Any discussion of the Lady Vols' 59-40 win over Stanford needs to begin with the defense. The Cardinal were held to 26.5% from the floor for the game, but only 7-31 from inside the arc. Tennessee used their length and a switch heavy defense to harass Stanford into 20 turnovers, and sometime around the 14-minute mark of the second half, Stanford mentally buckled under. Then Ariel Massengale blew the game open and that was that.
For the Lady Vols, this is a huge non-conference win against an opponent they've struggled with under Holly Warlick. There were going to be questions asked if they looked meek against another top opponent (even if this isn't quite the Stanford of previous years, it's still Stanford), and for the first time all season, there seemed to be a consistent, coherent plan that was adhered to for 40 minutes. More than anything, Tennessee didn't play stupid. That's been a problem this season, and with a new rotation finally figured out the Lady Vols can build chemistry.
Full credit to Warlick and the staff for rolling with a weird starting lineup of Jordan Reynolds, Jasmine Jones, Cierra Burdick, Bashaara Graves, and Isabelle Harrison. At first glance there's very little offense outside the paint, but this is also Tennessee's longest lineup. As a result, they could switch everything. Stanford was running some fairly simple screen-drive-pass-rotate sets, but they couldn't switch onto mismatches. This won't always be effective, but expect to see that lineup deployed more against bigger teams.
The player of the game is either Bashaara Graves, who opened up strong, setting the tone before settling in to a 10/10 line, or Ariel Massengale, who got hot from deep and put the game out of hand. I tend to weight time of game highly, and Tennessee never trailed in a game against a top 10 opponent. That's on Graves, and she's my POG.
Bullet point observations:
- Ball control: Tennessee more-or-less finished with an A/TO of 16/14 (finals were 16/16, but the bench was emptied late). Stanford: 2/19. I think that's a turnover rate of 32% (using the formula turnovers / (turnovers + attempts - offensive boards), which is Stanford's worst rate by 11%. They had to force Stanford to 18-20% to have a shot at winning, so this looks like a blowout. Also helping: Tennessee won the rebounding battle by 15 and pulled the "more offensive boards than defensive boards for the opponent" trick, 17 to 16. I can't recall the last time I saw that one against a top-10 team.
- Tennessee has a rotation: Reynolds/Carter/Massengale/Middleton on the guards, Jones/Burdick/Nared on wing/high post, and Graves/Harrison on the interior. Nia Moore is 10th off the bench, and Kortney Dunbar is behind her. Jannah Tucker is the last off the bench right now, and even she got into this game. The Lady Vols emptied the bench against a top 10 opponent, in case that wasn't obvious.
- I know in every single post I talk about benching Jasmine Jones, but in this case: she's not over her concussion and is trying to play through it. Let her recover. She can do things that are helpful for this team, but concussions aren't to be trifled with. She doesn't help the team when she has to play timid because of said concussion, and when she plays her usual way she'll get herself injured again. Keep her healthy, because as much as I abhor her shot selection (although if she actually spot up for shots instead of only taking runners, that might be better), she can do useful things.
- For Stanford, Lili Thompson had 13 points on 14 shots. Nobody else had more than 6. Tennessee had Massengale finish with 18, Graves with 10, and Harrison with 10, all of whom had a points-per-weighted-shot better than 1. Upshot: this team will go as far as this trio takes them.
- Related: I still kind of think Massengale as second-team gunner is overthinking it a bit, but it's working. She finished with 22 minutes to Jordan Reynolds' 25, so they're equalizing.
- There were some funky lineups in this game. We already talked about the all-length team, but there was a lineup where Nared was the only non-guard (Reynolds-Carter-Massengale-Middleton-Nared), too. Don't expect to see that one a ton this year, although that lineup is feasible next year when you replace Nared with Mercedes Russell.
- Nia Moore picked up 3 fouls in 7 minutes, a few of them ....um, pretty dumb. I can't say I like her not getting many minutes, but if she wants to crack the rotation she's got to do better against better opponents. There will be times when she's needed, but since that all-length lineup was so effective defensively, those times may not be as much as we thought.
- Minutes check: Burdick-31, Graves-29, Reynolds-25, Massengale-22, Harrison-22, Carter-21. Why that matters: Burdick will be playing at the 4 a lot, and that puts the Burdick-Graves-Harrison combo at 80 minutes combined. This is another reason Moore isn't needed, and I have no idea why I've spent two bullet points talking about the back end of the bench.
- Here's why that matters, though: this game was the first time it looked like Tennessee had A Plan this season. The small things like rotations and chemistry matter, and there were only a handful of really stupid shots taken. They were fine on offense, stifling on defense, and that will get it done against almost anyone. (Cut out some of those midrange shots next time, though.) I don't even mind the 5-17 from beyond the arc, far more than any opponent with a pulse they've played. Those shots will fall eventually, but the threat of the three is going to be enough to open up the inside.
- Stanford opened up playing the same super-sagging man that Wichita State played. They had to abandon it because of the perimeter threat. Watch and take notes.