Tennessee gets its NCAA journey started Friday against Green Bay. InsideTennessee checked in with assistant coach Dean Lockwood in Tempe, Arizona. Go inside for the latest on the Lady Vols.
No. 7 seed Tennessee (19-13) will square off Friday against No. 10 seed Green Bay (28-4) in the first round with tipoff set for 5:10 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPN2) at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe, Arizona.
Host and No. 2 seed Arizona State (25-6) faces No. 15 seed New Mexico State (26-4) in the second game at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. The winners will meet Sunday for the right to advance to the Sioux Falls Regional – a temperature swing of at least 50 degrees in one week for the survivors.
The desert offers 90 degrees and sunshine, and Tennessee would like nothing more than to earn the right to stay alive for the NCAA’s second weekend in frosty South Dakota.
“The weather here is awesome, incredible,” Diamond DeShields said. “But we’re here, we're on a business trip. Everyone around us is kind of on vacation and we see kids running around the hotel and everything, and we can’t let that distract us from our ultimate goal, which is getting two wins here and moving on.”
The Lady Vols are in unfamiliar territory as a No. 7 seed – the lowest since a No. 5 placement in 2009 – and playing far from home in the first round. Tempe is 1,600 miles from Knoxville as the crow flies. The team arrived early Wednesday evening local time and spent Thursday handling media obligations and practice.
Green Bay earned the Horizon League’s automatic berth with a 64-32 win over in-state rival Milwaukee. It is in the seventh NCAA tourney appearance in eight years for Green Bay. The Phoenix have held 12 opponents to 50 points or less this season.
For those who like to compare outcomes with the same opponent, Green Bay hosted Vanderbilt on Nov. 21 and won 58-56. Tennessee claimed two wins over the Commodores this season, 58-49, on Jan. 21 in Knoxville and 69-51 on Feb. 11 in Nashville.
The two programs are meeting for just the second time. Tennessee won 71-36 in Knoxville on Nov. 26, 1996, a game that featured current Associate Head Coach Kyra Elzy on the perimeter at the guard position.
Assistant coach Dean Lockwood chatted by phone with InsideTennessee about the Lady Vols’ mindset and the matchup with Green Bay.
The Lady Vols were battered and bruised by the end of the regular season and SEC tourney. Counting the travel day back home from Florida, the team had three consecutive days off the court to recover.
Workouts resumed March 9, but the first day was limited both in duration and intensity. The staff amped up practice March 10-11, and then gave the players the weekend off before getting back on the court this past Monday. Lockwood said he was encouraged by how the team responded after the mini-break, one that was fully needed
“The rest has been good; we’ve had good practices,” Lockwood said. “I think they’re excited about being here in Tempe, because at one point we were battling to get in it. They realize this is a tremendous challenge. I know in the 12 years I’ve been on board, this is the best team by far we have played in round one.
“I think we’re in a good place. We’ll know more obviously when we play, but there are not any indicators to say otherwise.”
That wasn’t always the case this season. The players struggled to find chemistry on the court, and DeShields had a slow adjustment to the limitations of her leg, a situation that took its toll physically and emotionally.
DeShields, a game-changing superstar, expected to pick up where she left off after a national freshman of the year campaign at North Carolina, but the effects of a year off and the efforts needed to fix her leg took a toll. As DeShields continued to struggle, she withdrew, a situation she has compared to “being in a bubble.”
DeShields very candidly told the media in Jacksonville that the coaches and players drew her out, and she stopped blaming everyone else for her struggles. The difference has been eye-popping. DeShields led the team offensively and defensively the SEC tourney.
DeShields sounded like she remained in that mind-set in Tempe.
“That’s all we’re really focused on is today and the future and we’re not really dwelling on the past,” DeShields said at the press conference Thursday. “So we’re just going to continue to bring the same energy and intensity and focus that we’ve had over the past couple of games.
“Given our low seed, we're very – all the girls, we like where we are and I guess it’s been good for us, this low seed. So we’re going to see how that works out and go from there.”
Tennessee knew it was in the tourney after reaching the semifinals of the SEC tourney, but it was still nice to see the school name pop up when the brackets were announced Monday evening.
“I feel at that moment like I do about recruiting,” Lockwood said. “You think you’re doing well, and you think something’s coming, but until you see that letter of intent come across the fax machine, you never know and stranger things have happened. There is always that anticipation. Given the position we were in, it’s still a relief.
“We felt great about our finish and the strength of schedule that we played, but until you see your name, you’re darn right, you don’t know.”
Tennessee was among nine SEC teams to make the field of 64, joining South Carolina, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Florida, Kentucky, Auburn, Georgia and Missouri. Eight of the Lady Vols’ non-conference foes, Notre Dame, Oregon State, Texas, Stanford, Syracuse, Chattanooga, Albany and Central Arkansas, also made the cut, so Tennessee has faced 16 teams in the NCAA tourney, or 25 percent of the total field.
“I think it just speaks to the strength of our league,” Lockwood said. “We sat around as coaches and all of us said, ‘We’re going to get nine here.’ ”
Lockwood was asked about DeShields’ transformation and if it were as simple as her deciding to fix matters – though that’s easier said than done.
“She answered it; I can’t give you a better answer than what she provided,” Lockwood said. “She knows what her thought process was and what changed. There’s been a visible, tangible change in her effort level, her energy level, her demeanor at practice. I see that in her, and we’ve seen it as a staff, and I think her teammates would attest to it.
“She is more ‘in’ now; she is more bought in. Sometimes as a player, you have to surrender to what’s going on. It doesn’t mean you’re less of a person. It just means you’ve totally bought in. When you become a part of something that’s bigger than you – and being on a team always means the team is bigger than you – you have to surrender.
“You have to surrender to the team. You have to surrender to the system, and what’s going on. It doesn’t mean you don’t bring individual strengths and what you do well.”
For anyone who thinks this is unusual with superstar and key players, it’s not. Candace Parker, Nicky Anosike and Alexis Hornbuckle would go off script when Pat Summitt was the head coach – and it wasn’t always the same song sheet. The trio had to surrender to the team – and coach’s – will.
“What I’ve seen in Diamond personally is surrendering her sword,” Lockwood said. “She’s bought in. She is on board. She is more engaged, and people are more engaged with her.
“One of the things that sticks out in my mind and will for a long time is her diving on that floor and saving the ball and flipping it a teammate (in Jacksonville). Totally sacrificial. That is an expression. That was loud communication on her part: ‘I am all in, and I am willing to give all that I have for this team.’ ”
If DeShields continues that approach, the Lady Vols will be a very dangerous seven seed.
“Can she sustain it? I certainly hope so,” Lockwood said. “Diamond is an intelligent and also very strong person. Time will tell, but her week of practice has been good, and we are hopeful that would happen. She has been very receptive.”
DeShields’ slot in the starting lineup seems as good as guaranteed now. She is likely to be joined there by sophomore center Mercedes Russell, who came off the bench the past four games after Nia Moore started for senior day and then stayed there for the SEC tourney.
“We’ve talked about it,” Lockwood said. “Nothing is locked in, but we’ve definitely talked about that.”
Lockwood handled the scout for Green Bay because of his familiarity with the Phoenix’ motion offense. Lockwood also knows the head coach, Kevin Borsett, as both have ties to the state of Michigan.
Green Bay has taken 762 threes, primarily by four players, all with triple digit attempts, and connected on 32.8 percent as a team. Allie LeClaire has 162 attempts from the arc, followed by Tesha Buck at 158. Mehryn Kraker is at 154 and Jessica Lindstrom at 120.
The Lady Vols have to guard the arc – and stay disciplined on defense.
“They are a very good team; there is a reason they have won 28 games,” Lockwood said. “They’ve had winning streaks of 14 and nine. As good as their individual players are, the sum total is better than their parts. They can all pass, catch and shoot. They play very smart.
“They are bought in to their system. They want be deliberate and control tempo. They are not going to beat themselves. They are the tennis player who never charges the net, or rarely, but they never beat themselves. The ball is always in play. They hit winning shots.
“We’re going to have to work and work. We’re going to have to wear them down. It is going to be a heck of a first round game.”
Defensively, Lockwood noted that Tennessee must disrupt Green Bay’s offensive sets.
“Their execution is very good,” Lockwood said. “We can’t let them get comfortable. Obviously, we have to guard the arc. We can’t give up open threes. They also can create and drive and kick. We have to place all facets of team defense.
“If they’re allowed to run comfortable offense, they can get great shots. We have to disrupt them.”
Tennessee may also look to deploy DeShields at the time of its press, a defensive wrinkle that can be very effective with the energized redshirt sophomore.
“That’s been good for us,” Lockwood said. “The team is more aggressive, and we play a little bit more on instinct. We’re attacking. The key to pressing is you’ve got to put the ball in the basket. You’ve got to make shots. If we generate scoring to get into our press, I think you’ll see some of it.”
Offensively, the Lady Vols will want to push tempo, though Lockwood noted that the Phoenix have shown themselves to be quite capable in transition defense.
“We just want to attack,” Lockwood said. “We can’t have an excessive amount of turnovers, and we’ve got to be efficient with the ball. We want to play through our posts and play inside-out and really attack them that way. We want to generate paint points and hit some jumpers. We want to get good shots on every possession.”
The NCAA tourney scrubs clean every team’s record and the message to the Lady Vols is one of redemption and a fresh start.
“You’ve got a new season,” Lockwood said. “You win, you advance; you lose, you go home. We’re all in that boat. Pat used to say, ‘Survive and advance.’ We want to play as well as we can when the ball goes up, get the win and move on.
“We’ve earned our way in. Our journey has been difficult this year – I think more difficult than anyone might have known – and rather than looking back, we’re looking forward.”