Season ends early again for Lady Vols
It's not at all fair to say that Tennessee's women this season turned out to be like the great-looking house you might buy, only to find out that it wasn't inspected well enough and has a crumbling foundation.
Rather, Tennessee is the great-looking house that mandates more repairs than were readily apparent. The foundation certainly isn't shaky, but there are things that need work.
The thought that we were seeing the same old Tennessee this postseason -- the one that easily shreds its early-round foes and then enters the Sweet 16 buoyant with confidence -- turned out to be not entirely accurate.
This was close to that kind of team. But when pushed by a Baylor squad that required a much stronger defensive effort than Tennessee could provide, it found the resources weren't enough.
Not against the 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner, who combined with her teammates to shoot 49.1 percent from the field and make it a nearly even battle on the boards, with Tennessee having a negligible 39-38 advantage.
Defense and rebounding. That has been the bread and butter of Tennessee for three decades. But when coach Pat Summitt really needed her players to keep No. 4 seed Baylor off the glass and deny good looks, top-seeded Tennessee wasn't up to the task and fell 77-62.
"They, by far, were better on the defensive end," Summitt said. "It's the first thing our team talked about when we went into the locker room after the game. We just didn't defend the way we needed to and the way we defended when they came to our place."
That was back on Nov. 15, when Tennessee started the season with a 74-65 victory over Baylor in Knoxville. That victory started a so-called "redemption" campaign for Tennessee after last season's multiple disappointments culminated in an NCAA first-round upset loss to Ball State.
For the most part, the players really did redeem themselves. They earned their way back into their plush locker room. Summitt (thankfully) returned their names to the backs of the Tennessee jerseys after several years of leaving that space blank. They lost only three games and won the SEC regular-season and tournament titles.
Sure, Summitt tore into them in February when they barely beat last-place Alabama with center Kelley Cain left at home studying. Summitt, perhaps slightly over the top, told them they embarrassed the game of basketball that night. But in general she was not displeased with the players' overall effort.
"I really feel for this team," Summitt said. "They've invested; they've worked extremely hard."
A lot of Tennessee's troubles Saturday simply had to do with all that Baylor did right. But you could tell no one for Tennessee fully assumed that kind of tough-minded, do-what-it-takes interior defender role that had most recently been filled in the program by Nicky Anosike when at her best.
Tennessee might have had that -- plus another reliable offensive presence -- if forward Vicki Baugh had been able to return. Summitt, wanting her fully healthy, redshirted her this season.
That meant room for development for center Cain and forwards Alicia Manning, Alyssia Brewer and Glory Johnson. This season, they all had their moments.
But in the moment of truth -- the Sweet 16 against a really-hard-to-stop post threat (provided by Griner and Morghan Medlock) -- Tennessee fell short. Summitt will challenge Brewer and Johnson, in particular, to improve their consistency for their junior seasons.
Also, Tennessee still did not have a starting point guard who felt completely comfortable in that role, although Shekinna Stricklen embraced it as best she could. Because Griner and Medlock were making life tough inside for Tennessee, the guards ultimately attempted to carry the day.
Stricklen had 18 points and Angie Bjorklund 12, but they were a combined 12-of-39 from the field.
"We just needed to give our posts a lot more touches than we did," Stricklen said.
However, Summitt didn't criticize her guards' effort.
"I thought, rather than going inside to Kelley, our guards tried to do too much. I'm not going to fault them," Summitt said. "They didn't cost us the game. Angie and Stricklen had been our go-to players, and they kept trying to find shots and got a little overanxious at the end. Maybe a little bit of panic set in, and that's not uncommon. We're still young, and we're going to learn from this."
Those are famous last words at season's end, but consider that Tennessee has no seniors. Plus, the hope is that Baugh, who was injured near the end of the 2008 title game and was never fully healthy last season, can come back strong next year.
"I think today we got a little bit rattled," Summitt said. "But I will tell you I love this team, and I hurt for this team. I really do. I'm just sorry our coaches couldn't get more out of them at a time like this."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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