TV: ESPN / ESPNmore
Stats: Still here, still terrible
This is weird, right? We can admit that. This is a apace where we can say that a team that lost consecutive road games to LSU and Alabama and is now playing for a Final Four berth is a bit of a strange trajectory, right? That this team is the Lady Vols just makes this look normal. It's not.
And yet, here they are, playing on ESPN (again) for the right to a Final Four berth (again) against an opponent they've seen before, which feels like it deserves the (again) but maybe I just have Maryland-related PTSD from the last couple years. Maryland, it should be noted, lost to Washington, who then went into Rupp and beat Kentucky.
Washington is also a 7 seed. We're not alone here in this weird 7-seed territory, and they're playing Stanford, who they've seen before. Stanford's a 4 seed. Syracuse is a 4 seed. This is the strange half of the bracket.
Meanwhile, Geno Auriemma and Kim Mulkey are one game away from facing off in a death match. That has nothing to do with today, but there is at least some bitter light at the end of that tunnel regardless of what happens in a few hours. That'll be a slight tick up from Baylor's typical preferred scheduling, which is also UConn's in-conference schedule. Yeah, I'm saying UConn is in a weak conference, and yeah, I don't care they blew the doors off Mississippi State. We're not even supposed to be alive anymore; y'all want to live forever or not?
Syracuse presents a different problem than Ohio State did (and certainly than South Carolina wouldâremember, South Carolina lost two games all season: Syracuse and UConn). I'm going to skip ahead and link to Hooper's preview from earlier in the year since this was back in the WBBState days and I can't give you much more than that. The Orange will come to play, and they're good at two things which have typically frustrated the Lady Vols: zones and threes.
The good news: they've finally figured out some ways around that. Tennessee continually bodied up Kelsey Mitchell on Friday; they'll do the same to Alexis Peterson today. They passed around Ohio State's zone; Syracuse's zone is better, but they can pass around it. This can work; this game is winnable. They beat Syracuse once already.
Heck, Diamond DeShields and Te'a Cooper played on the court together for 10 minutes and it wasn't offensively stilted. I don't even know with this team anymore. I don't think Mercedes Russell is going to throw up a 23/15 again today, but she's turned a corner. Cooper played within herself; with Jordan Reynolds' availability in doubt from what I could piece together from the Warlick presser yesterday, Cooper and Andraya Carter (who can go, I think) will play more.
Spacing is going to be key against this Syracuse offense, and in a race to 60, I'll take talent. The danger with this team/since the last Tennessee Final Four team is getting swallowed by the moment. My biggest concern is that happening again, but it might've happened on Friday. DeShields went 3/14 from the field, but had 7 assists.
The occasionally-appearing-in-the-comments Nate P. has mentioned that DeShields has been the kind of athlete Tennessee hasn't had in close to a decade: talent with a killer instinct. Putting away consecutive top-12 teams comfortably looks like a killer instinct. Doing it again puts Tennessee back in the Final Four, with this team, in this season. This team has snapped in more than any Warlick team I can recall--Warlick's teams seem to be prone to just getting it all of a sudden--and it's DeSheilds' team now. Go get it. Whatever, however, I'm pretty much out of rational explanation with this team.
This is weird. Let's get weirder. And fi this is the end of the line: this team, in this season, still made the Elite Eight, and they went through the highest possible seed every step of the way.
PREDICTION: 65-59 Tennessee. Hooper's going with 70-58 Tennessee.