Pat Summitt's squad just went through a three-game stretch that likely reveals more about the team than any other series on their entire schedule. Starting with two road games against Texas and Baylor and a home stand against Stanford, the Lady Vols faced three outstanding teams who, in sequence, featured strong guard play, the most intimidating presence in women's basketball, and one of the historic powers of women's basketball with both solid three-point shooting and multiple outstanding post players. The Texas and Baylor games in particular featured only one day of rest between them, creating a near-tournament condition where travel, a short turnaround, and an inability to tailor practices to the second opponent would test the stamina and mental resolve of the team.
At face value, the Lady Vols didn't do too badly. Going 2-1 with the loss coming in the second road game is a very respectable result for any team in the county (especially against a Baylor team that would most likely be favored against UConn if the game were played in Waco). The three games were so different in nature and result, however, that a lot can be gleaned about the current state of the team.
The returns are both heartening and troublesome.
Tennessee vs. Texas: 92 - 77
The simplest stat of note in this game is that Tennessee never trailed. After scoring the opening basket, the Lady Vols eventually opened up a 6-point 48 - 42 lead at halftime. Throughout the second half, the lead slowly grew - a point here, a point there - until Texas finally ran out of steam. Playing only seven players, Texas saw two starters play all 40 minutes while two others logged 38 minutes apiece. Meanwhile, Tennessee used six players off the bench alone, with Kamiko Williams earning 37 minutes of time in unarguably her best game ever in the Tennessee uniform.
The Lady Vols played a guard-first team and beat them at their own game. Double-digit performances by Bjorklund, Simmons, and Williams led the team, and their defensive intensity held a sharpshooting Texas team to 40% from the floor. For the early rounds of the NCAA tournament, this is great news; with so many teams reliant on guard play (due to the lack of solid interior women's players), Tennessee finally showed the ability to defend the perimeter and slow down quick guards that would have given them troubles in previous years.
All in all, a huge success and great news for the Lady Vols.
Tennessee vs. Baylor: 54-65
Let's be honest here: the game really was not as close as the score. The good news is that Britney Griner did not get a double-double (with 'only' 9 blocks and 7 rebounds), but that's about it. Williams made up for her stellar Texas game by a very underwhelming 20% shooting. Simmons went 2-9 from three-point land. In the second half, the Lady Vols demonstrated the definition of insanity by continually trying to shoot over Griner's condor-like wingspan.
They started the game cold and panicked. With only 25% shooting on the day ( a pace that was pretty consistent throughout), the Lady Vols kept heaving up desperate shots and were clearly rattled by a team that could match them in the interior. On defense, they overexerted to the tune of a 23-13 foul deficit. It was the most adverse game and most adverse crowd they'll face all year, and the Lady Vols failed to play within themselves and maintain composure. The Georgetown loss may have been due to apathy, but this was due to a lack of focus and attempting to be too cute with the ball.
An obvious failure, but a correctable one: this game could have been close if Tennessee had been more patient on offense and more controlled on defense.
Stanford vs. Tennessee: 72-82 (OT)
The game a coach loves to have: a great win against a top-10 team with a few things to work on in subsequent practices.
Tennessee started very strong in the game, opening up a 26-12 lead with 9 minutes to go in the first half. Playing at home with a favorable crowd, the guards once again found their stroke and started by raining three-pointers over Stanford and deflating the zone defense. Were it not for a 4-minute cold stretch late in the half, it may have been the best half of basketball played by the Lady Vols all year.
All was not roses, however; Stanford is top-10 for a reason: they're a very smart team who doesn't often get ratteld. Stanford came out of halftime smoking hot, tying the game at 49 with over 13 minutes to go and even building a 6-point lead (63-57) with about 6 minutes to go. With their forwards bottled up by the Tennessee zone, Stanford turned to their guards to close the gap and build the lead.
Tennessee won the game for two reasons: composure and depth. Unlike the Baylor game, Tennessee did not panic against Stanford. Playing down 6, the Lady Vols kept looking for good shots and working hard on defense (aside: this may have been the first game where they actually kept their hands up on defense throughout). When Stanford hit a three to take a three-point lead with about a minute to go, the fearless Simmons promptly responded with a three of her own to send the game to overtime.
And in overtime, Tennessee's depth won the day. Stanford played only 8 players, and one starter and a key backup fouled out at the very beginning of the extra period. With their rotation thrown askew, the Lady Cardinal could not find the offensive rhythm necessary to win, scoring only two free throws in the entire overtime. Tennessee slowly etched up a 82-72 victory by wearing out the She-Tree and by playing with the composure that was totally lacking in the previous game.
All in all, a big success with plenty of room for work. (Killer instinct, anybody?)
The biggest concern is post play. With Cain, Brewer, and Baugh all facing setbacks due to injury, the Lady Vols have not had a good post rotation all year, and it showed up in a big way against Baylor. The posts did play much better against Stanford and should get more rep time against a struggling East Tennessee State squad on Wednesday. With a little luck and a lot of work, stabilization of the post rotation may fix most of Tennessee's inconsistency issues.
They're not "there" yet, but tournament form is definitely within their grasp.