Louisville Regional Opening Round Wrap: Johnnies crush Trojan hopes in heartbreaker; Tennessee trounces Northwestern State
The opening day of NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Tournament play in the Knoxville pod of the Louisville Regional saw plenty of excitement. In the undercard, eighth-seeded St. John's mounted a valiant comeback against a ninth-seeded Southern California team that was coming off a Cinderella run through the PAC-12 tournament to make its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006. But the dream came to an end seconds before the buzzer for the Women of Troy, who led for most of the afternoon, only to see things all fall apart as St. John's senior captain Briana Brown drained her only field goal of the night -- a wide-open three-pointer that gave the Red Storm the 71-68 win and sent them on to meet the hosting Lady Vols in Monday's second round.
The second game of the afternoon saw top-seeded Tennessee dispatch Northwestern State, the 16th-seeded automatic bid from the Southland Conference, 70-46, to take their 116th NCAA Tournament win. But though the result was certainly predictable, that game was not without its own drama, albeit of a different kind.
LOUISIVILLE REGIONAL -KNOXVILLE, TENN. POD
THOMPSON-BOLING ARENA, UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE
Round One: Saturday, March 22
Game One: (1) Tennessee 70, (16) Northwstern State 46
Despite a bout of food-poisoning sufficiently severe to force her to undergo intervenous hydration both before the game and at the half, and to miss the morning shoot-around, Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick was not about to let that stop her from coaching her team as they took home court in their 33rd-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. The Lady Vols are the only program in the country to have participated in every NCAA Tournament in the 33-year history of the event.
But Warlick, who typically struts the sideline, energetically reacting to every play and call, was clearly not herself as she sat on a stool beside the bench throughout the first half. And frankly, the Lady Vols looked so sluggish throughout the opening period that one had to wonder whether they'd all come down with the same thing.
Things started out well enough for the home team, who hit five of their first six shots to establish an 11-2 lead in the early minutes. But from there, things went decidedly south. For the next 16 minutes of the half, the Lady Vols made just two of their 25 attempts from the floor. For the last eight minutes and change, they made none whatsoever, though they did manage four points at the line. Missed shot, followed turnover, followed foul, until the odd shot that actually found its way through the net -- for either side -- became a welcome respite in the drab proceedings.
By the intermission, vaunted Tennessee (28-5), one of the Top-10 teams in the nation, was up by just two-points, 22-20, over "lowly" Northwestern State (21-13). Though they trailed, Northwestern State, while far from stellar, had actually out-shot their hosts, 28.6 percent (eight-of-28) to the Vols' 22.6 percent (seven-of-31), from the floor. What accounted for the Vols' slender lead were their six trips to the foul line, where they proved with perfect six-for-six free-throw shooting, that somewhere deep inside, they really did know to shoot.
Was the Lady Vols' unblemished record of NCAA Tournament home wins (now at 53-0) about to be tarnished? Would this become just the second team in school history to be sent home in the opening round?
The second half started off looking like more of same as NSU tied the score at 22 on a basket by 5-2 guard Janelle Perez, less than two minutes into the frame. (That, of course, meant the Vols had failed to score at all during that span.)
And that's when something changed.
Whether it had been the halftime IV, the Gatorade, or just pure adrenaline born of frustration, Warlick came alive on the sideline, got to her feet, and remained there for the balance of the game, actively exhorting her team.
Out on the floor, the Lady Vols responded, coming to life themselves. Cierra Burdick knocked down a jumper to get the party started, and Tennessee ripped off a 12-0 run over the next five minutes to establish control of the game. From there, they cruised to a 70-46 win, keeping their records intact while looking a whole lot more like the women's basketball powerhouse they are.
Three Tennessee players -- Isabelle Harrison, Meighan Simmons, and Mercedes Russell -- finished with a game-high 12 points apiece. Simmons, the SEC Player of the Year, who contributed greatly to the Vols' first-half shooting woes, got her 12 on four-of-15 (26.6 percent) from the field and an even worse one-of-six (16.6 percent) from downtown. In contrast, Harrison shot an efficient five-of-eight (62.5 percent) from the field, and Russell came off the bench for an even better five-of-six (83.3 percent). Warlick has said in the past that she won't revoke Simmons' green light because no one knows when she might start knocking down shots. But that can be said of any player, and if the Vols hope to get past opponents with more arrows in their quivers than Northwestern State, the unquestionably talented and well-intentioned Simmons might best add a bit of shot selection to her offensive arsenal.
Trudy Armstead matched the game-high with 12 points for Northwestern State, and she did it on five-of-nine (55.6 percent) shooting. That should inspire some introspection on Simmons' part. Beatrice Attura added 11 points, making 50 percent of her attempts both from the field and from behind the arc, including three (of six) three-pointers.
Game Two: (8) St. John's 71, (9) Southern California 68
Though a cacaphony of whistles threatened to turn this game into a free-throw shooting contest, not even the 54 foul calls and cumulative 64 trips to the foul line where more than one-third (51-of-139) of the points in this game were scored, could diminish the enjoyment of seeing two evenly matched teams go after it with everything they had, right down to the final buzzer.
The game got off to a quick start, with the two teams tied at six each, three minutes in. Over the next two minutes, USC took off on an an 11-2 run, ignited by Ariya Crook's three-pointer and capped by another trey by Brianna Barrett, to put the Women of Troy on top by nine, 17-8. The Red Storm quicky got their feet back under them, with the two sides trading buckets for much of the next 10 minutes, and the Trojans briefly expanding their lead to 11 (32-21) on a Cassie Harberts jumper at the 6:22 mark.
With the pace of the foul calls steadily increasing, the tempo of the game began to sputter. Both sides were profoundly affected, with starters languishing on the pines, but the slower pace seemed to suit St. John's a bit better. Over the final minutes of the period, the Red Storm ralied to cut the USC lead to just five, 40-35, by the break. But only five points of that 14-point swing for the Johnnies came off made field-goals; the other nine came at the line. On the opposite side of the floor, its transition game disrupted by both mounting foul calls and turnovers, USC also struggled to score from the field, making just two buckets themselves in the final six minutes of the half.
As the second frame got underway, USC continued to cling to a slender lead, while futilely endeavoring to reestablish any kind of offensive flow. It would be three minutes before Harberts netted her team's first field goal, three minutes more before Alexyz Vaioletama, dropped in a layup for two points more. But St. John's was facing a similar battle, with free throws the only thing separating Aliyyah Handford's jumper to open the half and Keylantra Langley's jumper, nearly five minutes later, for the Johnnies' second field-goal of the half. Neither side was gaining any traction, and the crowd of 7,128 mostly Tennessee faithful could hardly have been blamed if half of them had by then drifted off to sleep.
The game continued at this glacial pace until, with just under six minutes left, St. John's finally closed to within one (61-60) on -- what else -- a pair from the charity stripe. St. John's would continue to threaten, USC would respond (more often than not from the line) with only one-to-three points separating the two sides, until with just 3:07 remaining, Langley knocked down a midrange jumper to give the Red Storm its first lead since that early 6-6 first-half tie.
The final three minutes of play were not all that pretty, but at least some of the initial excitement was restored as both sides scrambled to pick off steals and grab every loose ball. Amber Thompson dropped in a layup to make it a three-point St. John's lead with 1:39 remaining; seconds later Crook answered with a trey to tie it all up at 68 with 1:19 left to go.
As the clock ticked down to the final second with neither side able to score, it looked like things were headed to overtime. Until, just beating the final buzzer, Brown, who had not been able to find the basket with a map and a homing signal all night long, set her feet under her and buried a three, as Harberts, realizing too late that Brown had been left wide open, futilely raced to get there on time.
As Brown's three-point dagger sliced the nets, the St. John's bench and coaching staff poured onto the court in celebration, as the Trojans headed dejectedly toward their bench. Then, the security staff began to clear the court, as the officials huddled to determine exactly how much time, if any, remained, when Brown's shot had gone down. The answer was four-tenths of a second, enough time for nothing more than a catch-and-release desperation heave.
It was remarkable how close Brianna Barrett's Hail Mary came to reversing these two teams' fates and adding another chapter to the postseason fairy tale that has been USC's postseason. Viaoletama in-bounded what's known in the trade as a "baseball pass," that would have done credit to a Trojan football quarterback. Barrett caught the rock just inside the front court and immediately sent it sailing. It hit the backboard. It struck the rim. And spun harmlessly away, ending the storybook saga for one team, sending the other into an orgy of jubilation.
Along the way, St. John's Aliyyah Handford registered a game-high and personal-best 27 points, 11 of which had come at the line. Despite playing with four fouls, Amber Thomas added a double-double of 17 rebounds (a team and career-high) for St. John's (which finished with a 41-39 advantage on the boards), to go with 10 points. Remarkably, none of hers had come off free-throws.
Barrett finished with a team-high 24 for USC, going five-of-12 from the field, including two-of-five from beyond the arc, and 12-of-15 at the stripe. Crook added 16 points and three assists, while Vaioletama yanked down a team-high 11 rebounds to go with eight points on the game.
Other than free-throws -- USC knocked down 24 on its 31 trips to the line, while St. John's gleaned 27 points from its 33 penalty shots -- the decisive factor was bench points: St. John's relievers outscored the USC bench, 22-4.
Amazingly, though at times it seemed like the two teams were going to have to start suiting up their trainers, with so many players in foul trouble, only one player, St. John's sub Jade Walker, actually fouled out of the game. But each team had three more players finish with four fouls apiece; USC saw three more, and St. John's two more, with three personals; and at the end only one player from either roster -- St. John's Selina Archer, who played only 12 minutes -- emerged from the fracas foul-free.
The troubling aspect of it all was that the game was not unduly physical, nor was there evidence of exceptional chippiness, that might have necessitated the officials calling the game so closely. Many of the fouls called were off the ball and away from the action, and the NCAA might need to ask itself whether, when a player's ability to score or defend aren't being impeded, such a high level of interventionism by the refs is a desirable way to "grow the game."
Round Two: Monday, March 24
(8) St. John's (23-10) @ (1) Tennessee (28-5) -- 9 p.m. EDT
Prediction: Tennessee. After shaking off its first-half doldrums, the Lady Vols looked a lot more like the powerhouse that has won all of its last eight games and 14 of its last 15, several of those wins coming over nationally ranked opponents. After shooting just 22.6 percent in the opening 20 minutes, Tennessee finished the second half having knocked down 58.1 percent of its 31 shots in the second frame. If that second-half Tennessee team shows up, the Vols should dominate both the boards and the paint and move on to the Sweet 16.
Louisville Regional Preview for a look at Sunday's opening-round match-ups in Louisville's College Park, Md., Iowa City and Baton Rouge pods.
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