By MIKE HUTCHENS
Whether a giant leap or simply just another positive step in the right direction, Kevin McMillan is convinced UT Martin is on the path to its desired destination.
“I feel like it may’ve been the best game we’ve had competitively all year,” the UTM women’s coach said after the Skyhawks were beaten 72-49 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by 10th-ranked Tennessee Saturday in Chicago. “I’m obviously not talking about execution. I’m talking about competing.
“The kids played their hearts out, and to think that the University of Tennessee only turned us over eight times and that they didn’t really start to pull away until about six minutes were left is amazing. They were never really comfortable until we’d played 34 minutes and I was very pleased with that.”
Though beaten, UT Mar-tin indeed improved significantly in the respectability department in its second straight trip to the NCAA tourney. Last year — in a similar No. 15 vs. 2 matchup vs. Duke — the Skyhawks lost by a whopping 90-45 margin.
“We went in thinking they (Tennessee) were a little bit better than Duke was last year,” McMillan said.
UTM never backed down from the much bigger Lady Vols and was, in fact, still within striking distance midway through the second half despite uncharacterstically-cold shooting from its heralded backcourt tandem of Heather Butler and Jasmine Newsome, who combined to shoot a subpar 8-for-43 and total just 24 points between them.
Butler’s 24.1 ppg average coming in ranked her in the Top 5 in the nation in scoring, while Newsome (19.9) is the reigning Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year.
“If somebody told me going in that Butler and Newsome were going to shoot a combined 8-for-43, I would’ve thought we’d get beat by 50,” McMillan said.
The Skyhawks held their only lead barely four minutes into the contest when Jaclissa Haislip drained a 3-pointer to cap a mini-run of seven straight points for UTM after Tennessee had scored the first five of the contest.
Although UT Martin missed 13 straight shots from the field at one point, including a couple at point-blank range, the Skyhawks twice were within four points (26-22 and 28-24) in the final minutes of the first half when first Taylor Hall drained a 3-pointer and then Newsome scored on a pretty feed from Hall.
Though hard-pressed to finger a turning point, McMillan said a 3-pointer made under heavy pressure by UT’s Meighan Simmons in the final seconds of the first half that gave the Lady Vols a nine-point cushion could be considered.
“The funny thing is that we told Meagan (White) to foul her and she did. But Simmons slammed into her so hard it was able to create some room for her to get off the shot and she’s going to make some of those,” the UTM coach said.
“It would not have affected the outcome either way, but the longer you play close, the more effect it has on the team that’s supposed to win. As long as you’re not worn down, you have a chance. But somebody has to make shots.”
Now that the novelty has now worn off for just making the NCAA field, the Skyhawks must continue in their quest to improve their RPI standing and get a higher seed in the event if they are to have a legitimate chance at winning a game in the tourney.
McMillan said that other than on one occasion when No. 16 Harvard stunned top-seed Stanford in a game several years ago when the Cardinal had three players suspended, there has not been another time with a 14, 15 or 16 seed has won a game in the NCAA Women’s Tournament.
The coach said that while his team believed it could’ve been the first to do so vs. the Lady Vols, the reality of it is “there are about 10 or so super-elite teams that the lower seeds have very little chance against.”
And though UTM had won 14 straight coming into Saturday’s game, he claimed gaining a better RPI and seeding likely would have to come by his team playing its best vs. pre-conference opponents from tougher leagues in November and December, rather than at the end of the year.
“In high school you want to be playing your best in February and March, but we might have to tweak our thinking as coaches and look to be playing our best in November and December,” McMillan said. “The big thing there, though, is to do that and still make the tournament by winning the conference tournament.”
With the novelty of making the NCAA likely having now worn off, the coach is sure that winning a game and advancing in the tournament will surely motivate future Skyhawk teams.
“That’s up to the kids, now. We’ve proven we can get to the NCAAs and it’s not a fluke because we’ve gotten there two years in a row. Now, they have to decide what they’re going to do and what kind of commitment are they going to make where next March it’s different,” McMillan said. “I don’t think this group that will be juniors next hear will be satisfied with four trips to the NCAAs and four first-round exits.”
And he is certain that UTM’s mid-major status does not preclude the program from competing with more heralded opponents in the tournament.
“We want to be the next Gonzaga or Butler of the women’s game,” McMillan concluded. “We’re not there yet, but they didn’t get there in two years either.”
Sports editor Mike Hutchens can be contacted by email at email@example.com.
Published in The Messenger 3.19.12