Lady Vols falter against Irish

Bashaara Graves

The Lady Vols had royalty in the house and a Pat Summitt banner raised to the rafters, but it wasn't enough to overcome Notre Dame. Go inside with InsideTennessee for analysis and videos.

A crowd of 13,556 - which sounded much louder - was energized well before tipoff when a banner honoring Pat Summitt was raised to the rafters of Thompson-Boling Arena while the Lady Vols watched in their orange uniforms as part of the "Orange Out" promotion, and the Notre Dame players stood along their bench wearing "We Back Pat" T-shirts.

But it wasn't enough for Tennessee (16-4) to hold off Notre Dame (19-1), which beat the Lady Vols for the third consecutive game and became the first team to beat both Tennessee and Connecticut in the same season for three years in a row.

The Lady Vols can look to the score, 77-67, and tell themselves it could have been a repeat of last season when Tennessee was wiped out in the second half in South Bend.

Notre Dame surged to start the second half - the Irish led 33-29 at the break and then 56-39 with 13:01 left to play after a 33-10 swing - and built the lead to 19 points, 62-43, with 9:52 to play.

But six straight points in the span of 23 seconds - two Taber Spani free throws, a basket in transition by Meighan Simmons and a steal by Bashaara Graves followed by a layup by Kamiko Williams cut the lead to 13 points, 62-49, with 9:19 left.

That reawakened the Lady Vols - and the crowd, whose energy had been used to decry the officiating - and a layup by Simmons on an assist from Ariel Massengale at the 6:10 mark cut the lead to single digits, 65-57.

But Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins had an answer for Tennessee's run and while the Lady Vols cut the lead to five points, 69-64, on a Spani free throw with 3:54 to play, they couldn't catch the Irish on the scoreboard after four straight misses on their next possessions and then three turnovers to end the game.

The turnovers came from three different players who had logged 40 minutes (Graves), 39 minutes (Massengale) and 39 minutes (Spani), and Tennessee's lack of depth is a factor.

Three starters have been lost to injury - Andraya Carter is out for the season, Cierra Burdick is expected back later this week after missing the month of January and Isabelle Harrison played 13 minutes before leaving the game with a left knee injury.

Tennessee had issued a news release Monday evening before the game that Harrison had a meniscus injury but was cleared to play. She went down on a drive to the basket and stayed facedown on the court until help arrived. Harrison needed assistance getting to the locker room and didn't return to the bench until later in the second half with her knee encased in ice.

"Her knee was sore for the Vanderbilt game, so she hasn't practiced the last two days," Coach Holly Warlick said. "I thought that hurt us when Izzy went out. I thought she was playing well on the defensive end, rebounding, but it's part of the game.

"I don't know (about her status). I hope she's going to be back because we need her. She's a vital part of this program."

With Harrison sidelined, Spani moved inside to help Graves and freshman Jasmine Jones started the second half. Graves went the distance at 40 minutes, a tremendous challenge for a freshman post player who takes a pounding in the paint.

"It was tough but I was more worried about Izzy at first, but then I started playing for her and my breath started coming back to me," Graves said.

Graves finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds, her eighth double-double of the season, which leads Tennessee and is second in the SEC. Tennessee will need that production the rest of the way from Graves to finish the final month of conference play.

"I just need to keep staying in condition and going hard in practice and try my best to still play 40 minutes straight," Graves said.

The Tennessee players, including Graves who was 5-17 from the field, will cringe when they look at the game film and see the number of missed shots in the paint, especially in the first half.

"We can look back on multiple occasions in the first and second half where we missed bunny shots that we usually do not miss," Spani said. "In the end it was allowing them to really get easy lay-ups and it hurt us.

"In the long run you are playing number two in the country and they are a great team and you have to make the plays that come easy in order to win."

Spani and Simmons both reached double figures at 12 and 11 points, respectively, but Spani was 3-10 overall and 1-3 from long range and Simmons was 4-11 and 1-4.

Simmons had played outstanding in the month of January, but she struggled on both sides of the ball in this game.

"I don't think Meighan had one of her best games and we tried to settle her down," Warlick said. "I think Meighan's defense has been better (than she played in this game), but she brings some energy, so we wanted to just sit her down and calm her down a little bit.

"Meighan has been a key to our success this year, I'm not going to deny her that. She had a tough game today, but our 16 games on the winning side, we wouldn't have gotten a lot of those had Meighan not had the impact she's had on this team.

"She'll bounce back, she's a tough competitor, she'll bounce back."

Simmons struggled against Notre Dame's pressure - the Irish brought double teams and cut off her driving lanes - and she was visibly upset after the game.

"Their plan, I realized after a while, was to trap me off of every ball screen so I had to make an adjustment," Simmons said. "I rushed a lot of my shots and really could not hit a shot tonight."

It had to be particularly painful for Simmons because her idol, Candace Parker, was courtside. Parker sat with Tamika Catchings, Chamique Holdsclaw and Michelle Marciniak.

"I wanted to put them in real quick," Warlick said. "It was great to see our former players come back with the support for Pat. After the game, I didn't even talk to the team, Tamika talked to them and had some pretty solid advice.

"We're just on the edge, we've got to get over that hump, and it starts with our consistency. I'm proud that those guys came back, it's a tribute to Pat and this program.

"Candace flew from Russia to be here today, Tamika surprised us, a ton of players were here, Marciniak, Holdsclaw."

The banner noted Summitt's years on the sideline from 1974 to 2012 and was raised to the rafters across from the benches. It will be moved to the other side where the retired jersey banners are located with an open spot beside Warlick's.

That is appropriate since Warlick is trying to mold her first team as a head coach - she inherited a very young and inexperienced one - in Summitt's image.

That starts with defense, and it's the biggest challenge and especially so with a team full of underclassmen.

Notre Dame separated itself in the second half because the defense faltered.

"Our defense, which is what we pride ourselves on, we just did not have it at all until about 10 minutes left in the second half," Spani said.

"They were able to do whatever they wanted and they executed their Princeton offense very well and they were crashing offensive rebounds so our defense let us down."

That is the lesson that Warlick keeps preaching to her team and it has not yet embedded in their young basketball brains.

"We're just not consistent and we're not there," Warlick said. "We can't use the excuse that we're young. We are young but it's just being disciplined and sticking to the game plan.

"We're young, and that's the way it is. We're going to play young."

Warlick sees too much basketball left on the calendar to offer her team an excuse. But the reality is youth is hard to overcome, and Tennessee played the entire second half and seven minutes of the first half with a rotation of six that included two freshmen and a sophomore.

"We're down," Warlick said. "We have injuries and that's part of the game. We don't have an excuse for it. We've got to get a little tougher and get some more consistency on the defensive end."

Warlick and staff will see things to like in the box score and on film.

Massengale played all but one minute and had nine assists, mixing it up with lobs to posts, kicks to shooters after drives and finding open players in transition.

Kamiko Williams has shown consistency all month and tallied a pair of sevens in points and rebounds and also added two assists with no turnovers.

Despite Simmons' struggles to stay with Skylar Diggins - she poured in a career-high 33 points against several defenders - she had the highlight block of the game when Diggins thought she had a clean layup. The ferocity of the block startled the senior guard, who looked for a foul call that didn't come.

The Lady Vols nipped Notre Dame on the boards, 47-45, though they gave up 16 on the offensive end, too many by Tennessee standards.

They had 16 assists on 22 baskets, an indication of good decisions with the ball and unselfish play. They continue to shoot well from the line, going 19-22 (86.4 percent) in this game.

But the lapses on defense proved to be too much to overcome against the second-ranked team in the country. Still, Warlick saluted the effort in the second half, after the team folded a season again in South Bend.

"Absolutely," Warlick said. "We were on the verge of getting blown out. We could have laid down and died, but we fought back.

"That's what I mean by we're here but then we check out. Then we're here and we check out. To be a great basketball team, you can't have lulls. You can't have valleys. You just can't.

"You can't get too high and you can't get too low. We just played in spurts tonight. And against a great team, you can't play in spurts. You just can't."

Tennessee returns it attention to SEC play with two games this week - hosting Mississippi State on Thursday and traveling to Missouri on Sunday. The Lady Vols are 7-0 in league play.

"We've got to refocus," Warlick said. "The SEC is the most important thing for us right now. We were excited about Vanderbilt and we had to come back and get focused on Notre Dame, now we have to get focused on Mississippi State.

"That's what basketball is about, you do something great, you've got to turn around and do something great again."

VIDEO COVERAGE

Banner raising ceremony

Coach Holly Warlick

Bashaara Graves, Meighan Simmons, Taber Spani

Coach Muffet McGraw, Kayla McBride, Skylar Diggins

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