NCAA Tournament and the Lady Vols: Next Time, Bring Snow Shovels

Austin Peay coach Carrie Daniels said the Lady Govs had experience with players who were bigger them but hadn't seen anyone quite like the 6-foot-6 Cain.

"Prior to this game we brought out broomsticks and made the players shoot over them to simulate," Daniels said.  -- per ESPN.com

We can forget about the 2009 Tournament now, right?

If it seems that last year's first-round tournament exit is mentioned too often when talking about the Lady Vols, it's only for very good reasons.  The opening weekend departure was the first ever in Tennessee history; that team was also comprised almost entirely of the same cast of players that grace this year's edition.  So it's only fitting to compare this year's team to last year's to see how things have changed.  And even the most ardently anti-Lady Vol voices out there can't find reason to believe that the team has put the problems of the past far in their rear view mirror.

The opening game against Austin Peay was, on its face, a poor bellwether for Tennessee; the Lady Vols weren't just taller and more talented than the Lady Govs, the game was played on UT's home court in front of a very pro-UT crowd.  Heck, even the Austin Peay fans sitting next to me were singing Rocky Top as soon as the game was over.  They cheered like crazy for their team, but they knew UT as well as any fan in orange and were ready to support the in-state ambassadors with the rest of us.  (And to those Austin Peay fans sitting in section 130, if you happen to read this, you were some of the most entertaining fans I've ever seen.  Thanks for the many, many laughs.)

However, the opener did show a UT squad who takes their first-round game and leaves no doubt about it from the opening bell.  It was a reminder of pre-2009 tournaments; AP did not make a single point in the game for over six minutes and the bench logged nearly as many minutes of action as the starters.  In the second half, smiles were seen on Pat Summitt's face, even after some plays that went against the Lady Vols (e.g. after a couple of fouls or turnovers).  The mistakes were not of the boneheaded variety this time around, and were mistakes that Pat could accept as a part of the game.  There were still a few butt-chewing moments, for sure, but they were rarer than we've seen over the past couple of years.

On Monday night, the team faces a Dayton squad that eked out a surprising win over TCU on the final shot of the game.  Trailing by as many as 18 in the second half, Dayton showed the composure necessary to hang in and overcome a desperate situation.  They do have some height, including a 6'-4" center and several 6' players, so it won't be a matter of passing over their heads all game long.

For the first time in a long time, however, I really do feel confident that UT will win this game and we'll have two teams in their respective Sweet Sixteens.  Angie Bjorklund and Shekinna Stricklen are finding ways to get good looks from the perimeter.  Kelley Cain and Alyssia Brewer have found an interior chemistry that is only stoppable by early foul trouble.  Alyssia Manning's suddenly amazing defensive efforts are becoming a part of the routine as well.  All in all, it's a starting five that I really like to have on the court.

From the bench, Glory Johnson had her first good game in a while with an 8-point, 8-rebound effort in 22 minutes.  The team will need her to continue to step up in the next few games, and I feel that she is the player we need to watch on Monday night.  When she's on, Johnson is the sixth-woman in the rotation that can break a game open for the Ladies.  Her speed and athleticism allow her to create turnovers and fast breaks that can change the scoreboard in a hurry.  Most importantly, having Glory paying up to her potential relieves a lot of stress from Cain and Brewer.  Suddenly there's a third player in the interior rotation who can allow for rests and can allow the starters to play more aggressively.  With Glory playing well, Cain and Brewer can risk a couple fouls here and there that they might otherwise avoid.

If you're a Lady Vols fan in the Memphis area, go ahead and start looking at tickets.  This year's team will be there.

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