Someone needs to give the Lady Vols' strength and conditioning coach a raise, or at the very least steak dinners for a week. Tennessee fought through two big deficits during the game, as Gonzaga opened up both halves strong before the Lady Vols were able to strike back. In the first half, Jamie Nared and Ariel Massengale hit back-to-back three pointers inside of a minute to pull the team back to a 34-all tie going into halftime.
Since coming back from six down with a minute to go was too easy, Tennessee bumped the difficulty up a few notches in the second half, running out to a 17-point deficit with 6:30 to go. After that, things got serious: Bashaara Graves pulled a three-point play, blocked a shot, Gonzaga turnover, Cierra Burdick pulled a three-point play, Gonzaga's Sunny Greinacher hit a layup, and then Nared pulled another three-point play. At the under-4, it was 61-54 Gonzaga.
Tennessee's response: turn up the defensive pressure. An 8-0 run turned the game into a 62-61 lead, Emma Wolfram scored to put Gonzaga back in front, then Jordan Reynolds couldn't hit both free throws. At 63-63 with 42 seconds left, Tennessee absolutely stymied the Zags' next defensive possession, then got the ball to Ariel Massengale, who tossed up a wild layup--rebounded, of course, by Graves, who (also of course) got absolutely blasted to (of course) no call, meaning this game went to overtime.
In OT, only one team hit a shot, and it wasn't Tennessee. Reading the play-by-play for this game is an exercise in reading "[name] made free throw", which is basically the story of overtime. Tennessee hit ten free throws, Reynolds iced the game, and the Lady Vols survived the road game, 73-69.
Nobody said this was ever easy, and in a game that went to overtime, literally everything matters. Nared had no choice but to come to play with Andraya Carter sidelined with foul trouble (did we mention the refs, because there were refs), and her 12 points were critical. Graves' seven offensive boards helped even as she was absolutely beaten up on the floor, going 3-12. Reynolds? 12 points, 7 boards, 3 assists, a steal, a block, no turnovers. Even Alexa Middleton hit a pretty big three.
However, this game was defined by the seniors. Ariel Massengale had 15 points (yes, on 15 shots), 3 boards, 4 assists, and a lot of stability. Cierra Burdick, though? 22 points (on 17 shots), 15 boards, 2 steals, and the emotional heart of the team. With a loss yesterday, there were reasons that Tennessee could've bowed out: this was a road game; Isabelle Harrison is still out; foul trouble everywhere; the rest of the team's injuries leaving the team a little small for some ultra-big teams.
None of that mattered on Saturday, not in the end. What did matter: 21-22 from the line, 11 turnovers. When Tennessee shoots less than 33% from the floor--when pretty much any team shoots 33% from the floor--they're not going to win. Tennessee did that somehow, and even though I know the final score and I saw the game I still don't understand how that happened.
Gonzaga was underseeded, it's safe to say. They beat a really good Oregon State team and gave Tennessee absolutely all they could handle; even though there's no reason why they should've been playing a home game, they took advantage of it, creating a hostile environment and playing an incredibly motivated, strong game. They're a really good team; they play smart, they get good looks, and they convert them. They were just too careless with the ball (17 turnovers) and just too bad at the line (9-13), but if Tennessee doesn't go 21-22 from the line, it doesn't matter. They played Tennessee's rebounding game to a deadlock, and they held the Lady Vols to sub-33% from the floor. They should've won this game.
The Lady Vols won a game they weren't supposed to win, not by the stats. They won it on heart, they won it on defense, they won it by being stronger, by getting contact, by playing through contact, by showing up when it mattered. They can't pull this trick again: Maryland will blow them off the court; UConn will absolutely blow them off the court (they beat Texas by 51 yesterday, in case you were wondering if ESPN shows snuff films), and whoever comes out of the other half of the bracket won't hold back.
Maryland is deep, they're talented, they knocked Tennessee out of the tournament last year, and they took Tennessee's 1 seed. The Lady Vols won't need additional motivation with a trip to the Final Four on the line, but if they can win while struggling from the floor in a road game, who's to say they can't make it to Tampa without their star player?
This is the NCAA tournament. Weird things happen.
The Maryland game's at 9 PM on Monday on ESPN. Have an extra cup of coffee in the afternoon.