DES MOINES, Iowa — With one last chance to get to the Final Four, Tennessee's seniors ran into the most imposing hurdle of all.
Try as they might, they just couldn't get it done against Brittney Griner and the Baylor Lady Bears.
Baylor rolled past the Lady Vols 77-58 Monday night to reach the Final Four for the second time in three years. It ended a difficult, emotional season for Tennessee and its Hall of Fame coach, Pat Summitt, who is battling early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.
Glory Johnson, Shekinna Stricklen and the other members of their senior class became the first group of four-year players at Tennessee to go through their careers without reaching the Final Four. But Johnson took solace in their effort against a team that's now two victories from going 40-0.
"We played them as strong as we could," Johnson said. "If you don't leave everything out on the floor, whether you're winning or losing, it was the last opportunity to show people what type of player you are. I definitely left it all out there, Shekinna left it all out there, Vicki (Baugh) left it all out there.
"All the seniors played as hard as they could."
Baugh, who sat out one season because of knee injuries, can take some consolation in knowing she was a member of the Lady Vols' 2008 championship team. But the other seniors never got beyond the regional finals.
A regional final berth would be a major accomplishment at many programs, just not at Tennessee, which has played in 18 Final Fours and won eight national championships.
Associate head coach Holly Warlick hopes the seniors are judged on their accomplishments, not their failures.
"These seniors have done a hell of a job," Warlick said. "They've had three SEC titles. They've had regular season championships, they've had tournament championships. No other team has done that. These seniors have done an unbelievable job."
Stricklen led the Lady Vols (27-9) with 22 points, while Johnson scored 19 and grabbed 14 rebounds. But no one else had more than five points and Stricklen suffered through an 8-for-26 shooting night before getting involved in a skirmish late in the game.
"I give credit to Baylor," Stricklen said. "They were really pressuring me. I think I was taking some tough shots, I was rushing a little bit. But the shots just weren't falling."
Johnson had to be helped off the court after crashing to the floor with 4:23 left in the first half. But she started the second half and played the rest of the game.
"I can't leave my teammates out to dry, no matter what the pain is," she said. "A game like this, you can't sit out."
Tennessee faces an uncertain future because Summitt, college basketball's all-time winner with 1,098 victories, hasn't said if she'll return for a 39th season. No matter, Johnson said. Tennessee women's basketball isn't going anywhere.
"This program is only going to get a lot stronger, and we're building off of this," Johnson said. "We're just going to keep on making our mark and keep on getting stronger. We left our legacy. We'll just look to the underclassmen to keep playing hard for these great coaches."
Griner had 23 points, 15 rebounds and nine blocks before being ejected with less than a minute left after a fracas involving Stricklen and Odyssey Sims, who led Baylor with 27 points.
Sims tumbled to the floor with 46.8 seconds left after taking an awkward shot, and she and Stricklen had to be separated. No punches were thrown, but Griner and teammates Terran Condrey and Jordan Madden were ejected for leaving the bench.
The NCAA says none of the players will be suspended for the Final Four.
Should Baylor win it all next week, it'll become the first men's or women's team in NCAA history to finish a year with 40 wins.
As for Summitt, she was given a standing ovation from Tennessee and Baylor fans alike when she came out roughly 15 minutes before tipoff. But as defeat became apparent, she sat silently on the bench with her legs crossed.
The way Baylor handled her team, there simply wasn't much she could do.
Baylor led 35-20 at halftime despite a poor start shooting from Griner. Tennessee made a spirited charge to start the second half, highlighted when Johnson scored a second-chance bucket on Griner and simply smiled when Griner tossed her to the floor.
But the Bears are unbeaten because they're much more than Griner.
Sims followed a layup through traffic with a 3, to help Bears go back ahead 49-38 with 11:12 to go. Tennessee made one final run, cutting a 19-point deficit to 64-53 with 4:48 left, but Griner finished off the Lady Vols with six points in the next minute.
Tennessee had a habit of starting poorly, but the Lady Vols were ready for this one — at least for the first few minutes.
Tennessee double-teamed Griner with Baugh and help defenders, and Griner hit just three of 10 shots in the first half. But the Lady Vols missed nine shots in a row after an early lead, and Baylor slowly built its edge to 26-16 on three straight buckets by Sims and a 3 from Kimetria Hayden.
Baylor's lead grew to 35-20 in Johnson's absence, as Tennessee shot an abysmal 22.9 percent in the first half.
The Lady Vols hung close with Baylor in late November before losing 76-67. The rematch wasn't nearly as close, sending the Bears onto Denver and Tennessee grappling with the possibility that Summitt's career is over.
"I think this coaching staff tried to continue on the tradition that coach Summitt has built," Warlick said. "We've got a great foundation, and this program's going to continue to do what Tennessee has always done."