Come back soon. - Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
The Lady Vols played one heck of a game - better than a lot of us expected - but it wasn't enough, as Isabelle Harrison left the game with a knee injury and Tennessee came up short.
I want to sit here and tell you the game turned on Isabelle Harrison - playing with a bad left knee thanks to what was (initially) a partially torn meniscus - further injuring her left knee late in the first half. I want to tell you that if she was healthy, Tennessee doesn't get rolled on backdoor cuts, Skylar Diggins doesn't take over early in the second half, and Meighan Simmons doesn't get it in her head to respond. Notre Dame doesn't stake out to a 19-point lead, and the ensuing comeback is actually a comeback instead of cutting the margin.
I would be lying to you. Notre Dame had a lot of things just go wrong for them in the first, most of which begin and end with Kayla McBride. Simmons was going to get it in her head that she could shoot with Diggins if only she was on the court - there was a sequence involving a Diggins three and a half-screened Simmons response attempt that predictably clanged - and Bashaara Graves is good, but she isn't that good. I don't think Harrison changes this game, but I think she changes the margin a bit from the 77-67 loss that it turned out as. This is Notre Dame's third win in a row in the series (3-20 overall).
Notre Dame figured out pretty quickly that Harrison is a pretty good interior player and promptly took the whole team to school. This isn't on Graves and Jasmine Jones as much as it is on the perimeter defenders allowing too many players in too deep on the interior, and Notre Dame will score given 3-on-2 situations on the interior. They ran a lot of plays that exploited the trapping defense the Lady Vols like to run, and hoo boy did it get ugly in a hurry.
Down two of your best four players, this is what's going to happen against an elite team, especially when you lose one of said two halfway through the game and you don't have time to adjust. Remember when Justin Hunter went down against Florida? Yeah, that.
Still, there were some positive signs. Tennessee hung with an elite team with Harrison in the lineup, came back to make it close absent half their interior depth (it was a two-possession game around the under-4), and come March and a healthy Cierra Burdick back in the rotation? That's huge. If the breaks are different, this could be a win. This team - which, we seem to forget, is retooling - could win this game if it goes a little differently.
This team is now really shallow inside, and it's not like Harrison and Buridck are chopped liver. Burdick in particular will enjoy having a more mature Graves inside, Jones will get some added PT, and let's be honest here - it's all about March anyway. Take your lessons and move on.
For Notre Dame? Goodness, did Skylar Diggins get all over this game. Kayla McBride and Natalie Achnowa (who fouled out) were mostly shut down, but when Diggins goes for 33, the other "hey, shut one of 'em down!" strategy doesn't really apply. They did enough, and they took Tennessee's best shot - twice - and escaped Knoxville with a good win.
Game notes, which will - for the most part - be positive:
- Graves got after it and a half - 19/13, 10 offensive boards, 9/10 from the line. She doesn't get the above-the-fold breadsticks treatment, but she was the Lady Vol POG for sure. She certainly earned her postgame massage and/or ice bath. It's a little weird to try and figure out her total game given everything else, but by the numbers? She did well.
- Ariel Massengale had one heck of a game - those 9 assists are pretty nice to look at, and her D was good-to-excellent. She's not quite a leader yet - if she was, maybe that run doesn't happen the way it does - but she had a very good game, 1-6 from the floor excepted.
- Jones had her most meaningful minutes yet, and responded in a decent way. Her total numbers aren't great, but they're good. Certainly good enough for a player who should be fourth by normal depth, and will now be counted on more than a lot of people expected. Tonight, we have some evidence she can step up.
- If Tennessee wasn't seven-deep, I'd have benched Simmons after that terrible attempted answer. No excuse for that. 11 points on 11 shots. I'll stop being hard on her when she stops playing unnecessarily fast and starts playing smarter - I don't mind speed unless it comes at the expense of shot selection. (Diggins, by the way? 33 on 26. McBride had 9 on 18, which is just incredible.)
- The crowd brought it, most notably in the first half as Tennessee was pulling close and in the second half when the Dee Kantner-led crew started doing Dee Kantner-led crew things (fouls by half: 1st - 8, 2nd - 25; not to toot my own metaphorical horn, but I kind of called this in the first half). Nothing less than I would expect, but we're being positive here.