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Survive, Advance: Lady Vols to the Sweet Sixteen

Tennessee beats Pittsburgh 77-67 and is 56-0 in NCAA tournament games played in Knoxville. Now they get to go to somebody else's house for the Sweet Sixteen.

The only picture from the game that didn't make me want to talk about refs.  ...oh, wait.  Dang.
The only picture from the game that didn't make me want to talk about refs. ...oh, wait. Dang.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee led the game from start to finish, but things were kept far more entertaining than they necessarily had to be.

The lead was almost from before the start: Pittsburgh failed to get their lineup card submitted in time, so Tennessee shot two technical free throws before the opening tipoff.  Unfortunately, Massengale missed them both and Tennessee had to wait a whole 12 seconds before Burdick to score.  After a very brief 4-4 tie, Tennessee again took the lead on a Carter jumper and the race was on.

Pittsburgh was a game team and did several things that frustrated Tennessee (some of which are repeatable by Gonzaga, which we'll get to in a minute).  Cora McManus had the strength to push defending posts straight back to the basket where she could pivot and shoot.  Yacine Diop led the Panthers with 9 rebounds.  Brianna Kiesel wins the "Most Aggravating Opponent" award in a strong fashion with game-leading 32 points and 3 steals, playing 40 total minutes and almost single-handedly bringing Pittsburgh back in it at the end.

On Tennessee's side, Bashaara Graves earns our POG Breadsticks with 21 points and 14 boards (10 on the offensive glass) and no fouls.  Burdick had a 14 point, 10 board double-double to snap out of her scoring slump.  All Lady Vols who touched the floor scored at least two points today, and all the points mattered.

But if there is complaint about the Lady Vols tonight, it's that they let Pittsburgh off the mat. With a 35-23 halftime lead, Tennessee watched the Panthers score the first 9 points of the second half to close to within three.  After eventually stretching to a 64-50 lead with 5 minutes to go, they let Pittsburgh close to 69-65 with 36 seconds to go.  Yes, a lot of the comeback was on the back of a total refshow, but Tennessee had their chances and can take enough fault on their own.  The refs don't need more time in the sun in this post.

But you have to like the things that worked well for Tennessee tonight.  Graves owned the offensive glass in a big way.  Overall, Tennessee outrebounded Pittsburgh 46-29.  75% from the free throw line is right at their season average, and a 20% three-point rate is a bit on the low end of normal for Tennessee, which beats jacking threes all night long.  Shot selection was judicious (almost too much so) with everybody finding shots from their preferred locations.  The defense was stout, with the exception of recovering from ball screens (though Pittsburgh ran those extremely well).

Moving on, Tennessee will play Gonzaga in Spokane on Saturday in a true home game for the Zags.  In the meantime, Tennessee gets to figure out how to defend the three better and how to cover the ball screen better (and maybe even the moving screen, it seems).  Gonzaga won't be easy, no matter how their 11-seed may look.  But like tonight, it's all about surviving and advancing.