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Still searching: Lady Vols fall short of the Final Four.

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Yet it's still a successful tournament run.

A long, tough fight.
A long, tough fight.
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The Lady Vols played above their regular season in the NCAA tournament, but fell 89-67 to a red-hot Syracuse three-point barrage.

Tennessee came out strong in the first quarter.  Syracuse played their press, but the Lady Vols continued their crisp passing from earlier in the tournament, breaking the press with relative ease and finding open shooters all over the floor.  Syracuse had some success with their three-point shooting, but some over-eager three point shooting from Tennessee kept the margin closer than the flow of the game, with a first-quarter score of 22-20 in favor of the Lady Vols.

And then the game went Golden State.

Syracuse found their range from beyond the arc - seemingly from everywhere beyond the arc.  With two 23-foot makes in a row at one point, their bombers turned a two point deficit into a 41-35 halftime lead.  The Orange were 50% at threes during the first half, including a lot of makes from well behind the arc as well as a lot of contested threes.

The third quarter ended up a wash.  Tennessee appeared to be trying a bit too hard with the ball, and fed into Syracuse's tendency to create turnovers.  The passing that highlighted the first quarter was not as crisp, and turnovers caused early struggles for the Lady Vols.  Syracuse kept up their three point shooting and had the lead in double digits at times, but Tennessee managed to end the half with some offensive rebounds and fouls to close the lead back to within seven at 63-56.

(As an aside: the first half was full Thunderdome and the second half was a full Campaign to Protect the Precious Snowflakes.  It wasn't the difference in the game, though; that honor belongs to the three point shooting of Syracuse.)

Things finally broke open in the fourth quarter.  After getting the lead down to three on a couple of DeShields threes, Syracuse hit their own bombs while Tennessee continued to struggle maintaining possession.  With five minutes to go, Syracuse would be inbounding the ball with an 18 point, 79-61 lead.  Tennessee may have been trying too hard at this point, with the ensuing unforced turnovers and communication failures that are typical of such circumstances.

Notable during the second half: Graves and Russell had a combined zero shots during the second half until the game was well out of hand.  Perhaps Graves's finger injury played a part in the DeShields-focused, three-happy gameplan, but it's a game that Tennessee has never shown the ability to carry out this year, while it's dead in the middle of the Syracuse wheelhouse.  (The Reynolds injury may have been the biggest loss, both removing the point that best plays with DeShields as well as hurting depth of clutch time players.)

But ultimately, Syracuse went full Curry and shot their way into the Final Four.  By the time the game had effectively ended, they were roughly 50% from behind the arc on about 25 shots or so.  That will win games against almost any team on almost any night.  They know who they are: a three-ball team who plays zone defense and relies on offensive boards on their 3-point misses (which happened frequently, as three ball rebounds tend to go in awkward positions for defenders).  In most games, 67 points from Tennessee is enough to win, but a team that goes 14-30 from three and causes 21 turnovers is a team that deserves a trip to the Final Four.  They enforced their plan and earned the trip to the Final Four outright.  Meanwhile, Tennessee is still looking for their first F4 since the Candace Parker era.

All that said, Tennessee had a great tournament run.  With an entire season of miscommunication and a general lack of identity, the 7 seed had shown absolutely no reason to believe they'd make the Elite Eight.  The talent was their on paper, but it was nothing more than paper until the round of 32.  For the first time all year, there were reasons to believe this group of players could work out together.  The talent is obvious, but a gameplan that emphasizes Mercedes Russel is almost diametrically opposed to one that suits Diamond DeShields.  Yet it worked, especially against Ohio State.  That Syracuse executed an unbeatable game doesn't detract.  This Tennessee team still has questions about next year, but they answered many of them.  There is reason to believe it can work out after all.

Congratulations to Syracuse for their first ever Final Four appearance.  Congratulations to Bashaara Graves for a phenomenal career, even if it ended in tears and a busted finger.