Fans of the Lady Vols have been hoping for consistency all year long, but I don't think this is what they had in mind.
The team was out of sorts from the get-go; Meighan Simmons drew two early fouls in the first four minutes of the game, changing the guard rotation for the rest of the half. The very first Tennessee shot of the game - an open lay-in by Simmons - missed. A few minutes after Simmons made her exit, Glory Johnson also found the bench for the half on two quick fouls of her own. Without Simmons in the game and with Bjorklund in a shooting slump as cold as her recent streak was hot, the team found themselves at a loss of identity on the perimeter, and the offense that had carried them so far was nowhere to be found. With only 24 points at halftime, they found themselves trailing by 5 and would never recover.
A rattled Lady Vols team is a doomed Lady Vols team. With their heads out of sorts, we saw the return of the Baby Vols that we thought had been relegated to the past: excessive turnovers and horrible shot selection doomed the team. And as the game wore on, their desperation to make something happen kept them tripping over their own feet; each time they crept up on Notre Dame in the second half, a chance turnover and a broken defensive transition allowed the Irish to re-establish themselves and return the favor with a longer run.
There are so many things that we could point to for the loss. First, there's the horrible shooting: 33% from the field, 22% from three, and 64% from the charity strip. That kind of shooting will never get you anywhere against a team good enough to get to the Elite Eight. A few of the misses were the point-blank gaffes that have haunted the Lady Vols recently, but most were just bad shots taken with a lot of time left on the shotclock. Second, there's the turnovers, all 19 of them. Most turnovers were the result of Notre Dame's guards poking their hands inside Tennessee's dribbling, a strategy that found success partly due to Tennessee's size (tall player = tall dribble) and partly due to Tennessee not having a point guard on the floor. (Hey, does that sound familiar?) Third, there's the inability to play the game on their own terms. Tennessee had massive advantages in the interior on both ends of the court, yet often abandoned their inside-out offense in favor of jacking up threes.
The lone upside for Tennessee was their rebounding: 43 for the Lady Vols opposed to 29 for the Irish. But after the rebound comes the offense, and without any sense of rhythm or continuity, many of those rebounds became moot as the Lady Vols would either turn the ball back over to the Irish or take hopeless shots.
Notre Dame gets their credit. They're a sharp team and kept their heads about them at all times. And sometimes that's all that really matters in the tournament; often, a team can win the game simply by being the one that doesn't psych themselves out of it. Even with their best interior defender out of the game for much of the night due to her own foul trouble, the Irish found ways to keep Tennessee from establishing their interior offense (and Tennessee, to their discredit, was too willing to oblige).
This one will sting for a long time, not so much because of the loss but because of the manner of the loss. This was not Lady Vols basketball and they'll be the first to tell you exactly that. Still, they're a heck of a team returning a ton of talent. Assuming they survive the bus ride back to Knoxville, we'll look forward to their opening tipoff next year.