LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The University of Tennessee Lady Vols may have owned the No. 1-seed coming into the Sweet 16 of the Louisville Regional of the 2014 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament.
But on Sunday afternoon in Louisville, it was the fourth-seeded University of Maryland Terrapins who owned the court, dumping the one-seed, 73-62, to move on to Tuesday night’s Elite Eight match-up with the hosting Louisville Cardinals.
The heavily favored Lady Vols led just once, by a single point, in the game’s first minute. From there, it was all Maryland. Less than eight minutes in, the Terps had established a 13-point lead (22-9) and never looked back.
It was a bitter pill for the Vols, who desperately wanted to get back to the Final Four, which this year will be held less than 200 miles away from their home in Knoxville. Instead, despite an otherwise hugely successful season, they will miss the event for the sixth season in a row.
"We're Tennessee, and we're not happy that we're not playing for a national championship," said Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick. "That's in our DNA."
It’s hard to say exactly why Maryland proved to be so dominant, Tennessee so ineffectual. But it had a lot to do with two players in particular and the way in which they interacted with their respective teams.
The first was Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas. Thomas finished with a game-high 33 points, to go with 13 rebounds (four off the offensive glass), three assists and a steal. But her impact was so much more than that.
Time and again, Tennessee would struggle through much of the 30-second shot clock (if they could manage to hold onto the ball for that long), coming up empty on roughly two out of every three trips down the floor. And then Thomas would take over for Maryland, sliding through the Tennessee frontcourt like a hot knife through butter as she flashed straight to the rim to drop in a layup or knock down a four-footer. She made it all look so … easy.
On one level, Thomas’ performance was not all that surprising: She is, after all, a candidate for National Player of the Year, though believed to be running well behind better known names such as UConn’s Breanna Stewart, Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike and Baylor’s Odyssey Sims. On Sunday, she made me wish for a do-over on my ballot.
Did we know Thomas was a powerful, muscular power forward, a prolific scorer who had broken Maryland’s all-time career-scoring record for players of either gender? Of course. There’s a lot, however, that the stat sheets don’t tell you, nor, for that matter, watching her play on TV. Up close, and in person, one can’t help being impressed by Thomas’s ball-handling, her ability to put the ball on the floor, whether speeding up court on a run-out or faking out a defender with a deft cross-over than blowing on past to the hole. Thomas also has an ability to read the floor, to find the open player. She brings to mind the physical presence of a Yolanda Griffith endowed with the hands, the timing, the court sense of a Diana Taurasi. She’s not likely to go as the top pick in this year’s WNBA Draft, though her skills would certainly justify it, but some lucky team, a couple of picks down the draft order, is going to get one heck of a steal.
On paper, at least, the 6-2 Thomas would appear to be a “tweener,” typically a more important issue in the pros than in the college game. But, again on paper, she was taking on the vaunted Tennessee front court that could, if Warlick so chose, field 6-6 Mercedes Russell, 6-3 Isabelle Harrison (the MVP of this year’s SEC Tournament) and either Cierra Burdick or the long sophomore Bashaara Graves, both 6-2, on either side.
True, the Maryland roster also features some serious size, though the tallest Terp, 6-7 Essence Townsend, has played minimal minutes in just 16 games this season after sitting out 2012-13 to rehab a torn ACL. Townsend didn’t play at all on Sunday. Instead, head coach Brenda Frese went with 6-4 senior center Alicia DeVaughn and 6-3 freshman Brionna Jones to complement Thomas in the starting front court, with 6-4 sophomore Malina Howard coming off the bench for 20 minutes.
So Maryland has height, and plenty of it. But of the three bigs who played, one was a significant scoring factor, the three of them combining for a total of five points on the night. And although DeVaughn made her presence felt on the backboards, pulling down a team-high 10 rebounds, both Graves and Harrison out-boarded her, hauling down 14 and 10, respectively. And it’s been that way for much of the season, causing it to appear that Tennessee had the better, if not the bigger, frontcourt.
So, if not the height differential, what was it exactly that sent Maryland to the locker room at intermission, up 14 points (41-27) on the Vols? It wasn’t necessarily superior marksmanship: Though Thomas shot 50 percent from the field and from beyond the arc, and a perfect 4-4 from the foul line, to close the first half out with 15 points and seven rebounds, her teammates went 10-for-30, or just 33 percent from the floor, and a meager two-of-nine (2-9) from beyond the arc in the opening frame.
Tennessee’s shooting wasn’t good, either –- 32.1 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from distance -- but neither was it so much worse as to account for their being down by 14.
But that’s where we come to the other player who made such a significant impact on the final outcome of this game: Tennessee’s Meighan Simmons. Simmons finished the first frame with 12 points, the Vols’ only double-digit scorer to that point. But she had personally accounted for nearly half (13-of-28) of Tennessee’s shots in the opening period, despite the fact that she had knocked down only four of them. Fortunately for fans of Big Orange, two of those were 3-pointers, but that still works out to 30.7-percent first-half field-goal shooting for Simmons, which means that despite her glossy point total, she was actually pulling her team down.
To be fair, Tennessee as a team would still have been shooting at just 33.3 percent (five-of-15) without Simmons. But there were shooters who were doing considerably better than that – Graves and Russell, for example, each of whom took just one field-goal attempt, and drained it, or Jordan Reynolds who came off the bench to hit one of her two attempts in the opening period. What might the situation have been had Simmons put as much energy into finding a way to get the ball into their hands as she did in dribbling around fruitlessly, burning clock when time, if not yet the enemy, was certainly not the Vols’ friend, and ultimately heaving up bricks more often than not?
In contrast, Thomas played within the flow of the game. Though by game’s end the forward had been credited with three assists, the box score doesn’t accurately reflect the degree to which she got her teammates involved and elevated their play.
“It’s incredible,” said Maryland’s Lexie Brown, who had nine points in the first half and finished with 14. “She [Thomas] draws so much attention to herself when’s she on offense, so for her to be able to just be unselfish and dish it out to us, it’s our job to knock those shots down, and it makes her job easy, too, because then they won’t be able to send so many people at her.”
Note to Simmons: Helping your team by feeding your teammates unselfishly makes your own job easy too.
Tennessee played better in the second stanza, and at least some of that had to do with Warlick’s decision to sit Simmons a little less than three minutes into the period. By that point, Simmons had opened the frame with a missed jumper and an off-the-mark trey, and given up a foul and a turnover, and the Maryland lead had swelled to 17 points (44-27).
“We needed defensive stops,” Warlick explained, “and we thought when we brought Meighan out that we would get – brought in our better defenders, and we needed stops. That pretty much was plain and simple. I think when Meighan sits and settles down a little bit, she shoots the ball a lot better. “
With Simmons riding the pines, Jasmine Jones almost singlehandedly shaved the Terps’ lead to 11, with a jumper, a layup, a steal and two free-throws in a span of less than two minutes.
But the hole, by then, was already too deep and with brutal timing, Thomas and company would respond with a steal, a layup, a dish for another layup, to drive the lead back up to 15 or more, each time it appeared that Tennessee was finally beginning to gain some ground.
In Simmons’ absence, Tennessee’s field-goal shooting improved to 40 percent, and when Simmons reentered the game with 13:29 remaining and Tennessee down by 15 (48-33), she did shoot the ball significantly better. She took only nine shots in the second frame, and knocked down five of them, including two more treys, but if one discounts the two whiffs before she was benched it would bring her shooting to five-of-seven – better than 71 percent – from the time she came back off the bench.
She distributed the ball only marginally better, however, taking 39 percent of the Vols’ remaining 18 field-goal attempts following her reentry into the game. Three times, the Vols carved the deficit to single digits, drawing to within eight (60-52) with 6:27 remaining.
At least, Simmons was no longer making matters worse, bringing down her team with poor shot selection and mediocre marksmanship. The Vols needed some outside shots to open up the paint and free Harrison, Graves, Burdick and Russell to operate, and on this day, those shots weren’t falling for anyone but Simmons, who nailed all four of her team’s long-balls.
There was a lot that went wrong for Tennessee in this game besides Simmons. Turnovers, for one thing, a total of 22 of them, of which Simmons and Harrison coughed up five apiece. A dearth of assists for another, with only seven of the Vols’ 19 field-goals assisted. The Lady Vols could sorely have used the steady hands of Ariel Massengale, who was still MIA after suffering a head injury in the regular season. Freshman point guard Andraya Carter strived mightily to fill those shoes, and she’d done a good job of it during the SEC tournament, but on this day, she was outmatched by another freshman, Maryland’s Lexie Brown, who’d been starting all year. Brown finished with 14 points and five steals; Caarter with just two points, on 0-6 shooting, though she did pass out three assists and grabbed two steals.
Speaking of steals, Maryland head coach Brenda Frese stole a page from Tennessee’s playbook, and used it to inspire confidence in her troops that despite earlier losses to some of the nation’s top teams, they cold beat the Vols if they could control the boards and use steals to generate fastbreak opportunities. Maryland did both, muscling their way to a 42-40 edge on the boards, including a 19-14 advantage on the offensive glass from which they derived 17 second-chance points to Tennessee’s nine. They also grabbed 13 steals, to Tennessee’s seven, generating 22 turnovers, from which they gleaned 19 points. The Vols derived just nine points off the Terps’ 16 miscues.
Meighan Simmons’ scoring prowess will be difficult to replace when she graduates at the end of this season. As Burdick aptly put it, Simmons is “probably one of the best scorers to ever play the game.”
But that’s one of the best “scorers”, not one of the best shooters, and far from one of the best players. While there can be little question that Simmons, again in Burdick’s words, “just wants the best for the team. She wants to win,” sometimes being the best scorer on the floor is not the best thing for the team.
On this day, Simmons finished her collegiate career with an impressive, team-high 31 points, just two shy of Thomas’ scoring total.
The difference, statistically, is that Thomas got hers on efficient 14-25 (56 percent) field-goal shooting. Simmons, despite the substantial improvement after Warlick sat her down, finished the day at 9-22 (or 40.9 percent), not bad and certainly vastly better than her 30.7-percent first-half showing.
The other statistical difference is that while Simmons added three rebounds, an assist, a steal and five turnovers to her day’s results, Thomas contributed a team-high 13 rebounds, three assists, a steal, and zero turnovers for her side. And that doesn’t include the countless opportunities that Thomas’ selfless play created for her teammates that will never be reflected in a box score.
In the end, Thomas helped three of her Maryland teammates – Brown (14), Laurin Mincy (14 points) and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (10) – produce double figures.
Meanwhile, only one player besides Simmons posted double figures for Tennessee, and that was Jasmine Jones, who put up most of her points while Simmons was riding the bench after Warlick had taken her out of the game.
Setting aside the raw numbers, the dynamic difference is that Thomas played not only within the flow of the game, but also within her team. She made others around her better, helped create situations that led to her teammates putting up more points than she had achieved on her own. Simmons, even when she was shooting the ball better late in the game, did not.
After the game, Warlick, Simmons and a red and puffy-eyed Burdick sat in the interview room trying to explain what had just happened. They respectfully credited Maryland and Thomas, but perhaps gave the All-American too much credit, or at least the wrong kind.
“She’s worked really, really hard,” Simmons said of Thomas, adding, “Really she outworked us and out-muscled us today.
“Maryland just had the extra oomph today,” Simmons added later. “They pushed through even harder. We just didn’t have it today. It was always a grind for this year. I mean, I think we showed that.”
In that light, perhaps the most enlightening stat is the difference in field-goal attempts between the two sides: Tennessee took 53 shots from the field in this game, making 19 of them (35.8 percent). Maryland hoisted 70, and hit 27 (38.6 percent). That’s a difference of 27 shot attempts, meaning that even though by game’s end, the difference in shooting accuracy was only minor, the difference in shot volume was great enough to render that small difference in marksmanship significant.
Even more important, though, is how and why Maryland was able to take so many more shots and still net them with reasonable consistency. That boils down to crisp and precise ball movement, kick-outs and reversals and an offense that seemed to be moving with a sense of purpose for Maryland. On the vast majority of possessions, the ball went first to the inside, before being kicked back out if there was no opening.
In contrast, for Tennessee, there was way too much dribbling around on the perimeter, much of it by a single player, intent on making her own shot, even if that shot had to be forced. When the ball was passed, which happened far too rarely, the ball movement often seemed aimless, rather than purposeful, and on nearly a third of their possessions, the Vols wound up turning the ball over without even getting a shot off.
There’s a word for that – teamwork, or the lack thereof.
There was no evidence in this game that Maryland was working any harder, or wanting it any more, than its adversary. If anything, it looked like things were comparatively easy for the Terps, while Tennessee had to work hard for everything it got.
The difference in this game wasn’t work, it was teamwork. More often than not, the Lady Vols exemplify the concept of teamwork, but on this day, Maryland had it. Tennessee, for the most part, did not. And much more important for the future of the Vols than finding a 31-point per game replacement for Simmons, or increasing the intensity of their “Grind for 9,” will be reinculcating that ethos of getting it done as a team.
Elite Eight: (4) Maryland @ (3) Louisville -- Tuesday, April 1 -- 7 p.m. EDT (KFC Yum! Center, Louisville, Ky.)
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