KNOXVILLE — Tennessee still is trying to figure out how to put a complete game together.
For the first month of the season, the Lady Vols relied on second-half surges to help them bounce back from slow starts. Now their struggles are coming after halftime, a pattern that continued Monday when the 11th-ranked Lady Vols squandered a 12-point lead in an 86-70 loss to No. 2 Notre Dame.
"It feels like this team is very sensitive," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "We want it so much that it's almost detrimental to us. We want it so badly. I would love to see how we'd play when everybody's clicking on all cylinders. It would really be a lot of fun, but that's up to me, to put them in positions and to get them ready for the next game."
After racing to a 10-0 start this season, Tennessee (14-4) has split its last eight games. The Lady Vols have led at halftime in each of their last three losses.
Notre Dame (17-0) outscored the Lady Vols 45-24 in the second half Monday. Tennessee shot 8 of 32 and committed 12 turnovers after halftime.
"We're going to be all right," Tennessee guard Ariel Massengale said. "We've just got to find out what it's going to take for this team to play 40 minutes of basketball. In the first half, we seriously played the best basketball we've played all season. We've got to be able to sustain that for 40 minutes."
Massengale scored all 14 of her points in the first nine minutes of the game to help Tennessee build a 42-30 advantage. Meighan Simmons shot 10 of 14 and scored 23 points for the Lady Vols. Isabelle Harrison added 13 points and 16 rebounds.
Kayla McBride had 22 points and seven assists to lead Notre Dame, which hit 10 of 20 3-pointers. Madison Cable had 12 points and Jewell Loyd added 11. Mabrey and Cable helped Notre Dame's bench outscore Tennessee's reserves 36-16.
Since losing the first 20 games in this series, Notre Dame has beaten Tennessee four straight times by an average margin of 17 points.
"I thought we kept our poise on a night when Meighan Simmons was unbelievable," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "I mean, she had a great game. We had a lot of trouble containing her."
Notre Dame entered the night leading the nation in field-goal percentage (.517), 3-point percentage (.436) and assists per game (22.4) while racing to the second-fastest start in school history, behind the 2000-01 national championship team that opened 23-0. Tennessee, on the other hand, had dropped three of its last seven games and was struggling to find its footing.
Yet it was Tennessee that looked like the team on a roll in the early going.
"I thought at halftime we were lucky to be down five," McGraw said.
Early on, Tennessee was beating the hot-shooting Irish at their own game. Tennessee shot 55.9 percent (19 of 34) overall and went 5 of 6 from 3-point range in the first half against a Notre Dame team that hadn't allowed any opponent to make more than 44.9 percent of its shots all season.
Notre Dame committed three turnovers in the first 90 seconds of the game and had to adjust to playing without Loyd, who picked up two fouls in the first 5 1/2 minutes of the game and sat out the rest of the first half. Loyd entered the night averaging a team-high 17.3 points per game.
But the Irish never panicked.
"We've been through so much — three (straight) Final Fours," said McBride, who had seven assists to go along with her 22 points. "We've been in these types of environments with NCAA tournament games. We just had to calm everybody down and execute our game plan."
Sure enough, Notre Dame regained the momentum once Tennessee cooled off.
After making 19 of its first 28 shots, Tennessee missed 17 of its next 18 attempts to allow Notre Dame to claw back into the game. Tennessee missed its last six shots of the first half and started the second half by shooting 1 of 12.
Simmons sank a 3-pointer that cut Notre Dame's advantage to 60-56 with 10:09 remaining, but the Irish scored the next 13 points to put the game away.
"I think it was frustration," Tennessee forward Bashaara Graves said. "I think we just let down on defense. When our shots (weren't) falling, our defense wasn't up either. We shouldn't have that. When our shots aren't falling our defense should pick it up. When we needed a stop, we didn't get a stop."