Three keys for Lady Vols against Syracuse

The Lady Vols and Orange of Syracuse faced off earlier in the season, but with both teams peaking at the right time, this match is sure to be different. Assistant sports editor David Bradford lists three keys for Tennessee he believes could lead to victory.

SIOUX FALLS, SD - MARCH 25, 2016 - The team celebrates in the locker room after the Sweet 16 game in the NCAA tournament between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Tennessee Lady Volunteers in Sioux Falls, SD. Photo By Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics

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The Tennessee Lady Vols’ struggles this season are well-documented.

Program-low No. 7 seed: Check.

Program-high 13 losses: Check.

Program-high eight conference losses: Check.

Program-low seventh-place finish in the SEC: Check.

But now the Lady Vols have caught fire, winning six of their past seven games, en route to  the Sioux Falls Regional Final against Syracuse in a clash of orange. The Orange are making their first-ever elite eight appearance, while Tennessee is making its 28th.

Do not let the historical perspective fool you. Syracuse is fresh off its stunning 80-72 upset over the No. 1 seed South Carolina Gamecocks, and are familiar with the Lady Vols after its 57-55 loss at Thompson Boling Arena earlier in the season.

With both teams peaking at the right time, here are three keys for Tennessee if they hope to advance to the program’s 19th Final Four and continue its Cinderella run.

Diamond must shine bright

Diamond DeShields has elevated her performance as of late after a shaky regular season. In the SEC and NCAA tournaments, DeShields is effectively combining her remarkable athletic ability with sharp decision-making. DeShields tied her career-high with seven assists in the win over Ohio State, but she shot poorly overall (4-of-14). In fact, if you take away the second half of the Arizona State game where she made six of eight field goals, DeShield is shooting 26 percent from the floor.

Against Syracuse’s guards, who made life miserable for the Gamecocks’ outstanding guard duo of Tiffany Mitchell and Khadijah Sessions, that lack of efficiency won’t cut it. DeShields must continue to be the primary ball handler and make the best decisions for the offense, but her shots have to start falling consistently.

Handle the pressure

Syracuse is not a great shooting team (37 percent) and didn’t shoot well against South Carolina. What’s delivered the goods for the Orange all season long has been their press. Syracuse forces nearly 25 turnovers per game, and in three tournament games, have forced 64 turnovers total. This Tennessee team struggled all season with lazy passing and questionable decisions, and against Ohio State, they turned it over 18 times.

If the Orange can rattle the Gamecocks’ guards, the Lady Vols’ guards have a difficult night ahead. Pushing the ball past half-court quickly is key, and any cross-court passes must be delivered with precision. If Tennessee survives the defensive onslaught, the tempo is in its hands. The Lady Vols have shown they can score in transition, but running half-court sets to slow down the game and work the inside has been an effective method.

Continue to feed Russell

If it aint broke, why fix it? Russell’s emphasized involvement in the offense set the tone early in both the Arizona State and Ohio State games. Tennessee did shy away from feeding Russell in the second half against the Sun Devils, but relentlessly delivered the ball to her in the low post against the Buckeyes, where she finished with a career-high 25 points and 15 rebounds.

What makes Russell such a dangerous weapon for the Lady Vols is not her 6-foot-6 frame, but her ability to deliver perfect passes to outside shooters or players slashing into the lane. Three-point shooting has been non-existent for Tennessee, so it only makes sense for the offense to focus on the inside.

Featured image by Donald Page, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

Edited by Cody McClure

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Follow me @DavidJBradford1 on Twitter, email me at dbradfo2@vols.utk.edu for any questions.