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DAYTON, Ohio -- Ohio may just want to close its southern border at this point.
A day after the Ohio State men's team was eliminated from the NCAA tournament by southern neighbor Kentucky, Tennessee did the same to the Ohio State women's team by an 85-75 score, backed by the orange-clad, full-throated support of fans who made the drive north and took over University of Dayton arena.
|Shekinna Stricklen led the way for Tennessee with 20 points.|
Running on all cylinders from the start on offense, Tennessee nevertheless dug itself a halftime hole courtesy of some soft defense and a strong offensive performance from Ohio State's Samantha Prahalis and Jantel Lavender, among others. But a strong showing on both ends in the second half allowed the Lady Vols to gradually build a cushion. Behind 20 points from Shekinna Stricklen, 18 points from freshman Meighan Simmons and 16 points from Kelley Cain, Tennessee is going back to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2008.
Turning point: With just under 17 minutes to play in the second half and the game tied in a track meet of traded baskets and sketchy defense, Ohio State's Samantha Prahalis found herself with the ball and a two-on-none break. But as she let off the accelerator and drifted in for the finish, Tennessee's Simmons came from well behind the play to swat the layup in the direction of the Ohio State pep band behind the basket.
After an Ohio State miss off the inbounds, Simmons eventually scored on the ensuing possession to give Tennessee a 48-46 advantage, a lead it wouldn't relinquish. The block didn't settle the game by any stretch of the imagination -- Ohio State had plenty of opportunities the rest of the way -- but it seemed to provide a spark for a Tennessee team that had looked flat on the defensive end up to that point.
Key player: Kelley Cain. Take your pick between Simmons and Cain, but the 6-foot-6 post showed exactly why Tennessee wanted her in the starting lineup, her first such assignment since Feb. 10. Cain scored three baskets in the game's first three minutes to immediately establish the Lady Vols' post game and make Ohio State's Jantel Lavender and Ashley Adams expend energy on that end of the court. Cain may be a 35-minute player at this point because of a litany of physical ailments, but the minutes she played Saturday made all the difference.
Key stat: 53.6 percent. Entering Saturday's game, 53.6 percent was the best an opponent had shot against Tennessee in 30 appearances and 129 games in the NCAA tournament all time. And it still is, despite how unlikely that outcome appeared for much of the game. Ohio State shot 66.7 percent in the first half, the result of an offense that moved the ball extremely well and a Tennessee defense that looked extremely passive for long stretches. But a more energized group limited the Buckeyes to 39.5 percent shooting over the final 20 minutes.
What's next: The winner of the day's second game between Notre Dame and Oklahoma awaits in Monday's regional final. Tennessee is one of 13 schools to win at least one championship in women's basketball. Notre Dame is one of just two of those 12 other schools, along with Texas Tech, against whom Tennessee has never lost. The Lady Vols are 20-0 all time against the Fighting Irish, most recently winning a Sweet 16 encounter in 2008 in Oklahoma City. The Fighting Irish have come within single digits just three times in those 20 meetings, most recently in 1992.
There is less history between Tennessee and Oklahoma, although three of the five meetings have come in the past four seasons. One expected meeting that never materialized was right here in Dayton in 2007, when an Oklahoma team led by Courtney Paris was upset by Mississippi in the Sweet 16. Ole Miss went on to lose to Tennessee in the regional final.