OKLAHOMA CITY — Even without towering Brittney Griner blocking the route, Tennessee still couldn’t get to the Final Four.
Louisville punched its ticket instead, knocking out the Lady Vols 86-78 Tuesday night in the Oklahoma City regional final.
Shoni Schimmel scored 24 points to lead the fifth-seeded Cardinals (28-8). Before a crowd of 6,147 at Chesapeake Energy Arena, they staged a nearly identical follow-up to Sunday’s upset of defending national champion Baylor and Griner, its All-American center.
The Cardinals built a 20-point lead and then held off a desperate rally by No. 2 seed Tennessee (27-8). Led by Taber Spani’s 20 points, the Lady Vols whittled 17 points off the deficit. However, Spani missed a shot at a tie on a 3-pointer with 4:08 left.
That was as close to New Orleans as the Lady Vols could get.
Along with Schimmel, who was named the regional’s most outstanding player, Louisville had five double-figure scores and made eight 3-pointers
The Lady Vols matched the Cardinals for double-figure scorers but couldn’t overcome a misspent first half.
Tennessee’s problems began on offense. Louisville used multiple defensive alignments to thwart the player and ball movement that was so prevalent in the Lady Vols’ regional semifinal victory over Oklahoma.
Tennessee had just one point to show for its first seven possessions.
“It may have rattled us some,” UT assistant Dean Lockwood said. “But that’s where you respond at the other end of the floor and we couldn’t do that.”
With every UT missed shot or turnover, the Cardinals went on the attack.
Schimmel started by hitting jumpers and later cut off a screen for a driving layup. When her sister, Jude, hit a corner 3-pointer, Louisville’s early lead reached double figures, 22-11.
Sheronne Vails and Antonita Slaughter both scored putback baskets, expanding the advantage to 31-14.
Kamiko Williams was the only UT starter who summoned any semblance of a first-half response, scoring six points. The other four starters, meanwhile, combined for four points in the first 20 minutes.
UT rallied within 11 points twice. But then the Schimmels struck again.
Shoni first scored on a spinning, driving layup. She followed by throwing a home-run pass over Tennessee’s press to Jude for a breakaway layup.
So much for Tennessee’s rally. The deficit was 41-26 at halftime.
UT finally got the deficit into single digits, 62-53, when Bashaara Graves hit two free throws with 9:04 left.
Meighan Simmons’ first basket, a 3-pointer, pulled the Lady Vols within 64-56. She eventually finished with 12 points, but shot 4 for 16 from the floor.
“I feel like I let my team down,” Simmons said.
Spani and Williams both made the all-tournament team.
“This team never gives up and we believed in each other,” Spani said. “We just put ourselves in too big of a deficit at the beginning and our defense wasn’t the way it’s been the last few games. It let us down.”
Dan Fleser covers Tennessee women’s basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/FleserKNS and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/fleser