Tennessee very nearly pulled off the upset in a game that was far closer than the final score indicated. Relying on defense and outstanding rebounding, the Lady Vols overcame atrocious shooting throughout most of the game to hold a 2-point lead at halftime and lead as late as 9 minutes left in the game.
But the Lady Vols were surviving on offense on the hot hand of Shekinna Stricklen, who played the kind of game everybody knows she is capable of playing. Sometime around 10 minutes left to go in the game, Stricklen began to cool off from fatigue, having played every minute of the game to that point, and her 58% shooting at halftime cooled to 43% for the game. Outside of Stricklen? At halftime, the rest of the team was shooting a collective 13%, and some very good opportunities went by the wayside.
Today was a loss because Tennessee did not have enough reliable shooting to keep from going cold. When Tennessee surged to an eight point lead early in the second half, the erratic shooting let Baylor crawl back in and eventually take the lead. By that time, Tennessee just didn't have anywhere to turn for consistent shooting, and Baylor had rotated the defense over to cover Stricklen. Simmons and Massengale were particularly cold, going a combined 2-22 (9% !!!). The young guards are going through a slump and have to work things out.
But in the loss came some fantastic news. Rebounding was a strong as this group of seniors has ever played, with three Lady Vols acquiring double-digit rebounds and holding Griner to fewer than 10. Boxing out, tying up loose balls, and aggressive tip drills were all on display in the best board work of the year. 20 rebounds came off the offensive glass, which helped hold the score close in the first half in particular. Defense was also spectacular, denying entry passes to Griner throughout most of the game and forcing the action to other players. These are Summitt's keys in any game, and this was the first game in a long time that Tennessee was committed to both in a long time.
Also great news was that Tennessee had to play in halfcourt throughout most of the game. Baylor is still better than Tennessee when the tempo is slower, but the overall halfcourt effort was far better than the Virginia game, with crisper passing in particular. Tennessee needs a halfcourt game for those days when defenses deny the transition (as Baylor sought to do today), and what we saw this afternoon gives high hopes for a halfcourt game that will be effective and reliable come conference and tournament play.
Shooting slumps happen. It was partly shot selection and partly a cold streak, but you can't be upset at a team that loses when the shots just don't fall. Tennessee played as Baylor's equal, and perhaps even as their superior, save the shooting. And no Lady Vols fan can up upset about that.
Next up is Middle Tennessee State in two nights. In that game, we're looking to see if Tennessee brings the focus again. This is the first game all year we've seen 40 minutes of focus. If they can learn to bring it consistently, the shots will fall and the epic wins will come. But the egregious sins of the past - lethargy on defense and on the glass - may finally be disappearing.