OKLAHOMA CITY — College basketball is clearly distinguished by the regular season and postseason.
But don’t underestimate the time in between.
In Tennessee’s case, the elapsed time was two weeks — not enough time to transform a team, but sufficient time to improve one.
And the Lady Vols seem confident they have improved as they prepare to take on Oklahoma on Sunday in the Oklahoma City Regional of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
For evidence, they cite their last stop on the tournament bracket, where they limited Creighton to four 3-pointers in 22 attempts.
The statistic reflected dramatic progress for a team whose perimeter defense too often has been inadequate. The upgrade wasn’t a coincidence.
“We really went back to work on fundamentals,” assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. “We spent a lot of time on footwork and closing out (on 3-point shooters).”
The footwork was significant because just one step in the wrong direction can determine success or failure in this regard.
If a defender is a step too close, the opposing player can dribble past her into the lane. If the defender is positioned too far away, then the shooter has a 3-point invitation.
“One of our big problems has been letting people dribble drive on us and get into the paint,” Lockwood said.
The problem wasn’t apparent against Creighton. Oklahoma poses a bigger challenge.
The Sooners combine greater athleticism, better scoring balance and the same fondness for 3s.
They have made 37.4 percent of their 3s, and have been even better in two NCAA tournament victories, connecting on 20-of-46 3-pointers (43.5 percent).
Sharpshooting opponents have raised UT’s defensive antennae. So have the stakes of postseason play.
“It’s like a (military) mission when you’re huddled in a tent somewhere, and in two hours you’re jumping on a helicopter and going somewhere,” Lockwood said.
“You know if you don’t do things right, some of us might not come back.”
Tennessee’s mission is not to come back but to keep going.
“They’re very tuned in,” Lockwood said. “They know if the job doesn’t get done, we’re going home.”
While the team’s confidence has been heightened by results from the first two rounds of the tournament, the players also know more is required at this juncture.
“We played well (in the first two rounds),” point guard Ariel Massengale said. “But I still don’t believe this team has reached its potential.”
This would be an appropriate time for production to meet potential, especially since a victory over Oklahoma almost surely would set up a meeting with defending national champion Baylor in the Elite Eight.
More effective perimeter defense wasn’t the only promising development for the Lady Vols against Creighton. They also were efficient from both 3-point range (6-for-10) and at the foul line (16-of-19).
But the performance wasn’t without flaws.
Leading scorer Meighan Simmons was limited to six shots and 10 points. Second-leading scorer Bashaara Graves had three shots and four points. Moreover, the Lady Vols were outrebounded 35-29.
They can ill afford to come up short in any area now. Not if they want to complete their mission.