennessee played in spurts at time - a favorite expression of Pat Summitt, who took in the game from a suite - a condition exacerbated by two weeks off. Cierra Burdick said the rust was chipped away, and the Lady Vols would be prepared for Monday.

The Lady Vols also spread time among 10 players, with no player reaching 30 minutes. That can lead to some uneven play, but it was a smart approach, as Tennessee has limped along all season, and Taber Spani, who has back issues, was stiff, a condition not helped by bitter cold temperatures in Knoxville.

All 10 players for Tennessee scored - baskets by Nia Moore and Jasmine Phillips caused the bench to explode - and the Lady Vol reserves outscored Oral Roberts' substitutes, 31-7. It was the most orange bench points since the 35 tallied against Davidson.

Of course, the Lady Vols have two former starters now coming off the bench in Burdick and Harrison. Burdick tallied 13 points and also grabbed eight boards. She had one assist on a sweet pass to Massengale, who buried the three in the first half.

Massengale is a pass-first point guard - she had six assists, one third of the team's 18 - but she was 3-5 from the arc and added 13 points.

The Lady Vols are a better team when Massengale is engaged offensively, because the defense has to account for her and can't key on just Simmons and Spani for the long ball.

The next step in postseason is to find more shots for Harrison and Graves. Both were 3-5 from the field and while five shots in 13 minutes is OK for Harrison, it is not for Graves, who logged 26 minutes.

The Lady Vols have been accurate from the free throw line - that continued Saturday at 21-25 (84.0 percent) from the stripe - and that is a postseason must.

Tennessee prevailed on the boards, 48-39, and got 18 offensive boards. However, Oral Roberts had the same number on offense, and fixing that was a priority between tournaments. That area needs work, and Creighton, which relies on the long ball, will present the same challenge as long rebounds can favor the offense.

Warlick will like the 18 assists on 28 baskets, but the 19 miscues were too many. While some were due to the layoff and how deep Warlick went to the bench - as that puts different combinations on the floor - others were avoidable, and the Lady Vols will need to clean those up going forward.

Of course at this time of year, going forward is all that matters.

MEDIA LINKS

Syracuse press conference

Creighton press conference

The press conference transcript for Syracuse and Creighton can be read by CLICKING HERE.

Oral Roberts press conference

Tennessee press conference

The press conference transcript for Oral Roberts and Tennessee can be read by CLICKING HERE.

GAME HIGHLIGHTS FROM UTSPORTSTV

INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE

Ariel Massengale

Bashaara Graves

Cierra Burdick

Isabelle Harrison

Jasmine Jones

Jasmine Phillips

Meighan Simmons

Nia Moore

Kamiko Williams, Taber Spani


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