published Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Lady Vols making good use of halftime

Tennessee players Cierra Burdick (11) and Mercedes Russell (21) celebrate after a score against St. John's in the second half of an NCAA women's college basketball second-round tournament game Monday, March 24, 2014, in Knoxville. Tennessee won 67-51.
Tennessee players Cierra Burdick (11) and Mercedes Russell (21) celebrate after a score against St. John's in the second half of an NCAA women's college basketball second-round tournament game Monday, March 24, 2014, in Knoxville. Tennessee won 67-51.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
2014 NCAA Women's Bracket
2014 NCAA Women's Bracket

KNOXVILLE — When the first half ends, class begins these days for the Tennessee women's basketball team.

During the 15 or so minutes of halftime, everything from history to psychology might be discussed. Between halves of Monday night's 67-51 NCAA tournament victory over St. John's at Thompson-Boling Arena, communications was the topic du jour.

The trend has been more pronounced during the postseason. The Lady Vols typically have meandered through the first 20 minutes before getting up to speed after the break.

"So far we've relied on halftime and know we have to do better," guard Andraya Carter said after the Lady Vols staged a defensive revival to calm the Red Storm.

Judging by the results, they've used their time well. In Duluth, Ga., Tennessee overcame double-figure first-half deficits in all three games on the way to the Southeastern Conference tournament championship.

Now, as top seeds of the Louisville Regional, they've handled two different NCAA predicaments in like fashion, advancing to the Sweet 16 for the 32nd time in 33 tournament appearances.

Tennessee (29-5) will play No. 4 seed Maryland (26-6) on Sunday at either noon or 2:30 p.m. at the KFC Yum! Center. The Terrapins beat Texas 69-64 on Tuesday.

"They battle and they don't give up," coach Holly Warlick said Monday night about her Lady Vols. "I can get on them, but they probably get on themselves more than I do. They are tough on themselves."

The part the Lady Vols play in turning the locker room into a study hall at halftime reflects not only a mindset but also the experiences accumulated throughout the season. The psychology and history meld into one resource.

"We know when we are not doing what we need to be doing," forward Cierra Burdick said, "and I think we have been in every single situation possible throughout this entire season."

  • photo
    St. John's forward Amber Thompson, center, dives for a loose ball with Tennessee's Jordan Reynolds, left, Cierra Burdick (11), and Andraya Carter, right, in the first half of an NCAA women's college basketball second-round tournament game Monday, March 24, 2014, in Knoxville.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The obvious question then is why not spend this wealth of knowledge right from the opening tip? For example, the Lady Vols knew they had a size advantage over No. 16 seed Northwestern (La.) State in last Saturday's first-round game. Yet they were tempted enough by open jump shots and frazzled enough by easy misses to accumulate just eight paint points in the first half.

They responded after halftime with 30 from the foul lane area and 48 points total.

Against St. John's, using a zone defense was sound strategy against the Red Storm's dribble forays. But the players weren't talking enough among themselves to maximize the alignment. Therefore, they were torched for 35 first-half points -- 16 of which were scored from close range.

Those numbers shrank to 16 and 6 after the study break.

"I think in the first half we kept on getting frustrated with each other," center Isabelle Harrison said of UT's defense. "We didn't huddle up like we normally do. We lacked communication. We had tighter huddles in the second half and we improved our communication."

While Warlick likes her team's fight, she does wonder sometimes about their awareness. Monday was no exception.

"I think they were prepared," she said. "we just seemed to go into a little bit of a trance at times. We either have to battle or come from behind. It is always a dog fight for us and I really don't know why."

Harrison attributed Monday's communication breakdown to "jitters." The thought might send shudders through the Lady Vols faithful. But it was generally corroborated by Warlick.

"You are one and done," she said, "so I am sure the nerves are a little high. We were nervous a little bit."

It's something to think about, presumably before the next halftime.

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