The Lady Vols will battle Sunday for a berth in the Final Four and will have to play a team for the second time this season. But it will be Syracuse instead of South Carolina, which was ousted in a Sweet 16 upset in Sioux Falls. Go inside for the latest on the Lady Vols.
No. 7 seed Tennessee (22-13) will square off against No. 4 seed Syracuse (28-7) in the Elite Eight in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Tip time is set for 3:30 p.m. Eastern on Sunday at the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center.
Tennessee and Syracuse met Nov. 20, and the Lady Vols outlasted the Orange, 57-55. While that game gave both teams a look at each other, it was four months ago – and both programs have traveled a long way since then.
“I guess it’s kind of encouraging because it shows us how far we’ve come from that game till now,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “They’ve gotten better, too.”
Syracuse Coach Quentin Hillsman noted the chance to play in Knoxville helped his team. Hillsman asked for the matchup without a return game – basically unheard of for a power conference team – because he wanted his team on that stage.
“You can never substitute experience and game situations,” Hillsman said. “That was a big game we played at Tennessee.”
Assistant coach Jolette Law handled the scout for Syracuse and spoke to InsideTennessee by phone Saturday from Sioux City.
“We know what to expect,” Law said. “They are going to press for 40 minutes. I am glad we played Ohio State, because it prepared us. They play similar styles.”
While the 75-64 win over Ohio State in the Sweet 16 was the best outcome for Tennessee, it came with a price. Jordan Reynolds took a shot to the mouth – and to add insult to injury, got whistled for the foul – and didn’t come out of the locker room at halftime. The junior guard remains under evaluation.
Andraya Carter and Bashaara Graves both sustained injuries to their pinky fingers in the fourth quarter. Both are listed as day to day.
Tennessee’s depth has been a strength this season, and Te’a Cooper, who has been a bit erratic this season – as freshmen point guards tend to be – stepped up in the second half against Ohio State.
When Cooper eases into the flow of the game, she becomes very effective at the point and can score from that position. She is one of the team’s best on-ball defenders but can sometimes get out of position in a zone.
With the status of tempo-pusher Reynolds and game manager Carter not known, Cooper will have to find a way to do both. Law, a former college point, has been in the ear of the freshman.
“I told her when she overthinks and tries to do too much, that is when (Cooper struggles),” Law said. “When she keeps things simple, doing what she does well, getting everybody involved, attacking the basket, running plays, she is really good.
“I don’t want her to overload her mind with, ‘I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to do that.’ No, it’s just running your team and if you see gaps, look to attack. Defensively, bring your defensive intensity. I think once she gets going defensively, her offense automatically comes.”
Law also had a season-changing chat with Mercedes Russell. A few days before Law had lunch with Diamond DeShields, she sought out Russell – it was between the LSU and Alabama games – to reiterate what Law had been saying all season to the 6-6 center.
During that chat, Law recalled getting up at 4 a.m. last summer back in the States so she could keep up online with Russell in Korea while she was playing with USA Basketball.
“She wanted the ball, she finished well, and she was a presence on the inside,” Law said. “That got me real excited seeing that – blocking shots, finishing rebounding.”
Russell didn’t establish herself in the same way with the Lady Vols this season, and Law kept up the chatter.
“I said, ‘You need to do that for us.’ I told her you are a go-to player,” Law said.
Russell had the breakout game of her career against Ohio State with 25 points and 15 rebounds. It was what Law – and the rest of Lady Vol Nation – had been waiting on all season.
“I think sometimes she is a very unselfish player,” Law said. “When the ball goes in, she is not like a black hole. She will pass the ball back out and find the open player. I told her you’ve got to be a little bit more selfish. Make your move first. She embraced the challenge.”
Russell was content to defer to the senior Graves and the superstar Diamond DeShields. Law reiterated that Russell had to be a force for the Lady Vols to be successful.
“She was like, ‘I’m just a sophomore.’ I was like, ‘No, you’re 6-6. You are one of the best basketball players in the country,” Law said. “She was like, ‘You’re right. I’ve got you.’ ”
Russell also was aided by the late winter presence of former Lady Vol Isabelle Harrison, who was able to participate as a practice player once she was cleared for contact post-ACL surgery. Russell went against the first-round WNBA draft pick in practice, which helped the sophomore’s overall development.
“That was a bonus for her,” Law said. “She got confidence. She would get the ball and drive. She was like, ‘I can do more.’ ”
An X-factor player for Tennessee is Jaime Nared, who has been a fixture in the starting lineup of late. Nared can knock down a three and get to the line; she also will get on the boards.
She grabbed 11 rebounds against Ohio State and had perfect box-out position on the ones she couldn’t get to – meaning her player would not get the ball and a teammate could. Nared drew at least two fouls because of her positioning even when she didn’t reach the rebound.
“Jaime has been our glue all year,” Law said. “She doesn’t get a lot of attention or credit for being a defensive stopper or crashing the O boards, but every top player, if we’re going man to man, we’re putting Jaime Nared on that person.
“(Friday) night our guards and our posts, we told them you be sure you put a box on everybody. She took it literally.”
Nared will need the same grit against Syracuse on Sunday. The Orange will bring pressure and try to suffocate the paint against Tennessee.
“They will go into a 3-2 zone,” Law said. “They will throw multiple defenses at us to try and slow us down. They are probably going to dare us to beat them from the outside. We’ve got to be patient and take care of the ball and make sure we execute on the offensive end.
“Defensively, we’ve got to make sure we contain their dribble penetration and shooters. We’ve got to control the boards. Briana Day is an offensive-rebounding machine.”
The 6-4 Day, despite the intimidating size and depth of South Carolina’s posts, had 13 boards with nine on the offensive end.
“We’ve got to make sure we put a body on her,” Law said. “They are better. They are playing with a lot of confidence. They have a point guard in Alexis Peterson who is playing extremely well. Maggie Morrison (transfer from Vanderbilt) is playing some good minutes of late.
“They are pressing more, very confident. They believe that they can win. They are competitors, and they play well together.”
DeShields was 0-5 in the first game against the Orange, a harbinger of the offensive struggles that would later emerge for the redshirt sophomore as the season unfolded. But DeShields has been a dynamic player in postseason on both ends of the court.
She is a constant threat to score, is an effective ball distributor and can set up from the point to the power forward position.
DeShields also is a student of the game. She sounded Saturday like she could handle the scout for her teammates when discussing Syracuse’s matchup zone, which took South Carolina out of its comfort zone in the second half.
“I think they have length in the post position,” DeShields said. “The way they're able to get to their spots, I think they have a very good understanding of what they’re trying to do with that zone. I think that helps a lot when everybody’s on the same page. They don’t seem to get confused too much because they're very comfortable running it.
“They just have athletes all over the floor. It’s not a slow zone. It’s very quick, in and out.”
DeShields erupted in shrieks inside the Lady Vols locker room when Warlick did “the Dab” dance after Friday’s win. It was the transformation of Tennessee’s season in a few seconds of video – a dancing coach and a delighted superstar.
“Holly is a player-coach, and the kids love her,” Law said. “I think they were more excited about Holly doing the Dab than the game. They were so excited that she came in there and tried to do the Dab.
“She keeps them loose. She keeps them fresh. A lot of people don’t give her a lot of credit, but she has these kids playing in another Elite Eight.”
DeShields, who injured her leg Friday, declared herself good to go. The other three on the injured list are day to day in Graves, Reynolds and Carter. Law wasn’t going to fret about it – and cited the team’s depth and development.
“Whoever can go, that is where depth comes into play,” Law said. “When your name is called, you’ve got to be ready. I am optimistic that everyone will play. We’ve got 40 minutes, and we can be in a Final Four.”
That the Lady Vols have the chance to play for a spot in the Final Four after 13 losses makes this season a success. They have wiped out a No. 2 seed and a No. 3 seed to get to the Elite Eight against a four seed who eliminated a one seed. Both teams understand the magnitude of Sunday.
Pat Summitt used to say all of the pressure was off once a team got to the Final Four. It was the regional final that was the crucible. The staff is trying to keep the players focused on one possession at a time.
“It’s another 40 minutes,” Law said. “We got here one game at a time, one step at a time. We are not looking into the Final Four. We’ve got 40 minutes. The only thing we know is that Syracuse is in our way.
“We’ve got to execute, play together, control the boards, take care of the basketball, play with a great deal of effort and represent what’s on the front of our chest.”
Syracuse press conferences
Tennessee press conferences