March 26, 2011
Brian Rice, UTLadyVols.com
DAYTON, Ohio -- The line on the official play by play reads simply "BLOCK by Simmons, Meighan 16:42." The effect of that one line on the stat sheet on Tennessee's 85-75 win and the rest of the Lady Vols' season could be immeasurable. Obviously, no one in the Tennessee locker room at the University of Dayton Arena was happy as the team ran in for halftime on Saturday afternoon. Though Shekinna Stricklen had just come around two defenders to nail a two-pointer as the first half buzzer sounded to pull the Lady Vols within two at 42-40, the first-half effort was clearly not what Pat Summitt or her squad had in mind.
Coming off the court, Summitt was asked by ESPN's Todd Harris about the defensive effort that resulted in the highest opponent field goal percentage for a half all season, 66.7 percent. Summitt's response? "We're going to talk about that." But it wasn't just the halftime speech from the legendary head coach that changed the game, it was a single play early in the second half that turned the tide back in Tennessee's favor and helped propel the Lady Vols to Monday night's Dayon Regional Final.
Back to the stat line. With the score tied at 46-46, a long rebound of a Glory Johnson miss by Ohio State point guard Samantha Prahalis led to a breakaway with Prahalis far in front of any Tennessee player. Then, it happened.
"My teammates kept telling me I had to get back. So I had a burst of speed and said to myself `I'm not going to let my teammates get mad at me today.'"
Simmons darted down the court to catch up with Prahalis and blocked what should have been an easy layup into the second row. Prahalis appeared stunned. The fans in attendance exploded to their feet in approval. The Lady Vols would not trail again. For her part, Simmons declined to take sole credit for the run.
"I think that's just one thing that got us fired up," she said. "Everyone else started making plays after that."
In the locker room after the game, other players agreed.
"It was ridiculous," sophomore guard Kamiko Williams said, though the AP Style Guide disagreed with her insistence that her quote be typed in all caps.
From there, Tennessee kept control thanks to a strong defensive effort and a dominating performance on the boards. The Lady Vols outrebounded the Buckeyes 46-29 and held OSU to just five offensive rebounds and three second-chance points.
"I think our whole team has committed on a different level to rebounding," Bjorklund said. "You could tell our posts were committed to boxing out and at the same time people coming in the game are committed."
Rebounding and the commitment to defense will be key Monday night if the Lady Vols hope to move past the second-seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Rebounding, defense, and maybe a little bit of the "It" factor from Simmons.
Notes from Saturday in Dayton:
- Junior guard/forward Alicia Manning joked that her playful fight with Kelley Cain in the locker room during yesterday's media open locker room contributed to Cain's 16-point performance today. "I toughened her up - got her ready."
Manning's assessment, though in joking manner, was appropriate in talking about a game that, despite the few foul calls until the game's waning moments, was one of the more physical contests that UT played all season.
Cain said her mental game was what separated her from the crowd today. "Physically I felt the same way I always do but mentally I was at a whole other level," she said. "When my teammates tell me they need me I have an obligation to give them what they want."
- Following the game, Summitt sat in the stands with her team scouting the first half of the Notre Dame-Oklahoma contest. The team departed at halftime, but Summitt remained during the halftime break and signed autographs for fans wearing all colors, including Ohio State red.
- The Lady Vols, as is the postseason custom, were greeted as they got off the bus by the Pride of the Southland Pep Band just outside the team entrance. The pep band's serenade of the team is often mentioned by former players as one of their best memories at Tennessee, and the tradition continues now, and into the future.
- Lady Vol fans are well known for filling up arenas nationwide with orange, but it was not a total Orange-out in Dayton. With the Ohio State campus just an hour away in Columbus, there was plenty of Scarlet and Gray in the stands, estimated by some media members at a 50-50 split in the crowd of 8,867, though there were also pockets of Notre Dame and Oklahoma fans in the crowd. Both fanbases largely stayed for the session's second game as well.
- In the day's second game, Notre Dame defeated Oklahoma, 78-53, to earn the right to face the Lady Vols on Monday night with a trip to Indianapolis and the 2011 Women's Final Four on the line.