At the beginning, it looked ugly. Tennessee hit the first bucket of the game on a nice inside pass to Stricklen, but then proceeded to fall behind by as many as 14 points. The zone defense that was supposed to keep the ball on the perimeter was a finely aged Swiss cheese, allowing passes as well as drives for close-in buckets. The Five Seniors starting lineup that had seemed like such a good idea in the previous games was suddenly lethargic. It wasn't until the underclassmen came into the game that Tennessee slowly began to right the ship.
First it was Ariel; the freshman point guard was more aggressive than Bass when directing the offense, and clean shots began to open up for Tennessee. The bleeding slowed down and the Lady Vols were able to hold their own against Kansas. Then it was Meighan Simmons. The lightning-quick sophomore provided the spark in the transition game, giving Tennessee a chance for quick scores and chances to cut the lead down. A couple of early threes from Simmons also provided a lot of energy that went infectious throughout the team.
Finally, and perhaps largely unseen, Cierra Burdick provided tremendous contribution on the defensive end of the court, slipping defensive screens, staying in front of drive attempts, and redirecting the ball away from Kansas's offensive strengths. The self-admitted klutz had her finest defensive game of the year, shutting down the Jayhawk's back door drives.
The score stood at 35-30 Kansas at halftime, and Lady Vols fans were grateful for it to be that close. But by that time, Tennessee had found their energy, and they were not going to be denied in the second half.Of all places, it was the man defense that made the ultimate difference for Tennessee. Normally a much better zone defense team, the Lady Vols were nearly helpless to stop Kansas from a 2-3 alignment. The Jayhawks had clearly spent time on Tennessee's zone defense and knew exactly how to break it down. The man defense, however, pulled of the rare trick of preventing drives and frustrating the passing lanes. Suddenly Kansas was forced to go deep into the shotclock and settle for shots they didn't like. The balance had shifted in the game, and Tennessee held their advantage to overtake Kansas, and then to slowly eke out a bigger and bigger lead.
By the under-eight timeout of the second half, Kansas was gassed. The shallow bench was now a liability and Tennessee was creating turnovers and transition points nearly at will. A rested Meighan Simmons was just too much for Kansas to contain, and the sophomore had several transition buckets that pushed the game cleanly into a win for Tennessee.
A few notes:
- Glory Johnson had one of her lowest rebounding games of late with only 7 boards (2 defensive). This was mostly due to a total Kansas commitment to boxing her out. As a result, Baugh carried much of the rebounding load and ended with a game high 10 boards.
- Tennessee finished with 15 assists and only 8 turnovers for a 1.9 A/TO, one of the best such marks on the season.
- Angel Goodrich scored 12 points in the first half but was largely shut down in the second, only scoring 3 points until late in the game when Tennessee had things well in hand and was willing to give up a shot to avoid a foul.
- Tennessee was 21-24 from the free throw line, one of their best charity performances of the year. Kansas was 7-11, and the 14 point difference from the line was a huge part of the win. (Note: many of the free throws happened late, as Tennessee was shooting in close from transition or offensive boards and Kansas was trying to keep the game in check.)
- Special mention goes to the coaches, who successfully found the cures to the ailments that Tennessee faced. The coaches figured out the hot players on the day and placed them in positions to succeed on both ends of the court. It's not a contribution that stands out, but the switch to the man defense, controlling the defensive assignments to avoid mismatches, and cracking the Kansas defense were all the result of coaching schemes.
And lastly, Meighan Simmons had an absolutely fantastic game. She played very strong defense and, along with Arial (!!!), was largely responsible for shutting Angel down. Meighan was also the best transition shooter in the game, ending with 7 for 10 from within 2. Add in 4 boards and one turnover (very late in the game, when it no longer mattered), and she was the clear winner of the breadsticks on the day.
Sweet Mother of Breadsticks, Meighan!