Louisville, KY -- Today marked the University of Tennessee Lady Vol’s 36th NCAA Tournament appearance. A team with a longstanding tradition of excellence, the No. 5 seed Lady Vols took on the No. 12 Dayton Flyers. Although history clearly favored Tennessee for the win, the team has proven to be uncharacteristically inconsistent this season.
Therefore, the question of the afternoon was whether or not the Lady Vols would live up to their standard of excellence or all short of their expected potential and allow the Dayton Flyers to soar to a victory.
In a short four minutes of play, it seemed as though Tennessee was out to prove that they could, in fact, meet the high standards set before them by their fans, and more importantly, their reputation. Within a few short minutes, the Lady Vols put the Flyers in a seven-point hole with a score of 11-4. The intense, gritty, and determined Diamond DeShields set the pace for the rest of the team offensively, scoring 6 of those 11 points.
The first 10 minutes of play seemed to pass in a matter of seconds. The height of players like Mercedes Russell and Shaquilla Nunn proved to be too much for Dayton to handle as UT’s defense refused to let the Flyers anywhere near the basket. Even with 12 total rebounds at the end of the first period, Dayton could not infiltrate Tennessee’s guards at the basket.
Ultimately, Tennessee used a 16-2 run to take a 20-9 lead at the end of the first quarter.
In the second period, Tennessee’s Russell was a dark cloud that loomed over Dayton’s offensive. She towered over almost every Flyer and could block any player on the court.
In a pre-game interview, she admitted that she knew she would be matched by a few Dayton players stating, “I know that Dayton has a couple of posts, 6’5” 6’3” that like to block shots, and I think that’s always a fun, challenging game.”
In the second stanza, Dayton did, indeed, pose a challenge for the Lady Vols. Yet, it wasn’t just the tallest players that did so. It was 5’10” Jayla Scaife and 5”11’ JaVonna Layfield who went on a scoring spree in the second quarter -- tying the game at 29-29.
“They’re a tough team to guard,” agreed Tennessee’s Head Coach Holly Warlick. “A tough team to guard and a tough team to win against.”
Could this be a sign of Tennessee’s defense crumbling?
The answer was no.
“We had three keys for Dayton,” said Russell, “Guard the three-point line, play defense without fouling, and boxing out. Honestly, I think we did a pretty good job of all three all night.”
Although Dayton stepped up their offense, it was clear that the Lady Vols made adjustments during halftime and responded accordingly -- specifically Russell. She had eight point and three boards in the third to lead Tennessee to a 9-1 run and a 51-42 lead at the end of the quarter.
Yet, as far as scoring was concerned, DeShields took the cake. By the middle of the fourth quarter, she had scored 22 points and hit the 1,000th point mark as a Lady Vol.
“Points is what I do. I would be more excited for an assists record or a steal record. Points is what my team expects me to give. That’s my job. By I’m happy. It’s what I came here to do—to be a contributor.”
While Diamond led the team in points, Nunn and Russell lead the team in rebounds. They made their home under Dayton’s goal and swept the board on defensive rebounds, with seven and nine, respectively with five minutes of play remaining.
As the seconds passed in the fourth quarter, the Flyers did not lose their fight. The quick and agile No. 22 Kelley Austria pressed on and managed a layup with 35 seconds left, bringing the score to 66-54. Following behind her, Jenna Burdette scored a three for Dayton.
“I told them to keep shooting,” said Head Coach Shauna Green, “If you’re a scorer and you’re a shooter and you shoot like we shoot, you keep shooting.”
Yet, even with their final surge of energy and effort, the Dayton Flyers could not land a victory. With a final score of 66-79, the Lady Vols proved to live up to their hype and continue on to the second Round of the tournament.
“I’m pleased with how they played and pleased with how they finished the game,” said Coach Warlick. “I’m pleased with people stepping up and staying consistent.”
However, will their old friend inconsistency make an appearance as they move forward? Fans will see on Monday as they take on the No. 4 seed Louisville Cardinals on their home court.