Tennessee handled the high-octane offense of Ohio State with a matchup zone – and well-executed game plan – and earned a berth in the Elite Eight against Syracuse. Go inside for the latest on the Lady Vols.
Tennessee (22-13) secured the program’s 28th appearance in the Elite Eight – and Holly Warlick’s third time in four years as a head coach – with a 78-62 win Friday night over Ohio State (26-8) in the Sweet 16 of the regional in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The Lady Vols will square off Sunday against Syracuse, which took down No. 1 seed South Carolina, 80-72. Tip time has been set for 3:30 p.m. Eastern on Sunday. With Stanford’s defeat of No. 1 seed Notre Dame, it means Tennessee, Syracuse, Stanford or Washington will end up playing for a national title from that side of the bracket.
“Just congratulations to Ohio State, a great season,” Warlick said in her opening remarks. “An unbelievable player in Kelsey Mitchell. She's a special kid. She played her heart out. Congratulations to Syracuse. I feel bad for obviously South Carolina.”
During a trying season at times for Tennessee, coach Dawn Staley has publicly supported Warlick, who returned the favor Friday. Staley even called out ESPN’s commentator during one broadcast in the regular season for the tone taken against Tennessee.
“I just wanted to take this moment to say that Dawn Staley is a class act,” Warlick said. “When Tennessee was struggling, the first person I heard from was Dawn Staley. So I have a tremendous amount of respect for Dawn. She does things right.
“They had an unbelievable season. They led the SEC in everything. They were awesome. So I feel bad for them. But just want to congratulate them on a great year.”
Tennessee defeated Syracuse by two points earlier this season – and both teams are much improved since that initial matchup last November.
“It’s going to be a battle,” Assistant Coach Jolette Law.
It will indeed, but, at least for an evening, the Lady Vols, a seven seed that remains unranked, were going to enjoy the win over No. 3 seed Ohio State, which was led by the dynamic Kelsey Mitchell.
Law handled the scout for Ohio State – she also has Syracuse – and she saluted the team’s execution Friday.
“They were focused; they were dialed in,” Law said on the post-game radio show.
Mitchell, who tallied 45 points in the second round, was a focal point for everyone on defense for the Lady Vols. Tennessee deployed a matchup 3-2 zone with a spy on Mitchell.
“We tweaked it a little bit,” Law said.
The Lady Vols also extended the wings to the arc and then dropped them down to protect the paint. That shift frustrated the Buckeyes, who had thrived on dribble penetration. Mitchell had to hunt for openings and misfired to open the game.
“We followed the game plan wherever she was,” Law said.
Mitchell would end up with 20 points, a manageable number for an opponent trying to keep the leader of Ohio State’s offense in check. The Lady Vol players actually were upset she got that many, but Law praised the defensive effort overall.
“It was a hard 20,” said Law, who noted Mitchell was 5-15 overall and 2-9 from the arc. “I’ll take 20 points and a win any day.”
Offensively, the Lady Vols broke Ohio State’s pressure and fed the ball to Mercedes Russell and Bashaara Graves. Russell scored a career-high 25 points with 15 rebounds.
“Credit to Tennessee,” Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said. “They were better tonight, deserved to win the game. Just proud of what we accomplished this year. Wish we could still be playing. But it’s just tough. Anytime it ends, it’s really hard.”
Law noted that Russell was a “talented, unselfish” post, and the latter had to change.
“We told her she had to be aggressive and demand the ball,” Law said.
The Lady Vols followed the scouting report nearly to perfection in the first half and led 43-35 at the break.
“They got off to such a great start, really established themselves around the basket,” McGuff said. “Shook us a little bit. The other thing is we didn’t get enough stops or rebounds or steals to get ourselves in transition to get the game we wanted it. They were just scoring so much.”
Russell and Graves were a perfect 11-11 combined and tallied 13 and 12 points, respectively, before halftime.
“It honestly wasn’t that easy,” Russell said. “I think just as a team, us being aggressive really helped us a lot, especially in the first quarter when they started pressing us. Instead of us just bringing the ball up slow, us attacking with passes and the dribble really helped us.
Diamond DeShields led the attack with crisp passes to open teammates as the defense collapsed on her. She collected five assists in the first 20 minutes, and repeatedly found Russell at the rim.
“I honestly think it starts with ball movement and player movement,” Russell said. “Previously in games I think we were standing around a lot and not moving the ball. Tonight, we really moved the ball well, and just went inside-outside and got really good looks in the paint.”
The Lady Vols also dominated the glass in the first 20 minutes, 22-11, with 16 on defense. Tennessee would finish with an eye-popping 53-26 advantage on the boards. Jaime Nared grabbed 11 rebounds with textbook box-out position, and Graves tallied nine.
“I’m just so proud of this team,” Graves said. “The regular season didn’t go as well as we wanted it to go. This postseason, we’ve been doing awesome. We’re playing together. We’re playing up-tempo. We're just doing all the right things at the right time. I mean, it's just amazing to watch and to be a part of.”
Tennessee took care of the ball with just five turnovers, four of which came at the post position, before halftime, but the ball squirted free too often in the final 20 minutes.
Tennessee had 13 turnovers in the second half, which kept the door slightly open for Ohio State, which started strong in the third quarter and went on an 8-0 run late. But that also was due, in part, to the triage unit on Tennessee’s sideline.
Jordan Reynolds was hit in the head and didn’t return to the bench after the break. Graves injured her pinky finger, but returned to the game after treatment. Andraya Carter injured her pinky finger late in the game but didn’t return. The availability of Reynolds and Carter for Sunday wasn’t yet known.
Te’a Cooper, who had struggled against Arizona State, took over at point guard and ran the offense. The freshman finished with 16 points and three assists.
“We just practiced a lot with what they were going to throw at us,” Cooper said. “We were just really prepared for everything they had to throw at us.”
DeShields would finish with 10 points, five boards and seven assists.
“She’s a great passer,” Warlick said. “She kind of gave up shots for a pass inside. I love her distributing the basketball. She’s a heck of a player. She’s an intelligent player. I’m sure from those seven assists, she thought somebody was a little bit more open than she was and gave them the opportunity to score.”
Overall, the Lady Vols had 21 assists on 31 made baskets.
“We were sharing the ball and playing team basketball,” Law said.
Tennessee shot 50 percent (31-62 overall), 28.6 percent (2-7) from the arc and 77.8 percent (14-18) from the line. The Lady Vols outscored Ohio State in the paint by a lopsided tally of 50-22.
The Buckeyes got 12 points off turnovers to Tennessee’s nine – Ohio State had just seven turnovers – but the Lady Vols prevailed in second-chance points, 17-10, and fast break points, 10-4.
It was a postseason game that Pat Summitt would endorse – defense, board play and pounding the ball inside.
Ohio State was led by Mitchell with the aforementioned 20 points – she was 8-8 from the line, a staple of her offensive production – and Ameryst Alston, who tallied 21 points. The Buckeyes shot 32.8 percent (22-67) overall, 26.7 percent (8-30) from the arc and 71.4 percent (10-13) from the line.
“It’s just one of those things where our shots didn’t fall,” Mitchell said. “Credit to Tennessee because they got the ball inside. They did a lot of things to alter how we wanted to get the ball out, how we wanted to get our pace going.”
The Buckeyes led just once in the first quarter, 7-6, on a three-pointer by Shayla Cooper; the game was tied for 74 seconds; and Tennessee led for 38:10.
The Lady Vols hit a few lulls, but never stopped attacking.
“Really proud of our young ladies,” Warlick said. “We have been a team that has obviously started off on a rollercoaster. But I thought tonight we were focused. We stuck to our game plan. They played hard.
“I just can't say enough about the whole team. So really, really proud of our team.”