By ANDREW SELIGMAN
AP Sports Writer
ROSEMONT, Ill. (AP) — Pat Summitt had no qualms about beating her alma mater. No surprise there.
Tennessee is eyeing a big run in the NCAA tournament, and this was no time to get sentimental.
Meighan Simmons scored 20 points and the second-seeded Lady Volunteers gave their coach a victory over the school where she played, beating 15th-seeded UT Martin 72-49 Saturday in the first round.
“Pat Summitt’s a competitor. She plays her mother in checkers, she’s going to want to beat Miss Hazel,” Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick said, referring to Summitt’s mom, Hazel Head. “Pat has a love for UT Martin. She’s a competitor and wants to win. She was focused totally on us.”
Glory Johnson added 14 points and 12 rebounds as Tennessee (25-8) pulled away in the second half. The Lady Vols will meet DePaul, which beat Brigham Young, on Monday and try to take the next step toward their first Final Four since winning the championship in 2008.
The Lady Vols vowed to get back there and win a ninth NCAA title for Summitt, who shook the sport with her announcement in August that she has early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. Earlier this week, the icon with the most wins in NCAA history said she wasn’t sure she would coach beyond the season.
On the court, it hasn’t been easy for the Lady Vols.
There were lopsided losses at Stanford and Notre Dame. They blew a halftime lead while dropping a close game at home to Baylor, the top seed in the region. But they seem to be hitting their stride just in time, breezing to their third straight SEC title and following up with a win Saturday — their 14th in 16 games against UTM (23-9).
Tennessee dominated on the boards 52-39 and shut down the nation’s top scoring team, holding the Skyhawks to just under 29 percent shooting.
The Lady Vols didn’t exactly light it up from the floor at 40 percent, but they started to convert once they got away from those quick 3-pointers in the early going and worked the ball inside. Then they made enough shots down the stretch after a slow start.
“After awhile, we started using (our size),” Johnson said. “They started double-teaming, and we were kicking it out, made some shots we weren’t hitting early. We eventually started hitting shots like the Tennessee team we know we are.”
Heather Butler, the nation’s third-leading scorer, had a rough day for Tennessee-Martin, finishing with just 14 points — about 10 below her average. She was 5-for-25 from the floor, including 1-for-8 on 3-pointers, and with no one else picking up the slack, the Skyhawks came up short.
“Us going against them, everybody expects them to make a run at the beginning and we went in there saying they’re not going to toy with us,” Butler said. “We went out there with confidence.”
They were within six after Butler started the second half with a three, but Tennessee scored eight straight to take control at 43-29. It was 50-33 after Simmons made a three with 12:36 remaining.
They can’t relax, though.
They want to go deep in the tournament and bring their Final Four drought to an end.
The only player left from the championship team is Vicki Baugh, who’s in her fifth year. The rest of the seniors are trying to avoid becoming the first group to go four years at Tennessee without a trip to the Final Four.
Then there’s Summitt, who might not be back on the sideline next season. On Saturday, she sat with her left hand on her chin. During timeouts, she would huddle with assistants and perch on a stool alongside Warlick, but she was involved.
“Pat Summitt has not quit coaching,” Warlick said. “She is more focused on one-on-one (discussions with players). I’m sure there’s a little encouragement. I’m sure she’s trying to get a couple kids’ attention. You don’t have to worry about Pat not coaching and getting her point across, whether it’s praise or a kick in the butt. She’s very good at that. And she’s very good at letting players know they did a great job.”
Published in The Messenger 3.19.12