DES MOINES, Iowa — The uniforms didn’t change. The faces still looked the same.
Tennessee’s makeover was competitive in nature, not cosmetic. No matter, it looked good to Vicki Baugh.
“Today, it showed me a new basketball team that was willing to fight regardless of what was happening,” the Lady Vols’ senior center said.
Baugh and her mates fought back from dire postseason straits. They erased a 14-point first-half deficit and scored an 84-73 NCAA women’s basketball tournament victory over Kansas at Wells Fargo Arena.
Led by Meighan Simmons’ 22 points, No. 2 seed Tennessee (27-8) pulled off its biggest comeback of the season and won for the first time in seven games when trailing at halftime. The resilience earned the Lady Vols a spot in Monday night’s final (TV: ESPN, 7 p.m.) of the Des Moines Regional.
They will face top-seed Baylor (37-0), which beat Georgia Tech 83-68 in Saturday’s other semifinal. Lady Bears center Brittney Griner scored 35 points and threw down a two-handed dunk.
Monday’s winner advances to the Final Four.
Simmons had plenty of scoring help as Glory Johnson scored 18 points and Shekinna Stricklen had 16. Along with five assists, Ariel Massengale scored 12 points, reaching double figures for the first time since Feb. 2.
Baugh led Tennessee’s 41-32 rebounding advantage with a game-high 11.
Collectively, UT piled up 54 points in the second half and led by as many as 16.
UT assistant coach Dean Lockwood could relate to Baugh’s transformative perspective. He took his swing at describing what took place.
“You know how you sit back sometimes and watch a kid who’s kind of afraid of a fastball and all of a sudden he knocks it off the wall for a double,” he said. “You just smile.”
The Lady Vols’ expressions were more grim at the outset as they got knocked around by No. 11 seed Kansas (21-13). Point guard Angel Goodrich had 12 of her game-high 23 points in the first half. She also summoned scoring help with three assists as the Jayhawks repeatedly punched holes in UT’s defense, turning its strength into a glaring weakness.
“We wanted to be the ones to attack, and we did and it felt really good,” Goodrich said.
Aishah Sutherland, who scored 19 points, converted a driving layup with 8:59 left in the first half, pushing Kansas’ lead to 26-12.
“We really looked confused in the first half,” Johnson said. “I’m not really sure why. Not everyone was in the same defense. People weren’t matching up with people.”
The Lady Vols made enough baskets to cut the deficit to 35-30 at halftime but they still needed to regroup.
Johnson said that the players had a lot to say to each other during the break. Baugh said that the coaches had their say as well. And head coach Pat Summitt was heard regarding two important topics: defense and rebounding.
“We have that ear for Pat, who doesn’t?” Baugh said. “We want to respect that. She was after us. She said this program is built on defense and boards. It was unacceptable, the first half.”
The Lady Vols changed their starting backcourt for the second half, replacing Briana Bass and Alicia Manning with Simmons and Massengale. They also relied on a man defensive alignment to clear up any confusion.
In the process, they cut Kansas’ lead to down to size quickly. Johnson’s jumper with 15 minutes left provided UT with its first lead since the game’s first minute. Simmons’ layup capped a 14-4 run and her subsequent jumper pushed UT’s lead to 73-57 with 4:32 left. The makeover was complete.
“We didn’t get all strung out because we got down by 14,” Lockwood said. “I think we got a little bit tougher mentally.”
Dan Fleser may be reached at 865-342-6288. Follow him at http://twitter.com/FleserKNS and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/fleser.