If there's one truth in women's basketball, it's that teams will give Tennessee their best shot.
It was the kind of game you'd expect when a small, quick team faces a much taller foe: Tennessee absolutely dominated the interior while Ole Miss lived on the three-point ball and perimeter passing. Everything in the statistics breaks down according the the stereotypes of team size. Tennessee owned the rebound advantage 45-21 (20-5 offensive) and blocks 3-0, but Ole Miss led in steals (6-4) and had fewer turnovers (10-16). The Lady Rebels also took half of their field goal shots from beyond the three-point arc, where they hit 10 of 28 treys to account for just over half of their scoring.
But it was a three-point ball from Angie Bjorklund that decided the game and sealed Ole Miss's fate. With the game tied at 58-58 and inbounding the ball at halfcourt with 13.0 seconds left on the clock, Tennessee got the ball in the hands of Shekinna Stricklen. After working her way past one defender and avoiding the double-team, Stricklen kicked the ball out to Bjorklund, who launched the ball from about 21 feet out and nailed the game-winning points. With one second left on the clock, Ole Miss's desperate inbound attempt was swatted out by Glory Johnson, leaving only 0.7 seconds for a full-court pass and a missed prayer.
The tale of the tape truly did not lie about how this game was played. Ole Miss was the quicker, more nimble team and gave Tennessee fits, both on the offensive dribble and in steal attempts on defense. Most of Tennessee's 16 turnovers came while trying to figure out how to break the Ole Miss defense and getting sloppy with the passing. But once the ball was securely within the perimeter, Ole Miss simply had no means to defend the one-two punch of Kelley Cain and Alyssia Brewer. With Nikki Byrd committed to guarding Cain, Brewer was free to move near the basket. And with Byrd on Cain, Tennessee had free reign on the glass, as no other Lady Rebels could effectively box out the taller, longer Lady Vols.
But even with the significant size advantage enjoyed by the Lady Vols, they had to work to come from behind in a game that Ole Miss nearly won. Much like the Vanderbilt game earlier in the week, Tennessee took nearly the whole game before figuring out the Mississippi defense and exerting their will on the game. In the final five minutes, however, Tennessee outscored Ole Miss 11-4 despite a scoring drought of 2:41 seconds between two Bjorklund three-pointers. UT simply found the answers on defense to keep Ole Miss from getting good opportunities to shoot the ball while finding enough breathing room to force Ole Miss into bad defensive positions.
Special mention goes to Kelley Cain, who notched 16 rebounds (6 on offense). Now that she has nearly two full years of experience and two knees that are holding up, her potential is really beginning to come through. She will be an absolute delight for Lady Vols fans over the next two years of her career. Further honors go to Angie Bjorklund for becoming the 31st Lady Vol to score 1,000 career points, ending the night with 1,010.
Looking ahead to the SEC and NCAA tournaments, the Lady Vols will have to find a way to settle into their game sometime in the first 35 minutes of action. But the groove is there, and they're learning how to find it. Compared to this time last year, the team is on a far better trajectory and appears to be on their way to another Sweet Sixteen run.