If you want to be a champion, you have to win the ugly ones. You also have to finish strong. Tonight, the Lady Vols did both.
Tennessee - Vanderbilt has silently grown into a very emotional rivalry in women's basketball. Though Tennessee has won 19 of the last 20 meetings, the games of late have been close, aggressive contests, and Vanderbilt's lone win in that span came last year. Vanderbilt is loaded with juniors and seniors who are very talented in their own right and who dearly want to prove themselves against Summitt's gals.
For much of the night, Tennessee was stymied on the defensive end by Vanderbilt's quickness off the dribble. The Commodores gave up a significant amount of height to the Lady Vols, so they used their agility to find driving lanes to basket all night long. (Pat Summitt, by the way, has her teaching point: put more effort against the dribble drive. Tomorrow will be a very busy practice.)
But the biggest difference between last year and this yeas was on display for the Lady Vols: the ability to push through adversity and finish strong.
In the final four minutes of the first half, the Lady Vols were trailing 20-28. They had some initial success getting the ball to Cain in the interior, but even that had failed them. But starting at the four-minute mark, the Lady Vols hit a second wind to close the half, holding the Commodores to zero points while netting the eight needed to tie the score.
In the final seven minutes of the game, Tennessee was behind 45-52. Vanderbilt had been scoring nearly at will, and Tennessee was struggling to find their offensive groove. But again, unlike last year, this squad has learned to just keep fighting through the difficulties. The Lady Vols' defense finally locked in on the Commodores and turned the seven-point deficit into their first lead since the 11:45 mark of the first half on the heels of two Kelley Cain steals and one Kelley Cain block. Alicia Manning and Glory Johnson contributed heavily on the defensive end with rebounds of their own, and they finished by converting the turnovers into fast break points and in-traffic layups.
Having found the handle on Vanderbilt's offense, they refused to let go the rest of the way. Vanderbilt scores only eight more points in seven minutes, and three of those came on a three-point shot to close the game once it no longer mattered. (They would not have had those three points if Glory had simply ran out the clock instead of trying for one more basket.)
A key three-pointer from Angie Bjorklund and solid free throw shooting squeezed the hope out of Vanderbilt in the waning minutes, and the Lady Vols continued to finish the game off with effective play. This was not a pretty contest by any means, and the Lady Vols have a lot to improve on from this effort, but it was a win that they didn't have in them last year.