DES MOINES, Iowa — Tennessee's seniors looked as though they would bow out of postseason play in the same manner they began three years ago as freshmen.
But one by one, underclassmen came to their rescue as the Lady Vols advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament with an 84-73 victory over 11th-seeded Kansas on Saturday afternoon at Wells Fargo Arena.
The game unfolded much like these seniors' freshman nightmare against 12th-seeded Ball State three years ago in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Bowling Green, Ky.
UT lost that game by 16 points. It was down by 14 with 8:59 to play in the first half against Kansas and looking every bit as vulnerable as it did to Ball State.
In fact, you couldn't recognize the teams by their seeding. The Jayhawks were quicker to the ball and considerably surer of themselves in the first half.
"We weren't matching up on defense, we didn't come out ready to play, we weren't intense," senior center Vicki Baugh said. "Just everything a Tennessee team is not.
"It was unacceptable."
The Lady Vols changed the course of the game one substitution at a time.
First, sophomore guard Meighan Simmons came off the bench to hit a couple of 3-pointers in helping cut Kansas' lead to three. Her shooting tailed off the rest of the half, but her defense didn't. And there was no statistic to measure the energy with which she infused a lethargic team.
Next up in UT's comeback was freshman guard Ariel Massengale, who made back-to-back 3s to tie the game at 42 in the first four minutes of the second half.
Kamiko Williams completed UT's bench work with three assists, and a basket that extended the lead to six points just seconds after relieving Shekinna Stricklen, who was temporarily impaired by a leg cramp.
"We always know we can depend on our bench play," Baugh said. "Our starters aren't necessarily the best players. Everyone is good on this team."
Simmons was better than anyone else on this afternoon. She made nine of 18 field-goal attempts and scored a team-high 22 points. Hit or miss, her defense and energy didn't wane.
"She will always give us energy," associate head coach Holly Warlick said. "And she has a scorer's mentality. But she is no longer a defensive liability."
The scorer's newfound affinity for stopping scorers was never more apparent than against the Jayhawks. Her one-on-one defense was as noteworthy as her baskets.
"I give her extra credit on her defense," Baugh said. "Best D I've seen all year."
As much as Simmons accomplished, UT needed another boost from the bench to ultimately take charge of the game. Massengale provided it.
A year ago at this time, UT coach Pat Summitt already was touting the star high school player from Bolingbrook, Ill., as her next point guard.
"I heard that," Massengale said. "But she also told me, 'It's not going to be easy.' "
It hasn't been. Massengale missed three early-season games with a dislocated finger on her left hand and has struggled at times with her shooting touch as well as the length of the college season.
"Your body gets tired, school gets tough, papers due," she said. "You have to be mentally tough."
Against Kansas, she changed her mindset in the second half after teammates encouraged her to take open shots.
She scored all 12 of her points in the second half for her first double-figure scoring game since Feb. 5 against Auburn.
"Those 3s back to back were huge," Warlick said. "They gave us a lot of energy."
As pleased as Warlick was with those energy boosts from the bench, she was just as mystified by her team's inept play early.
"We were just not very good in the first 15 minutes of the game," Warlick said. "We can't do that."
They certainly can't do that against No. 1 Baylor, UT's next opponent Monday night in the Elite Eight.
Georgia Tech fell behind the Lady Bears early in the second half of Saturday's doubleheader. And after the slow start, it fell further behind even further, eventually losing 83-68.
Unbeaten Baylor presents more than a challenge. It revives another bad memory for UT's senior class.
Two years ago, the Lady Bears eliminated them from the NCAA tournament with a 77-62 victory in the Sweet 16. And this Baylor team is even better.
Another slow start wouldn't just be unacceptable. It would be impossible to overcome.