At least Michelle Snow didn’t dunk. That was one thing GW head coach Joe McKeown was happy about after second-ranked University of Tennessee Lady Vols defeated his Colonial women by 31 points Tuesday night in GW’s largest home loss in 23 years.
The other positive note for McKeown was the turnout. More than 5,000 screaming fans poured into the Smith Center to see the match-up between No. 18 GW and legendary coach Pat Summitt’s Lady Vols.
“Great atmosphere tonight, great crowd; that’s the way women’s basketball should be,” McKeown said. “It says a lot for GW and women’s basketball when we can sell out our gym for a Tuesday game in November.”
McKeown said before the game GW couldn’t let Tennessee gain momentum because good, aggressive teams thrive off fast-paced play. With imposing 6-foot-5 center Michelle Snow and quick point guard Kara Lawson executing a textbook transition game for the Lady Vols, Tennessee handed a loss bigger than they expected.
Starting out, GW (1-2) seemed to feed off a louder than normal crowd, but the spark was short-lived as Tennessee’s defense dug in. Center Ugo Oha won the tip and, after a missed lay-up by point guard Marsheik Witherspoon, forward Erica Lawrence grabbed the rebound and put it back for a 2-0 lead – GW’s only lead of the game.
GW guard Cathy Joens kept the Colonials within striking distance connecting on a three-pointer with 13 minutes left in the first half. But a 12-2 Tennessee run that included three steals and a block doubled up the Colonials 28-14.
“I thought we did a better job of overplaying passing lanes,” Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt said, referring to her team’s 23 steals, 18 more than GW. “We switched from playing behind the post to the front of the post and made at least three opportunities there.
After the game, Summit said it is important that her players use their athleticism on the defensive end. And they did.
The aggressive Lady Vols ran a full-court press from the beginning,
speeding up the tempo and running a quick game. Despite attempts from
shooting guard Lindsey Davidson, Witherspoon and Joens to slow the game down, GW was unable to run much of an offense. Strong Tennessee defense took away the perimeter game, limiting GW to just 8-of-26 from the field.
The Colonials were also unable to match up inside against a bigger, stronger and more aggressive team. The Lady Vols shut down GW power forward Elena Vishniakova, leaving Oha alone in the paint. While the center pulled her weight with four blocks, seven points and five rebounds, it did not compare to Tennessee’s inside presence, which saw five players with four or more rebounds and four players each contributing a block.
“You have to play so hard against them to come back,” McKeown said. “We have 11 freshmen and sophomores. We’re just not ready yet for that intensity and pressure . Tennessee, they set the bar. They keep coming at you with so many great players eventually they just wear you out.”
Joens added: “We work on stuff at practice, but you can’t get that type of intensity with your own team. Now we know how they play, and what we need to get to.”
If Tennessee had any trouble in the first half, the team worked out the kinks in the second. In the first five minutes of play, the Lady Vols went on a 12-5 run including five offensive rebounds for a 52-30 lead.
In the second half, Tennessee exploded for 21 rebounds (12 offensive), 14 steals and forced 13 turnovers after halftime warning from Summitt to increase defensive intensity. Snow, who had just two rebounds heading into the break, pulled down seven second-half boards.
“We gained our momentum on the defensive end,” Snow said. “We say we want to dictate our own game; we don’t want other people to dictate us. If we play defense, we control the game.”
Tennessee controlled the game by forcing Lawrence into early foul trouble. Lawrence is an aggressive post player at 140 pounds, who McKeown said needs to learn to go up against bigger players like Tennessee’s Tasha Butts and Shyra Ely without drawing fouls. Lawrence had eight points on the day with four fouls, two of which came in the first three minutes.
Joens was the stabilizing force for the Colonials, and her aggressive play contributed 18 points, three steals and five rebounds. She was GW’s only double-figures scorer, while Tennessee had five.
GW bit down in the last four minutes, holding Tennessee to six points, trying to keep them from scoring 100 points.
“No one has ever scored 100 on us here,” McKeown said. “I told them if they score 100, you’re running.”
The Lady Vols, who haven’t lost a road game in 13 months, were coming off their 300th all-time win against a ranked team after beating No. 5 Louisiana Tech Nov. 23. McKeown and his team knew that in scheduling a game like this, a blowout might ensue, but thought the experience they gained from playing such a tough team was worth a big loss.
“I told them on Nov. 27: You played 30 minutes hard against the best team in the country, now you need to learn how to play 40 minutes and win basketball games,” he said. “And then when you step on the floor against another team, you’re going to be Tennessee in their eyes.”