This was never going to be easy. Tennessee's struggled for years against top 5 teams on the road (because, well, they're top 5 teams and you're playing in their barn); today was no different as Stanford dispatched Tennessee 76-70. This is disappointing but by no means changes anything from Tennessee's goals on the season, nor does it mean that Tennessee's Elite Eight/Final Four-ish potential is unchanged. (With a win, it would've changed. As it stands, I wouldn't have expected a win when the season started, so I don't feel too different about it.)
Stanford got there thanks to Chiney Ogwumike dominating the offensive glass in the first half and the defense glass in the second half. Tennessee isn't going to win games giving up a 32-20 (Ogwumike's final line); Taylor Greenfield being daggers from beyond the arc and Lili Thompson turning in a solid performance was enough, but really, Ogwumike took Stanford on her back here. She's rightfully the best player that Tennessee's faced all season, one heck of a matchup problem, but it's not like Tennessee is going to magically avoid good players en route to a Final Four berth.
On the other hand, you'd rather get clowned in December than January. Stanford also shot 70% from beyond the arc, which matters. Then again, most of those shots were open, which can't happen.
Ogwumike's the player of the game, but you knew that already.
So what does Tennessee need to work on?
- Physical presence defense. Isabelle Harrison was the only player who could stop Ogwumike in one-on-one play. Bashaara Graves was dominated, which is disappointing but it's worth noting that Ogwumike does have height and reach on Graves. Regardless, that has to get better against the elite posts Tennessee will face.
- Shot selection and hero ball. At one point in the second half, Simmons decided she was going to go one-on-one with Ogwumike on opposite sides of the court. That went about as expected, and Simmons' final line is something out of a horror movie (5-18, 1-6 from 3, 6 rebounds (which normally means something else weird happened)). For that matter, Andraya Carter had a rough game too, going 2-8 from the floor. Massengale's 4-12 effort is somewhat obviated by her 8-10 from the line. Ironically enough, Cierra Burdick wasn't a problem here thanks to spending most of the game in foul trouble. Interior play wasn't as much of an issue, though.
- Second string PT. Credit to Carter for notching 26 minutes in this game, but beyond that, Jordan Reynolds barely played, Jasmine Jones appeared vaguely out of the her depth, Nia Moore notched a DNP-CD, and Mercedes Russell had 13 relatively quiet minutes. Some of this will naturally get better as the season goes on - Burdick won't foul out of every big game, Russell still has all the potential in the world - but it's a noteworthy reminder that what looks like depth against good teams can get exposed against elite squads.
- Battling and adjustments. Tennessee was under the gun after an early Stanford run; no, it's not good that they didn't come back and lead at any point, but Tennessee was able to cut it to a one-possession game with one minute left. I'm pretty sure last year's team doesn't do that - same with 2011.
- Getting to the line. For large chunks of the game, the only reason it was close was thanks to Tennessee getting to the charity stripe. 18-25 on the game - especially when chasing - is a solid number. Nobody on the Cardinal really ended up in meaningful foul trouble - Mikaela Reuf and Amber Orrange both were on four at the final whistle - but that's more a statement of Stanford getting their points elsewhere.
- Road experience. As dour as this game recap sounds, if Tennessee had the possession arrow in their direction with 35 seconds to go after the last jump ball of the game they had a chance to tie. Pretty much anything goes differently in Tennessee's favor and they could've led. A two possession loss to a top team on the road isn't the end of the world if it happens once. (If this turns into a pattern, we should talk, but for now? It might be fine.)