But Notre Dame, which shot 50 percent in both halves, stiffened its defense, and the Lady Vols stymied themselves, and the Irish outscored the orange, 45-24 after the break.
Head coach Holly Warlick could have used her post-game press conference to bemoan the missed shots and lack of poise, at times by veteran players, but instead she applauded her team for its effort and willingness to fight.
"These kids are hurting," Warlick said. "They feel bad. I think they played good enough to win the first half, and they just couldn't sustain it.
"I know they're upset. I'm upset. Now, you have to get back in your conference play. We have Florida here and then we go to Texas A&M, so it doesn't really get easier for us."
"It was tough, I think we played the best basketball we've played all season in the first half, and for us to come out and just play kind of down in the second half when we were so close is tough, it's disappointing," Burdick said.
For the first 18 minutes, the Lady Vols identified shooters on defense and held onto the ball on offense, committing just six turnovers. But they didn't close out the half strong in the final two minutes, and Notre Dame, which averages nearly 89 points a game, took control of the second half and took the lead for good, 52-51, with 13:25 left in the game.
Tennessee can be an enigmatic team. Massengale hit her first five shots – she had 14 points by the break – and then missed her next 10. Simmons, whose offense has been uneven this season, was 10-14 and led all scorers with 23 points.
|Meighan Simmons drops off a pass in the paint versus Notre Dame on Monday night.|
Graves has dealt with calf and back issues, and a stat line of four points and four boards suggests lingering effects, but Graves hasn't reached a comfort zone yet this season. That is partly because opponents are now familiar with her game, and she is a focal point of everyone's scouting report. Graves did have three assists and continues to display some pinpoint passing.
Harrison concluded the game with an impressive stat line of 13 points and 16 boards, but she struggled to hold onto the ball in the second half when Tennessee was trying to close the gap.
The Lady Vols committed 12 turnovers in the second half – Harrison had company in the bad timing department – and as the miscues and missed shots escalated, the players got frustrated.
"I'm sure our offense affected our defense, but you have to remember what got you there the first half and that was pretty solid defense and keeping them off the boards and running the basketball," Warlick said.
"In the second half, we didn't take great shots for us and then we missed shots. We didn't push the ball."
The Lady Vols opened the second half with the posts taking outside jumpers instead of attacking the paint. With the posts away from the baskets, the boards were snared by Notre Dame, which capitalized on its end.
Even when the Lady Vols got to the paint, they misfired. On one second-half possession, three players got three shots at the rim. All three missed. The players were visibly upset, and it showed on the other end.
Tamika Catchings tweeted during the game: "Dang 1/2 time. Don't worry bout offense but they hv to play D!"
The translation from the limited space Twitter allows: Dang halftime. Don't worry about offense but they have to play defense."
Catchings understands that concept, and was one of the few Lady Vols in program history to play that way every game.
But Tennessee was so snake-bit in this game that even great defense led to a Notre Dame basket. Andraya Carter stripped Michaela Mabrey of the ball when she thought she had a wide-open layup, and the ball caromed free. Carter lunged for it and fouled Kayla McBride, who hit both free throws for a 77-63 lead after Tennessee had trimmed a 17-point lead to 12 with a little less than four minutes to play.
Effort wasn't the issue Monday. Nor were the substitution patterns, which were fluid and purposeful. Tennessee players showed visible frustration once in the second half, but otherwise stayed together. The players believe in themselves. They believe in their coaches. The crowd, sensing the players needed a boost, chanted and cheered and stayed upbeat.
Warlick was right to not summon fire and brimstone after the game. She can deliver some heat later – school is back in session so the Lady Vols have an off day Tuesday, as mandated by NCAA rules, before using the rest of the week for practice, travel and two games – but she seems to realize her team wants to do well.
In fact, they want to do so well, they seem to get in their own way sometimes.
"It feels like this team is very sensitive and we want it so much it's almost a little detrimental," Warlick said. "We have so much – we want it so badly."
Key players can be maddeningly inconsistent sometimes, and while off games are expected, it's the inconsistency within games that seems to unnerve the team.
"Sometimes I think we took bad shots or took quick shots and didn't necessarily run our offense at all like we should have," Massengale said.
That explains the 55.9 percent marksmanship in the first half and 25.0 percent shooting in the second.
When the Lady Vols play well – as they did for a full 18 minutes against Notre Dame – they are delightful to watch.
"I would love to see how we would play when everybody's clicking on all cylinders," Warlick said. "It would be a lot of fun, but that's up to me to put them in positions and get them ready for the next game."
That was exactly what Warlick needed to say, and based on her tone and body language, it wasn't post-game coach-speak. She meant it.
Mercedes Russell, who continues to log vital minutes in important games – she had seven points and four boards – tweeted, "Trust the process" an hour after the game ended.
The Lady Vols continue to get on the glass – they out-rebounded the Irish, 46-37. Massengale is an assist machine this season. She had six against Notre Dame and has 108 on the season.
Coach Muffet McGraw was impressed with how the Lady Vols opened the game.
"We tried some zone and we tried man-to-man and we couldn't guard them off the ball screen," McGraw said. "We were just struggling really to guard them in any way. Forty-six points in a half, not what we wanted. Twenty-four, that was a lot better."
The series will continue, and that is good for both programs. They signed a four-year contract, beginning with this game, and since Notre Dame came to Knoxville last season, Tennessee will play in South Bend for two consecutive seasons, and Notre Dame will return to Knoxville in 2017.
"It's a great game for our fans to see and we'll get a good crowd," McGraw said. "It's just a great game to play. Whenever you can play a top 10 team I think it helps your team."
McGraw saw a top 10 team in Tennessee. So did Warlick. The question is how to sustain that for 40 minutes.
"It is just a matter of us coming out and accepting whatever they throw at us and continuing to take punches and fight back," Burdick said. "I think we got hit in the mouth a couple times today, and we just let them keep hitting us instead of pounding back.
"We have to play a full 40, and we will get it right."
Game highlights from utsportstv
Coach Holly Warlick
Cierra Burdick, Bashaara Graves, Ariel Massengale
Coach Muffet McGraw, Kayla McBride, Michaela Mabrey