SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Tennessee seemed bewildered by the outcome Monday night at Purcell Pavilion. It shouldn't have been.
No. 2 Notre Dame just did a better job of exploiting the Lady Vols' shortcomings than their previous opponents. All UT achieved in a humiliating 72-44 defeat was balance.
It was as bad on offense as it was on defense.
The offense was jittery and out of sync in a one-point loss to Kentucky 11 days earlier. The defense was overwhelmed in a 17-point setback against Stanford last month.
Those served as previews for a disastrous showing that associate head coach Holly Warlick never saw coming.
"I don't understand," she said. "It's the No. 2 team in the nation. The arena is sold out. And we don't fight."
How bad was it? Connecticut never beat the Lady Vols this bad. Neither did anyone else except Texas 28 years ago.
How bad was it? In the first half, UT missed 28 of 35 field-goal attempts, hit only four of 10 free throws and gave up seven layups. That qualified as its good half.
And it still trailed by 10 points.
Never mind the lead. Notre Dame hardly resembled a No. 2 team in the first
half. It repeatedly missed open shots and committed 10 turnovers.
Yet its superiority was established nonetheless. So was its confidence. Notre Dame reminds you of UT's best teams by the way it plays and talks.
The Fighting Irish looked so dominant against the Lady Vols, one media-type asked coach Muffet McGraw if she were concerned that her team might have peaked too soon.
"I don't think we've painted our masterpiece yet," she said.
That was a polite way of saying, "we don't have to play our best game to beat UT."
Its best player actually got off to a slow start. All-American point guard Skylar Diggins, who tormented the Lady Vols in Notre Dame's Elite Eight victory last March, missed four of her first five shots and committed three early turnovers. That fazed neither the player nor her coach.
"I trust her implicitly," McGraw said. "I know she is going to get going. She can turn it around instantly."
The turnaround was reflected in Diggins'final stat line: 27 points, five assists, five rebounds, four steals and 5-for-7 shooting from 3-point range.
Even when Diggins was at her worst, she looked more confident than any Lady Vol on the floor.
"In the first half, we got the shots we normally make," she explained. "They weren't falling."
Translation: No problem.
Diggins started the second-half onslaught with an unguarded 3-pointer from the corner. Notre Dame followed with four consecutive layups for an 18-point lead before the half was three minutes old.
This isn't the first time UT's defense has been baffled. But Notre Dame's precise passing and crisp ball movement exposed its deficiency in more glaring fashion. The Irish scored with almost laughable ease, converting 14 second-half layups.
UT's defense was so inept in the first half, it might have succeeded in throwing the Irish off. Once, forward Devereaux Peters received a pass in the post and turned to execute a move on whatever defender might come her way. Instead, she found herself unguarded beneath the basket. Apparently mystified by the absence of defense, she missed the shot.
But you can't heap all the blame on the defense for this debacle. The Lady Vols made only 27.9 percent of their field-goal tries and fewer than 50 percent of their free throws. Some of their misses were so flagrant they might show up in a basketball blooper video.
Warlick apologized for the performance. Players Meighan Simmons and Glory Johnson, who seemingly exerted the most effort in an overall lifeless performance, were remorseful in the interview session.
"We're a better team than how we played," Johnson added.
The Lady Vols are better at Thompson-Boling Arena. They're better against teams that don't play relentless defense like Notre Dame and Kentucky. They're better against teams that can't move the ball as effectively as Stanford and Notre Dame.
But they're not good enough to reach their goal, to make the Final Four. In fact, if they can't play better away from their home floor, they might not make the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.