It's hard to blame the Lady Vols if they were a little cocky heading into their second round matchup with Marquette; the scoring machine was clicking on all cylinders, slowed down over the last several weeks only by the 40 minute limitation of the game itself. Marquette, meanwhile, was a little fortunate to get past Texas, thanks to the sheer lack of free throws by the Lady Longhorns - and Texas was a team that Tennessee had drilled earlier in the year. And if that weren't enough reason for confidence, the game on Monday was played at home against the very friendly (and incredibly loud) Lady Vols fans.
Cocky they were, and Marquette gave Tennessee a healthy reality check for that. Despite an early 8-0 run to start the game, Tennessee allowed Marquette to creep back into the game and tie it at 30-30 late in the first. After pulling out to a 12 point lead shortly after the half, Marquette again closed to within 1 point on a long two that was about a toe's length from being a three. And for the first time in a long while, Tennessee showed signs of mortality: Angie Bjorklund went 1-4 from three-point range; Kelley Cain appeared stiff and a little out of sorts; Shekinna Stricklen wavered between unstoppable and invisible; Glory Johnson pulled in a mere 6 rebounds on the night. All in all, the Lady Vols can look forward to a very fun and exciting week of practice, courtesy of their sloppiness.
But even with the worst game the Lady Vols have played in over a month, there was always the sense that Tennessee would win. Marquette never held the lead, and many of their shots had that 'luck' quality about them that you just expect to disappear eventually. (Aside: it didn't disappear, and Tennessee had to play a full game on account of Marquette hitting some very hard shots.) Tennessee outrebounded Marquette 40-28, out-blocked them 9-3, and had 6 fewer fouls and 11% better field goal shooting thanks to a lot of paint points.
But all in all, the game had more the atmosphere of a Sweet 16 matchup, and for a good reason: Marquette was a good of an 8 seed as you'll ever see in the tournament.
The Golden Eagles ended the regular season 24-9 and 10-6 in the Big East. They made the third round of the Big East tournament, losing a close game to Rutgers. They are 24ish in both polls and 24th in RPI. The only reason Marquette was an 8 seed rather than a 6 seed was that too many Big East teams got invites to the tournament, and placing Marquette as an 8 helped spread the conference out in the bracket as much as possible. Any other year, and Marquette is a 6.
As a 1 seed, Tennessee isn't supposed to face a team that deserving of a high seed until the regionals, but here they were in the opening weekend, playing in Tennessee's pod. Marquette knew exactly how good they were and wanted to prove it to Tennessee. Tennessee saw an 8 seed that barely beat Texas and wanted to make plans for their grand weekend in Dayton.
They weren't lacking in effort on the night, but the Lady Vols were not all on the same page. Of their 10 turnovers, several came on passes to gaping expanses of air with nothing but cheerleaders behind it. Marquette's Angel Robinson was able to drive all night long on Tennessee, and the defense never really adjusted properly to it.
But despite all the negatives, Tennessee played hard and played effectively enough to win, and that's all that matters. The close score will give the coaches plenty to use as motivation as Tennessee prepares for their game against Ohio State this Saturday. The Buckeyes stand between the Lady Vols and their first regional finals since the Candace Parker era, meaning that 11 of the 13 players have never advanced to the second game of the second weekend. It should be a good game, and is again in the Lady Vols' hands, starting with their first practice today.