The season came to an abrupt end for the No. 13/15-ranked Tennessee women’s basketball team, after it suffered a 70-55 loss to No. 16/14 Michigan in the second round of the NCAA Women’s Tournament. Lady Vol fans were looking to go further in the big dance, especially after such a successful regular season.
So, with that being said, let’s take a look back and see what went right and what went wrong for the Lady Vols in the 2021 NCAA Women’s Tournament.
Tennessee’s matchup against in-state opponent Middle Tennessee went about as well as anyone could have expected.
On their way to their 87-62 victory, the Lady Vols had four players finish the game in the double figures for points. Rennia Davis and Rae Burrell scored 24 and 22 points, respectively. The former added 14 rebounds to record her 10th double-double of the season, and the latter tallied seven rebounds, two blocks and two steals.
The Lady Vols’ bigs put in nice work down low, with Tamari Key dropping 13 points and three blocks and Kasiyahna Kushkituah finishing with 10 points and eight rebounds.
Middle Tennessee was outmatched because of its lack of height. Courtney Whitson was its only starter who reached the 6-foot-0 mark. Jada Grannum, Rellah Boothe and Kesniia Kozlova all surpass Whitson in height, but none of them played more than seven minutes. Tennessee only has three players below 6-foot-2 on its roster.
The lack of height hurt the Lady Raiders on the glass as they were out-rebounded 56-21 and out-scored in the paint 48-26. They to find any offensive rhythm due to a lack of interior presence. Middle Tennessee shot just 33.8% from the floor, including a second half in which they were around a 25% clip from the floor.
However, despite the impressive numbers put up by the Lady Vols, they had two big warning signs, three-point shooting and turnovers.
Tennessee shot just 16.7% (2-12) from deep. While UT isn’t a particularly great three-point shooting team, with 4.5 threes made per game on a 30.6% clip, this was glaring. The Lady Vols’ turnover numbers were more worrisome. They lost the ball 21 times, which is almost five more than they averaged all year.
The Lady Vols played their game in the first round, and played it well. It is not entirely fair to say they won purely on their height alone. They played the C-USA Champions and beat them handily. However, yours truly at the time said that better competition would make Tennessee pay for the excess turnovers and lack of assists. Boy, did Michigan make them pay.
Tennessee’s second round loss to Michigan was surprising if you were looking at the Wolverines peripherals for the 2021 season.
Michigan allowed 63.4 points per game on a 40.7% stroke from the floor, while also allowing six threes per game. The Wolverines’ defense allows a typical amount of ball movement, 11.2 assists per game, and they, like Tennessee, turned the ball over more than their opponent (-0.4 turnover margin).
These stats are why it is so surprising that the Lady Vols were bounced from the Tournament in the way they were. They scored just 55 points, their second-lowest mark of the year, on just 33.9% shooting. The Lady Vols also converted just 2-of-14 shots from deep.
The big starts we held silent for the Lady Vols. Senior captain Davis scored just 12 points. Burrell added 11 points, five rebounds and a team-high six turnovers. Jordan Walker finished with just five points, seven boards and a team-high two assists.
Tennessee’s first round flaw of high turnovers and low assists reappeared as well. The Lady Vols turned the ball over 16 times, less than against Middle Tennessee, but assisted on just five shots, their second-lowest total of the year. The high turnover clip allowed Michigan to score 21 points off of turnovers and 10 points off of the fast break.
The Lady Vols’ lack of spacing and inability to pass the basketball led them to be outperformed in the paint. Tennessee was outrebounded by 42-40 by Michigan, and both teams scored 32 points down low. Michigan benefited greatly from its size, as Tennessee has for most of the year. Danielle Rauch was the only Michigan starter to be under 6-foot-0, she measured in at 5-foot-8.
Overall, Tennessee wasn’t able to adjust to an opponent of equal size. Michigan made it difficult for the Lady Vols to find their shot, and it prevented Tennessee from getting comfortable down low. These factors, including foul trouble from Davis and Walker, allowed the Wolverines to sit back and relax, while the Lady Vols were forced into tricky situations.
The Lady Vols enter the offseason earlier than expected, but all hope is not lost. Burrell and Key raised their level of play to new heights this season. Tess Darby and Destiny Salary, two four-star freshmen, will look to do the same. Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper will be active in the recruiting game again.
Yes, Davis and Kushkituah are graduating, but with everything mentioned above and the experience gained from the Tournament, expect them to go even further in 2022.