Balance key for Tennessee in Elite Eight
DAYTON, Ohio -- Tennessee is one win away from a return to the Final Four and a potential rivalry renewal against a tradition-rich, championship-pedigreed Big East program operating at the peak of its abilities. All the Lady Vols have to do to earn that trip is beat a tradition-rich, championship-pedigreed Big East program operating at the peak of its abilities.
Here's a look at some potential X factors for Tennessee versus Notre Dame (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET), a game played in Dayton but a matchup worthy of Indianapolis.
Quick start: Pat Summitt may have pulled out a halftime speech for the ages to wake up her players after a subpar defensive performance in the first half against Ohio State in the Sweet 16, but words may not be enough to save the day if Tennessee keeps coming out of the gates slowly on the end of the court that is traditionally its bread and butter.
Marquette shot 42 percent, including 5-of-10 from the 3-point line, in the first half of a second-round game in Knoxville. Ohio State got almost as many open looks during the first 20 minutes of its game Saturday as it did in pregame warm-ups, shooting 67 percent from the floor to lead the Lady Vols at the break. For Notre Dame's part, even after a slow start against Oklahoma, it is shooting 46.6 percent from the field in the first half of its three NCAA tournament games. Tennessee has the offensive firepower to make up deficits, but trying it against a team as good as the Fighting Irish would be playing with fire. That consistency remains a goal for the team from Knoxville.
As Lady Vols senior Angie Bjorklund, who won a national championship as a freshman, put it before the Ohio State game, "Just going from my freshman year and seeing kind of what it takes, and through the process with this team, I think it's just coming together and saying, 'This is what we need to do. We need to to do it together and we need to play together and buy into the system and put everything we have on the floor and play a 40-minute game.' This team has been known for taking possessions off, but when we all go hard for 40 minutes, that's when we win."
Post presence: Tennessee made the most of its abundant big bodies against Ohio State, using Kelley Cain, Vicki Baugh and Alyssia Brewer to full effect, but this is a completely different type of post challenge. Notre Dame doesn't have a player with the individual impact of Jantel Lavender, but between Natalie Achonwa, Becca Bruszewski and Devereaux Peters, they have the kind of skilled depth inside to prevent the Lady Vols from focusing all of their energy on a single matchup. Notre Dame's Achonwa likely won't start, and Tennessee's Cain may or may not after making her first start in more than a month against Ohio State, but those two merit particular study as X factors. Achonwa had 10 points and eight rebounds for the second game in a row in the win against Oklahoma and is coming into her own as a legitimate low-post, game-altering presence.
3-point shooting: Teams don't necessarily need 3-pointers to win regional finals -- in the last two years alone, only four of eight regional finals went to the team that hit the most 3-pointers. And that's especially true for teams that didn't make heavy use of the shot to reach this point in the season, as is the case for Notre Dame. But the arc could still play a key role in Monday's game on both ends of the court.
Notre Dame's perimeter defense was tremendous against an Oklahoma team that entered the regional semifinal ranked in the top 20 nationally in 3-pointers per game. The Fighting Irish found shooters in transition and rotated well to deny kick-out shots when Danielle Robinson penetrated. But the challenge is at least as great, if not greater, against a Tennessee team that relies slightly less on the outside shot than Oklahoma but shoots it with even greater efficiency (sixth in the nation in 3-point field goal percentage). None of Tennessee's primary shooters -- Bjorklund, Meighan Simmons, Taber Spani and Shekinna Stricklen -- are solely spot-up shooters.
On the other side, when you look at Notre Dame's most notable wins this season, what often appears is at least one player knocking down two, three or even four 3-pointers on limited, efficient attempts. Brittany Mallory's attempts weren't limited on Saturday, for good reason given her hot hand, but her 3-point barrage kept Notre Dame afloat amid an uneven start in the opening minutes against Oklahoma. This team can win without the 3-pointer, as it did against DePaul in the Big East tournament, but if at least one player out of Skylar Diggins, Brittany Mallory or Natalie Novosel can hit a couple of shots early, it adds a facet to an offense that is hard enough to guard without it. And after bouncing back from a slump in the first two rounds to hit six 3-pointers against Oklahoma, Mallory is the best bet to try just that.
"She's one of the best shooters in the Big East right now, [by] percentages," Novosel said after Saturday's win. "She said she didn't shoot well [in the first two rounds], and she was like, 'I'm going to make up for it today.' And she did; she came out firing and she got us started."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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