|Tennessee 68, Virginia Tech 52 (Women)
NCAA Tournament Third Round
Saturday, March 20, 1999
|As this game approached, and in particular, the morning
that we were driving down to Greensboro to see it, I had two overriding thoughts:
1.) The Hokies actually had a chance to win this thing.
All week long, I had been paying close attention to what the Tech players and Coach Henrickson were saying, looking to see if they were too starry-eyed in their comments about Tennessee. I wanted to know if this team was going into this game planning to win, or if they were just happy to be here, and were stopping just short of conceding defeat to the Lady Vols.
One of the things I hated about the 1996 Orange Bowl was that leading up to the game, Frank Beamer made it sound as if we didn't belong on the field with Nebraska. Privately, I don't know what Frank was saying to his team, but publicly, his constant boot-licking of the Nebraska program became very annoying.
Not once did he say something to the effect of, "We belong here, and although we respect Nebraska, they better be on top of their game, because we're ready to play, and we're playing to win." Instead, he just heaped tons of praise on the Huskers, which is a smart move in a way, because it doesn't create bulletin-board material, but, like I said, the incessant fawning was annoying and almost insulting to his own team.
Not so with Bonnie Henrickson and her players. They sounded like they were ready to play and welcomed the challenge, and each one of them spoke with confidence about the upcoming game. They walked the fine line between respecting Tennessee without falling at their feet.
There didnt seem to be any fear or intimidation in the Hokies. I liked that. And that attitude was embodied in a comment made by assistant coach Joe Mathews, who was asked after the game what Tech's travel plans were for returning home. He said, "We didn't make any, because we fully did not expect to lose."
My second thought?
2.) If we go into one of our patented five-minute offensive funks, we're dead meat.
Said "funk" arrived with ten minutes to go in the first half. The Hokies came out playing well, lighting up the orange and maroon contingent in the Greensboro Coliseum crowd.
In the early going, the Hokies were running, as usual, Lisa Witherspoon was delivering passes under the basket to players in point-blank scoring range, as usual, and the Hokies were poised and playing well, as usual.
Nicole Jones had started off strong, using her body to position herself well and score a couple of baskets, and Michelle Houseright, tournament player extraordinaire, was still at full steam and on a mission. House had 9 points in the first ten minutes and was playing tough.
Ten minutes into it, Tech was leading 18-17, the Coliseum was rocking, and I could only spy two flaws in the Hokies' game at this point. Number one, Katie O'Connor had cooled off from her ultra-hot Auburn performance, and the Hokies weren't shooting, much less-hitting, three-pointers. Number two, Tere Williams was off her game. She wasn't catching the ball cleanly, and she wasn't finishing well, and if the Hokies were going to play the next 30 minutes and maintain the lead, they were going to need her.
But never mind. At the ten-minute point, the Hokies went into that dreaded offensive funk, and Tennessee put together the killing run that every Tech fan feared. In a stretch that lasted six or seven minutes, Tennessee took advantage of eight Tech turnovers and put together a 16-0 run that made the score 33-18 and told the Hokies how it was going to be.
Like the old joke goes, "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?" Well, other than that run, the Hokies tied the Vols up, 52-52. But I'll be honest - had push come to shove, I think the Vols could have done pretty much anything they wanted to.
Offensively, the Hokies put together a decent game, except for the turnovers. For the game, Tech would roll up 25 turnovers, included an unheard of ten from Witherspoon, who admitted afterwards, "They had players who were 6-2 and 6-3, and were as quick as me. I had never seen that before."
The Hokies shot 41% - not great, but not a disaster - got decent games from Houseright and Williams, who played well in the second half, and Tech collected ten offensive rebounds. When Spoon could fight her way out of the trees, she managed to put together 6 assists, many of them classic Spoon passes delivered deep into the paint.
But defensively, the Hokies were helpless. Tennessee only shot 47%, but it seemed like 60%, and when the Vols missed, they simply got the rebound and stuck it back in. The Lady Vols had 20 offensive rebounds, which means they collected over half of the 36 shots they missed and gave it another try.
Last week, all the talk about Auburn was how physical they are, but I didn't see it in the Tigers. The Vols, on the other hand, moved the Hokies around in the paint at will, cleanly and legally. There was no dirty play involved, just a great team having their way with a good team. You could see it primarily in their relentless offensive rebounding.
I could go on and on about this game, but I don't see the point. Tennessee has a tremendous team with great athletes, and I got the impression that if Tech had turned it up a notch or two, UT would have responded with a notch or two of their own, and the result would have been the same.
But the Hokies never stopped playing hard, and the Hokie fans never stopped cheering hard, right up to the bitter end, when the team trotted off the floor for the last time in this magical season. They won all year with class and dignity, and when it came time to bow out, they did so with class and dignity.
Despite the loss, it was a blast being one of the Sweet 16 teams, and the atmosphere in Greensboro, with 7,000 Volunteer fans and 6,000 Hokie fans (my estimates) going at it in the stands, was awesome. I'm glad I went, because despite my optimism, I figured this was going to be the last game for us this year, and I wanted to be there. I'm glad I was.
Where's the spirit? I'm
always hesitant to criticize, but I was disappointed in the Highty-Tighty Pep Band and the
Hokie cheerleaders at the beginning of this game. With ten minutes remaining before game
time, the Tennessee pep band and cheerleaders led the Vol fans in rousing cheers and a
rendition of "Rocky Top" as their team ran out onto the floor for warm-ups.
A minute later, the Hokie team came out onto the floor, accompanied by the screams of their fans, but no cheerleaders, and no band. I mean, they literally weren't there, folks.
Several minutes later, the Tech pep band meandered out of the tunnel and leisurely started to take up their positions behind the basket, while the cheerleaders warmed up well off the floor. In the meantime, the UT cheerleaders and band continued to play and cheer out on the floor.
Finally, the band got started, but they didn't even play "Tech Triumph" until their third or fourth song, instead offering up tunes like "Jump, Jive, and Wail" by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, and "25 or 6 to 4" by Chicago - not exactly tunes to fire up the Hokie crowd. And I don't think the cheerleaders ever did take the floor before the game started.
It was very disappointing, watching Tennessee commandeer the pre-game festivities like that. If anyone who works closely with the band and/or cheerleaders can explain to me why they weren't ready to go like UT's crews were, I'd love to hear it, because their lack of presence was a real let-down. Was it because UT, as a higher seed, was the home team?
House is Right: Michelle Houseright blew me away with her post-season performance. Although Nicole Jones outplayed her in the middle of the season, House, a senior, displayed her toughness and resolve in the NCAA tournament. There's no better asset than a senior whose toughness has been built through personal challenges, and who obviously grasps the fact that her next game could be her last, and then plays like it.
The bright, expressive, and poised Houseright cranked her game up a notch, and went out in style, and I'll always respect her for the energy she showed in the last few games. Michelle's world today doesn't look anything like it did when she entered Tech five years ago as a freshman. She has matured more in college than most people do, and I take my hat off to her.
Coming Home: the disappointing thing about the Hokies not making return trip plans, and not having plans to share with the fans, is that no one knew when they were going to arrive back in the area, and therefore, almost no one was present to greet them when they returned (someone said eight people were present at their arrival point). That's a shame, that a great season should end not with a bang, but a whisper.
Hokie Turnout: the ticket sales figures I gave the other day were NO indication of how many Vols fans were there. Although UT only sold several hundred tickets through their ticket office, a ton of Tennessee fans were there. They outnumbered the Hokie fans by a small margin, but the noise level was pretty much even. And at times, it looked like there were a lot more Tennessee fans, because (a) that UT orange stands out more than Hokie maroon, and (b) they all had pom-poms, and only a few of us did.
Where's Maria? Many fans wanted to see Auburn hero Maria Albertsson come into the game and fire up some threes, but Maria was nowhere to be found. The reason is that Tennessee doesn't play a zone like Auburn - instead, they play pressure defense, and they dog the other team's guards, so open three-pointers are impossible to find. It was the coaching staff's opinion that Maria's ball-handling would have been a liability, and she would have had great difficulty getting open for three-pointers. They were probably right, but it was interesting to see Tech fans actually questioning Bonnie Henrickson's coaching strategy. You won't see that very often.
Season-ending Article: now that the basketball crush is over (covering nearly 60 games in about four months, between men's and women's basketball, will do a number on you, believe me), I'm going to relax for a brief second, and then get to work on a Members Only article about this season. Seasons like this one are rare, and I've got a lot to say about it, and where we go from here. So, HokieCentral Members, look for that soon. In the meantime, it's time for spring football, so that'll be the biggest thing going on in the free areas of the site over the coming weeks. Stay tuned!
USA Today game recap
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