The Lady Vols are back in the Sweet 16 after their first-ever absence last year. After having won the 1-16 matchup against Austin Peay on Saturday, they faced the plucky Dayton Flyers - a team that overcame an 18-point deficit against TCU to earn the second game in the tournament.
Dayton would not be so fortunate in this game, however. From the opening tipoff, the Flyers flew straight into a maelstrom who wears the number 15 on her back - Alicia Manning. Manning, known up to this point for her defensive skills, provided most of the offense in the early minutes, leading all scorers in the first half and notching 5 rebounds and 5 assists before the close of the first 20 minutes.
Those first five minutes, however, were a thing of sheer beauty from the blonde. She ran over, under, around, and -if necessary - straight through the Flyers to control the ball and earn Player of the Game honors. And it wasn't just a matter of physical effort from Manning; this was one of her most heads-up games in her career. From the keen reads on rebounding angles to the bounce-off-the-Flyer's-back-and-score-on-your-own-inbound, Manning had the game under her firm control and refused to let go. When she didn't have the ball, she was constantly providing energy to the rest of the team and refusing to allow any letdown in intensity. The result was a dominant 50-30 halftime lead - a lead that could easily have been by a larger margin had Summitt decided to play her starters more.
Dayton does deserve credit for their effort. They never gave up on the game and left everything on the court, including tears of sorrow from Kendel Ross, their lone senior. (That's always the toughest part of the NCAA tournament - the sudden end to so many careers. For the women, it's even more significant as they usually share their playing career with only their family, their teammates, and their friends unless they play for one of the few schools with a dedicated fanbase.) Dayton made some nice runs - particularly against Tennessee's bench players - that will give Pat Summitt some good material for the week in anticipation of the second weekend of tournament play.
But for now, Tennessee has a starting five that are coming together in a most impressive manner, and at the right time. Early in the season, this team survived on second-half surges when they would wear down their opponent. Now they're going straight for the jugular from the opening tipoff.
More Ladies are adding in big ways now, as well. Taber Spani shot 3-3 from beyond the arc and tied Manning with 17 points. Kamiko Williams notched 6 points in backup duty, including a few sparks of brilliant play; as she continues to grow, she continues to show why she's a part of this team.
Only two negatives appeared for Tennessee: they shot 33% from the free throw line (mostly due to 0-3 shooting from Kelley Cain); and they held only a 43-33 rebounding edge. Those numbers will be the key on the week as the Lady Vols will certainly focus on their free throws and on boxing out opponents. But you really can't criticize anything else of their game tonight.
And with Alicia Manning peaking, all five starters are playing brilliant ball at the right time. Hang on, kiddos; this tournament could get fun yet.