The Lady Vols’ postseason run ended in the Elite Eight to a Syracuse team that took out two SEC teams to reach the program’s first Final Four. Go inside for the latest on the Lady Vols.
Tennessee (22-14) succumbed to a barrage of three-pointers by Syracuse (29-7) and had its turnaround season ended in Sioux City, South Dakota, with an 89-67 loss to the Orange.
The Lady Vols, already playing without starting point guard Jordan Reynolds (concussion), also had two players, Bashaara Graves and Andraya Carter, with heavily wrapped left hands after they sustained broken bones in the Sweet 16 game.
Add to that a team that deviated from the game plan to get the ball inside – something Syracuse also did to South Carolina and its formidable post game in the Sweet 16 – and it ended with a loss for the Lady Vols in the Elite Eight.
“You either want to punch a ticket to the Final Four or you don’t,” said assistant coach Jolette Law, who noted the Lady Vols got away from what made them successful to this point and also credited Syracuse for its disruption of the game plan.
Tennessee took 22 three-pointers and made just six. The Lady Vols’ strength was the inside game of Mercedes Russell and Bashaara Graves, and they combined for just 13 shots.
“They were playing a pack 2-3, keying in on our posts, Bashaara and Mercedes, because they’re such great players,” Lady Vol forward Jaime Nared said. “It forced the guards to shoot more shots. I think we didn’t get it in as much as we should have. We were kind of stagnant in our offense.”
The Orange, meanwhile, connected on 14-30 from long range and converted 21 Lady Vol turnovers into 25 points.
“We allowed them to get going,” Law said. “We didn’t have that get up and go to stop them.”
The loss of Reynolds, who sustained a concussion against Ohio State on Friday after getting hit in the mouth by a driving Buckeye, was a big blow for Tennessee. The junior Reynolds talks constantly on both ends, runs the offense, sets the tempo and settles the team.
Syracuse went after freshman point guard Te’a Cooper, who had five turnovers and no assists, and constantly trapped Carter, who had two assists and two turnovers.
“I thought we missed Jordan’s leadership,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “She’s been in these situations before. All fairness to Te’a, she's not done this. Then Andraya, her finger’s broken. Bashaara’s finger is broken. So Draya couldn’t dribble with her left hand. Bashaara had a hard time catching the ball.
“As we won against Ohio State, we had three pretty not so-great injuries for us. But you have to have kids step up. It’s kind of been our MO, what we had to deal with. We’ve dealt with injuries. It’s a part of the game. Just seems like it’s more part of the game for us than anybody else.
“We had to have kids step up. Injured or hurt, you don’t allow a team to (make) 14 threes. But, yeah, I think we missed Jordan’s leadership. We’re not going to play her when she has a concussion.”
Still, the Lady Vol stayed within striking distance for the majority of the game. Despite a 21-9 run by Syracuse, Tennessee trailed by just six points, 41-35 at halftime. Tennessee was up on the glass, 23-17, and had nine assists on 14 made baskets after shooting 45.2 percent.
Syracuse pushed the lead back to 10 points to start the third quarter, but Diamond DeShields and Nared had the offensive answers. Back-to-back threes by DeShields pulled Tennessee to within three points, 54-51, at the 3:21 mark of the third quarter, but Syracuse found its range again and led 63-56 heading into the fourth quarter.
Cooper hit a three to trim the lead to 63-59, but Brianna Butler answered for Syracuse with two three-pointers and a 10-point lead. The Lady Vols could not get stops, and the Orange extended the lead to 76-61 on another Butler long ball with 6:16 left.
“Congratulations to Syracuse,” Warlick said. “They were outstanding today. They just played tough. We got ourselves in a hole. We couldn’t get out of it. Had a lot to do with Syracuse's performance.”
The Lady Vols are left to rue the turnovers and misfires from the arc, and while the turnaround of the season should provide some relief, falling short of the Final Four will leave a mark beyond the injuries inflicted on the Lady Vols in the Sweet 16.
“As much as we want to be proud of how far we came, based on the season we had, we could have gone farther,” DeShields said. “We know that. I think that’s what hurts the most. We’re not happy about that. Never happy about losing. We never will be.
“This is a program full of winners. Winning is what we do. That’s always going to be the goal.”
DeShields led Tennessee with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Nared tallied 14 points and nine boards, while Graves ended her Lady Vols career with 11 points and five boards. Tennessee shot 39.3 percent (24-61) overall and 27.3 percent (6-22) from the arc.
Alexis Peterson led Syracuse with 29 points. The Orange shot 46.4 percent (32-69) overall and 14-30 (46.7 percent) from the arc.
“I think she's a special kid,” Warlick said. “She stepped up and made things happen. She ran her basketball team. She kind of put them on her back and said, ‘We're not going to be defeated.’ ”
When the Lady Vols get a chance to watch the game tape, they will see a player who too often was unimpeded and went where she wanted to go when she wanted to do so.
“Our defense just wasn’t as crisp as it was against Ohio State,” DeShields said. “We weren’t talking as much. We weren’t as connected. I think that allowed Alexis Peterson to get into a lot of the gaps, find her spots.”
Law noted the disappointment of not getting the seniors to the Final Four. Graves and Nia Moore have completed their eligibility. Jasmine Jones sustained two concussions and had to stop playing basketball, so she is done. Fellow redshirt junior Andraya Carter didn’t go through senior day with her three teammates but has sustained major knee and shoulder injuries and now has a third injury with her hand. She may need some time to determine if a fifth year is physically viable.
The Lady Vols will now turn their attention towards recruiting and off-season workouts. Law cited one-on-one defense, free throw shooting and extended gym time getting up shots as priorities.
“We’ll give them a couple of weeks off and get back at it,” Law said.
Tennessee press conference