The University of Tennessee is collectively 5-0 in NCAA Tournament games this weekend: 3-0 from the men and 2-0 from the Lady Vols.
Fast starts and 40 minute games have eluded Tennessee all season, and tonight was no different. After opening up an early 22-11 lead at the under-12 timeout, Tennessee went cold from the floor to allow St. John's back, holding a tenuous 23-22 lead at the under-8. Foul trouble by Andraya Carter and Meighan Simmons force Tennessee to rely on Jordan Reynolds and Jasmine Jones to close the half, and Jones had great difficulty keeping up with the drives from the quick guards of the Red Storm. (Aside: if you ever wonder if Tennessee misses Ariel, that last sentence should be all the answer you need.) Combined with tight refs (who were tight in both directions and not unfair - just tight), Tennessee ended the half with a four point 39-35 lead, and was in some ways fortunate to be there. The offensive star of the half was clearly Cierra Burdick, who would end the night leading all Lady Vols with 21 points and 11 rebounds and who was the obvious hot hand on the team at the break.
It was a game of runs. When Tennessee scored, St. John's couldn't use transition offense to get quick, good looks at the basket (and/or to force fouls on Tennessee), and Tennessee could stretch out the lead. But if the Lady Vols missed a couple and gave up a cheap turnover or two, the quickness of St. John's came to bear and the Red Storm found points within the first few seconds of the shotclock. The Red Storm worked hard for rebounds and did reasonably well, trailing Tennessee by only a few boards throughout most of the game. (Much of that was due to Graves picking up two early fouls, which took away Tennessee's best offensive rebounder.)
Eventually, the tight whistles and Tennessee's superior size and talent caught up to the Red Storm. The four point halftime lead disappeared to a 39-39 tie before Tennessee finally scored after haltime, but from then on, St. John's could only manage 12 points as Tennessee cruised for 28. As with so many late SEC regular season and tournament games, the Lady Vols finally clicked in the second half, and the struggled just melted away, carrying away the Red Storm's hope for an upset.
Some quick notes:
- Simmons ended her home career with 17 points. Despite a bad SIMONS NO first half, Meighan found a lot of transition points in the second half to end with 17 on 13 shooting (6-6 from the line) and a satisfactory farewell to Thompson Boling arena. She'll need to look for the pass more frequently as the NCAA tournament progresses, but it was a very Simmons end to a very Simmons home career, and we wish her the best.
- Russell is quietly turning into something very good and very not-quiet. A huge block in the second half and some solid passes from the post gave a window into her sophomore season. With a year of strength and conditioning, she's going to fit in juuuuuust fine. She had 9 rebounds on the night - one of her highest totals and third on the team behind Burdick and Harrison (11 each). She also had 3 assists and 2 turnovers - a great night from a freshman post.
- They still haven't had a 40 minute game since South Carolina. 5 tournament games and counting where the Lady Vols struggled in the first half. That will end up being their undoing if it doesn't end.
- Cierra Burdick, POG. Harrison had yet another double-double, but Burdick's 21 points (on 14 shots with no made free throws) and 11 boards kept Tennessee in the lead in the first half and stretched the lead in the second. She was the hot hand when Simmons was tucking her head down and looking only for her own number.
Onward and upward. The Sweet 16 awaits both Vols teams this weekend. Hope you like more basketball.