First, there must be some applause. Pat Summitt made the second weekend of NCAA play for every single weekend up until now. That's a mark of such significant proportions that nobody can belittle it just because of one upset.
This is a team that has clearly been the victim of history and expectation. If you really want to rattle off the accomplishments of the Lady Vols throughout history (not including this year), the includes more than just these few bullet points:
- Second round of NCAA tournament for every year of its existence (27-year streak)
- Nearly half of all games played against ranked teams
- 8 National Championships
- 18 Final Four appearances
- 13 SEC Tournament Championships
- 14 SEC Regular Season Championships
- The greatest NCAA tournament upset run ever: (1997)
- 983 wins to a mere 182 losses (0.843 winning percentage)
Beyond UT, Pat Summitt has been the ambassador of women's basketball. One of the programs that beat UT this year owes its very existence to Pat Summitt. In the early '90s, when Oklahoma was considering folding their women's program, Pat helped provide the motivation necessary to keep it in existence. She's also a large part of the reason for UConn's success; had she not been willing to take them on, they might never have reached the notoriety and had the subsequent recruiting success this decade.
So it's no wonder that a pack of freshmen might collapse under the weight of such history.
Reviewing the game itself, there's not much more that necessarily has to be said than the final score: 71-55 Ball State. However, it's worth noting some of the stats to see what happened.
Starting with the good news, UT out-rebounded Ball State 42-29. That includes an 18-8 edge in offensive boards. (Typically, those kinds of numbers assure victory for the Lady Vols. It's Pat's hallmark.)
Again, the Lady Vols had the edge on assists, 15 to 7. That's a good sign for the teamwork end of things - especially when they had such a hard time with passing throughout the season.
This is where the Lady Vols lost the game. Ball State out-shot Tennessee 44% to 35%. At the end of the first half, those stats were roughly the same (both below 40%), but Ball State responded to offensive adjustments while Tennessee began to fade. From three-point range, Ball State was 37% while Tennessee was 12%.
This is another clear advantage for Ball State. Their percentage was better (80% to 64%), but the big mark is the number of free throws: BSU was 16-20 while UT was 7-11. Some of those were the result of late fouls in a desperate attempt to get back into the game, but it's still a huge disadvantage against a team that shoot free throws well.
The game was tied with around 14 minutes to go, but Ball State kept making shots while Tennessee lost their wheels. A 3-point lead became a 4-point lead, then 5, then 7, and so on. Even when UT managed to make a basket, Ball State always had an answer. Give credit for those girls; they knew they were making history and they didn't collapse. All the pressure was on UT, and it showed.
You knew that they were thinking about it. All those bullet points were firmly entrenched in their minds, reminding them of what they represented. At times, those bullet points seemed to obscure their view of the basket and each other. And the bullet points won out while the team buckled. History finally became too big for the ladies in orange to hold up.
So ends the most remarkable tournament run ever. There will be plenty of time to dissect the problems (as if we haven't been through them already). For now, let's applaud a remarkable coach, and a remarkable team that managed to beat teams like Rutgers and Stanford in the course of a season we're so quick to write off.
Even in defeat, it's still great to be a Lady Vol!