The Lady Vols deployed a 3-2 zone that flummoxed St. John's and turned a 39-35 halftime lead into a double-digit victory.
"It is tale of two halves," Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick said. "Our defense was nonexistent in the first half. We talked about it at halftime and we stepped it up. When we stepped it up and got steals, we shot layups and then we separated ourselves.
"Just proud of them. They just battled, they battle and just don't give up. I can get on them but they probably get on themselves more than I do. They are tough on themselves. But I am proud of the win."
The Lady Vols were led by the sticky defense of Andraya Carter, the offensive poise and board work of Cierra Burdick and a redemptive performance by Meighan Simmons. The senior has struggled in the postseason, but she tallied 17 points with two steals, an assist and a perfect 6-6 mark from the free throw line.
Simmons exited the game with 1:57 left and was greeted with a huge hug from Warlick. After Simmons sat down, a loud chant of "Meighan Simmons" filled the arena, and Simmons put her head down and then looked up and smiled.
"I will tell you this, that kid has been under just a tremendous amount of pressure since she has been here," Warlick said. "As a freshman we asked her to step in and start and score a lot of points.
"So everybody's expectations have just been greatness for Meighan. I have just watched her grow. I love her respect for this program, her love for this university, love for these fans. I have just seen her game just grow tremendously.
Burdick departed 31 seconds later to a huge ovation. The junior scored an NCAA tourney career-high 21 points on 10-14 shooting with 11 boards. She was singing from the church hymnal of traditional Lady Vol basketball after the game.
"I think we have become smarter and really know that our defense and rebounding is going to win us basketball games," Burdick said. "We used to just say it because it was the right thing to say but now we actually believe it and I think that's what mattered in the tale of two halves that Coach Holly was talking about.
"That was the difference in the second half. We actually started to do those things we talked about."
Carter finished with seven points and four steals and teamed with Simmons and Jordan Reynolds at the top of the 3-2 zone to stymie St. John's in the second half.
However, it was a first-half steal by Carter that may have been more important. The Lady Vols opened the game with an 18-7 lead that came on a perfect bounce pass in transition from Simmons to Carter, but offensive inconsistency, uneven officiating - that is a charitable assessment - and St. John's excursions to the basket allowed the Red Storm to pull within one, 23-22, with 7:48 left before halftime.
Carter swiped a ball from Aaliyah Lewis, who was headed to the rim, and dashed to the other end for a layup and a 25-22 lead. The Lady Vols never lost the lead and managed to get to the locker room with a 39-35 edge, though Lewis swished a three at the buzzer to end the first half.
It took the Lady Vols nearly four minutes to score in the second half and fittingly it was on a Burdick offensive board and stick-back. Points were tough to come by for both teams over the next seven minutes, and then Tennessee erupted.
The Lady Vols owned the offensive glass, used takeaways to generate easy offense and held St. John's to just five second-half field goals.
Harrison joined Simmons and Burdick in double figures with 10 points and also grabbed 11 boards.
St. John's was led by Aliyyah Handford with 23 points. No other player reached double figures, though Jade Walker came close at eight points.
The Red Storm shot 46.7 percent in the first half but just 20.8 percent in the second and were 35.2 percent (19-54) overall.
"I thought they got in the passing lanes much better than anticipated or we hesitated for whatever reason," Coach Joe Tartamella said. "They did a good job of doing that. I thought they dictated the pace a little bit better too.
"Length is something you always have to adjust to when you are not moving the ball, cutting or replacing the ball with inside touches, you have a hard time dealing with that because you are very stagnated. Lucky we scored 16 points, that is probably part of that."
Tennessee shot 55.6 percent in the first half, 34.6 percent in the second and 45.3 percent (24-53) overall.
The Lady Vols had no interest in trading baskets with St. John's and played vintage Pat Summitt-basketball in the second half with defense and board play. Tennessee got 14 second-chance points - 10 came after halftime and 19 points off turnovers, with again 10 of them coming in the second half.
"I think now, especially in her senior year, I think she is playing the best basketball that Meighan can play," Warlick said. "I cannot say enough about her, I have enjoyed coaching her, she is one of the most hardest working kids that had been here at the University of Tennessee.
"And probably one of the kids that has been under the most amount of pressure, just because of expectations because we needed a scorer on our team. I am glad she went out the way she did, just expect great things from her in the next week."
VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS FROM UTSPORTSTV
TENNESSEE PRESS CONFERENCE
ST. JOHN'S PRESS CONFERENCE
INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE
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