Lady Vols advance to Elite Eight

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – Tennessee ran into a determined Notre Dame team but used a second-half run to shed the Irish and move the Lady Vols into the Elite Eight with a berth to Tampa on the line next against Texas A&M. Candace Parker tied a career-high with 34 points, and Nicky Anosike had a double-double in the 74-64 win at the Ford Center on Sunday night.

"The season was on the line," senior wing Alberta Auguste said. "Everybody is trying to get to the Elite Eight. There's a big difference in regular season and tournament time. They played harder. They were 0-19, now 0-20, against us and I think they had a lot to prove tonight. We took advantage of our opportunities, and we won."

That basically sums up the 10-point win, which was in stark contrast to the first time the teams met this season in early January. Notre Dame led early then, too, but Angie Bjorklund drained seven three-pointers, and Tennessee had put the game away by halftime and went on to win, 87-63.

On Sunday, Notre Dame led at the break, 33-31, and Tennessee had hit just one three-pointer from Shannon Bobbitt in the first 20 minutes.

"We pretty much played terrible," Alexis Hornbuckle said of Tennessee's start. "Our defense was water. They were going through it. They were getting one-on-one penetration. They were doing everything that they were supposed to do and we went into halftime down by two. That lifted our heads right there as much as it could, and we said, ‘It's zero-zero. We've got to come out here with a new mindset. It's the Sweet 16.'

"You win or go home and we came out here like, ‘We're not going home.' "

Hornbuckle got Tennessee, 33-2, on the board in the second half by grabbing a defensive rebound and going coast to coast for the layup. That was followed by an offensive rebound and putback with the ‘and-one' by Candace Parker, jumper by Parker and a layup by Auguste.

Tennessee led 43-37 by the first media timeout in the second half and never trailed again, though the Irish continued to fight.

"They've gotten a lot better since January," Hornbuckle said. "We were expecting the game to be close and them to play hard-nosed and never give up on a possession, and that's exactly what they did. We tried to play out of that matchup (zone deployed by Notre Dame). In the first half we didn't shoot the ball that well, but we tried to grind it out and keep it as close as possible."

The guards were struggling from the perimeter so Auguste and Hornbuckle put the ball on the floor and went to the rim.

"My shot was great at shoot-around and then you have days when you can't buy a bucket and it's off," Hornbuckle said. "I said I'm not going to let that stop me. I'm going to try to do other things as far as defense and rebounding and going to the rack."

Hornbuckle scored eight points and had nine rebounds with eight coming on the defensive end. Auguste added six points and three rebounds, all on the offensive end.

Nicky Anosike had 10 points and 10 rebounds. She knocked down shots at the elbows when Notre Dame, 25-9, had collapsed in the paint and was a key part of Tennessee being able to create some separation from the Irish in the second half.

"They leave me open and it's definitely a shot I can knock down," Anosike said. "I knock it down every day in practice. It's just a matter of knocking it down in a game. Just having confidence in myself and earning confidence from my teammates definitely is key and earning respect from the coaching staff to give me the green light to shoot.

"The whole season I've been looking to pass and I haven't been looking to score and I feel like it's been hurting the team. I feel like I need to look for that outside shot because I know I can knock it down every single time."

Hornbuckle said the offense from Anosike arrived at a crucial time.

"That's key because a lot of people's scouting report defense she hasn't been consistent on that shot so they back off on her, so it was very key that she was hitting those because now you have to make a choice. If I choose to try to step up on her Candace has a one-on-one on the block," Hornbuckle said, explaining the mindset of the defender. "That opened up a lot of opportunities for our team."

Anosike has taken shots in practice from that spot repeatedly, and Pat Summitt had given her the directive to shoot when open.

"She's worked on that shot," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "I love the fact she's shooting it now. One of the things I've told her is no hesitation. Pat has made it very clear to her that when she's open, go ahead, shoot it, pop it. I think she's responded so well to that. I'm extremely proud of how she's playing."

Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw said Anosike presented a problem for the defense.

"We were giving them to her at the beginning of the game, and she started hitting them, and I thought, ‘We're going to have to change defenses to be able to guard her at the high post, so we went to the 1-3-1 for that," McGraw said.

That left Candace Parker with some room to work on the low block since Notre Dame also had to commit it wings to the perimeter to guard the three-point line with Bobbitt and Bjorklund both in the game.

Bobbitt hit two 3-pointers in the second half that essentially opened up the game for Tennessee.

"Those were key, and she was feeling it so I was trying my best to get the ball back into her hands," Hornbuckle said.

Bobbitt had spent a few minutes before the start of the second half taking shots from the exact wing spot that she nailed them from in the second half.

"I'm trying to get my rhythm back," Bobbitt said. "They haven't been falling for me the past couple of games. Pat tells me stick with it, play defense and the offense will come, take shots, and that's what I did. I took the best shots I could possibly take and those threes I knocked down were crucial and I'm trying to find my rhythm."

Tennessee needs some offense from the perimeter, and Bobbitt's long-range shots were timely.

"I think that was the key to the second half and the run we went on," Anosike said. "We were hitting shots from the outside; we were hitting shots from the inside. Notre Dame really had to pick what they wanted to focus on.

"If they tried to take away our inside game we hit our outside shots. If they were trying to take away our outside shots, we hit our inside shots. Just having that throughout the rest of the tournament is really going to be crucial for us and how we finish it out."

Parker carried the team offensively with 34 points – tying a career high she set this season against Middle Tennessee on Dec. 13 and setting a NCAA tourney high since the 30 she scored on Pitt last year – and also had 13 rebounds, four blocks, three steals and three assists.

"Phenomenal," Bobbitt said. "That's our go-to player, and she's expected to get 30 points a night."

"I looked up and I go, ‘She's got 30-some points. I didn't even know.' She's does the little things, too," Bjorklund said. "That's what she does best. Everybody brings their best dish and hers is scoring."

Parker missed some close-in shots early on, and Lockwood had a quick chat with her during a timeout.

"I thought very early in the game she was trying to finesse everything," Lockwood said. "I call it tippy-toeing shots. Instead of going up and finishing strong she was finishing soft. After about the first four or five minutes she started to play much of a power block game. That's the foundation. It's not that she can't do other things. We want her to. But that was her nucleus. When she started to do that, the ball's going in more, she's getting fouled more.

"A player like Candace in this tournament she stepped up and she asserted herself. She said, ‘Get your saddles because I'm strapping y'all on and I'm going to help you get through this.' "

When Parker was asked at the post-game press conference if the outing was as good a game as she's played, the All-American cited her defensive lapses. She also noted her offensive game was expected.

"Honestly in postseason you've got to come through," Parker said. "That's what great players do."

A few minutes later Parker leaned back inside a large wooden locker and assessed the start to the game, turnovers and Bobbitt's three-pointers.

"Shannon's threes were huge," Parker said. "I was telling her to stay positive, and we need her to win. Her keeping positive was what allowed us to bust the game open."

Tennessee had 15 turnovers for the game with 10 coming in the first half.

"We're going to look at tape, and we're going to fix it," Parker said. "It's a time to fix it. I think this team is capable of doing that, and we recognize what we need to do, and we're all willing to do it. We get going and don't value the basketball as much. We take chances. I feel like in postseason you can't do that."

She cautioned that another slow start with defensive breakdowns at this point in the tournament with just eight teams left could end the season.

"They were taking advantage with dribble drives, especially going right," Parker said. "We can't start off like that with the teams that we're going to face, Texas A&M and so on and so forth. It could be a 20-point lead at that point. We were lucky to still be in the game."

Parker recalled that Notre Dame also got to the paint against Tennessee in the earlier game at South Bend.

"They penetrated us last time," Parker said. "We were just scoring more points than they were. Our defensive effort wasn't all that great the first time around, it was just that we were clicking offensively so well. I feel like our team played well (Sunday). We stepped up in the second half and we came out with a lot of energy."

The offensive efficiency was on display by Notre Dame in the second game to get started.

"Offensively they were clicking," Lockwood said. "They looked to me so much more comfortable with what they were doing. Their timing was better. I think their roles were more clearly defined, and they knew what they were doing. I think this was a more determined team."

Lockwood said he talked to a friend who is a retired high school coach and watches basketball all season.

"He told me before we left Knoxville, ‘Be careful. They are a very determined team, and they have that survivor mentality.' He said this team is not going to quit," Lockwood said.

Notre Dame was led by four players in double figures – Charel Allen and Becca Bruszewski with 16 points each, Lindsay Schrader with 13 and Ashley Barlow with 11.

"Overall considering the last game we had with them we've come a long way since January 5th, McGraw said. "We definitely got a lot better."

The Irish were emboldened by the halftime lead – they had been down 41-22 at South Bend – and opened the second half with a layup by Schrader to take a 35-31 lead.

"We felt great," said Allen, who was playing in her last game for Notre Dame. "We felt we could play with them. We believed in each other, we believed in ourselves, and we just fought to the end."

In the first game against Notre Dame, Bjorklund hurt the Irish with an outburst of offense. In the second game, Notre Dame had no answer for Parker.

"She's so long and athletic; we just gave up too many points to her," Allen said.

With Bobbitt and Anosike scoring from the perimeter and Auguste and Hornbuckle going to the rim, space opened up inside for Parker, who got low on the block as the defense extended.

"She's going to score no matter what defense you're in when she's on the block," McGraw said. "We were trying to guard the three-point line this time. We didn't really think that she would get that many because we did want to guard her inside."

Neither team shot well from behind the arc – Tennessee was 4-13 with three of those coming from Bobbitt and Notre Dame was 0-5. The Lady Vols finished at 40 percent shooting overall after shooting 35.3 percent in the first half and the Irish finished at 39.7 percent.

The other long-range shot for the Lady Vols came from Bjorklund, who connected in the second half.

"I've kind of been going through a slump," Bjorklund said. "My teammates said, ‘Keep shooting. It's going to fall.' They had confidence in me and I think that helps. That helps me a lot."

Bjorklund's stat line – five points, one rebound – didn't reflect the effort she put forth or the number of balls she got her hands on to keep rebounds alive. Tennessee out-rebounded Notre Dame, 45-42, and all eight players who logged minutes got on the boards. Alex Fuller had two in six minutes of play in the first half, and Vicki Baugh had three in five minutes.

"That's taking away their transition points when we can board like that," Anosike said. "It means everything when we're rebounding. It's the reason why we won last year. So focusing on that and our defense is the second half is what really pulled us through."

Anosike's effort showed up in the box score with her 10 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocks. She also had quite a bit to say to her team before the half ended and as the second half started.

"The way we were playing was frustrating," Anosike said. "We're not going to have this opportunity again. We'll never get to play Notre Dame again so it's living in the moment and enjoying it and giving everything we have. I felt like we were letting the opportunity slide right through our fingerprints and I couldn't stand to see that anymore, so I felt like I needed to step up and say something."

The seniors on the team – there are five players who will be done at Tennessee after this season – haven't hesitated to step up when needed, especially Anosike.

"We do have great senior leadership," Summitt said. "We have obviously a team that is very confident. But also they know when they're not playing well and our first timeout we talked about and as time went on there was a greater sense of urgency and at halftime I thought we really managed to get some important information to them about what we have to do. … I give the senior leadership a lot of credit for how we responded at halftime."

Tennessee will next play Tuesday against Texas A&M, 29-7, which beat Duke, 25-10, in the first game Sunday. The score was close at halftime, 29-25, in the Aggies' favor, and then A&M, behind 17 points from Patrice Reado, all in the second half, put away the Blue Devils, 77-63.

Three other players were in double-digits for the Aggies: Takia Starks, the cousin of former Knick John Starks, had 15 points; and A'Quonesia Franklin and Morenike Atunrase added 13 each.

Danielle Gant had eight points for the Aggies but only played in the first half after complaining of dizziness on the bench and ultimately needing IV fluids. Reado asserted herself in Gant's absence.

"I'm so happy for her (Reado) and I'm so happy for these two guards here, my little general (Franklin) and my scorer (Starks) right there," Texas A&M Coach Gary Blair said. "They're excellent ballplayers."

Gant, a native of Oklahoma City who averages 15 points per game for the Aggies, is expected to be OK for Tuesday's game.

"She'd better be available or I'm not going to be available," Blair joked. "She'll be fine. She's over there smiling and encouraging her teammates."

Tennessee and Texas A&M last played in 1997, though Blair coached at Arkansas for 10 years before taking the Aggies job in 2003, so he is familiar with the Lady Vols.

"I don't think I've ever played them," Hornbuckle said. "We're trying to get to Tampa, but we have to go through Texas A&M first, and they're a very good team watching them play against Duke. They have no quit in them. They were undersized against Duke but they played like they were all 6'5. We're coming out with a very tough challenge, and we have to prepare for that."

It was well after midnight before Tennessee left its locker room and headed to the team bus amid a band of tornadic storms that crossed Oklahoma in the wee hours of Monday.

Prior to leaving the Ford Center, Hornbuckle learned Tuesday's tip was set for 7 p.m. Eastern.

"Thank you, Jesus," said Hornbuckle, who acknowledged the team doesn't like the late tipoffs. "I try to sleep but I don't want to sleep too much. You wake up tired. I'm the type of person if I lay around all day I'm bored and tired. I came out and I was nervous for the game so it's just hard to sit around and all day you're thinking about. You're watching these other games on TV. I get anxious."

"That game is going to be up-tempo," Parker said. "It's going to be in-your-face pressure. Obviously we need to come out with a lot of energy. I'm excited that it's the 7 o'clock game. We'll have a lot of energy. I'm looking forward to it."

The unfamiliarity of the foe was welcomed by Tennessee.

"That is exciting to play a team that you've never played against," Bobbitt said. "They're athletic and they get up and down the floor like we do. It's going to be a great game."

The players were to get to sleep when they got back to the hotel, though the tornado sirens that echoed across downtown might have interfered with their rest. The coaches' work was just beginning as they will break down film and get the team ready for practice Monday afternoon.

"Get a good night's rest, be ready to practice, go over Texas A&M's sets and refocus and get ready to play on Tuesday," Augustus said of the players' itinerary.

Lockwood had the two box scores in hand after Tennessee's game ended.

"We won't have a lot of time to dwell on this," Lockwood said pointing to Tennessee's box. "We have to focus a lot more on that (pointing to A&M's score).

The Sunday/Tuesday format and how Tennessee's first game unfolded are similar to last weekend. The Lady Vols started slow against Oral Roberts and came out fired up against Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind.

"Just like our game prep that we did in West Lafayette," Lockwood said of the coaches' approach. "We weren't so pleased with that Oral Roberts game and we weren't devastated either. We knew there was some mix of everything, but there was more of a sense of urgency.

"The time that we had was precious so we had to get ready for Purdue. Same thing here. The time we have is precious so we've got to get ready for A&M. There will be very little dwelling on this other than some review of our defensive stuff that we weren't sharp and good at."

Tennessee could face a similar situation in that A&M fans, bolstered by support from the fans of other Big 12 schools, could readily out-number Lady Vol fans, just like in the Purdue game.

"We're going to create our own energy and it's to go to the Final Four so if you can't find the fight to do that you don't need to be on the court," Parker said.

Tuesday's game is Tennessee's shot to get to where the seniors have pointed all season long – back to the Final Four.

"It means everything to us to make it to the Final Four," Anosike said. "It means the world to us to make it to the Final Four. We've got three more games, and we've got to give it everything we've got and make sure we get to Tampa."

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