Commentary

Unheralded players become elite

Tennessee, Notre Dame receive key contributions in Sweet 16 wins

Originally Published: March 26, 2011
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

DAYTON, Ohio -- Despite spring's official arrival earlier this week, Saturday night will bring freezing temperatures and perhaps one more snowfall to this part of Ohio. It's almost as if Mother Nature knew visitors might need extra ice.

[+] EnlargeKelley Cain
Andrew Weber/US PresswireKelley Cain's post performance gave Tennessee much-needed balance.

Tennessee and Notre Dame advanced to Monday's regional final in different ways Saturday afternoon at University of Dayton Arena. Playing first, No. 1 Tennessee trailed at halftime and escaped with an 85-75 win against No. 4 Ohio State only after its defense finally caught up to its offense -- no small feat considering Ohio State's defense, like so many before it, never caught up to the Lady Vols' offense. Wrapping up the afternoon, No. 2 Notre Dame took care of business more quickly against No. 6 Oklahoma, using the kind of defensive effort that football fans in South Bend might dearly love to shut down one of the best scoring trios in the college game in a 78-53 win.

And while some of the brightest stars picked their spots -- Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins set a school postseason record with a career-high 12 assists and Tennessee freshman sensation Meighan Simmons finished with 18 points and five assists -- if there was one thing that tied together two disparate outcomes, it was an ability to execute game plans by getting key contributions from players who don't spend much time in the limelight. Even when, in the case of Tennessee center Kelley Cain and Notre Dame guard Fraderica Miller, those contributions probably meant breaking the budget for ice.

In Notre Dame's case, there wasn't much mystery where the game would be won or lost, or at least won easily or contested. Oklahoma's Danielle Robinson, Whitney Hand and Aaryn Ellenberg, who entered the day averaging 47.7, combined for 31 points and needed 39 shots to get even that much in Dayton.

"Our biggest thing was defending the 3-point line, that was our biggest key to the game," Diggins said. "Making sure that we find Whitney Hand, Carlee Roethlisberger, Aaryn Ellenberg, the shooters that are really confident shooters and really good shooters. So we had to make sure we got out on them. Next was stopping Robinson in transition, making sure we always had someone back and making sure the people that were behind sprinted to the 3-point line.

"We did a great job stopping the ball."

The latter accomplishment was a group effort from Diggins, Natalie Novosel and Brittany Mallory, who also led the Fighting Irish with 20 points, but a key part of it was Miller's ability to come on in relief of a starter at given time and not only maintain, but in some cases enhance the on-ball pressure. The junior played a total of 17 minutes in Notre Dame's wins against Utah and Temple in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament and hit double digits in minutes just eight times in the team's past 18 games. But she didn't just play 18 minutes against Oklahoma, her fourth longest stint of the season, she played most of those minutes locked up one-on-one against Robinson.

"I think I need to play her more," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "She really helped us the whole time she was in the game. … She's going to create havoc on the ball, she's going to be great defensively, she's going to get in there and fight for rebounds. [She was] really a big key for us. I was really pleased with the way she's playing. She's given us great minutes all year long, but I don't think i've ever played her that long. I'm really glad that I did tonight, and definitely need to look at playing her more."

In other words, Robinson got a taste of what the Fighting Irish know all too well from practice.

"I think it's a little frightening for an offensive player to have her guarding her because even in practice, we hate going against her," Novosel said. "But it only makes us better. I'm just really happy she's on our team."

At least that's the case on those days Miller is able to practice. Sidelined in January 2010 by an injury that ultimately required surgery to repair a torn meniscus in her left knee, she learned of a degenerative condition in the knee. Recovery that she initially said was expected to take four weeks instead took about six months -- and there's a point to which it simply isn't going to get better. Now it's a day-to-day existence, practicing when and to what extent she can, being honest with the coaches about how she feels physically and adjusting to fluctuating minutes -- be it two minutes in a Big East tournament semifinal against Louisville or 18 in an NCAA tournament regional semifinal against Oklahoma.

"It's very discouraging to hear something like that," Miller said of her knee condition. "But being an athlete, you know you're going to have injuries sometimes that you have to just deal with. It took me awhile to catch onto that and buy into the fact that I'm going to be hurting, just how much pain tolerance can I take? But I mean, I've gotten to the point where it's OK. I go home and ice and then its OK."

Cain can commiserate with that routine. Tennessee's 6-foot-6 redshirt junior doesn't have a lot of small parts, which means she doesn't have a lot of small problems when things go awry physically. Those problems began with a knee injury that forced her to redshirt the 2007-08 season, missing out on playing for a championship team, and have continued with hip and back problems that remain issues. She hadn't started a game for the Lady Vols since Feb, 10 and attempted just six shots in 21 minutes off the bench in the first two rounds against Stetson and Marquette. But against Ohio State's Jantel Lavender, she started and scored three baskets within the game's first three minutes.

She finished with 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting, her second-highest scoring output of the season.

"Kel's a warrior," sophomore Taber Spani said after Saturday's win. "I always see her getting treatment and all that. I was so proud of her. She flat-out dominated -- our post game dominated inside. We needed it. You could just tell in her eyes, even before the beginning of the game. she was going to go out and dominate."

Tennessee talks about itself as a team that relies on an inside-outside balance, but a perfect balance perhaps hasn't always been the case this season, a point the post players made when the players held a meeting after a tough second-round game against Marquette. The Lady Vols obviously needed the big bodies of Cain, Vicki Baugh and Alyssia Brewer against Lavender and Ashley Adams on the defensive end, but the ability to make those players work when Tennessee had the ball, specifically with Cain looking unstoppable when she got the ball on the block, set up a nice balance once Simmons and Shekinna Stricklen started getting their own points from the outside in.

"What she did for this team today was absolutely tremendous because it established a presence," assistant coach Dean Lockwood said of Cain. "I equate that to running [the ball] in football. If you know you can gain four or five yards off tackle, running and knocking people around, that's such a tremendous intimidating thing for a defense to have to deal with. That's one of the things a post presence gives you."

She only played 21 minutes, but they were the minutes Tennessee needed to set up much of what else happened.

"Physically I felt the same way I always do, but mentally I was at a whole other level," Cain said. "When my teammates tell me they need me, I have an obligation to give them what they want."

Miller and Cain aren't the only reasons their respective teams will meet Monday night. They aren't even the biggest reasons on a day when Mallory matched a school record for 3-pointers, Devereaux Peters posted another double-double, Simmons looked like a poised veteran and Stricklen came up with big baskets down the stretch. But each was part of the equation despite physical limitations that made such roles far from certain.

Tennessee will still need an inside presence against Notre Dame on Monday, and Notre Dame will need someone to slow Simmons. Perhaps Cain and Miller will be able to reprise their roles.

As Saturday in Dayton proved, the point is someone will have to if you want to go to Indianapolis.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.