Lady Vols reach Elite Eight

Kamiko Williams

OKLAHOMA CITY - The Lady Vols eliminated Oklahoma and secured an Elite Eight spot in the NCAA tourney. Go inside with InsideTennessee for analysis and videos.

The Lady Vols were a bit startled when they walked onto the court of Chesapeake Energy Arena and saw all of the crimson-clad fans in attendance.

So, Tennessee (27-7) seized the lead to open the game against Oklahoma (24-11), stiffened its defense - led by senior Kamiko Williams and freshman Jasmine Jones on the ball - and ran past the Sooners, 74-59.

The Sweet 16 win put the Lady Vols in the Elite Eight against Louisville, which defeated Baylor, 82-81, in an epic upset.

"Incredible," Assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. "Great job by Louisville. Great job shooting the ball. Great effort."

Tennessee fans were as joyous after the game as the Louisville fans were, because it meant not facing Brittney Griner on Tuesday. Griner has ended Tennessee's season twice, the Sweet 16 in 2010 and the Elite Eight in 2012.

The good news is the Lady Vols won't face Griner again. The flip side is they now have to play the team that eliminated the Bears.

"Yep, yep, we'll play them as they come," Lockwood said. "This is a great illustration of why you play the games, why you count on nothing, why you prepare for all contingencies.

"Our players are going to let this thing absorb and then we realize, ‘Hey, we've got to go to work.' "

Lockwood, who was assigned to scout Baylor and assistant coach Jolette Law, who had Louisville, sat courtside throughout the game. Law will be busy overnight after having to toss out her earlier scouts in the tournament.

"I had Syracuse; they got upset. I had UCLA, they got upset," Law said.

"That is what March Madness is all about. Any given day, and tonight was Louisville's day."

Law was looking forward to a long night of scout preparation.

"This will be the best scout, and I will be up all night," Law said. "But I am glad to do it. They are a great ball club, very well coached."

Tennessee and Louisville got sent into Big 12 territory, but two teams from the SEC and Big East will tip off Tuesday at 9 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPN2) for the right to go to New Orleans.

It will be the Lady Vols 26th trip to the Elite Eight in program history.

To get to the regional final, the Lady Vols first had to get past Oklahoma, and they shot a scorching 52.9 percent in the first half, led by Williams at 6-7 from the field, and used ball pressure to slow down the Sooner attack and take a 44-27 lead at the break.

It was the opening that Tennessee needed because it silenced the crowd of 9,162 that was dominated by Sooner fans and allowed the Lady Vol supporters, especially those seated behind the bench, to make their voices heard.

Cheryl Littlejohn was in attendance, as was Jody Adams, and the players could hear the cheers - and instructions to rebound - from the former Lady Vols.

Tennessee got 47 boards, while Oklahoma got 50 and won the second-chance tally 23-13, but the Lady Vols swamped the Sooners in bench scoring at 31-6 and points off turnovers at 26-9. The 59 points was a season-low for the Sooners.

"It was a really hard fought game for us," Head coach Holly Warlick said. "I'm extremely proud of these young ladies. We talk a lot about where we start and then where we are now. I keep saying this, but this team, they play in the moment. They play each possession like it's their last.

"As a coach, you don't want to coach effort. I have not from day one had to coach effort. We've actually coached and taught."

That effort began on the defensive end as Warlick and staff have worked to change the mind-set of a team that had gotten too soft on the defensive end.

"I think that just plays right into the personnel that we have, with the athleticism we have, especially at the top with Kamiko or with Jasmine or Meighan up there on the ball," senior forward Taber Spani said.

"We wanted to come in, set the tempo early, dictate to them that we were going to be the ones pressuring. We were trying to get them out of their offense because they're a great offensive team when they're able to run their sets."

The biggest reclamation project was Williams, who has become a tenacious defender on the ball thanks, in part, to the persistence of assistant coach Kyra Elzy. She drew the assignment on Oklahoma's Aaryn Ellenberg, who went 1-11 in the first half.

"I think it started in the locker room," Williams said. "Coach Elzy challenged me to guard her, bring my best defense. My teammates helped me out. So it wasn't just me.

"Most of the time I was on her and I just tried to live up to that challenge from Elzy, because if not, I was going to hear about it later. Didn't want that to happen."

The Sooners shot 30.7 percent (23-75) overall from the field and 17.2 percent (5-29) from the arc. They lost the ball 17 times - Tennessee had 11 steals with three each by Williams and Bashaara Graves - and that allowed the Lady Vols to get the running game in gear.

"I just want to congratulate a very, very good Tennessee team," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said. "I thought they played extraordinarily well today. First half they really made a bunch of baskets early, kind of punched us right at the beginning."

The Sooners have been riddled with injuries this season and lost point guard Morgan Hook midway through the first half with a concussion.

"That was one of those where you're like, ‘Really? Seriously? After everything, now we're going to drop another one right here in the Sweet 16' " Coale said. "Morgan plays 38 to 40 minutes a game."

That forced Jasmine Hartman to play 36 minutes, and the senior guard had eight boards and two assists.

"I thought she handled herself really well," Coale said. "What hurt us worse was Tennessee changing defense."

The Lady Vols varied their looks with man and zone and also picked up the ball full court. Williams, who logged 32 minutes and looked ready for more at the end of the game, spearheaded the defensive effort.

"Great athlete, good rebounder, really strong defender, hard to get around, plays really hard," Coale said.

That description of Williams would have been unthinkable in her first three seasons - or even midway through her last one - but the senior guard has elevated her game at the perfect time for Tennessee.

"She has stepped up," Warlick said. "She has a maturity about her. She's just taken this team. She's wrapped her arms around this team and said, ‘Let's go.' "

Williams led Tennessee with 15 points, while fellow senior Spani added 12.

Meighan Simmons misfired at 1-15 from the field, but Warlick said the struggles didn't affect her defense.

"That's a different mindset than we've had," Warlick said. "It's a different mindset that Meighan has had. I know she wanted to play, and play so hard. But I love that she was still in the game and still defending."

Two other double-figure scorers for Tennessee came off the bench in Isabelle Harrison with 12 points and Cierra Burdick with 13.

"Really good from the high post. Really athletic. Have perimeter skills as well as great length," Coale said about Burdick and Harrison.

"They gave us trouble. Against the zone, they make good decisions. Against the man, they were very physical. I thought they were really good."

Harrison and Burdick both missed games in 2013 because of injuries. Burdick made it back in a month, but Harrison had two knee injuries and missed most of the past two months.

Harrison's return to the paint has been well timed, because Graves, who was 3-4 for six points and grabbed four boards, had logged extensive minutes and was wearing down over a long season.

Harrison had three blocks and a steal and moved with fluidity on both ends since donning a knee brace to protect her right knee.

"I felt really good," Harrison said. "I was doing a lot of rehab on this trip. Me and (Jenny Moshak) have been basically roommates.

"I'm glad I can get out there and do the best I can. I need to talk to her when I'm hurting. I'm feeling really good."

"I've wanted to get Izzy back in the lineup, but I didn't know where I could put her because everybody else is playing so well," Warlick said.

Warlick was speaking after Tennessee's game and while Baylor and Louisville were still in the first half. Had Griner been looming on Tuesday, Warlick would have had to get Harrison in as a starter. But with Louisville sinking the three ball - the Cardinal were 16-25 from long range against Baylor - the perimeter defense becomes a priority, and the starters are likely to stay the same.

That means Williams will have to ready again.

"Four years ago, she would not have been mature enough to step up and do the things she has now," Warlick said. "She's a senior. It's her team. It's her and Taber's team.

"She's leading by example. I can't tell you, I'm really, really proud of her. I knew she had it in her. We're just right now getting it out of her. Very proud of her."

It is another success story for Warlick, who despite the overhaul of her roster and the retirement of Pat Summitt, has gotten Tennessee back to an Elite Eight. Thanks to Louisville, it won't be Baylor blocking the path to a Final Four.

The best line of the day came from Coale, who was asked if how Warlick did or didn't resemble Summitt.

"I don't think they look a thing alike," Coale said to laughter.

Warlick stood in the hallway outside the locker room to chat with the Knoxville media - just as Summitt did - so the local TV stations could get footage of the head coach.

Her hair was still sweaty, and her blouse was wrinkled, but she was smiling. She deflected any attempt to praise herself and saluted her staff and players.

"Holly has put her personality on that team," Coale said. "She jumps around the sidelines, has a lot of energy, passion, yet she's fun, has some humor wound up in all that.

"I think her team is feeding off that. I told her that at half-court, what a difficult position, yet what a fantastic job she had done with this team."

MEDIA LINKS

The transcript of Tennessee and Oklahoma's press conferences on Sunday can be read by CLICKING HERE.

The post-game press conferences can be found on the NCAA's website by CLICKING HERE.

GAME HIGHLIGHTS FROM UTSPORTSTV

INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE

Ariel Massengale

Bashaara Graves

Meighan Simmons

Cierra Burdick

Jasmine Phillips, Jasmine Jones

Kamiko Williams

Dean Lockwood

Kyra Elzy

Holly Warlick

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