The Lady Vols keep their opponents in the game just long enough for them to start dreaming about the possibility of an upset. Then they spend the last 17 minutes or so putting those thoughts to rest.
Cierra Burdick had 21 points and 11 rebounds as Tennessee pulled away from St. John’s for a 67-51 victory in the second round of the NCAA tournament Monday night. The game was tied early in the second half before Tennessee’s smothering defense took over the game.
In its opening-round game, Tennessee and Northwestern State also were tied in the first few minutes of the second half before the Lady Vols rolled to a 70-46 triumph.
“It’s always a dogfight for us, and I really don’t know why,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “It could be so much easier.”
Tennessee, the top seed in the Louisville Regional, advanced to a regional semifinal Sunday against the winner of Tuesday’s game between No. 4 seed Maryland and No. 5 seed Texas.
Although St. John’s (23-11) never led, the eighth-seeded Red Storm tied the game with 16:59 remaining. St. John’s would score just two more points over the next nine minutes as its hopes for an upset disintegrated. The Red Storm shot 5 of 24 overall and 5 of 11 from the free-throw line and committed 13 turnovers in the second half.
“This has been a thing all year,” St. John’s coach Joe Tartamella said. “We struggle. We go through droughts. We couldn’t have big droughts in these types of games. Unfortunately they did a nice job of creating some of those droughts for us in the second half.”
Burdick said that’s a result of Tennessee’s renewed emphasis on defense during its late-season surge. The Lady Vols (29-5) have won 15 of their last 16 games.
“I think in the beginning of the season, we let our offense dictate our defense,” Burdick said. “That’s why we weren’t successful sometimes. I think we’ve really become smarter. We know that defense and rebounding are going to win us basketball games. At first, we just would say it because it was the right thing to say, but now we actually believe it.”
Meighan Simmons scored 17 points for Tennessee. Isabelle Harrison had 10 points and 11 rebounds.
Tennessee improved to 54-0 in NCAA tournament home games and reached the third round for the 32nd time in the 33-year history of this event. The only time the Lady Vols failed to get past the second round was in 2009, when they lost their opener to Ball State.
St. John’s erased an early 11-point deficit and pulled even thanks largely to Aliyyah Handford, who scored 23 points. Handford sank a pair of free throws with 16:59 left to tie the game at 39 and draw St. John’s even for the first time since the opening tip.
Tennessee regained the lead 36 seconds later on a Burdick putback, and the game slowed to a crawl from there. The two teams combined for 10 points in the first 9 minutes, 22 seconds of the second half, as neither offense could get out of its own way.
But the Lady Vols gradually took control by relying on their superior size and stifling defense. Tennessee outscored St. John’s 14-5 in second-chance points and 36-22 in points in the paint.
“It’s frustrating because we worked so hard all season to put ourselves in this position,” St. John’s guard Danaejah Grant said. “Then, to get kind of quote-unquote bullied in the post is frustrating because we feel like we have just as much talent as they do, but not as much height.”
Simmons scored eight points during a 16-2 spurt that turned a 43-41 advantage into a 59-43 runaway. Nobody other than Handford scored for St. John’s in the second half until Amber Thompson finally made a basket with 5:20 left in the game.
This marked the last game at Thompson-Boling Arena for Simmons, the lone senior on Tennessee’s roster. She waved and blew kisses to a cheering crowd before she walked off the floor. Near the end of the game, the fans chanted her name.
“I was speechless,” Simmons said. “All I could do is smile. It’s just one of those things where it’s always going to be a memorable moment in my life.”