The Lady Vols next game will be against overall No. 1 seed Baylor (37-0) and 6'8 Brittney Griner, who electrified the crowd with a two-handed slam against Georgia Tech that even got Tennessee fans off their feet to applaud.
The two teams will square off Monday evening at 7 p.m. Eastern at Wells Fargo Arena in downtown Des Moines.
"We'll go out there and play extremely hard; I'm sure they'll go out there and play extremely hard," Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey said.
"We're both trying to get to a Final Four. She has seniors who haven't been, and we have a kid who's supposed to be the greatest post player to play the game who's never won a championship."
To get to Baylor, the Lady Vols first had to take care of the Lady Bears sister Big 12 school in Kansas in the Des Moines Regional, and they did so with an 84-73 win Saturday.
The Jayhawks opened the game by attacking the basket and got to the rim against the Lady Vols whether they were in man or zone defenses.
"Our defense was awful, so we were stressing defending one-on-one, getting back and matching up, talking, getting stops, getting rebounds," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "We just were not very good in the first 15 minutes of the game.
"We were uninspired. We just can't do that."
The Lady Vols made one-on-one adjustments on the defensive side of the ball, and Meighan Simmons and Ariel Massengale came off the bench to provide offensive punch - and their best defense of the season - and Tennessee chipped away at the lead and managed to just be down 35-30 at the break.
"We didn't start out well at all, but the second half was definitely a different half for us," Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt said. "I thought we had a lot of people step up on the defensive end and on the offensive end."
The first half belonged to Kansas as the Jayhawks, led by point guard Angel Goodrich, got to the paint at will.
"We want to be the ones to attack, and we did and it felt really good," Goodrich said.
Goodrich had 12 points and three assists by the break. If she wasn't scoring, she was finding an open teammate.
"We were horrible the first half; she did about whatever she wanted to do," Warlick said. "She's difficult to defend because she shoots the long three, she penetrates, and she's a great passer.
"We tried trapping; she went under the screen and she hit a three. We tried switching, and she went around. She's just a wonderful player."
Kansas built its lead to 14 points, 26-12, on a jumper from Aishah Sutherland and then the Lady Vols reengaged in the game.
"You've got to stay poised, and you've got to have confidence," said Alicia Manning, who hit a baseline jumper early in the game. "That's what we did. We knew we weren't playing our best basketball, and our best was yet to come.
"And then it came, and that is how we turned the game around."
Simmons played lockdown defense, boxed out, got the rebound and then hit a three on the other end. The play was assisted by Spani who passed up her shot and got the ball to Simmons in the corner, to trim the lead to 28-20 with 7:04 to play before the break.
Simmons missed on next trey ball, but Johnson got the rebound and stick-back to cut the lead to 28-22, and Kansas Coach Bonnie Henrickson called timeout at the 6:30 mark.
It's a combination that can score, put it on the floor, hit pull-up twos," Henrickson said. "There's lots of different ways those guys can score."
Stricklen was fouled at the rim and hit two free throws, and Simmons hit a three in transition to cut the lead to 31-27 with 4:22 left in the half.
The Lady Vols didn't completely wipe out Kansas' lead, but Johnson hit a turn-around in the paint, and Stricklen made one of two free throws to go into the locker down by just five points.
"We had a pretty heated discussion at halftime," Warlick said. "Our program is built on defense and rebounds and we were not doing that.
"We had to get down and defend one-on-one, and I thought we came out and did that."
The players said the discussion started among themselves before the coaches spoke to them.
Sutherland hit a jumper for Kansas to start the second half, and then the Lady Vols went to work.
Massengale pulled Tennessee to within one and then tied the game at 42 with 16:28 to play with back-to-back three pointers.
"It was now or never," Massengale said. "We knew we had to come in and make stops and make plays. We just took it one possession at a time."
Five minutes into the second half Johnson gave the Lady Vols the lead with a short jumper. The crowd of 7,941 - the majority were in orange - roared its approval, and Tennessee's post players stayed in attack mode.
Baugh was fouled at the rim and made the first free throw but missed the second. Johnson snared the offensive board, got fouled and hit both from the stripe - she was 6-6 from the line for the game - to give the Lady Vols a 47-44 lead with 13:33 left.
When Massengale connected on a jumper for a 49-44 lead with 12:30 left, Henrickson called for a timeout. Goodrich responded with a jumper, but then Tennessee's defense stiffened - Stricklen got a block - and the offense got in running gear.
Simmons got to the rim, Kamiko Williams entered the game and did the same thing, Johnson got fouled and hit her free throws, and Vicki Baugh got an offensive board and hit a nifty reverse for a 61-53 lead with 7:32 left.
"Obviously their speed in transition got the best of us," Henrickson said.
A steal by Massengale led to the next basket as she got the ball ahead to Williams, who found Simmons for the layup, a 63-53 lead with 7:07 to play and another Kansas timeout.
But the Lady Vols kept attacking. Johnson got a defensive board and got the ball to Baugh, who passed ahead to Williams, who again connected with Simmons for a layup and a 67-55 lead. That was followed by a Simmons steal, a layup and a 69-55 lead with 5:58 left.
Tennessee kept the lead in double digits - it twice reached 16 points - but Kansas fought until the final buzzer. The Jayhawks could not, however, keep the Lady Vols off the glass, and then they had to foul.
Massengale hit four free throws and Johnson connected on two for the final 84-73 score.
Kansas was led by Goodrich with 23 points. Sutherland tallied 19, Gardner added 14 , and Monica Engelman chipped in with eight.
The Jayhawks shot 47.0 percent (31-66) overall, 28.6 percent (4-14) from the arc and 63.6 percent (7-11) from the line. Kansas had 13 assists, nine turnovers, four steals and two blocks.
Tennessee was led by Simmons with 22 points, an NCAA tourney high for the sophomore. Three other players reached double digits - Johnson had 18 points, Stricklen tallied 16, and Massengale added 12.
The Lady Vols shot 43.9 percent (29-66) overall, 27.8 percent (5-18) from long range and 87.5 percent (21-24) from the line.
Tennessee had 15 assists, eight turnovers, six steals and a block.
The Lady Vols prevailed on the boards, 41-32. Baugh had a game-high 11 rebounds, while Stricklen grabbed nine and Johnson had seven.
Johnson now has 1,204 career rebounds and became the second Lady Vol in program history - the another is Chamique Holdsclaw - to tally more than 1,200 rebounds. Johnson also moved into the 13th spot on the career scoring list, passing Dana Johnson, with 1,624 points.
Tennessee outpaced Kansas in second-chance points, 23-12, while the paint scoring was almost even - 46 for Kansas, 45 for Tennessee. The Lady Vols bench outscored its counterpart, 41-11.
It was truly a tale of two halves for Tennessee. The Lady Vols scored 30 in the first and 54 in the second. They shot 36.4 percent before halftime and 51.5 percent afterwards.
Simmons scored 16 points in the second half. "Huge, huge," Williams said. "Meighan always has a way to score, especially when we need it. We need her to bring it the next game against Baylor."
All of Massengale's points came after halftime.
"Glory, Alicia Manning, and Vicki Baugh came in at halftime and said, ‘You need to shoot the ball. We need you to be a part of the offense,' " Massengale said.
"They had confidence in me, and I just had to go out there and have enough confidence in myself to knock down those shots for this team."
Henrickson took a moment in the post-game handshake line to lean in and speak to Summitt.
" ‘I've always had great respect for you, and I always will,' " Henrickson said when asked what she said to Summitt. "It's not just that she's won all those games, which is amazing to me, it's how she's handled success and all of that – just who she is as a person and how she's handled her situation.
"I wanted to make sure I told her when I got a chance."
The Lady Vols were happy inside the locker room - and relieved.
"Live to play another day," Massengale said. "That's what it's all about at this time of the season. We're happy, but we're not satisfied."
INSIDE TENNESSEE'S TAKE
The Lady Vols took survive and advance a little too seriously against Kansas. They spotted the Jayhawks a 14-point lead in the first half and then had to rally - and win their first game of the season when trailing at halftime - in order to get to the Elite Eight.
While the start was abysmal, Tennessee did recover - that was a big step for this team as it didn't panic - and managed to take the lead just five minutes into the second half and never lose it.
This season has been, rightfully so, about the seniors who are trying to reach their first Final Four - and they will have their hands full Monday against Baylor, which won easily, 83-68, against Georgia Tech and whose theme is "Unfinished Business" after a loss in the Elite Eight last year - but it was the orange-and-white youngsters who provided the boost Saturday in Des Moines.
Freshman Cierra Burdick and senior Shekinna Stricklen both said it's about the team. The seniors want to reach the Final Four, and the underclassmen want to help get them there.
The all-senior lineup came about at Senior Day, and it worked. A team plagued by slow starts opened with energy on both ends and it stayed that way through the SEC tourney and the first two games of the NCAA tourney.
But on Saturday the start was sluggish, and the Lady Vols buried themselves in a hole. Freshman Ariel Massengale and sophomore Meighan Simmons provided the punch off the bench.
With undefeated Baylor looming next, it might be time to shuffle the lineup again with Massengale or Simmons or both on the court for the opening tip.
"I think that's something that our staff will talk about," Pat Summitt said. "I think that might be what we really need to do."
The two seniors likely to be displaced, Briana Bass and Alicia Manning, would likely handle it as well as the two underclassmen did who came out of it.
Manning didn't reenter the game in the second but she was vocal on the sideline. Bass is constantly in the ear of teammates, including Kamiko Williams, to provide instructions and encouragement.
"A lot of it honestly came from Briana," Williams said when asked about her effective play in the second half. She gets on me all the time. She calls me lazy and I don't do this or that, so a couple of minutes before I got in there she said, ‘Be ready, be ready.'
"While I'm in there playing I can hear her on the bench yelling, ‘Good job, Kamiko!' Do this and do that,' " Williams said. "So, a lot of it goes to her."
Williams got to the rim and found teammates in transition. She played six second half minutes and tallied four points and three assists.
She likely would have logged more minutes - she is inserted at times for defense - but Simmons was playing so effectively at both ends that she needed to stay put.
Once Massengale and Simmons entered the game in the first half at the 15:18 and 11:47 marks, respectively, they never left the court.
Massengale finished with 12 points, five assists and three boards. Simmons tallied a team-high 22 points and four rebounds.
The senior experiment worked well. It allowed the seniors to put their stamp on the starts, and the team rallied around them. Simmons and Massengale became better all-around basketball players and saw firsthand from the bench how solid defense to start a game can dictate the outcome.
The youngsters watched, learned and then executed. Having the pair on the court to start the second half made Tennessee better Saturday.
That is the best thing for the Lady Vols - a team of unselfish players with one goal. It will take every bit of that will to get past Baylor on Monday. The Lady Bears showed signs of weakness in last year's tourney. They haven't faltered in 2012.
The score against Georgia Tech wasn't indicative of Baylor's dominance - the Lady Bears led by 31 points and then made wholesale substitutions with six minutes left. The game against Georgia Tech was essentially over midway through the first half.
If Tennessee starts against Baylor the way it opened against Kansas, the same will be true Monday.
"I think we have a resiliency about us," Holly Warlick said. "We start off slow but we tend to never give up and that's what I love about this team. I would much rather them not get in the hole, but they keep fighting and fighting.
"Different people step up. Meighan Simmons stepped up today, Ariel Massengale stepped up today. I'm just proud of their effort and it was a great team effort."
The senior lineup went 7-0 for Tennessee. It was effective and it did what it intended - set the tone for the Tennessee Way. The youngsters got on board. Then, they got on the court and got it done.
INSIDE TENNESSEE NOTEBOOK
FOR STARTERS: Ariel Massengale and Meighan Simmons started the second half. The coaches will convene and decide if they will do so in the first half when Tennessee plays Baylor.
"We are going to look at it and in all likelihood we may make changes," Dean Lockwood said. "That senior group give them credit for getting us stabilized and off to good starts, but now it's also about efficiency and productivity.
"We can't afford in any game from this point to dig ourselves in a hole. Any group is capable of having that happen to them, but we look at productivity, efficiency, energy level. So all of those things are going to factor in."
TABER TWEAK: Taber Spani hit the three-pointer in the first half that ignited the Tennessee rally, but then she tweaked her knee on defense - she said she felt a shift - and had to seek Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine, on the sideline.
Spani, who plunged her legs in an ice bath immediately after the game, didn't reenter the contest. She looked visibly uncomfortable after the incident but was able to smile after the game.
"We'll see how it feels and go from there," Spani said.
Spani said she will be rehab with Moshak and attempt to get ready for Monday's game. Her father and sister were in attendance Saturday, and her mother and her other sisters, who had high school basketball this weekend, will be in town Monday.
Spani wasn't the only one with discomfort. Shekinna Stricklen left the game to get treated for leg cramps, and Vicki Baugh, who has issues with tight hamstrings, had trouble getting and staying loose.
Baugh feels better as the day goes on, so the early tip was not at all ideal for the 6'4 forward.
"It happened in both of my legs," Baugh said. "Right now I am having hamstring issues. They tighten up and lock on me, and it's very hard to straighten my leg out.
"It's a lot better than what it has been. I think getting up early I wasn't able to get loose enough for tipoff."
Monday's tip is 7 p.m. Eastern (ESPN), which is 6 p.m. local Des Moines time, so Baugh should feel better.
Spani may have been sidelined in the second half, but she was fully engaged in the game.
"It's frustrating when my leg prohibits me from always being on the court, but I was just trying to keep us up," Spani said. "I know my teammates enough to know who to encourage and who to push the buttons on.
"I was just trying to keep the belief alive. And I think the confidence level being high was crucial for us. Not getting down on ourselves was really important in the second half."
STREAK DERAILED: Entering Saturday's game, the Lady Vols were 0-6 this season when trailing at halftime.
The lineup, in order of appearance on the schedule was Stanford, Kentucky, Notre Dame, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Arkansas.
Tennessee was down 35-30 against Kansas at the break and broke the streak in Des Moines with the 83-68 win.
DEFENSE STIFFENED: Meighan Simmons arrived on campus as a shooter, and Tennessee was satisfied with her offensive output as a freshman.
As a sophomore, Simmons had to diversify her game and add defense and rebounding. Simmons' defense had been improving all season. On Saturday, her board play and box-outs arrived, too.
"Meighan is a scorer," Ariel Massengale said. "This year she added defense to her game. Once we can get her playing defense and shooting the ball the way she's been shooting it, she's hard to guard."
Simmons also added board play to her resume on Saturday and boxed out.
"She did," Massengale said. "Glory Johnson told her that we needed her to crash the boards. She took it to heart. She went out there and did what she needed to do."
Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood heaped high praise on Simmons after the game.
"Her on-ball defense was tremendous," Lockwood said. "Tremendous on-ball defense. Loved her defense.
"I love defense. I got fired up watching that kid guard Kansas on the perimeter."
The entire team was challenged by the coaching staff.
"Are you just on defense or are you really playing defense?" Lockwood said. "I think early we were just on defense. We started to really play defense. We were a lot more focused.
"They hurt us on ball screens and flare screens. We got a lot more determined. That is what defense is. You had better be determined to play through actions and you're going to get hit with screens.
"But instead of dying on the first action, you've got to have multiple efforts."
PRESS STUFF: Transcripts from Saturday's press conferences, box scores and photo galleries are available online. Click on the school names below.
Tennessee press conference video via NCAA:
Kansas press conference video via NCAA:
Baylor press conference video via NCAA:
Georgia Tech press conference video via NCAA:
Press conference transcripts:
INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE