Which storyline do you prefer?
Jordan Reynolds bringing the game ball to the press conference? Diamond DeShields breaking down in tears as she answered a question? The Lady Vols getting their first win against Notre Dame since 2011? The game-winning shot by Jaime Nared? Hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to The Pat Summitt Foundation? A stirring halftime tribute to diversity on Martin Luther King Day that included Trisha Roberts, Condredge Holloway and the first female chancellor in school history? Tennessee staging an epic comeback on “We Back Pat” night?
Fans got all of it Monday night before, during and after Tennessee (11-6) beat No. 6 Notre Dame (16-3) in a scintillating 71-69 win in front of 10,517 fans at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Tennessee was coming off an abysmal game against Ole Miss last week. On the Friday after the loss in Oxford, the Lady Vols didn’t practice, watch film or lift weights. Instead, the coaches and players talked.
“I thought it was really powerful to hear our kids’ comments and how the coaches felt,” Coach Holly Warlick said.
On Sunday, Tennessee had an excellent hour of practice, followed by a forgettable hour.
“Today before the game, I asked which team is going to show up and they said the first hour so that made me feel good,” Warlick said. “They have it in them I just think their focus was here, and the crowd was unbelievable, unbelievable. I don’t think they ever faltered either.”
The Lady Vols opened with an 11-2 lead, allowed a 23-5 run by Notre Dame, trailed at halftime, 44-31, and fell behind by 15 points to start the third quarter. But Tennessee flipped the script in the fourth quarter.
“The story of our season has been which Tennessee team will come out tonight,” said Jaime Nared, who hit the game-winner. “Tonight just showed that we are mentally tough despite our record. We needed to get this win. We got stops when it counted. It was not the most perfect game but when it counted we got stops. It shows that we are tough and we compete.”
By the end of the third quarter, the Lady Vols were within 10 points, and Diamond DeShields put the deficit in single digits with a pair of free throws, 62-54, and 9:36 left in the game. A crowd that had been engaged and loud throughout the game – among the attendees were Candace Parker and her daughter, Lailaa – elevated its presence for the final quarter.
“I would say it is an amazing feeling,” said Schaquilla Nunn, whose rebounds and back-to-back buckets pulled the Lady Vols to within one point, 65-64, with 4:41 left. “When we get up or do something well, you have the crowd going crazy. It definitely flusters their team a little.
“This night was bigger than us. Just knowing all these other factors, we knew that this game was going to be bigger than us, and we were going to have to go out and do what we needed to do.”
Meme Jackson had been sent to the scorer’s table to sub for Nunn, but she was called back to the huddle at the 3:51 media timeout in the fourth quarter because Nunn was getting on the glass, a decision Warlick credited to assistant coach Dean Lockwood.
Instead, Jackson went in for Nunn, who was getting fatigued, at the 2:32 mark. With 1:22 left in the game, Jackson drained a three from the corner for a 69-67 lead.
“That’s her spot,” Warlick said. “We are going to write her name down there in that corner. It was huge. She does not hesitate with that shot. We are going to let her take that shot.”
Lindsay Allen answered for the Irish with a clutch shot to tie the game at 69-69 with 63 seconds left. After a timeout by Tennessee, Nared used a screen by Mercedes Russell to drain the go-ahead basket.
It turned out to be the game-winner, as Tennessee, which had just one team foul, fouled three times to make Notre Dame have to repeatedly in-bound the ball. When Allen’s three-point attempt fell short – it was partially blocked by Russell – the celebration in the stands and on the court erupted.
“We were tired of getting beat by Notre Dame and tired of getting beat in general,” said DeShields, who leaped onto the scorer’s table. “If we had lost, a lot of people would have said that we should have lost, but we cannot go out and lose three games in a row. Our team is full of winners, and I think that our heart showed tonight.
“We were willing to sacrifice and do what we needed to do for each other to get this win. It was not about any individual; tonight, we played team basketball and I think that is where the offense came from. We found who was open and those players delivered.”
DeShields was among those players and essentially took over the fourth quarter to set up the big shots by Jackson and Nared. She swatted a Notre Dame shot at the 9:27 mark of the fourth quarter by essentially taking away the ball, led the break, cleaned up the glass on a missed layup and pulled Tennessee to within six points, 62-56.
When Russell found a cutting DeShields with a perfect pass, the Lady Vols trailed by just four points, 62-58, and the fans rattled the rafters. From there, the Lady Vols steadily chipped away the deficit one point at a time
DeShields led all scorers with 20 points and added six rebounds, four assists and three blocks. The redshirt junior forward got emotional when talking about the win in the post-game press conference.
“I thought she got to the free throw line, and made her free throws,” Notre Dame Muffet McGraw said of DeShields. “She couldn’t shoot the ball particularly well, but we had difficulty staying in front of her. We had a freshman guarding her (Jackie Young), and that was probably a mistake on my part.
“We couldn’t find her in the zone, and we let her run free. She’s incredibly talented.”
Three other Lady Vols reached double figures with Russell notching 13 points and Nared and Reynolds adding 12. Nunn tallied eight points and four rebounds – and the Lady Vols needed each one.
Tennessee shot 45 percent (27-60) overall, 25 percent (3-12) from the arc and 63.6 percent (14-22) from the line. The Lady Vols had 15 assists, five blocks, five steals and just nine turnovers. Tennessee nipped Notre Dame on the glass, 37-32. Reynolds led the Lady Vols with seven rebounds.
Marina Mabrey led Notre Dame with 19 points, while Arike Ogunbowale added 14. Brianna Turner and Jackie Young notched 10 points each. Allen finished with nine points and 10 assists.
Notre Dame shot 48.3 percent (29-60) overall, 62.5 percent (5-8) from the arc and 66.7 percent (6-9) from the line. The Irish had 15 assists, 12 turnovers, five steals and four blocks.
Tennessee outscored Notre Dame in the third quarter, 21-18, and in the fourth quarter by a decisive 19-7 margin.
“We missed a lot of layups,” McGraw said. “We drove the ball like we wanted to, but we couldn’t get to the free throw line. In the fourth quarter, they only had one team foul going into the end of the game. That won the game for them. So, if we could have gotten to the free throw line in the fourth quarter, I think that it would have been a different finish.”
“We weren’t being smart on offense,” Allen said. “We were turning the ball over. They were coming down and bullying us down there. They were getting offensive rebounds. They were making layups. They were getting the 50-50 balls.
“We were just outworked in the fourth quarter. We have to be more aggressive going to the basket. I think we had those shots, but we have to be stronger in making our layups.”
Reynolds brought the game ball to the press conference, and it apparently will become a touchstone.
“This is the game ball, and I will never let go of this ball until I graduate,” Reynolds said. “This is an upset because of our record. But I think it shows what we are capable of, and that’s why I’m holding onto this.”
The Lady Vols had dominated the series from 1983 to 2008, winning 20 consecutive games. The Fighting Irish beat Tennessee in the Elite Eight in 2011 – setting off a run of Final Fours for Notre Dame – and then won the next five matchups. A lopsided series had fully tilted to the Irish until the final 82 seconds Monday.
“I thought it was a great atmosphere,” McGraw said. “Anytime you make a run like that, the crowd gets excited. The crowd gets into the game. You have to be really poised when you have possession of the ball. You have to really value the ball. You have to take care of the ball. The crowd was very influential for them.”
The game kicked off ESPN’s Big Monday matchups, and the Lady Vols and Fighting Irish delivered for the national network on the court.
At halftime, Tennessee held a tribute to diversity on Martin Luther King Day that featured former Lady Vol Trish Roberts, former Vols quarterback Condredge Holloway and Lester McClain, the first African American to play at Tennessee, among other luminaries. Tennessee’s new chancellor, Beverly Davenport, who starts her post in a month, also was recognized at halftime.
The presence of the late Pat Summitt filled the arena, from the flowers in her orange chair on the bench to the defense and rebounding by Tennessee down the stretch. Nearly $630,000 in checks were presented by assorted companies and organizations to The Pat Summitt Foundation.
“Pat had a desire,” Warlick said. “Losing was not an option to her. It was not with her battle to Alzheimer’s, and it obviously was not an option during the games. We talked a lot about that. We talked about her spirt, we talked about her resilience and we talked about her fight.
“To win tonight on this night is a blessing to honor Pat the way we did, and to play like a Lady Vol team should play. These kids played like losing was not an option.”
The Lady Vols will savor the win – it should provide an infusion of confidence – and then get right back on the road for a game against a tough Auburn team on Thursday.
“We have a long stretch ahead of us,” said Warlick, who indicated the players probably would get their locker room back. “Now, we have to get back to what we really need to take care of (in SEC play).
“I promise you it feels a lot better after a win to go down and play Auburn. We have to build on this and remember how it feels. Stops tonight got us buckets and won us the game. We talk about rebounding, and we had 14 offensive rebounds. We talk about defense, and we stepped it up on defense.
“We talk about playing together, and we played together. It is huge for us.”
MLK Day Tribute
Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick
Lady Vol players Jaime Nared, Schaquilla Nunn, Jordan Reynolds and Diamond DeShields
Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw, Lindsay Allen and Marina Mabrey