Baby's First Tournament: Lady Vols 68, Lady Tide 49

This year has provided an entirely new dimension for those who follow the Lady Vols:  watching a team grow.  Especially in the last two years, we've been accustomed to seeing the Lady Vols dominate their schedule from the first game forward, only getting nipped when they began to take things for granted.  This year, we've seen flashes of an extremely talented team in between occasionally very long droughts of miscommunication, discombobulation, and general chaos.

Don't Panic! (via Gizel357)

It's a team that had the moxie to beat Stanford in overtime, yet lost to both Kentucky and Florida in the same season.  They've probably added 3 years to Pat Summitt's life; she went through 12 different starting lineups over the course of the season.  Even tonight, they blew a 5-point lead with one minute left in the first half and found themselves trailing 31-30 going into halftime (fouling the shooter on a successful three-point shot, then turning the ball over for the final shot of the half will tend to do that to you).  With one senior an zero juniors on the team, you just knew that this was going to be a long-term project.

Yet nobody wants to wait a year or two for this team to click - especially not Pat.  She has used nearly every trick in her coaching repertoire to teach, motivate and improve this team.  Just to get them to develop a work ethic, she made them do their own laundry and made them earn the right to use the most prestigious locker room in women's basketball.

And the team continues to grow.  Tonight, they shook off the first half jitters and played a dominant second half - scoring the first 12 points after halftime to take an 11-point lead.  From there, they never looked back, holding a comfortable lead for the rest of the game.

A few observations:

 

  • This was not the best of the Lady Vols.  Look no further than Angie Bjorklund's stat line:  17 minutes, 4 fouls, zero points.  Despite the final score differential, only 3 Lady Vols scored in double figures.  There is still room for this team to grow.
  • This was, however, a great team effort.  The most interesting stats note of the game:  ZERO Lady Vols played 30 or more minutes; TEN Lady Vols played 10 or more minutes.  It wasn't a matter of relying on one streaking player to carry the load; everybody played and everybody contributed to some degree.  In contrast, Alabama's McGee played all 40 minutes, and 3 of their players had 6 minutes or fewer.  That's a sign of depth - something that will only help the Lady Vols in tournament play.
  • The nerves calmed down as the game progressed.  In the first 10 minutes, there were a lot of missed passes and unforced turnovers by the Lady Vols.  They started the game by allowing a 9-2 deficit because they couldn't run an effective offense.  Yet as the game wore on, they found their composure and, minute by minute, played more and more like a Lady Vols team.
  • They now have a tournament win.  For a team with 7 freshmen, this simply cannot be overstated.  Had they been given a bye week and matched up with someone like Florida in the second day, they may very well have lost with tonight's effort.  The early deficit could have caused more edginess, and a stronger opponent would have made life very difficult on the young girls.  Now they have the ever-important win, and now they can relax and focus on business.
  • Kelley Cain is the most important player on the team right now.  Cain simply owns the paint - on both ends of the court.  She's virtually unstoppable on offense, and she does a phenomenal job of preventing a clean look from the interior.  She grabs rebounds with tenacity and always hustles down to be in place on defense.  SEVEN BLOCKS.  My biggest worry is her knee; the extra SEC tournament game will add that much more stress to an injured knee.  If it holds out, the trainers deserve a raise.  A big one.
  • Shekinna Stricklen has matured the most in the last three weeks.  In a team meeting a while back, Stricklen confessed to being selfish on the court and not wanting to play the point guard role (it's not her natural position).  Yet tonight, she ran the point well and was rewarded with the team-high of 16 points and an easy game-high of 7 assists.  With her willingness to bolster the outside and Cain's dominance on the inside, things are really beginning to open up for the team.

This is a far different team than the one that lost to Florida on February 8th.  I'm excited about tomorrow's matchup; if the Lady Vols can simply play controlled in the first ten minutes and keep the game from getting ugly, they'll be very difficult to stop.

You've come a long way, Baby Vols.

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