Size, athleticism and pedigree all lined up in Tennessee’s favor Monday night.
Yet perseverance turned out to be perhaps its best asset.
The Lady Vols dug deep on defense and called roll on offense for a 68-52 victory over Creighton in the second round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
Assistant coach Dean Lockwood’s raspy voice alone spoke volumes about the effort involved in overcoming the Bluejays and advancing to the semifinals of the Oklahoma City Regional.
“This was not an easy game,” he said. “We had to put out some effort.”
No. 2 seed Tennessee (26-7), which improved to 52-0 at home in NCAA play, will face No. 6 seed Oklahoma (24-10) on Sunday in Oklahoma City. The Sooners beat No. 3 UCLA 85-72 Monday.
Before a crowd of 6,313 at Thompson-Boling Arena, Tennessee held No. 10 seed Creighton (25-8) to a season-low four 3-pointers and 18.2 percent shooting from long range (4-22). The Bluejays weren’t much better overall, shooting 32.1 percent from the field.
While Alexis Akin-Otiko led Creighton with 12 points, no other Bluejay scored more than eight points.
On offense, Tennessee’s Kamiko Williams led four double-figure scorers with 15 points, shooting 6-for-9 from the floor in her final home game.
Despite nine fewer attempts than Creighton, Tennessee was more efficient, shooting 48.9 percent from the floor (23-for-47).
The Bluejays reprised their upset act right from the opening tip. If anything, this version was more polished than Saturday’s, when they knocked off No. 7 seed Syracuse.
Their rebounding continued to be surprisingly effective, and they shot better in the first half than before. They went off at halftime within striking distance, trailing 35-29.
“We had to dial in mentally and physically,” forward Cierra Burdick said. “They never stopped moving.”
UT’s defensive adjustment essentially involved more effort. Better ball pressure was instrumental to a surge that turned a shaky 4-point lead into a 52-33 advantage in a matter of about four second-half minutes.
The scoring accompaniment required more resourcefulness. Other than Williams’ 10 points, no other Lady Vol had more than six at halftime.
“You could see what Creighton did to us in the first half,” UT coach Holly Warlick said. “They were packing it in; we weren’t getting good looks. We were quick shooting.”
Junior guard Meighan Simmons, UT’s leading scorer, epitomized Tennessee’s plight. At halftime, she had one basket and four points.
“Meighan got a little frustrated with the pressure they were bringing to her,” Burdick said. “I thought she bounced back and played better in the second half.”
She made a 3-pointer during the aforementioned scoring flurry. After Creighton had crept back within 59-50, Simmons swished another trey to end the rally with 4:19 left.
Although Simmons finished with 10 points, her final stat line befit a point guard more than a scorer. She recorded a team-high four assists.
“When my shots weren’t falling and I was frustrated, I made my teammates better by getting them the ball,” Simmons said.
With freshman forward Bashaara Graves held to three shots and four points, center Isabelle Harrison scored eight points off the bench.
Reserve forward Jasmine Jones scored six. The timing of her baskets were as important as the points. With Creighton beginning to threaten again, Jones made consecutive jumpers midway through the second half. She created both shots off the dribble.
“I feel like we have plenty of people on our team who can pull us through,” Harrison said.
And, in this case, send the Lady Vols on to Oklahoma City.