Dan Fleser: Stagnant Offense Keeps Lady Vols Out Of Elite Eight

  • Sunday, March 26, 2023
  • Dan Fleser
Tennessee never strayed far from a particular storyline that ran through its women’s basketball season from beginning to end.

The Lady Vols fell victim to a nationally ranked opponent in their first game back in November. They did likewise in their finale, falling to Virginia Tech 73-64 in the semifinals of the Seattle 3 Regional. The loss was UT’s ninth in 10 games against ranked foes. It was their second loss to Tech.

The Lady Vols had added considerable reinforcements for the rematch.
Leading scorer Rickea Jackson and reserves Jillian Hollingshead and Jasmine Franklin didn’t play in the first meeting. Furthermore, they were buoyed by the run-up to Saturday’s game, which included their lone victory over a top-flight team, 69-67 over then-No. 4 LSU in the SEC tournament.

Yet Virginia Tech, the region’s top-seed, did more with less this time, utilizing six players to lead throughout. Other than a six-minute stretch of the second half – when they reprised their rally against LSU in whittling an 18-point deficit to one – the Lady Vols shrank from the opportunity to reach the Elite Eight for the first time in seven years.

During an in-game interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe after the first quarter, UT coach Kellie Harper essentially rebuked UT’s readiness by pleading for more focus and lamenting defensive breakdowns. How could that happen?

“I felt like we were locked in and focused before the game,” said guard Jordan Walker, who’s considered to be one of the team’s best leaders. “We had good energy in warmup, so nothing with that. But we just were a little stagnant on the offensive end.”

Actually, the Lady Vols were a lot stagnant, settling for jumper after jumper. The trend continued even after Elizabeth Kitley, the Hokies’ 6-foot-6 center, went out after picking up her second foul 7:30 before halftime. When UT did get the basketball inside neither Hollingshead nor Franklin established much of a scoring presence against smaller defenders.

“Virginia Tech’s scouting report was to crowd the paint,” Harper said. “There’s no doubt they wanted to keep us out of there. They did a good job with our first attack and we got impatient.”

Going into a break with 3:25 left in the first half, Harper was barking at one of the game officials. During the timeout, she thumbed her chest in the huddle and implored her team to be tougher. Tech responded, not UT, going on an eight-point run to close the half with a 13-point lead.

“I feel like we (were) playing into how they wanted us to play,” guard Jordan Horston said. “Took 12 threes before halftime, and that’s not us.”

March is not the time for that sort of identity crisis. Conversely, the rally, which was achieved with a smaller lineup and pressure defense, was more in character. The surge could have been a game-changer but it wasn’t. It came and went like the surf, receding after a bad shot, two turnovers and a foul on a 3-point shooter. The Hokies restored their lead to 12 points before the end.

In Tech’s locker room afterward, coach Kenny Brooks said to his players: “I told you you were better.” He repeated the thought, either for dramatic emphasis or perhaps because he wasn’t sure whether his players had believed him initially.

Well, believe him. The Lady Vols didn’t offer enough to counter.

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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 1988. He is a 2022 inductee to the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.
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