Posted: 8:00 a.m. Tuesday, April 2, 2013
By Chris Pendley
Well, that was unexpected. After everyone took all their notes on how dominant Baylor was and the inevitability of Baylor advancing to the Final Four at minimum, well, this happened. Assuming you've been remotely aware of anything going on in the women's tournament before clicking on that link, you know what happened. Assuming you clicked on the link to this article and see me talking about Baylor when Louisville is right up there in the post title, you can figure out what happened.
If you want to hear it anyway, Baylor lost. We'll leave it at that ...okay, we'll leave it at this. (That was after Baylor got called for their 14th foul of the game; Louisville was called for 24. Kim Mulkey, y'all.) Now we'll move on.
Somehow, it's this Lady Vol team - you know, the one we felt pretty good about in a reloading year and not the senior-laden death squad led by a pissed-off Glory Johnson - that stands a chance of making the Final Four. Of course, so did last year's team and so did 2011's team, but it's different this year. There's no crushing stalwart in the way. This game is theirs for the taking. It just so happens that, well, you've got to beat the team that beat That Team. (oh, and lest we forget: THAT TEAM is over on the other side of the bracket, when they get to play the team that knocked Tennessee out last year. Don't get ahead of yourself.)
Normally during these previews we spend more time talking about the Lady Vols' opponent than we do the Lady Vols; that's just kind of how it's been. Well, heck with that. This is an opportunity.
These last few weeks have seen Kamiko Williams force herself into the starting lineup, relegating one of Cierra Burdick or Isabelle Harrison to the bench, and finally figure it out. It came on out of nowhere; in her first start in two years, she threw up a 10/13(!)/6 against Mississippi State. Then things got ramped up. 14/6/3 against Missouri. 11/4 against Ole Miss. 18/7 in the bruising home win over Texas A&M.; 12/4 with 4 steals against Florida. 15/4 against Creighton, and for good measure 15/7/4 against Oklahoma. Kamiko's grabbed the opportunity with both hands (by the throat, mind) and has wrestled it to the ground, tied it up, and is currently standing over it screaming like a banshee.
Taber Spani might have already had her signature moment - an 11-13, 33-point, 8 board performance against Texas A&M; in the loss in the SEC tournament - but that's a pretty good signature moment. She's come on slowly in the NCAA tourney - 12/6 against Oklahoma is her best mark in both fields - but as it happens, when you throw up that kind of line, people sit up and take notice.
Williams and Spani aren't even the best players on the court for Tennessee.
I'll wax poetic about Bashaara Graves more lately, but she's still starting over Harrison, Burdick, and Jasmine Jones (that ain't bad for bench height) and while she's - quite frankly - hit a bit of a wall, she's still starting over that group. A power forward in every sense of the word, she's also a true freshman and starting on this team. (It should be noted at this point if you're just catching up now this team is very young; Williams and Spani are the only seniors on this team.)
Isabelle Harrison and Cierra Burdick are good enough to start on most teams, up to and including Tennessee. Both have battled injuries, but Burdick's game looks like an early prototype of Shekinna Stricklen's and Harrison has been a 20-minute dynamo off the bench as she plays through injuries. (Oh, right: she tore her MCL in Feburary and missed something like four games. She's tough.)
Jasmine Jones - the other bench player of note - is a bit raw offensively, but has stupid length, to use a technical term. She can defend 1 to 4 and is often the "screw it, you figure it out" defensive player off the bench. She's good at what she does, which ain't bad for a freshman.
Oh, and the Lady Vol point guard? Yeah, Ariel Massengale's probably the third-best player on the team, especially counting for health (Harrison may be better when healthy, but I digress) and definitely not counting for how often you notice her. Her game - when it's on - is absurd. I'm convinced her perfect game is something like 4 points, 12 assists, 3 boards, 0 turnovers. She doesn't need the ball to be effective, and that 13/6 assist game against Oral Roberts is her best tourney showing.
And yet, the most talented player on this team is a gunner. Meighan Simmons - you may have heard about her - has an insane shot when it's on and can beat a team singlehandedly in a half (see North Carolina). During the tournament? Well, she rolled a 1-15 against Oklahoma on Sunday; good luck assuming that won't improve. Simmons is the wild card; when she's on, it's game over. When it's not? Well, normally we'd say it's game over for Tennessee, but that 1-15 came in the last game of a single elimination tournament and we're still here, aren't we? It's not game over any more.
Those are the women who'll take the floor against a Louisville team that was last seen hanging on for dear life after beating Baylor (man, that's fun to type). They shot out of their mind against Baylor - 64% from three will do that to a team, as it happens. (Historically, they shoot closer to half that.) Heck, they're not a great shooting team in general; the Schimmel sisters are threats offensively, as is Sara Hammond and Antonita Slaughter, but you know what? This game is coming down to defense and rebounding. Let's not fool ourselves.
Somehow, this game is Tennessee's for the taking. Somehow, there's a chance, and not a "well if Simmons and Graves and Harrison go off for 20 apiece maybe they make the Final Four if the fouls aren't too horribly miscalled" chance we were expecting when the brackets were announced.
40 minutes in Oklahoma City against Louisville. Win and it's New Orleans. Lose and it's next season.
9 PM, ESPN and ESPN3 and Mickey (last seen going after Kim Mulkey for complaining about the refereeing while allowing players to tweet at halftime - never change) and Gametracker, which - and I have to note this - is our normal Gametracker.