Oral Roberts scored the first four points of the game and held an early 6-2 lead, but Tennessee's talent and athleticism carried the day for the Lady Vols; once they took a 10-7 lead on a Simmons trey, the Lady Vols never looked back and slowly built up a commanding lead to salt the game away and allow Holly Warlick to substitute in Nia Moore and Jasmine Phillips for the last 5 to 6 minutes of the game. But, as 2/15 games tend to go, the outcome is not really the story in this one.
First, Oral Roberts really played well. They fought hard and played smart basketball for pretty much the entire 40 minutes, and they should be proud of the effort. (Aside: I do not believe in saying that for every opponent unless their performance stands out for fear of letting the compliment lose its potency. OR stood out today.) They effectively played a 5.5 player rotation, with two bench players only netting 20 combined minutes, but the starters held up for almost the entire game. Most impressive was Savanna Buck, who made 15 points on 6 shots and drew a lot of the fouls committed by Tennessee. If we gave out POG awards to opponents, she'd have it.
Second, Tennessee shook off their rust. The first half was filled with the kind of things you see when a team hasn't played against an opponent for two weeks. The help side defense was slow, pursuit angles were a bit off, and the lateral motion was too aggressive, allowing room for drives that kept Oral Roberts in the game. On offense, the passes were mostly there, but would occasionally be just off enough to force the recipient to stop and secure the ball, throwing off the timing of several offensive sets. But as the game wore on, much of that rust seemed to disappear. Tennessee started the second half scoring the first 11 points and denying the Golden Eagles a bucket until a three-pointer with 14:12 to go. And despite the rust (as well as the foibles of draining the bench at the end), Tennessee was still positive on A/TO (18/17) - a mark I'll happily take today.
Third, Isabelle Harrison returned. She wore a knee brace through the game, but was solid for 13 minutes, earning 7 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 blocks (one of which was an absolute monster on a three point attempt). Having Izzy back in the game was a terrific sight for Lady Vols fans; she forces defenders to respect two interior players, giving Graves space to work and making double teams a very risky proposition. With one game in hand, she can put the injury behind her and return to the form she had that helped beat Texas A&M and win the SEC regular season. Her presence completely changes Tennessee on the court in a very positive way. Perhaps nothing highlighted this more than one play later in the second half: Bashaara Graves lobbed an entry pass to Harrison from the top of the key. Harrison then spun, shook through two defenders, and scored a basket while drawing the foul and a trip to the line. Nobody, but nobody had a bigger smile on their face than Bashaara Graves, who had sorely missed having another interior player during the Kentucky game and the SEC tournament.
Fourth, this was Holly Warlick's first NCAA tournament win as a head coach. I doubt it's too big of a deal to hear at this point, but it's out of the way and they can focus on other things. At any rate, we congratulate Warlick for continuing to bring tournament success to Tennessee.
After the win, this game was more about returning to form than anything else. With Harrison back and the two-week layoff behind them, the Lady Vols can now focus on the tournament and making the trip to the Regionals in Oklahoma City. Next up is #10 Creighton, who upset #7 Syracuse by shooting 11/36 from three point range. The game is on Monday, and tipoff is currently scheduled for 7:05 PM. We'll be here as always.