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The Lady Vol way

For the past few years, Tennessee has played a lot for Pat Summitt. Yesterday, for the first time since Summitt has stepped down, not only did the Lady Vols show a resolve that mirrored their former coach, they actually played like Summitt.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since Pat Summitt had to step down because of a diagnosis of early onset dementia, the Lady Vols talked about playing for Pat. On Saturday in Spokane, the Lady Vols played like Pat and now have a shot at the program's first Final Four since 2008.

With six-and-a-half minutes left in the game, Tennessee trailed Gonzaga by 17 points, 57-40, in raucous Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. The Lady Vols were 2,351 miles from home - or 1,888 miles as the crow flies - and were on the cusp of falling in the Sweet 16 for the second-consecutive year.

But, led by seniors Cierra Burdick and Ariel Massengale, junior Bashaara Graves and clutch free throw shooting by sophomore Jordan Reynolds and freshman Jamie Nared, the Lady Vols wiped out the deficit and claimed a 73-69 win in overtime.

Speaking of crow, some Lady Vol fans were consuming just that, figuratively speaking, as message boards and social media erupted in agony - and anger - that Tennessee was exiting the NCAA Tournament.

Gonzaga was a stout opponent, especially for a No. 11 seed, but the Bulldogs had taken out No. 3 seed Oregon State on its home court in Corvallis in the second round, so perhaps they had been under-seeded at the start. The reward was a Sweet 16 matchup in what was essentially a home game for Gonzaga.

The Bulldogs led Tennessee for nearly 37 minutes of the game. The Lady Vols weren't hitting shots - and worse, they weren't getting stops. Gonzaga executed on both ends and pounded the smaller Lady Vols inside.

And then the Lady Vols summoned their vintage inner Pat Summitt. Former Lady Vols took to the Twitter to salute the team. Nikki McCray, an assistant with South Carolina - which punched its ticket to the Final Four on Sunday - had this to say on Twitter: "Great job to @LadyVol_Hoops -how about that old fashion Tenn defense #LadyVolForLife"

The Lady Vols hunkered down, as Summitt always liked to say, and got stops. They dominated the glass in the closing minutes and hit their free throws. Nared is a quiet player with an assassin's heart. The freshman came of age in the Sweet 16 in a comeback that was for the ages.

Tennessee did all the right things on the court in terms of execution - with an excellent in-game adjustment of sending Reynolds and Nared into the paint. But it's what the Lady Vols did with their hearts that will be remembered in this game.

A year ago, maybe even a few weeks ago, Tennessee would have wilted with a 17-point deficit and under seven to play. But Burdick simply would not give up. She battled bigger players inside, she snatched rebounds, especially on the offensive end, and she implored her teammates to fight. In short, she became just like Summitt. The Lady Vols didn't just fight for Pat, they fought like Pat, as was noted in comments under my game story for InsideTennessee.

What will happen Monday against Maryland? It is hard to say. The Lady Vols have a razor-thin margin for error, especially after losing Isabelle Harrison, their All-SEC center, to a torn ACL in February. The Terrapins are the top seed in the region and eliminated the Lady Vols a year ago.

Andraya Carter is an amicable young woman with the media and in the preseason, she handled a standard word association interview with ease. But when the word, "Maryland," was said, her eyes narrowed and her facial expression turned grim.

Carter had a one-word answer: Awful." She stopped there but expanded when asked to do so.

"I don't even talk about it," Carter said last October. "This might be the first time I have ever talked about that game. When people talk about it, I usually leave the room. I've tried to watch it a few times and can't even really get through it.

"They punched us really hard first, and I didn't know how to get up. We didn't get up and swing back."

Tennessee swung back Saturday and will need to do so again Monday. Carter, who struggled against Gonzaga, will be seeking a redemptive performance against Maryland and, odds are, she will deliver it.

The Lady Vols have a shot at glory Monday. They will need to find their inner Pat fight if they want to deliver a knockout punch.