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Left-for-Dead Lady Vols Roll Buckeyes, 78-62

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Okay, now it's safe to look ahead to Sunday.

:D
:D
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

After the way this season unfolded, with solid defense and stilted offense making regular appearances between December (in a home loss to Virginia Tech) and February (in a road loss to Alabama), you'd be forgiven for assuming picking up seven seeds in the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament were the equivalent of a mercy killing for this Lady Vol basketball team.

And yet, here we are again, waiting for the Lady Vols to play on Sunday after a 78-62 win over Ohio State. If you tuned out, you missed the offense--best detailed here in my they're-gonna-get-killed preview of the Notre Dame game--figuring it out. There were shades of this in the Texas A&M game in the SEC Tournament, as Diamond DeShields seemed to have finally figured out her chemistry issues with the team in general and Mercedes Russell in particular, but it's really come together once the NCAA Tournament started.

They've figured things out, and they just ....won last night. It wasn't particularly close after the first few minutes, as the Lady Vols stormed out to a 23-10 first quarter lead and that was that. Ohio State cut it to six a few times in the second quarter, but by and large it was just a comfortable win. With this team, who ever saw that coming, let alone here? Tennessee's last win by 16 or more was against Arkansas to open the SEC Tournament, but there have only been ten wins this season of 16+. Most of those were the Baylor-OOC portion of the schedule: Carson-Newman, ETSU, Central Arkansas, Stetson, Vanderbilt. (Okay, fine: Alabama.)

Mercedes Russell went off last night, by the way. 23 points on 12/16 shooting and 15 boards. Unfortunately, the Tennessee information department of athletic department affairs department couldn't figure out the last time someone threw up a 20/15 and WBBState is gone for good so I can't tell you the last time that happened. With that being said, Russell earned the Glory Johnson Honorary Get Fouled In The Paint Every Single Time award and looks likely to keep it the next couple of seasons, which is a sign it's time to work on the free throw shooting a tick or two. DeShields didn't have a great night shooting (3/14 from the floor) but did the thing that good players do, dishing out seven assists.

Fortunately, Jaime Nared and Te'a Cooper(!) pitched in on the scoreline with DeShields' difficult shooting night. Cooper had a really good game, going 6/10 from the floor for 16 points, and this was absolutely Good Cooper showing up. Nared only went 2/6 from the floor, but had a good night from the line and just missed a double-double (9 points, 11 boards). Bashaara Graves was part of the dominant interior action early before injuries showed up late, but closed with 14 points and 9 boards.

Going forward, injuries are going to be the big concern. Andraya Carter left the game with a finger issue, Graves was on the bench for a while with a finger issue, DeShields tweaked her knee and was off the floor for a few minutes, and Jordan Reynolds was kept out of the second half--presumably for concussion-related concerns. Hopefully for Reynolds, it's nothing severe and this was purely a precautionary move, but if we learn nothing else from the Jasmine Jones saga, it's don't play anyone who might have a concussion until you're sure she doesn't anymore. Keeping Reynolds out of this game: good move. Watching Cooper go off with Reynolds out: better, since it means Reynolds wasn't needed.

Okay, now it's safe to look ahead. If Tennessee made it past the Buckeyes, they were guaranteed to get a rematch, and ...what, 99% of people thought it was going to be an opportunity to avenge the South Carolina loss, right?

Yeah, about that. Syracuse beat the Gamecocks, 80-72. Tennessee barely beat Syracuse in Knoxville earlier this year, and lest we chalk this up as auto-win: Syracuse beat South Carolina. And they came back in the fourth quarter to do so. They're playing better too, and they play the kind of zone-heavy, perimeter-shooting game that's historically driven the Lady Vols nuts.

And yet, if you saw the Ohio State game, you saw the Lady Vols dissect a zone, like they figured out "hey wait a second, we're just taller than everyone, so fire it over everyone's heads and find the open shooter" in the last three weeks like they figured everything else out. Ohio State regularly scored in the 80s and was held to 62 points, and the Lady Vols closed out hard on Kelsey Mitchell. Keep this up and somehow this team, of all teams, may cut down the nets on Sunday.

3:30 EST, against Syracuse. This season, weird as it's been so far, keeps on getting weirder. Pile on board; I have no idea when this ride is going to end.