Tennessee handled media duties and practiced Saturday in preparation for the second-round matchup with Arizona State in Tempe. Go inside with InsideTennessee for the latest on the Lady Vols.
Tennessee (20-13) will square off against Arizona State (26-6) in the second round Sunday at Wells Fargo Arena with tipoff set for 9 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPN). The winner earns a trip to the Sweet 16 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The Lady Vols are the lower seed at No. 7 vs. the home-standing Sun Devils at No. 2 and are a long way from home – the farthest ever for the early rounds in program history – and will be playing in front of an Arizona State crowd, while waiting all day for the game to tip.
“It will be a hostile environment,” Associate head coach Kyra Elzy said. “The good thing is we have played in tough environments all year. We are going to have to play well. It’s going to be a game of execution.”
The odds, on paper, aren’t in Tennessee’s favor, but the Lady Vols have embraced the role of underdog. And while Arizona State is favored to win, the Sun Devils also know Tennessee remains a dangerous team.
“I don’t think ASU is going to look at us like a seven seed,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “I think they are going to look at us like Tennessee, we’re playing against the University of Tennessee, from our history and where we are.
“But we tend to play a little bit better when we’re the underdog. We’re in the tournament, that's what we love. Six games out in the regular season, we were concerned about getting in the tournament. We’re excited to be here, and we have a new breath of fresh air.”
Associate head coach Kyra Elzy was more succinct.
“It’s March Madness!” Elzy said. “It doesn’t matter what time we play. It’s March Madness. You have to be able to adjust and be ready when the ball tips.”
Tennessee got to the second round with a 59-53 defeat of Green Bay after wiping out an eight-point deficit. The Lady Vols gambled twice – once early, once late – in the fourth quarter by leaving in Diamond DeShields with four fouls and showing zone defense. Both worked for Tennessee.
DeShields picked up a fourth foul with 7:43 left, but Warlick didn’t send anyone to the scorer’s table. DeShields’ fifth foul didn’t come until 12 seconds were left in the game.
“Holly made a great call,” Elzy said. “She went with her gut instinct. They have a great player-coach relationship, and she trusted that Diamond would play smart defensively without fouling. She ignites us offensively, so it was a great call by Holly to leave her in and trust that she was going to need what she needed to do.”
Tennessee switched to a zone look late in the fourth quarter – a dicey decision the way the Phoenix shoots from the arc – but it flustered Green Bay. When coach Kevin Borseth called timeout, the Lady Vols went back to man for the next possession and then showed zone again.
“We needed to change up our defenses for a change of pace,” Elzy said. “They were in a rhythm offensively. They were posting up our guards. They were penetrating. We were just trying to take them out of rhythm. I thought it paid off big for us.”
Green Bay spread the floor and forced Tennessee’s post players to defend outside of the paint. Mercedes Russell hovered in the middle in the fourth quarter when the Lady Vols were in man. The sophomore grabbed 13 rebounds and had the assist of the game with a flip pass to Jordan Reynolds, who hit the reverse layup.
Bashaara Graves expended a lot of energy guarding on the perimeter, but the senior hit a key layup to extend Tennessee’s lead in the fourth quarter. Graves and Russell combined for 11 shots – Graves hit two, while Russell connected on four – and it would behoove the Lady Vols to make sure both touch the ball more than that against the Sun Devils.
“Our game has always been to go inside. We play inside out,” Warlick said. “So we’re not going to change that. I think Arizona State’s very physical. They are taught how to defend, obviously very well inside.
“Are we going to try to go inside? Absolutely. But we try to do that every game, and some games, obviously we get it in there better than others. So it’s a matter of how hard our inside post players are going to work and can our perimeter people get them the ball.”
Russell is likely to stay in the starting lineup, especially after her work on the glass in the first round. Graves will always go to work inside; her effort level has never been in question this season.
“Bashaara has a great mind-set going in,” Elzy said. “Mercedes played well (Friday), and Bashaara has carried us a lot of days.”
Te’a Cooper’s gamesmanship was on display in her first NCAA tourney game. The freshman point guard struggled in the first half but attacked and got to the rim after halftime. She also ratcheted up her on-ball defense.
“Te’a is clutch; she came through big for us,” Elzy said. “Te’a watched a lot of film with Holly. She played a smart game. She hit big shots when we needed it. She got the five-second call (on defense), which ignited us. She hit the and-one under the rim. She made clutch plays for us, and we expect her to continue to step up and help us.”
Arizona State will present plenty of challenges for Tennessee on both sides of the ball. Elzy handled the scout for the Lady Vols. Dean Lockwood had Green Bay; while Jolette Law took New Mexico State, which fell in the first round. As always, the three assistants helped each other, too.
“Arizona State is extremely aggressive defensively,” Elzy said. “They are going to force us to play fast, and they will want us us to take quick shots or turn the ball over. They generate points off of their defense. They are extremely tough. They are going to be physical.
“We are going to have to take care of the ball. We are going to have to make them work defensively and not settle for quick outside jumpers. We have to attack the paint – either throw the ball inside or attack off the dribble.”
As far as key components for Tennessee, the Lady Vols must secure the basketball and get on the glass.
“One, we would love to take care of the ball,” Elzy said. “Two, block out. Make them score over the defense and finish every play with a box-out. We have to take advantage of our inside and hunt paint points.
“And aggressive defense. Do not let them stay in rhythm. Force them to play fast and try to force them into turnovers. We need to get easy scoring opportunities off of our defense, off of offensive rebounds and from the free throw line.”
With Friday’s defeat of Green Bay, the Lady Vols kept intact the streak of 20-win seasons – it now stands at 40 years, a rather incredible feat. It wasn’t a topic of conversation among the staff and players prior to the game.
“Right now we’re focused one game at a time and just try to survive and advance in March,” Elzy said.
The Lady Vols are the only women’s college basketball program to reach all 35 NCAA tourneys and have a stellar record of 121-26 in the Big Dance that includes 33 trips to regional play. Getting No. 34 means taking out a higher seed on its home court.
“It’s a statement game,” Elzy said. “We come in here as an underdog. We need to bring Tennessee basketball and play with hustle, heart and pride if we want to live to see another day.”