DAYTON, Ohio—There are halftime chats and then there are coaches’ rants. Pat Summitt hasn’t won 1,071 games by not knowing when to let her team have it.
Summitt absolutely lit up her Tennessee Lady Vols at the break, and their NCAA tournament regional semifinal game Saturday tilted soon after. With Shekinna Stricklen scoring 14 of her 20 points in the second half and touching off a crucial 11-3 run, Summitt and the Lady Vols moved into their accustomed spot in the Elite Eight with an 85-75 win over Ohio State.
“It was about an 8 1/2,” the coach said, rating her halftime speech on a scale where 10 is when the paint peels off the walls. “I wasn’t real happy. But that’s what you have to do at times. You go into the locker room and get a feel. One thing about this team, they do respond. Sometimes I think they kind of like to hear the coaches going off.”
The Lady Vols (34-2) won their 25th consecutive game but took control only with their charge in the final minutes.
Point guard Meighan Simmons added 18 points and Kelley Cain — inserted into the starting lineup to offset Ohio State’s height advantage — had 16 for Tennessee, which is pursuing a ninth NCAA title.
The Lady Vols meet Notre Dame, a 78-53 winner over Oklahoma, in the regional championship game Monday night, with a trip to the Final Four in Indianapolis on the line.
“Coach kind of lit a fire under our butts in the second half,” Cain said. “We played better. We were getting up in their grilles, making them play at a different level than they were used to.”
Simmons grinned as she said, “Coach went off on us in the locker room.”
None of the Lady Vols were really surprised. They had not been aggressive on defense, leading to Ohio State (24-10) shooting 67 percent in the opening half. The Buckeyes led by as many as six before settling for a 42-40 lead at the break.
“We played on our heels a little more in the first half,” said Angie Bjorklund, who didn’t score but had seven assists.
With the game hanging in the balance and Tennessee on top 58-57, Stricklen twice made big plays to provide some breathing room. First, she hit a deep, deep 3 as the shot clock was draining away. After an Ohio State miss, she took the ball from the right wing and bulled her way along the baseline to power in a layup for a 63-57 lead.
After Brittany Johnson hit one of her four 3s for Ohio State, the Lady Vols ran off six points in a row for their largest lead of the game. Simmons stopped and popped in a shot from 15 feet, Taber Spani made a follow and then Spani drilled a long jumper to make it 69-60.
Ohio State got as close as eight points in the last minute, but Stricklen scored seven in a row for the Lady Vols to hold the Buckeyes at bay.
“Shekinna is the type of player, if you really don’t ask her to step up, she can kind of blend in,” Summitt said. “But she’s a big-time player. She knows she is our go-to player.”
The game was played a little over an hour away from Ohio State’s campus, but there appeared to be more orange than scarlet and gray in the crowd of 8,813.
By the end, the thousands of Tennessee fans were chanting, “S-E-C! S-E-C!”
Samantha Prahalis had 22 points and seven assists for the Big Ten champions, while Jantel Lavender scored 19 points, Johnson 16 and Tayler Hill 12. It was a bad 24 hours for Ohio State, which also had its top-seeded and top-ranked men’s team eliminated in the sweet 16 on Friday night by another traditional power from the SEC, Kentucky.
Everything seemed to be going the Buckeyes’ way Saturday afternoon until Stricklen took over and the Lady Vols amped up their effort.
“For about 33 minutes, we played sound, smart basketball,” said Buckeyes coach Jim Foster, making his 25th NCAA appearance in 33 years as a head coach. “For about seven minutes, we didn’t. And that seven minutes really cost us.”
Summitt said mental adjustments were needed at halftime far more than anything she could draw up on a dry-erase board.
“Obviously, our defense had to pick it up. I told them that’s where we have to invest with all of our energy,” she said. “We did a good job with that. Then our board play got a lot better. I don’t know what they were thinking in the first half, but we didn’t have the same energy level.”
But then Summitt expended some of her own energy at halftime.