But the Lady Vols persevered and a young team with a first-year head coach claimed the program's 31st Sweet 16 - Tennessee has failed to reach it just once in the 32-year history of the NCAA tourney- and sent seniors Taber Spani and Kamiko Williams off "The Summitt" for the final time with a win.
Williams said it would hit Spani later in the evening, and she expected tears, but the two were all smiles in the locker room after Tennessee (26-7) eliminated Creighton (25-8).
The reward is a matchup next Sunday with Oklahoma, which defeated UCLA, in Oklahoma City, just a few miles from the Sooners' campus, but the seniors are happy for the trip west.
So is Holly Warlick, who is now 2-0 in NCAA tourney play and will be directing her first regional action as a head coach.
"I'm obviously excited for our team and these two seniors who just had a really awesome game on their last game here in Thompson-Boling Arena," Warlick said.
Indeed they did. Spani was 2-3 from long range and tallied 10 points. Williams led all scorers with 15 points on 6-9 shooting and also had two assists and four steals.
It was similar to the second Missouri game in which the Lady Vols had trouble scoring, and Williams rescued the offense. In that game the senior went out early in the second half with an ankle injury, and Tennessee lost. In this game Williams, who had 10 of her points in the first half, jump-started the team in the second half with her defense.
"It seems like this year, when we've struggled offensively, she comes up with big baskets," Warlick said. "I thought tonight she hit big baskets. Driving to the basket, fading away, using the glass … she's just athletic. And when you give the opportunity to an athlete to perform, she does it.
"In that case, there's no rules for her. That's what's great about her. She can make a play. That has nothing to do with coaching. It's just everything to do with athletic ability and her using her athletic ability to do more."
It was a good time to turn Williams loose. Against the sagging man of the Bluejays, the Lady Vols had trouble getting the ball inside and weren't getting good looks from the outside.
Williams, who has a tight handle with the ball, could attack the paint without getting stripped, and Creighton couldn't stop her forays to the rim or ability to stick short jumpers.
"She kept us in the game," Warlick said. "She kept us ahead and got ahead."
Creighton led by one in the first half midway through the game, but Tennessee had claimed a 35-29 lead by the break.
Tennessee had 10 fast-break points and 12 off turnovers in the first half.
"I told our team that we had 10 turnovers at half which is too many, but the too many was eight of those 10 were steals," Creighton coach Jim Flanery said. "Instead of being down six at half if we just had four steals and still had 10 turnovers, we're probably even."
Williams got the offensive help she needed to open the second half when Spani drained a three, and Bashaara Graves got to the rim for a 40-31 lead.
Those shots were preceded by a Williams' steal and feed to Simmons, who passed right back to Williams for a layup.
Against Creighton, Williams was effective on both ends of the court, and she also led Tennessee with four steals.
"I think Kamiko's energy, on the defensive end especially, her getting four steals and just kind of some big key momentum plays in the first half when we really needed them, that was really big for us," Spani said.
"She wants to win, and I think that's really rubbing off onto everyone else."
The Bluejays' wings were clipped by the flurry of scoring, but they weren't grounded yet as they trimmed a 19-point lead, 52-33, at the 13:24 mark to just nine, 59-50, at the 4:42 mark.
But Simmons drained a three-pointer to extend the lead to 12 points, 62-50, at the 4:19 mark and Massengale and Simmons sealed the win at the line for the final 16-point margin, 68-52.
"Creighton's just a very well coached, very good team," Warlick said. "They're never out of the game. I'm proud of our finish and how hard we fought back. We're really excited to be moving on."
The coaches will have plenty to dissect by film, starting with the glass work. Creighton had 17 offensive boards - Tennessee had just eight - and won that overall battle, 35-29.
"We didn't finish our defense with a box-out," Warlick said. "We gave up 17 offensive rebounds. I know the ball was long, but we talked about that. If there's one part of our game that could've gotten better, it's boxing out."
Creighton had 14 second-chance points to 12 for the Lady Vols. Tennessee took fairly good care of the ball with 14 turnovers, but the Bluejays turned those into 17 points.
Offensive execution in the half-court will also need to be addressed. The Lady Vols were stymied at times - Williams' ability to make plays was a godsend for the orange - and the ball got stagnant on the perimeter instead of getting inside, a situation that was frustrating to Graves and Isabelle Harrison.
The two combined for eight points on 4-8 shooting and eight boards. Cierra Burdick, who plays inside and out tallied a pair of fours in points and boards.
Tennessee will need more production - and the post will need more touches - from the interior players in Oklahoma City.
But the coaches also will see plenty to like on film, starting with the three-point defense. Creighton was 4-22 (18.2 percent) from the arc, a season low in makes for the Bluejays. Creighton entered the game ranked second in the country with 9.3 makes per game.
"I thought our key was to play one-on-one," Warlick said. "You have to lock your player up. You have to defend one-on-one. We didn't want to have to help a lot. When we helped, we gave up an open-look three.
"We made some adjustments in our defense, and everyone bought into it. It could have been one of our better overall defensive games of the year when we needed it. I'm proud of our effort."
Tennessee opened the game playing an aggressive man and didn't let Creighton's shooters get comfortable. No Bluejay starter reached double digits. Alexis Akin-Otiko led Creighton off the bench with 12 points and was 6-6 from the line.
"I think we're just not used to seeing athleticism in all five positions," Creighton guard Ally Jensen said. " … Tennessee, they're super athletic at all five positions. That's something that we struggled with a little bit."
The Bluejays had 19 turnovers, which Tennessee converted into 21 points.
"We got a little lackadaisical with the ball," Jensen said. "I know myself in particular just got dead in situations where you can't against a team like Tennessee, so I think a lot of it was their athleticism, but definitely some of it was us and just not being smart."
Tennessee got scoring from eight players, with four in double digits led by Williams with 15, a career high for the senior in NCAA tourney play. Massengale was 2-3 from the arc for 11 points, and Simmons and Spani added 10 each.
Tennessee had 13 assists, with four by Simmons, who took just six shots and played a sound game overall. The junior, who has sometimes been referred to as a volume shooter, let the game flow, and matched Massengale at the arc by shooting 2-3.
Spani also was 2-3 from long range, part of a 60 percent (6-10) overall marksmanship from the arc. Overall, the Lady Vols shot 48.9 percent (23-47) from the field and 84.2 percent (16-19) from the line.
"I thought it was huge. I thought we took great threes," Warlick said. "We didn't force it. We took threes when we were open. It was one of the smartest that we've done shooting the three ball."
The path doesn't get easier for the Lady Vols. Oklahoma awaits in the regional with Baylor, which plays its second round game Tuesday, looming.
Tennessee is a young team, but the players showed some maturity on both ends Monday.
"I thought tonight, for the most part, we were so disciplined on the defensive end, and we haven't been in the past," Warlick said.
"If we do those things, and we're disciplined on the offensive end, we're a very good basketball team."
Tennessee will get a well-earned day off Tuesday - though most of the players will be in the training room - and then begin preparations Wednesday for the regional in Oklahoma City.
Warlick got the seniors out at the 1:14 mark - Spani first and then Williams after two made free throws - and the crowd gave them a standing ovation.
"It's special. TBA has been very good to both of us," Spani said. "We just wanted to go out and leave everything out on the court for our fans because we really want to show that we appreciate everything they have done for us."
Creighton press conference
Tennessee press conference
The press conference transcript for Creighton and Tennessee can be read by CLICKING HERE.
GAME HIGHLIGHTS FROM UTSPORTSTV
INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE
Taber Spani, Kamiko Williams
InsideTennessee's slideshow from The Summitt