A lunch shared between Jolette Law and Diamond DeShields would become very fulfilling for Tennessee’s postseason. Go inside for the latest on the Lady Vols as they get ready for a Sweet 16 matchup in the NCAA tourney.
No. 7 seed Tennessee (21-13) will take on No. 3 seed Ohio State (26-7) at the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Tipoff is set for Friday 9:30 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPN2.)
Heavy snowfall and frigid temperatures descended on Sioux Falls and much of the region as soon as the teams arrived – South Carolina and Syracuse also are in South Dakota – and assistant coach Jolette Law should be used to it after coaching stints at Rutgers and Illinois.
But Law, who spoke to InsideTennessee by phone Thursday from Sioux Falls, said she has acclimated to East Tennessee and preferred the overall temperate weather of the South.
“Since I’ve been in Tennessee, I’ve gotten a little soft,” Law joked.
However, weather wasn’t on Law’s mind – nor the team’s – as they got ready to play Ohio State, which is led by prolific scorer Kelsey Mitchell.
Law is familiar with Ohio State from her days at Illinois so she took the scout for this game. Should the Lady Vols advance, Law will be very busy. She also had the scouts this season for Syracuse (57-55 win) and South Carolina (62-56 loss). The winners of Friday’s games will meet Sunday for a berth in the Final Four.
Ohio State assistant coach Patrick Klein served on Law’s staff when she was the head coach at Illinois. The Buckeyes’ video coordinator, Myia McCurdy, played for Law when she was an assistant coach at Rutgers.
While those connections mean Law has some familiarity with Ohio State, it was the breakthrough connection she made with Diamond DeShields that turned around Tennessee’s season.
The Lady Vols had lost back-to-back games to LSU and Alabama, two teams at the bottom of the SEC, and were reeling when they returned to Knoxville to get ready for the regular season finale against Georgia on Feb. 28.
Law asked DeShields to join her for lunch. An assist can be given to Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer who called Law – who played for and coached with Stringer, a mentor to Law – and reminded Law to be herself with the players.
The redshirt sophomore had struggled physically all season because of her surgically repaired lower leg from a stress fracture that forced her off the court for basically 18 months. But DeShields also had withdrawn as the regular season went on, especially in January and February, and it took a toll on her and the team.
“I was stressed and trying to do more than I needed to,” said DeShields, whose struggles had a snowball effect on her.
DeShields’ play had been enigmatically inconsistent in the SEC, and she had not started since Jan. 25. But DeShields was on the court for tipoff against Georgia, one game after going 0-7 against Alabama in 13 minutes and looking utterly out of sync.
However, DeShields shot 9-18 against Georgia, tallied 22 points in 30 minutes and energized her teammates – and the crowd in Knoxville for the final home game – with her defense, intensity and hustle.
The output stems from a lunch with Law just two days before the game.
That the Lady Vols reached the Sweet 16 after absorbing 13 losses, including eight in SEC play in the regular season, and took out No. 2 seed Arizona State on its home court would qualify this season as a success. But Tennessee wants more, and Law knows a major obstacle presents itself with Ohio State.
“They present a big challenge,” Law said. “They are probably the most high-octane, up-tempo team we’ve faced this year. We have not seen a fast-breaking team quite like Ohio State. Kelsey Mitchell is a special talent. She is extremely quick, and she is a prolific scorer.
“Our transition defense has to be on point, and we must get the ball stopped in transition earlier than we normally do.”
Defensively, Ohio State’s “bread and butter is a 2-2-1 three-quarter-court press to try and slow us down and fall back into a 2-3 (zone) or a 3-2,” Law said.
Law expects zone because of Tennessee’s size inside, which Ohio State will try to neutralize. The Buckeyes also aren’t a particularly deep team, and senior Cait Craft suffered a broken left hand in practice Tuesday. The 5-8 guard averaged 6.4 points a game and has started 32 games this season.
“I don’t think they’ll try to guard us man to man,” Law said.
Arizona State did, and the Lady Vols left Tempe with a 75-64 win. The Sun Devils were a man defense team this season and likely didn’t have a seasoned zone to put in front of Tennessee. Ohio State won’t have that issue; the Buckeyes are experienced in their zone deployments.
“I think they will try to keep us off balance and play a lot of zone,” Law said.
That has been a challenge for the Lady Vols as they want to play a faster pace, and the zone can stymie the offense. Tennessee will have to be patient and show movement – both the players and the basketball.
“That’s one of the things we’re focused on,” said Law, adding the initial focus of practice this week was trying to figure out a way to contain Mitchell, who scored 45 points against West Virginia in the second round and averages 26.3 points per game. Fatigue isn’t an issue for Mitchell – the sophomore guard averages 36.5 minutes per game.
“We are now focused on how we’re going to attack them,” Law said. “We have to keep attacking and get the ball inside. We have to try to make them foul.”
Posts Mercedes Russell and Bashaara Graves will be offensive interior targets to say the least – Tennessee wants to make Ohio State account for both of them – but the Lady Vols also know they have to find penetration gaps in the zone connect from the perimeter, too.
“We have to make sure we work the ball inside-out,” Law said. “We don’t want to let them bait us into taking quick three-point shots. We have to attack the basket through post feeds and dribble penetration. Zone or man, we have to attack the paint.”
Tennessee attacked the paint in Tempe against man and zone defenses. It was freshman Te’a Cooper who rescued the offense in the second half against Green Bay by getting to the paint via dribble. But Cooper used the same tactic against Arizona State without much success – she went one-on-one instead of waiting on screens and got too deep, causing her to misfire at the rim.
That is typical of a freshman point guard. Cooper went back to what worked against Green Bay instead of adjusting to Arizona State. Law, a former college point guard at Iowa, understands the mind-set of a young player.
“I told her to remain poised and remain in control,” Law said. “She scored a lot against Green Bay and she thought, ‘I need to score.’ I told her to let the game come to you. I think she started over-penetrating.
“I told her going into the Sweet 16, ‘New season. New game. Stay focused. Run the team. Take what the defense is giving you. We don’t have to force it. You have four other people on the floor. When you’ve got wide-open shots or there’s an open lane, take it.’
“I think she just got a little antsy, and I think she’ll be ready against Ohio State.”
However, it was the words Law shared with DeShields that had the biggest effect on Tennessee. DeShields said the conversation “allowed me to turn a 180.”
The sophomore also credited her coaches with allowing her to play through a lot of mistakes and recover physically and psychologically from the uncharted waters of being compromised from her injuries for the first time in her basketball career.
Law essentially reminded DeShields of who she was as a player and a person. Law was very familiar with DeShields. She had recruited her while at Illinois, knowing the scintillating talent wasn’t going north, and had watched her at North Carolina when DeShields was national freshman of the year and led the Tar Heels to the Elite Eight and a near upset of Stanford on its home court in 2014.
“I had to remind her who she is,” Law said. “I just had a heart-to-heart with her. I was very open about what we need from her. I told her to focus on controlling what you can control. Do the little things. I wanted to release some of that unnecessary pressure that she was placing on herself.”
Stringer had called Law to remind the assistant coach “do what you do,” Law said. “She said, ‘You tap into kids. You know how to reach them.’ ”
Law had heard from colleagues asking what was wrong with DeShields – a question Lady Vol fans had asked, too. Her leg injury was a valid explanation for her inconsistent play, but DeShields was struggling mentally, too. After the Alabama game, she was completely unmoored.
“Sometimes great players want to work themselves through whatever they’re going through, but I took it upon myself to say, ‘Let’s go to lunch. Let’s sit down and talk,’ ” Law said. “She laid some stuff out on the line. I was honest with her about some stuff.”
Law deflected credit for the turn-around and instead attributed it to DeShields and her willingness to open up and listen.
“I just reminded her of the caliber of player she is, the things that she can bring, the things that she can do, the things I’ve seen her do,” Law said. “I told her, ‘You are still Diamond DeShields. And I don’t think anybody can stop you but you.’
I reminded her of the gift that God has given her. The only person that can utilize the talent is her. The only person that can stop her from being the best Diamond that she can be is Diamond DeShields. I was honest with her. She was honest with me.”
Law also brought up accountability – and how the conversation and its aftermath now had expectations.
“I told her I am really going to hold you accountable for everything that you say from the time you walk into practice until the time you leave,” Law said. “I am going to keep reminding you of who you are and what you are to this team.”
There is a saying that when the pupil is ready, the teacher appears, meaning the teacher always had been there – the pupil has to be receptive to learning. DeShields reached that point and to say she responded in an understatement.
“She started embracing it,” Law said.
DeShields knew she could score. Law told DeShields that she could torment a point guard on defense with her long arms.
“I told her I would not want you to guard me,” Law said. “I told her I would not want to face you as a point guard.”
DeShields’ buy-in on the defensive end was immediate, and the Lady Vols became a much more formidable opponent.
“In the SEC Tournament, people were like, ‘Diamond’s diving on the floor! Diamond is starting to play!’ ” Law said. “That is what Diamond DeShields can do. I am just grateful that she is playing free. There was some unnecessary pressure that she was putting on herself.
“I told her, ‘Let me take that off of you. You don’t need to have all that.’ ”
Law reminded DeShields of her talented teammates who were willing to take the load, too, especially Graves and Russell.
“I told her you don’t have to do this by yourself,” Law said.
DeShields is in a good place right now, along with her teammates. Tennessee will need all of them to get past Ohio State and reach the Elite Eight.
“This is going to be a team effort,” Law said. “I’ve reminded them that no one thought we would be here, and we’re going to go out swinging. They are focused. They are ready. They had some great practices before we got here. I see a different Lady Vols team. They are starting to buy in, do the little things, the effort, working hard, doing it together.
“We know it’s not going to be easy. We’re not satisfied with being in the Sweet 16. If we can get two games, we can get to the Final Four. The kids are dialed in, and they are starting to believe in themselves and each other.”
The weight of the Lady Vols program could have crushed the team as the losses piled up and they dropped out of the top 25. But the coaches and players managed to keep striving instead of folding in the face of persistent criticism.
Law said head coach Holly Warlick set the tone to stay resilient instead of unraveling.
“She has been unbelievably positive with these kids,” Law said. “I look at her sometimes and some of the stuff that’s being said about her and her staff … As a staff, we have to be their captains. We have to continue to push them, and we have to continue to teach them.”
The players and staff had to tune out a lot – though DeShields, who stays attuned, said in an interview that she heard the criticism, the “naysayers,” as Law called them.
Law also knows anything short of a Final Four and national championship is considered falling short at Tennessee.
“We remained positive. We pushed them. We held them accountable,” Law said. “The lessons learned, the losses that we had, falling out of the top 25, all of that, we still have an opportunity.
“The light at the end of the tunnel? We still see the light. Survive and advance.”