- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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DES MOINES, Iowa -- Vicki Baugh is the only Tennessee player who has played in the Final Four, and it probably seems to her like it was a competitive lifetime ago. It was actually just four years, when she was a promising freshman then playing behind five seniors, including 2008 WNBA No. 1 draft pick Candace Parker, who led the way for Tennessee.
Now Baugh and fellow seniors Glory Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen will try to take the lead in traveling the hard road to Denver: Going through No. 1 seed and unbeaten Baylor on Monday (ESPN/ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET).
The Lady Bears have won their first three NCAA tournament games by an average of 25 points, and you'd be hard-pressed to say they have actually looked rattled at any time this season. Even in those games in which they didn't win by blowout, they've kept their composure.
Baylor beat Tennessee 76-67 on Nov. 27 in Knoxville, Tenn., a game in which the Lady Vols led 33-31 at the break and outrebounded the Lady Bears for the game by 14. That still didn't get Tennessee a victory, in part because Baylor went 22 of 24 from the foul line.
Brittney Griner had 26 points in that game and Odyssey Sims 23. Stricklen led Tennessee with 25 points that day, but it was an off game scoring-wise for Johnson (nine).
"It helps make me better to have gone against Brittney," Baugh said. "It helps that I know her style of play, but she's also a player who continues to get better. She's a different Griner than she was [in November] so we really have to step up.
"We stayed close to Baylor before and fell short. We're not really going to think about how we did then, it's just about advancing now."
Three keys to the game
1. From the tip: Maybe it's pointless to say that Tennessee has to get out of the gate better, since it doesn't seem like the Lady Vols are often able to do that this season and yet are still in the Elite Eight. Although it did lead Baylor by two points at halftime in their matchup back in November, Tennessee in general has not been a very good first-half team this year. That showed again Saturday in the Lady Vols' 84-73 victory against Kansas. Consider that KU led Tennessee at halftime and hung tough against the Lady Vols all game yet the Jayhawks lost their regular-season games against fellow Big 12 school Baylor by 28 and 31 points. Tennessee was able to reel in the Jayhawks after falling behind them by double digits in the first half Saturday, but it will be a lot harder to do that against a great front-running team in Baylor.
2. Attack from behind the arc: It's hard to find any weakness in Baylor's defense, so much so that even though Georgia Tech made 10 3-pointers -- eight of them by freshman Sydney Wallace -- the Yellow Jackets still didn't really challenge Baylor in an 83-68 loss Saturday. Tennessee's high for 3-pointers this season is 11, against both Miami and Texas early in the season. In their November game against Baylor, the Lady Vols made eight from behind the arc. While that alone won't beat the Lady Bears, being effective from long range is at least part of the answer -- if there is an answer -- to trying to upset Baylor.
3. Up close and personal: Of course, the other thing that Tennessee must do is make the so-called "easy" shots inside. Admittedly they're never really as easy as they might look, and especially not against the best center in women's college hoops. Stricklen, Johnson and Baugh have to see this as a personal challenge: Can they as a trio hold their own in the paint against Griner and Destiny Williams?
Pick: As good as Tennessee is, Baylor still appears to be a solid favorite. Sims says that Baylor's team chemistry, which was actually pretty darn good right from the start of this season, has improved markedly.
"I think we have a better understanding of each other," she said. "We know when to get the ball to BG, when to cut. We push each other every practice."
Tennessee has the personnel to stay with the Lady Bears, but the business-like efficiency of Baylor this season hasn't been dented yet.
Baylor beat Tennessee earlier this season in a nonconference game in late November. Will Monday's Elite Eight battle be any different?