Tennessee boarded a bus bound for Louisville, Ky., Friday afternoon, embarking on the latest leg of a women’s basketball journey that began more than four months ago in Murfreesboro and has been everywhere from the Bahamas to Northern California.
In this case, the Lady Vols were headed toward their next date in the NCAA tournament. Tennessee — 29-5 and top seed in the Louisville Region — will play No. 4 seed Maryland (26-6) on Sunday (TV: ESPN, noon) at the KFC Yum! Center. Host Louisville, the No. 3 seed, plays No. 7 LSU at 2:30 p.m.
The winners meet Tuesday (TV: ESPN, 7 p.m.) for a trip to the Women’s Final Four in Nashville.
The Lady Vols take with them the knowledge and experience gathered on these previous trips, where they achieved a 14-2 overall record. They won both the Junkanoo Jam in Freeport, Bahamas, in November and the SEC tournament earlier this month in Duluth, Ga.
“I think we’re battle-tested,” UT coach Holly Warlick said before departing. “We’ve had tough games at home. We’ve had tough games away from home. We’ve had tough games in a tournament setting. So I think we’ve put them through every scenario and situation that they’ve needed to be in.”
The toughest part of the journey began with a 76-70 loss at Stanford on Dec. 21. The game shined a harsh light on UT’s penchant for turnovers. Even a relatively modest total of 14 was converted into 22 points by the Cardinal.
Defensive deficiencies also were exposed and Tennessee’s plus-15.8 rebounding margin at the time was bludgeoned. Stanford All-American center Chiney Ogwumike did most of the damage with 32 points and 20 rebounds.
Some of the key moments of UT’s defensive evolution this season have occurred away from home.
The issues exposed by Stanford lingered until Vanderbilt scored a 73-64 victory in Nashville on Jan. 12. The Commodores used an attack-the-basket approach to shoot 62.5 percent from the floor in the second half and score 45 points. The Lady Vols employed several defensive alignments. Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb thought that worked to her team’s advantage.
“The thing that helped us was them going into defenses that aren’t their strengths,” she said. “ ... It gave us more confidence to attack more.”
Thereafter, Warlick preached persistence and had the players watch more video as it pertained to scouting reports. She also referred to a “disconnect” between practice preparation and game performance.
In the Lady Vols’ next game, they relied almost exclusively on two different zone alignments to survive 22 turnovers and win at Mississippi State, 67-63.
Ten days later, Tennessee relied on yet another zone defense, deploying in a 3-2 configuration to win at Texas A&M, 76-55. The Aggies shot 33.8 percent from the floor and were 1 for 12 on 3-pointers.
Redshirt freshman Andraya Carter started her first game at point guard in place of injured Ariel Massengale (head injury) and helped set an aggressive tone on defense and offense. Texas A&M coach Gary Blair described Carter’s play as “exceptional.”
Carter has remained Tennessee’s starter in Massengale’s absence, earning a spot on the SEC all-freshman team.
The Lady Vols used the 3-2 zone to limit St. John’s to five second-half field goals and 16 points in Monday’s 67-51 second-round victory at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Date To Decide: A’ja Wilson, the top prospect in the Class of 2015, will announce her college choice on April 16.
The 6-foot-4 forward from Heathwood Hall School in Columbia, S.C., revealed the date of her decision Thursday night on Twitter. The 16th is the first day of the spring signing period.
Tennessee, along with Connecticut, South Carolina and North Carolina, remain in the running for Wilson, who led Heathwood Hall to the South Carolina Independent Schools Association Class AAA state championship. She averaged 34.4 points, 14.5 rebounds, 5.4 blocks, 3.2 steals and 2.3 assists per game this season.